Monday, July 24, 2006

Reading. Wodehouse.

I was very young when I discovered P. G. Wodehouse, perhaps ten years old, and my love of British writing and comedy came out of that early discovery. In those days my tv-watching was mostly limited to PBS and the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, not to mention 60 Minutes, which we watched religiously every Sunday night. I think I saw the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster (which introduced me to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, the funniest men in Britain, who I have loved fervently since) and then discovered the books, but it could have been the other way around.

The world of Wodehouse is one of a vanished time, a Britain that no longer exists. People fall in and out of love, get accidentally engaged and then dis-engaged, moving between London flats and stately country homes. Secretaries, governesses, housemaids, gardeners, livestock-minders, and butlers keep popping in and out of drawing rooms. Those were the days when cultured pearls may as well have come from Woolworth’s, people wore tweeds as a matter of course and always dressed for dinner. The characters have names like Bertie or Pongo, Hermione or Honoria, and the American girl is always named Sally. Old prep-school classmates meet again after years and years of holding grudges, usually given as an excuse for curmudgeonly behavior.

Most of the Wodehouse novels center around the (mis)adventures of Bertie Wooster, a fatuous fool whose life revolves around partying, and Jeeves, his brilliant, unflappable butler who never fails to get him out of whatever mess Bertie has gotten into. He is always getting engaged to the wrong girl, and spends the rest of the story trying to get out of it, which always turns out fine as the girl in question really is in love with someone else. There is always some complication, like a stolen necklace, or a fake statue, or compromising letters, or a lost bet that must be paid. Throw in a soupçon of blackmail, and you have an exciting ride through the bucolic countryside. Wodehouse' writing is light and frothy, as effervescent as a coupé of champagne, as bracing as one of those gin-and-tonics or a whisky-and-sodas that his characters are always drinking.

My favorite Wodehouse novel, though, is Uncle Dynamite, which doesn't involve Bertie Wooster or Jeeves. The Earl of Twickenham is the aforementioned uncle, and he certainly bursts into the lives of all those around him with the verve and unpredictability of a lighted stick of dynamite. I read it again last night and felt myself laugh as delightedly as I had when I first read it all those years ago.

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