You have to read PG Wodehouse, it’s far better than overwhelming your life with a tidal wave of grief, argues Paddy Kehoe. Paperback reissues of the great comic writer’s works still sell very well, thank you, 130 years after his birth.
Most of us read far too much of what you might call `affliction fiction,’ woe upon woe, trouble at the ranch, in marriages, in families, between friends and enemies. So we must raise the flag for the great English writer PG Wodehouse (1881-1975) – or Plum as he was affectionately called - who used trouble as the straight guy for his comic set-pieces which he depicted with fluid craft.
In his many novels and short stories, bounders, cads, schemers and naifs - faux and otherwise - collide and scheme and conspire at country houses. Madly unsuitable betrothals are urged along by unhelpful, interfering adults, between couples who should really be with mysterious others. Does it all work out happily in the end? Well, I don’t want to spoil the story.
Stephen Fry played Wodehouse’s phlegmatic butler Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s credulous Wooster in a BBC TV series about 20 years ago. Fry is a huge admirer. “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour”, he writes in his fine introduction to the recently-published What Ho! a 550-page anthology of classic scenes, short stories, and even shorter essays. This splendid introduction to Wodehouse is published by Arrow books, who have been publishing his books in attractive paperbacks since 2008.
In his preface, Fry is fascinating on the gift of Wodehouse and is strikingly humble about his task of playing Jeeves on TV. In fact he is at pains to argue, citing various examples, that Wodehouse is best enjoyed by the reader, on his or her own, in initimate communion with the page, rather than passively hearing an actor try to convey the stuff. “The reader, by responding in his or her own head to the rhythm and timing on the page, has the feeling of having made the whole thing click, " he writes. "Of course we yield to Wodehouse the palm of having written it, but our response is what validates the whole experience. Every comma, every ‘sir’ every ‘what?’ is something we make work in the act of reading.”
I love the cover of this What Ho! anothology, depicting as it does a hapless character, aghast because he is stranded by a small island on a lake, and may well be attacked by that swan in the foreground. The illustration is full of terror and fun, with a great sense of heightened realism - you can almost feel the lashing rain on your face. This is a famous scene from the classic short story Jeeves and The Impending Doom, which story appears early in the What Ho! collection.
English writers like Sebastian Faulks, Danny Baker, Ben Elton, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Hill and Kate Mosse have all sung the praises of Plum. To take just a handful of Irish writers, John Banville, Colm Tóibín and Gerry Adams - he's a writer too - have expressed their delight with Wodehouse’s almost 100 books. Marian Keyes declares the comic master to be “the ultimate in comfort reading, because nothing bad ever happens in PG Wodehouse’s land”, while Lynne Truss declares:“Wodehouse always lifts your spirits, no matter how high they happen to be already."
The best-loved tales are often immediately pre- and post-First World War in period. You have novels and stories dealing with Jeeves and Wooster, or Ukridge, or Psmith. There are Mr Mulliner tales and Uncle Fred categories and gold yarns like The Clicking of Cuthbert. Many afficionados argue that his Blandings Castle sagas are the best, featuring Sir Galahad, Lord Emsworth and of course, his prize pig. All manner of delightful mayhem, beautifully resolved.
36 years after his death, Wodehouse still attracts taste and care in the cover illustrations. Through all the decades, it seems, these cover drawings have been executed with vivid imagination and love by the artists commissioned in each case. Penguin books had some great Wodehouse covers when they published the writer in paperback. For a selection of such classic covers from the various publishing houses, go to http://wodehouse.ru/ (the Russian Wodehouse Society); or have a look at www.pgwodehousebooks.com.
For an interesting look in particular at beautiful covers for The Code of the Woosters and Uncle Fred in the Springtime through the years, go to athttp://causticcovercritic.blogspot.com/2008/08/wodehouse-old-new.html
However, you can’t judge the cover without the book. After you have dispatched the above anthology in short order, gorge yourself on a bunch of recent re-issues, like Money for Nothing, The Aventures of Sally, The Girl in Blue, The Small Bachelor, Summer Moonshine, Big Money, Hot Water, Laughing Gas, and A Damsel in Distress. The wonderful Arrow Books Wodehouse website also has great competitions, cocktail recipes, Quotes of the Day, news on the latest reprints and lots more. Go to http://www.wodehouse.co.uk/
The Russian society, incidentally, isn’t just some curious far outpost of Wodehouse mania - there are societies in Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and the USA and other places too. I have a hunch that back in the middle of the last century, non-Anglophones practiced their English - and sharpened their sense of fun in the process - with Wodehouse’ s story-telling. How else to explain my French aunt Jeannie’s collection of old hard-back editions, which she seems dashedly reluctant to part with? These were inherited from her own mother, and still hold pride of place in a book-case in deepest Normandy.