An ode to Wodehouse

By JOHN VAALER

I was making my way through “Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited” (Philip Eade, 2016), when suddenly, an acute case of literary déja-vu struck me. On a 1929 honeymoon cruise around the Mediterranean, Waugh and his new wife Evelyn — who was helpfully nicknamed “Shevelyn’’ by the couple’s friends — stopped at Port Said, Egypt. Upon arriving, Shevelyn immediately fell ill and was rushed to a nearby British hospital. And, in what would become one of the few tender moments of the Waughs’ short, infidelity-ridden marriage, Evelyn routinely visited his bedridden wife for the next ten days, reading aloud books by a certain novelist. 

Here’s the déja-vu. Near the end of Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History” (1992), the character Charles runs amok on booze, falls ill and gets sent to a hospital. To cheer his friend up, the character Richard sends Charles a few paperbacks — novels by the same author that Waugh read aloud to his wife. 

And when life is hard on me, I, too, reread books by the same author that Tartt and Waugh admired: Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975). Dubbed “The Master” by his fans, the legendary humorist passed away on Valentine’s Day, 1975. Two generations after his death, P.G. Wodehouse’s genius deserves a revisitation for devotees, and an introduction for newcomers.

That being said, if you’re in the latter camp — stop reading this, make haste to the nearest public library and check out “The Code of the Woosters” (1938). Thank me later. (As far as compensation goes: I am especially fond of truffles.)

JOHN VAALER/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS

Wodehouse’s novels take place in the upper echelons of a fictional England which is perpetually stuck in the dawn of the 1920s, filled to the brim with Edwardian slang, walking sticks and telegrams. It’s a world where Oxbridge bachelors party up and down the streets of Belgravia, crashing their Rolls-Royces into fire hydrants and stealing policemen’s helmets. One wakes up at eleven, retires at four. 

The early Wodehouse canon focuses on the adventures of cricket-loving Mike Jackson and his brilliant, quasi-socialist school chum Ronald Eustice Psmith. These books are comedic, but have (admittedly minor) underpinnings in reality. In “Psmith, Journalist” (1915), for instance, the protagonist starts editing the fluff-magazine “Cosy Moments.” Psmith eventually transforms the publication into a muckraking journal that goes after a Manhattan slumlord who loves cats. 

But the Master’s most important series focuses on the spacy aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his superhuman valet Jeeves — whose genius, we learn, derives from a salmon-rich diet. 

Bertie works less as a character and more as an accumulation of Edwardian archetypes. He’s kind to his friends, rich as a prince and has never worked a day in his life. Hobbies include golfing, cigarette smoking, lunching at “The Drone’s Club” and, most important of all: staying a bachelor. The last of these seems odd until one examines Bertie’s eccentric suitors. Bertie’s former flame Madeline Bassett feels, for example, that “every time a fairy sheds a tear, a wee bit star is born in the Milky Way.” 

One laughs at first, but then smiles.”

What’s most striking to me is that Wodehouse’s comic mode lacks genre. Political satire this is not; and despite Bertie’s innumerable wedding engagements, there isn’t any romantic comedy to be found in Wodehouse, either. A rom-com, after all, implies actual three-dimensional characters who have struggles in their lives. When Jeeves isn’t reading Nietzsche or Spinoza, he “floats,” “oozes” and “shimmers” into rooms to assist Bertie. These aren’t Earthlings we’re dealing with. Instead, Wodehouse’s universe paints a picture of Man before the Fall. The characters are so kind, so innocent, so zany and — with the exception of Jeeves — so dim that a healthy, normal reader has no choice but to guffaw at their silly misadventures. 

“We are all acting on limited knowledge and insufficient evidence,” wrote Robert Frost. One of the biggest differences between Bertie and the rest of us is that the former has a remarkable understanding of his own buffoonery, a level of self-knowledge about his ignorance that neither I nor Frost could have ever dreamed of. Consider “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest” (1916): “I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.” 

Ingredients to the above Wodehouse cocktail: a strong base of wit, some measures of allusion and a lemony twist of sincere benevolence. One laughs at first, but then smiles. For the briefest, most delicate of moments, the Master’s prose shocks you with the unvarnished goodness that W.H. Auden attributed to the power of art; “Ironic points of light flash out wherever the Just exchange their messages.”