‘Shall I take the fork, your lordship?’
‘Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat pocket.’
It is a rather daunting prospect to set a precedent, to begin something novel, to pave a path where the proverbial ball can be set rolling. The chances of success are vague, the air around bristling with uncertainty, and each cup of tea laced with the bitter flavour of failure. Yet there are things of certainty, fixed points that can reassure the conflicted during times of flux and new beginnings. Hope is the easy solution. Conviction a dangerous one. And wisdom the truest of them. I choose another that I am more familiar with, and that is art. Once created, it is constant and frozen in time, for generations to yield pleasure and purpose and inspiration from it. As Keats writes in his eternal poem Ode to the Grecian Urn:
‘Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;’
After much reflection on this tabula rasa state of things, poised in solitude, Alexander Selkirk-ish, wondering where the first foot is going to land, I legged it to the bookstore—the more modish ones that dwell in the amorphous land of the interwebs do not provide the exercise that the old stores do—and bought a copy of Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse. After all, there is no better way to untangle a ball of wool than with the help of some great writing.
Do you think it an unwise decision? Should I have started with something more contemporary? A tragedy perhaps? Or something bitten by the bug Trend? Before you think of me as someone caught in the reels of arrested development and nostalgia, I am going to defend my choice using another’s words:
‘His admirers will desert PG Wodehouse for his archaic Upstairs Downstairs setting on the same day that people discard Oscar Wilde for being too fond of the drawing room or discover Charles Dickens to be anachronistic for writing about stagecoaches in an age of steam. His attention to language, his near faultless ability to come up with names that are at once ludicrous and credible, and the intricacy of his plotting are imperishable.’—Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic, 2014.
Wodehouse’s craft is like a good bottle of Prosecco. Sure of itself, young, crisp, mirthful and bubbling with the joy of language, it can infuse in its reader these very qualities. As a child I spent days wrapped up in the Wodehousian world, oblivious to the domestic goings on. The only evidence of my existence during this period was the sudden peals of laughter that emanated from my room. There were moments when the parents subtly debated my sanity, giving me the strange eye when I emerged, encouraging me to dabble in sport and the outdoors. But once you are initiated into the fantasy of Wodehouse, there’s very little chance of leaving the party.
If not for his perfectly plotted stories set in insulated Edwardian England, read him for his mastery of language. It is a feast of metaphor and simile. ‘Aunt calling to aunt, like mastodons bellowing across the primeval swamp; ‘He writhed like an electric fan.’; etc. Stephen Fry in The Independent writes:
‘”The greatest living writer of prose”, “the Master”, “the head of my profession”, “akin to Shakespeare”, “a master of the language”… If you had never read Wodehouse and only knew about the world his books inhabit, you might be forgiven for blinking in bewilderment at the praise that has been lavished on a “mere” comic author by writers such as Compton Mackenzie, Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc, Bernard Levin and Susan Hill. But once you dive into the soufflé, once you engage with all those miraculous verbal felicities, such adulation begins to make sense.’
Published in 1915, Something Fresh is the first of the Blandings series, introducing the dotty Earl of Emsworth, his daunting sister Lady Constance Keeble, the vacuous Hon. Freeddie Threepwood, and their pickles in the demesne of their castle. Wodehouse creates a fantastic world and a set of characters that—perhaps don’t throw light on the afflictions of the human condition or the societal power structures that burden—endure through the ages like all great works. The BBC showcases Blandings, a series based on the Blandings stories of Wodehouse, which has been adapted by Guy Andrews. I’ve given it a try and it was lush. For TV. The books win any day.
In reading his books, one is also persuaded to think of his genius formula—an infallible comedy of errors set in the lives of the landed gentry; for who is not tempted at a sneak peak of the well-heeled. Wodehouse himself was self-employed and earned his living through his writing. However, it is unnerving to think of Wodehouse writing his stories of English countryside idyll, when he himself was so far removed from it, living in Long Island with his wife and a platoon of Pekinese lapdogs, and doing so too during the war years. It only goes to debunk the tiresome literary advice ‘write what you know’. Outside his Long Island home, butlers were a thing of the past, the Wars were in full swing, and gamine women advertised home products. Although his writing was embraced by the American reader, he was not without his critics, who volleyed at him a range of insults including a rather colourful one calling him ‘English Literature’s performing flea’. Wodehouse defends his style of writing in the introduction of his book Summer Lightning with perfect comic timing:
‘A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elijah; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.’
So I propose a reading, or a rereading, of this charming book and its wondrous writing as a start. And if you have something to say, this is the place to voice those thoughts.
Consider this a blank slate, a bench in a park or a forum in a gossiping agora, where we sit for a few moments to talk and discuss literature, where you and I can be brazen bookish hounds and incur no slights from the others. Here, I will be posting book reviews, revelations of the literary sort, and industry news (heaven forbid). You will also find author interviews, our latest releases, and a lot of stimulating idle chatter.
Let’s now uncork this good bottle and end with a toast—To new beginnings and something fresh!