P.G. Wodehouse – A Man For All Seasons

PG Wodehouse with his signature pipe – undoubtedly typing/scribbling out notes with his other hand for his next installment.

We all escape the strenuous nature of our day-to-day existence by resorting to various activities: gardening, netflixing, reading, video-gaming, willfully induced soliloquies etc. etc. Only a small minority of the population gets to have the privilege of making their living through means that they would naturally consider as “escapist.” But even then, the time in between their activities – say, painting for instance, the time that’s ever magnanimously approaching like a droopy headmaster ready to give you the pep-talk will invariably consist of periods where a whole load of nothing happens. In such instances, even when the predicament is quite ideal – a loving partner whose love, as they say, is unconditional, a permanent enclosure which is better than a hamlet and doesn’t require a transfer of green paper bills to an unwitting creditor, a pettable creature at a convenient distance within this enclosure, and a bank balance that will not allow your head to swarm with stratagems of Machiavellian proportions, even with these and some extra seeds of a future boost to our Dionysian prospects added to the mix, one may find that there are limits to our happiness beyond which we risk entering a tormenting Dalai Lama of the mind. Majority of us take a painful eternity to approach two-thirds of the way up, only to be confronted by another stern headmaster who had bought his way to the silvery gates and is ready with the examination papers. P.G. Wodehouse found his stride roughly by age 6, found the upper extremity of this happiness bar, and said to himself, “Right ho, this seems pleasant enough, think I’ll just stick to it.” If life could said to be an imitation of great art – that our fashions, our daily sensibilities, our fantasies of romances unrealized are only the mocking tones of the outward expression that we dearly seek, and the fulfillment of which is only possible through creativity and a powerful imagination – according to such an aesthetic notion, it could be said that Wodehouse found his expression very early indeed. So early that he had mastered the art of lying for its own sake by the time he was a teenager – lying that is to say on the page in creating powerful works of art with a beauty, simplicity and elegance capable of charming a crafty chiromancer from the farthest regions of Corcyra. An agreeable consequence of it was that he found long life – even at the advanced age of 93, the chair kept rocking, his hands still scribbling, and the typewriter still battering away with the next installment, and these in turn succeeded in keeping weariness at bay. “I don’t know what I did before that [before the age of 6]” says he in an interview with The Paris Review. “Just loafed, I suppose…” Loaf he did indeed gracefully all the way till the end, a career involving Ninety-Six books – a number greater than the sum-total read by some in their lifetimes.

Having thus been enamored by the sheer capabilities of language and the human brain, I was wondering what it is that Wodehouse did that enabled him to write with such prodigious stamina and endurance. I have a terrible compulsion to read through all the works of an author for whom I’ve got a liking, and when I realized that Wodehouse had written 96 novels, a plethora of short-stories, a basketful of plays, and a host of other works such as musical comedies and some journalistic enterprise, I thought to myself, “what a monster!” What a loafer, a rapscallion, and a boundless entertainer! What if Voltaire could reverse engineer and metamorphose himself into Candide in real-life, except still a writer, and the 90-odd cups of coffee a day replaced by an eternal pipe and a tweed jacket? What would the residue of this suggestion to our imaginations be like? I myself picture such a concatenation as primarily a comic figure with an unceasing output (since Voltaire wrote voraciously – if I remember right, Candide was completed in three days.) This comic figure may very well be P.G. Wodehouse. On a good day, he could churn out 4000 words, and on a bad, still a miserly 2000. Wishfully trying to emulate such a feat myself, I crashed well before I even reached day three of his lower capacity of 2000. I pondered on how it is that he managed such a feat, and I came to the conclusion that he had a bubble and decided to stay well within it. Rilke tortured himself for a long while to find solace from solitude, uncertainty, anxiety, and self-doubt, only to turn them around and accept them for what they are, and convert them into a source. Wodehouse took them all on board and greeted them in apt Wodehousian manner – as his charming little friends who couldn’t hurt a self-eating cricket even if they tried to.

My first instance of perusing the Jeeves and Wooster tales involved delights of intense proportions: the sublime comedy of the eternal bachelor that of Bertie Wooster and his manservant’s transposing genius to scoop him out of the soup made such a profound impression on my youngish mind of 18 years that it completely dispersed the neurotic angst of my shoddy state and transformed my imaginative faculties – that I always thought of my existence on this planet as a colossal mistake might not be much of a disaster after all. Here in the exquisite pages of Wodehouse’s seminal book, The Code of the Woosters, I had managed to extract from the prose a musical quality where the words and sentences often have a sonorous ring to them and produce melodies as sweet to the ear as an exquisite vintage wine is to our taste buds (“if not actually being disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled;” “There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”) Sometimes it gets dangerously close to poetry, which is a good indicator of language mastery. To add to this is the simplicity of the prose, and the audacity to resist the sweeping waves of modernism with its roaring emphasis on making it new, and making it big. Just by simply not imitating life, and instead choosing to make up a world (which in all probability never existed,) Wodehouse succeeded in imitating art and making art for its own sake: nature gleaming away with a servitude as fierce as a slave is to a great galley, phrases of unwashed poetry seamlessly inundated as a means for an unseemly end (Wooster: “what was it Shakespeare said the man that hadn’t music in himself was fit for?” Jeeves: “Treasons, Stratagems, and Spoils, sir.”), and characters who delightfully live up their names: Roderick Glossop’s peculiar method of eating asparagus altering “one’s whole conception of Man as Nature’s last word,” the unscrupulous Stiffy Byng and her terrifying little hound that hates policemen and bicycles, or the newt fancying Fink-Nottle whose brains roughly resemble the shape of a small bean but yet has “spiritual awakenings,” – a treasure-trove of juxtaposition of names woven in from a large pot of traditional English normenclation. These are the workings of a boundlessly restless mind, and it seems almost inhumane that he kept to this task for as long as he did without any breakdown of a sort that the artistic temperament is prone to.

The book was already dated by the time it was published in 1938 and perhaps paradoxically, this acted as a great companion to that double-edged sword, Time. Read the pages today and note that such details as the type of vehicle used, the cow-creamer, or the hilariously titled “black shorts” fascist movement represented by the chinless Roderick Spode are all a product of mental metamorphosis and not really a reflection of the “sign of the times.” The humor, the wit, the irony, and the finished piece of art is what we get to this day and not some tedious platitudes on this or that. There’s also at every age (at greater numbers now than ever) for aversion towards language that is beautiful. Words that beget sentences which in turn beget delightfully sweet sensations on the tip of the tongue are oft scorned upon by the impervious as some form of a pretension or another. Well, to hell with that. Words can strive to be as pretension free as the melodies of music, and Wodehouse is an exemplar of such a sensibility. A book doesn’t necessarily exist for the transfer of morality tales or as a pedagogical tract. They instead have a pulse of their own.

“Words, words, words,” piques Hamlet at Polonius’s superfluity. Well, in this case, all we have is words. One doesn’t really hyper-analyze the prose of Wodehouse. One just simmers in its eternal sunshine.

2 thoughts on “P.G. Wodehouse – A Man For All Seasons”

    1. Hi Hickman. It’s never too late to rekindle that love. He’s been my best solution for the blues, and my favorite author to look up when combating atrophy, routine, and boredom. Plus I love that Jeeves is a firm member of the ‘pro wit’ faction – a style usually associated with snobbery but what it denotes to me is good taste and quickness of tongue (“Sorry to keep you waiting Jeeves” I said. “Oh no sir, thank you. I was quite happy with my Spinoza.”)

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