Thursday, July 18, 2013


When I spotted it at the crowded estate sale, I greeted it like the old friend that it was.

"Plum!" I cried, removing it from the shelf.

The woman standing next to me gave me a disdainful look and sniffed.   She had observed that the item I held in my hand was not a piece of fruit at all.  It was a book. 

This book is titled "Something New" in the US.  In the UK, it's called "Something Fresh."  
It dates back to 1915. 
"Plum" was the nickname of the British author Pelham (say it quickly) Grenville Wodehouse ("wood-house" is close enough).  I first encountered his work indirectly, through Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, where TV versions of some of the Jeeves and Wooster stories were broadcast.  Then-host Alistair Cooke commented that Wodehouse (born 1881, died 1975) was considered by some to be the finest English-language writer of the 20th century.  But, Cooke observed, many scholars would never come right out and say so, because Wodehouse wrote funny stories, and that didn't seem -- well -- very scholarly.

It was one of those still evenings you get in the summer, when you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away.

I enjoy finding hardback copies of old books at estate sales.  Recently, I've found two by Wodehouse.  If you're not familiar with him, but enjoy a good old-fashioned story, well-told, I encourage you to find a copy of a Wodehouse book and dive in.

No blog post can even come close to doing justice to the massive collection of stories P.G. Wodehouse left behind.  To me, the beauty of Wodehouse's writing is his ability to select just the right string of words.  He builds layer upon layer of narrative and plot like a Dagwood sandwich, and then skewers it in place gently with something that makes you chuckle.  Or snort.  Or burst out laughing.  Wodehouse doesn't tell us that his character "appeared sad and disgusted."  Rather:

He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.

Or grumpy:  

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

A Wodehouse character feels trepidation:

Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.

Or triumph:

She looked at me like someone who has just solved the crossword puzzle with a shrewd ‘Emu’ in the top right hand corner.

His characters make astute observations about one another:

She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say 'when.'

She had a penetrating sort of laugh. Rather like a train going into a tunnel.

Writers who struggle to find just the right descriptive phrase might do well to abandon their thesaurus and study Wodehouse instead.  A dog, in the hands of Wodehouse, doesn't merely growl:

The Aberdeen terrier gave me an unpleasant look and said something under his breath in Gaelic.

The best tribute to Wodehouse I've ever read is by British national treasure (and actor) Stephen Fry:  Fry gives his thoughts on why P.G. Wodehouse was a great author and, significantly, why we still need his stories.

I found this copy of a Wodehouse book at a "boot sale" (yard sale) in London.
If you're not familiar with Wodehouse yet, you might start by reading a collection of his short stories about Mr. Mulliner.  Mr. Mulliner frequents a pub called the Anglers' Rest.  Most of the other patrons of the pub are what they drink:  the Gin-and-Ginger-Ale, the Draught Stout, the Lemon Squash, the Small Bass.  Mr. Mulliner eavesdrops on their conversation, hijacks it, and recounts a story about one of his family members.  The other patrons of the pub always listen, and the story is always worth it:

...People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr. Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man.  It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake.  Then they realized that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.  Even at the Drones Club, where the average intellect is not high, it was often said of Archibald that, had his brain been constructed of silk, he would have been hard put to it to find sufficient material to make a canary a pair of cami-knickers....

If you're up for a longer work, try The Luck of the Bodkins, Carry On, Jeeves (one of the famous Jeeves and Wooster stories), or Summer Lightning (which takes place at Blandings Castle, home of Lord Emsworth, his dysfunctional but mostly-loving family, the castle's staff, and Emsworth's  prize-winning pet pig, The Empress of Blandings).

The Guardian (UK) newspaper states:

Recommended works

Wodehouse published over a hundred books, most of which are still in print. Among the best Jeeves and Wooster novels and collections are The Code of the Woosters and Joy in the Morning, while the finest Emsworth books include Summer Lightning and Heavy Weather. Two early novels worth exploring are Mike and Psmith in the City, while Ukridge and Uncle Fred in the Springtime features another of Wodehouse's best-loved characters, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge (pronounced Fanshawe Ewkridge). For an airbrushed but nonetheless fascinating glimpse of the man himself see the autobiographical Performing Flea and Over Seventy.

(The Guardian's observation about Ukridge is a good example of why Wodehouse is often funnier in print than when he is adapted for radio, TV or film.)

I think the best way to experience P.G. Wodehouse's genius is to find a used hardback copy of one of his works.  Set aside some time, relax and enjoy the experience.  If you can't find a good old hardback copy, a paperback will do.  

A paperback edition of three of the "Blandings Castle" stories, found at an estate sale.

Free online copies of Wodehouse's books and short stories abound online.  Project Gutenberg has many:

Wodehouse's stories have been adapted countless times for film, radio and television, including  a recent BBC production, Blandings, which we've yet to see in the US.  Episodes of Jeeves and Wooster, produced by Granada Television and starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, are all over the Internet.  Here's one:

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