Gustav Temple, editor of the Chap magazine, on the nourishment he has taken from Bertie Wooster
The coronavirus pandemic has had an odd effect on my reading habits, in which I gather I am not alone. Of the tower of books by my bedside, each and every one is hurled across the room upon reading but a single sentence. The books in question are a mixture of non-fiction and fiction and they all suffer the same fate except one author: P.G. Wodehouse.
Without attempting to create some glib philosophy about the pandemic, I would aver that it is creating in all of us a kind of low-level constant anxiety, causing an inability to focus on any other ‘big’ topic than the pandemic itself. We are all ravenous for distraction, and the unexpected provider of nourishment, for me, has been Bertie Wooster.
Consider this quote from Carry On, Jeeves (1925):
“You know, Jeeves, you’re by way of being rather a topper.”
“I endeavour to give satisfaction, sir.”
“One in a million, by Jove!”
“It is very kind of you to say so, sir.”
“Well, that’s about all, then, I think.”
“Very good, sir.”
I am not the first to point out that the language, wit and use of unique solecisms in the works of P.G, Wodehouse ranks him among the top bananas of English literature. The stories themselves, while well plotted and diverting, are almost irrelevant, barrelled along by Wodehouse’s lightness of touch and absurdly unique use of metaphor and simile. Consider this:
“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”
Another magical feat that Wodehouse performs is to create prose that is so rich, amusing, full of solecisms and downright cosy, that one is immediately immersed in the words regardless of where they’re going. You might even call this ‘slow reading’ or something – the pleasure of simply bathing in sentences, each and every one of which is masterful and could not have been written by any other author.
And as for Jeeves, well, we could all do with an incredibly brainy (the result of eating plenty of fish, according to Bertie) butler to sort things out at the moment. Jeeves never simply walks into the room; he ‘shimmers’, ‘manifests’ or ‘decants’ himself into the room, often astounding his employer. “You’re sitting in the old arm-chair, thinking of this and that, and then suddenly you look up, and there he is. He moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly-fish.”
I have several works of the Jeeves and Wooster canon scattered about the place, and diving into them is very much like taking a sip on the evening’s first cocktail (like many of us, the evenings seem to be starting just after lunch during the pandemic). It is often startling, after enjoying a few pages, idly to turn to the publishing info and see the publication date. Of the two Jeeves novels I currently have on the go, one was published in 1925 and one in 1963. There is absolutely no discernible difference in the richness of language or the setting of the stories. Wodehouse simply kept going with his incredible style, paying no heed at all to world events, politics and fashions. Bertie Wooster, in the middle of the swinging sixties, is still hiding behind the sofa in a country house when some fawning debutante who wishes to marry him enters the room, waiting for Jeeves to come and sort it all out. And he always does.
One has the feeling that Jeeves, once presented with the current global situation, would shimmer into the room bearing a tray with a soothing drink. “I say, Jeeves, bit of a rummy do, with all this covid whatsit. Makes one think of Shakespeare, or another of those frightfully clever coves, and his pelting storm on the naked wenches, or whatever it was. What’s a chap to do?”
“I think you refer to ‘Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm’ from King Lear, sir. Regarding the current global situation, sir, I believe I have a solution…”
Gustav Temple is editor of the Chap magazine. Subscribe to the Chap and receive a FREE copy of 300-page hardback book Best of The Chap: click here.