Some ten days ago, quite on a whim, I picked up PG Wodehouse’s Mulliner Nights at an airport bookshop. No two-hour air journey (and air journeys bore me stiff) in my life has ever seemed shorter as I read the stories told by Mr Mulliner, the resident raconteur of the bar-parlour of The Angler’s Rest. I was reading Wodehouse after perhaps 15 years, and realised what an ass I had been for having neglected him for so long. The man had provided some of the happiest moments in my reading life, and I had abandoned him. The five volumes of The Complete Jeeves, bought five years ago on the web, lie unopened on my bookshelf. Yes, I had been an ass.
As the pressures of life built up in quantity and complexity, one began to tire of the incessant jolliness of the Wodehousian world, where everyone is nice and everything will always turn out rather nicely in the end. One also began to see that many of the novels were but by-products of the same basic plot, involving, in various permutations and combinations, well-meaning befuddled heroes, eccentric aristocrats, irritable village policemen, idealistic vicars, fearsome American millionaires, and some precious jewellery or heirlooms. In other words, one started missing the wood for the trees. As Evelyn Waugh’s comment, immortalised on Penguin edition back covers, said, I had begun to bring ‘a spade to (the) souffle’ of Wodehouse. I had judged him on parameters that were unfair, even irrelevant. Nehru, after a particularly dismal day’s work, would invariably seek refuge in a Wodehouse book in bed. So did Tony Blair: “whenever the work pressure gets hard”.
I think one reads Wodehouse for the sheer magic that he can weave with words. One reads the Jeeves stories, not for the intricate plots, but for the way Bertie comprehends what is happening around him. It is the world as perceived by a lovable dimwit, but it’s crystal clear to the reader what is actually going on. This is an extremely difficult feat of writing, and Wodehouse never missed a step, not in a single sentence he penned. ‘The old lemon throbbed fiercely. I got an idea.’ ‘He is one of those fellows who, if you give them a thingummy, take a what-d’you-call-it.’
As for the unrelieved cheerfulness that rules his world, and the constant accusation that he lived in the past, Wodehouse provided a hearty rebuttal in the preface to his novel Joy In The Morning: ‘Edwardian! The critics hiss at me. (It is not easy to hiss the word Edwardian, containing as it does no sibilant, but they manage it),’ he wrote. ‘But… mine, I protest, are historical novels. Nobody objects when an author writes the sort of thing that begins, ‘More skilled though I am at wielding the broadsword than the pen, I will set down for all to read the tale of how I, plain John Blunt, did follow my dear liege to the wars when Harry, yclept the Fifth, sat on our English throne.’ Then why am I not to be allowed to set down for all to read the tale of how the Hon J Blunt got fined five pounds by the beak at Bosher Street Police Court for disorderly conduct on Boat Race Night? Unfair discrimination is the phrase that springs to the lips.’ But it all ends up in the language: his deft, charming delicacy of expression. The visual medium can never do justice to this. As Hugh Laurie, who played Bertie in BBC’s Jeeves TV serial, has himself written: ‘But the thing that really worried us…was this business of The Words... Bertie is leaving in a huff: ‘‘Tinkerty tonk,’ I said, and I meant it to sting.’ I ask you: how is one to do justice of even the roughest sort to a line like that? How can any human actor, with his clumsily attached ears, and his irritating voice, and his completely misguided hair, hope to deliver a line as pure as that? It cannot be done. You begin with a diamond on the page, and you end up with a blob of Pritt, The Non-Sticky Sticky Stuff, on the screen.’
So totally, utterly, unarguably true. I am going now to dust the covers of the five volumes of The Complete Jeeves.