If a book can make you snort coffee out of your nose in Starbucks, I’d say it was a pretty funny one. Starbucks coffee is quite horrible, and the thought of it coursing down your nasal passages is a less than pleasant prospect.
But if I had to pick the funniest writer in the world, I wouldn’t think for one second. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975) never intended to be anything than funny. He was a ridiculously prolific writer whose body of work included novels, short stories, plays, poems, song lyrics, and lots of journalism. And it’s interesting how many people who’ve never read him dismiss him out of hand. Forget TV versions – none of them capture his style. It’s the books that count.
Two great things should be pointed out about Wodehouse. First, his ability to misdirect a sentence every few pages seems to me the mark of a brilliant humorist.
Says one character; ‘I like a man to be a clean, strong, upstanding Englishman who can look his gnu in the face and put an ounce of lead in it.’
Or here’s the hopeless poet invited down to a country house for a weekend, desperate to make a good impression, who has been smoking in his room and goes to the lawn to compose bad poetry about his hostess;
‘He was just wondering, for he was a severe critic of his own work, whether that last line couldn’t be polished up a bit, when his eye was attracted to something that shone like summer skies or stars above and, looking more closely, he perceived that his bedroom curtains were on fire.’
For this leads to the second point, the effortlessly clever plotting of a master farceur. So when Jeeves and Wooster help out a friend who wishes to appear a hero in a girl’s eyes, they arrange to kidnap a child he will then rescue. Except that they kidnap someone else’s child by mistake.
Or when the pyromaniac poet above sets fire to his room, the flames are put out by his girlfriend’s other suitors, much to the annoyance of her parents, who were trying to burn the place down for insurance.
But is it too Deep English? (Sorry, the phrase has bugged me ever since an American reader applied it to my books.) My spouse hails from Auckland and is entirely mystified by these goings-on in country houses. Of course, there’s a lot more to Wodehouse than just Jeeves and Wooster, and I would recommend the Blandings books just as highly. In fact, his output rarely fell below average, which means that everything must have stemmed from his mindset rather than a created persona.
If you’ve never read Wodehouse, might I suggest ‘Weekend Wodehouse’, a collection of snippets to whet your appetite – not the Kindle version though, which is a misspelled farrago of errors.
Finally here’s Wodehouse on writing a long-running series;
It is now 14 summers since, an eager lad in my early thirties, I started to write Jeeves stories, and many people think this nuisance should now cease. They look down the vista of years and see the chronicles multiplying like rabbits, and the prospect appals them. But against this must be set the fact that writing Jeeves stories gives me a great deal of pleasure, and keeps me out of the public houses.’
Quite how I feel about Bryant & May.