Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wodehouse: God’s gift to the jocular veins

Welcome to the world of Wodehouse. A place where there are absent-minded Earls, dyspeptic uncles who own millions, strong-minded conniving maidens, autocratic aunts, confused young men either living on the fortunes left behind by a wealthy distant relative or scratching eccentric uncles for money, there is an extremely gifted chef, Anatole, whom Wodehouse so deliciously introduces as “God’s gift to the gastric juices”. And then, of course, there are butlers, the finest creation of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Reginald Jeeves, most outstanding among them, is so brainy (Wodehouse feeds him on a healthy supply of fishes) that no situation is too grave for him. Every now and then, without fail, he bails out his master from an awkward spot and you wonder at his resourcefulness. And he does it with such a poker face that his response to even a very shocking news is a stoic “Quite disturbing, Sir” with a minuscule movement of an eighth of an inch of his left eyebrow. Extremely sanguine creature, he is, as Wodehouse suavely puts, “A gentleman’s personal gentleman”.

The stories are generally setup away from the hustle & bustle of London, in the serene country sides of pre-war England. His characters have ample time to indulge in petty affairs like stealing cats of their neighbours (Aunts aren’t Gentlemen) or to get fascinated by newts (Gussie Fink-Nottle). Even a span of a single story is enough for reckless youth to get engaged and subsequently disengaged twice or sometimes thrice. Wodehouse and his idiosyncratic characters create such a farce of chaos, confusion & misunderstanding that weaves a web of laughter around the reader. After reading some of the stories I thought it was quite strange for someone to have a life as Wodehouse’s characters live. I mean very rarely we find such a relaxed, idyllic lifestyle (especially after the urbanization witnessed in the second half of the 20th century) completely oblivious to the tensions and pretensions of the industrialized world. Wodehouse himself acknowledges this when he says, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music & ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life & not caring a damn”.

In a typical Wodehouse story, matters, which can be settled through a five minute dialogue, get so entangled, just because a nephew here, in dire need of his uncle’s monetary support (either to enter into matrimony or to setup a business venture), or a brother there, scared to the bones of his authoritarian sister, or somewhere else a charming girl apprehensive of losing her heartthrob, twists the facts which ends up in complicating the situation even more. Mean while, the reader, sitting on the periphery & enjoying the farce, can’t help chuckling. Actually this is the beauty of Wodehouse’s stories. In my opinion Wodehouse is the clear antithesis of those masters of mysteries, namely, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Here the reader is the one who knows all the secrets. He only knows who is in love with whom, at any given point of time who is engaged to whom. Since he knows what exactly is going on reader waits with a bated breath to see where the story leads him every time a character tries to manipulate the situation. So in spite of being in complete possession of the facts the sense of anticipation thrills the reader. Doesn’t it? When you know, for example, that Ronnie Fish (in Summer Lightning) is engaged to Sue Brown (a chorus girl) whereas his aunt Lady Constance Keeble plans for his alliance with her niece, Miss Millicent Threepwood, one can’t wait to see the reaction of Lady Constance, a staunch advocate of English aristocracy. It gives the reader a feeling of omnipotence. Therein lies the magic of Wodehouse. He first tells you all of his secrets, yet keeps you glued to the book till the very end. His marvelous use of English language, clever play of words and phrases, smart references to the literary works, his tongue-in-cheek comments on the events happening around him makes it a compelling reading, a real joy to the senses.
There are no villains in the world of Wodehouse. Yes, occasionally there pop-up musclemen like G. D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright (in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit) who promise “to tear the insides of Bertie with bare hands” or “to break his spine in five pieces”. But it is only their apprehension, (often misplaced), of Bertie stealing their objects of desire, that compels them to make such proclamations. Otherwise they have hearts of gold.

Then there is Bertram “Bertie” Wilberforce Wooster, the last of the Wooster’s. A baffled young man, ”young blot on the landscape” according to his aunt Dahlia. This hero of Wodehouse, however, doesn’t fit the conventional bill. As far as Jeeves’ opinion goes, Bertie is "mentally negligible". Whenever he, with the purest intention of helping a friend, takes matters into his hands, invariably makes a mess of them & gets misunderstood, so much so that his own fearsome Aunt Agatha advised a girl not to marry Bertie because she thought he is “a spineless invertebrate”. Every young man in Wooster clan suspects that Bertie is making moves to elope with his girlfriend. Devious girls use “else-I-will-marry-Bertie” line to threaten their parentage and parents scared of such “a dangerous prospect” yield to their wishes. Sometimes these “lovely little girls” do not even bother to take Bertie’s consent before making announcement of their engagement and poor Bertie faces the flak. But he has his savior at his side when he needs him most, Jeeves. Quite often Jeeves comes up with a brilliant solution to divert the impending doom. Once he even popped up as “Chief Inspector Witherspoon, Scotland Yard” (Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves) to rescue Bertie from a threatening situation.
Such is the world of Wodehouse. Full of whims, idiosyncrasies & eccentricities. There are lots of such inhabitants of this place who amuse us, take us on a ride to a world which we cannot even imagine while living in the 21st century. A world where the greatest ambition of an Earl is to take his pig, he so delightfully addresses it as the “Empress of Blandings”, to an unprecedented second successive crown at the Shropshire Agricultural Show!!