Saturday, February 21, 2009

No Nudes is Good Nudes by P.G. Wodehouse

When I was younger and foolisher, I read quite a bit of P.G. Wodehouse, mostly the Jeeves and Drones Club stories, and then reached a point -- and this is the "foolisher" part -- at which I felt I had read enough of him. His stories can be laugh-out-loud funny, and his prose is exquisite, but he was, I determined, altogether very silly. In my earnestness I decided that one more convoluted plot about a happy twit and a predatoress, and their young love gone awry in the English countryside/Metropolis until an omniscient valet/butler saves the day, must prove unnecessary to a well-lived life. Farewell, P.G. So nice to have met you.

Then on a whim I picked a paperback copy of a collection called Blandings Castle and Elsewhere from my shelves last week (for, despite having banished P.G. from my to-do lists, I did keep a few of his books on hand as mementoes), and found myself falling anew under his spell. Under his s., as he would put it. This time, I met Lord Emsworth, foggy but genial seigneur of Blandings Castle and worshiper of its Empress, Shropshire's fattest and most prize-deserving pig.

There is something wonderful about Blandings. Wodehouse is truly wonderful anyway, but in Blandings he seems to collect the best of his best. The great Jeeves is not there, of course, but he is replaced by the butler Beach, who is his alter ego, only not as gleamingly perfect and therefore a tad more human. The young twits on the premises are not as completely twitty as they might be. (It's startling to find a young Wodehouse hero simply called John.) Galahad is there, the brother of Lord Emsworth, and in Galahad we have an Uncle who is not afraid of any broken-bottle-chewing Aunt, but rather gives as good as he gets to all -- aunts, sisters, countesses, and obnoxious local dukes in particular. Galahad is physical, which is refreshing in Wodehouse; he will blackmail obnoxious dukes if it is needful to bring young lovers together.

And it seems to be always summer at Blandings Castle. We are in the country there. Bertie Wooster and his flibbertigibbet friends are at home in London or New York, going to music halls and sauntering about the thronged streets wearing loud ties and looking for a good time. At Blandings, we are calm. The sky is blue, the air warm. We follow Lord Emsworth out to the sty, to check on the Empress, and then we come back and have a nice plain English dinner in the library, away from all those people who are getting engaged, or falling downstairs, or surreptitiously hanging faked paintings of reclining nudes in the picture gallery. Lord Emsworth -- Clarence -- is someone we want to see more of, even though he doesn't do much. Perhaps he is us, watching things and not taking much in.

It is possible to read Wodehouse and miss a great deal, especially if our attitude is oh -- it's just comedy. (Oh, is that all?) His plots are very involved, but they do repeat themes and situations, and quite a few jokes. The same quotations from Burns, Shakespeare, and the Bible will drop from several different mouths, throughout his books and across the decades. You know that no one in any plot is going to get seriously hurt, and you will not be asked to pass some excruciating interior moral judgment on any topical issue. He does, to be fair, have some rather crispish things to say about left-wing protesters in Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, circa 1975. But that's by the way.

All of the foregoing can lead you to skim along, absorbing and enjoying little on the grounds that a comic talent is a minor talent. But, read him carefully, watch him demand your respect, fall under his s., and see how much more you value him. I'm coming to the conclusion that even though he only wrote comedy, he probably had twice the average reader's brains. He was certainly consistent in the professionalism of those convoluted plots, and age did not blunt his abilities as far as I can see. He wrote No Nudes is Good Nudes when he was in his late eighties. I read it over the course of ten days -- with a brain in my head forty years younger than his was at the time -- and found that I could not keep the plot straight. It made me impatient. Once again, earnestness reared its ugly head. Silly ... convoluted ... it's just comedy anyway. As soon as I finished it, though, I turned back on a sort of firm whim to chapter one and read it through again, as straight through as I could (three nights).

And all fell in place. Every character's relationship to every other made sense, every plot development was fairly hinted from the beginning, even to the timing of that court case and to the vital slipperiness of those oak stairs. I gaped at the genius of the octogenarian P.G. Wodehouse.

Now, to be sure, there are some things in No Nudes that are there because it's comedy. There are things Dostoevsky or Tolstoy would not do. The forged painting really isn't necessary to the plot, except to introduce a certain character, and he really isn't necessary, except to be involved with the forged painting. That sort of thing. But what of it? It remains masterfully done. And it's laugh-out-loud funny. LOL f., as Wodehouse would say. Not only had he twice our brains, he was ahead of his time. He texted in fiction, before there was texting.

I now could kick myself for having given away as much of my Wodehouse collection as I recall doing. I must see more of Blandings, but not every title in the master's 70-novel, 300-short story, 18-play, 33-musical book oeuvre makes clear that This is a Blandings Tale. The Ice in the Bedroom? He Rather Enjoyed It? And there are swathes of his output I have never explored. Psmith. Mr. Mulliner. The golf stories.

My local library's "Plum" (Pelham Grenville W., or Plum) collection is sadly small, but it does include a copy of Sunset at Blandings, the book Wodehouse was working on when he died (in his sleep) at the age of 93. I'll save that one for later, I think. But I like to picture the great old author going happily to bed that night, with all his papers and manuscripts laid out on a table to be ready for the next day, and spinning out in his head the logic of the story. May we all deserve to pass beyond the veil in such a noble fashion. So much better than expiring all over the floor.

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