Category Archives: Wodehouse, P.G.

Post Christmas round-up

I read a few books over Christmas and in the run-up to New Year that I didn’t get a chance to write a post about. Going into 2018 that gives me a backlog of about six books, which is a little oppressive so while the books deserve better I’m going to cover a few of them off in a single post.

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

This is the third of Louise Welsh’s plague times trilogy. I wrote about the first and second novels in the series here and here.

No Dominion opens a few years after the events of the first two novels and their protagonists Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall are now part of a community of survivors living in the Orkney islands. Stevie is their mayor and Magnus has become the adoptive father of one of the child survivors, now an adolescent.

The adults have tried to shield the children from the full horrors of what the world became as it fell, and unfortunately have succeeded a little too well. When strangers come to the island they don’t have to work too hard to lure several of the children away with them to the mainland. Stevie and Magnus have to team up and brave the dangers of the post-apocalypse world to attempt a rescue.

As ever there’s lots of good set-pieces here and Welsh’s view of the new societies being thrown up after the loss of our own is persuasive. There’s a feudal set-up; a small community of religious fanatics; and a resurgent Glasgow where a self-styled Provost has set the city partly back on its feet but where his methods have sparked increasing local resistance.

‘Provost Bream is an exceptional man, charismatic, single-minded. He’s determined to get things up and running again and he won’t allow a little squeamishness to get in the way. We might not agree with his methods, but we have to accept that he has a point. The world was always unfair. Since the Sweats, divisions have simply become a little starker.’

The downside is that the plot is heavily coincidence-driven. Stevie and Magnus aren’t particularly well equipped to survive what they encounter and at least twice only do so because they happen to turn up just as the new societies they encounter are facing some kind of internal crisis. One lucky rescue I’ll accept. By the time it gets to two or three it gets a bit stretched for me.

If you’ve enjoyed the first two this is definitely worth reading. It’s good to reconnect with the characters and Welsh’s world-building is as strong as her world-tearing-downing. It’s probably the weakest of the trilogy, but it makes a fitting end to the series.

Kindle titling

By way of an aside, several publishers now put marketing blurb into the title when submitting to Amazon which the kindle software then duly transcribes as the full title of the book. It’s quite annoying and means that if you do get this on kindle it’s not simply called No Dominion, but instead actually shows up on your device with the title “No Dominion: An action-packed post-apocalyptic thriller (Plague Times Trilogy)” which seems somewhat excessive.

Similarly, Andrew Hurley’s Devil’s Day is actually titled on your device “Devil’s Day: From the Costa winning and bestselling author of The Loney”. Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach becomes “Manhattan Beach: 2017’s most anticipated book” at which point I’ll just buy it in hardcopy since seeing that on my kindle each time I open it starts to feel a bit hectoring.

The Shadow Line, by Joseph Conrad

Honestly, I read this because it’s the book that triggers the action in Carlos Maria Dominguez’s The Paper House. Having now read it I don’t think it has any particular meaning in The Paper House and was as good a novel to kick things off there as any other. Still, it’s fun and so worth reading in its own right.

This is one of Conrad’s sea yarns rather than his more psychological pieces (though there’s plenty of psychology in here). A young man takes his first command only to find his ship becalmed and his crew laid low by disease. The first mate becomes convinced they’ve been cursed by the ship’s previous captain who died a madman.

Conrad’s a marvel at describing the sea and I’ve come to really enjoy his adventure stories, even if they do lack the subtlety of the marvellous The Secret Agent. I couldn’t resist including this quote:

It was a terribly lifeless afternoon. For several days in succession low clouds had appeared in the distance, white masses with dark convolutions resting on the water, motionless, almost solid, and yet all the time changing their aspects subtly. Toward evening they vanished as a rule. But this day they awaited the setting sun, which glowed and smouldered sulkily amongst them before it sank down. The punctual and wearisome stars reappeared over our mastheads, but the air remained stagnant and oppressive.

Despite getting off to a rocky start with Conrad I’ve become something of a fan.

The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift and translated by Jamie Bulloch

What to say about this one? It’s a dark fairy-tale in which a young woman who’s recovered from an eating disorder meets an old woman in contemporary Vienna who appears to be either the Empress Sissi or to have modelled herself closely upon her.

This is a deeply disturbing novella and if you’ve ever come even near any kind of eating disorder yourself I’d advise caution before reading it. The protagonist finds herself trapped in the old woman’s world and spiralling back into bulimia and anorexia. As she observes: “Everything was all right if I was thin.”

It’s a deeply strange novella with the old woman using her captive to steal objects once belonging to the Empress from Viennese museums and it operates on a sort of terrible dream-logic. I read it while in Vienna which helped hugely in terms of getting some of the references and it’s definitely worth reading the Wikipedia page on Empress Sissi before starting.

Don’t expect this to make real-world sense. It has an internal logic but it’s the logic of madness rather than reality and this is more an exploration of obsession than an attempt to portray a realistic situation. It is very, very good but not for the faint-hearted or the weak of stomach.

[Edit: I had forgotten to link to Tony of Tony’s Reading List’s review here, which is very good and which inspired me to give this a try.]

Epitaph for a Spy, by Eric Ambler

I’ve read two previous Amblers: Uncommon Danger, and The Mask of Dmitrios. This will probably be my last for a while and in truth I chose this particular one in part as I liked the cover.

Here we have the usual hapless Ambler protagonist – Josef Vadassy – a stateless refugee living in 1930s France.  Vadassy finds himself in trouble while on holiday in the French riviera when he sends some photos to be developed only to find that due to some mix-up he’s submitted photos of coastal defences rather than his own pictures.

The nice twist here is Vadassy’s status. The police work out almost immediately that he’s not a spy, but someone is and just having those photos is itself illegal. He is sent to the small hotel at which he’s staying to discover which of his fellow guests is the real spy under threat of deportation if he fails. For Vadassy, deportation could easily mean death.

The curious thing with Ambler is how up to date his novels always seem. Here we have the backdrop of Europe on the eve of war. Vadassy has roots in Yugoslavia and Hungary and the particulars of why he has no country to call his own are of that time and those places. 80 or so years later and we still have stateless people, desperate refugees, and of course spies. Vadassy’s precarious position is one that many people would still recognise today.

In a funny way this is a bit of a classic country house crime novel. It turns out that most of the other guests at the pension have secrets to hide and Vadassy soon finds himself lost in a web of danger and deceit. Honestly it stretches credulity a bit quite how many of these people do have something going on, but the same is true for a great many cosy crime novels so I think it’s forgivable.

The hotel setting works well here and the characters are a lot of fun: a shell-shocked British major and his strangely silent wife; a pair of attractive young Americans whose account of their travels doesn’t quite add up; a hotel manager who enjoys spending time with the guests more than doing his job; an obese German couple having the time of their lives amidst it all and many more.

This is much better than the much more widely praised The Mask of Dmitrios. Vadassy is as dim as most Ambler protagonists but is sympathetic and has a good reason to actually be involved in the story. The 1930s European backdrop is great and while the range of secrets present in the hotel is literally incredible it does allow Ambler to pack a lot into a short space. Overall, recommended.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse

Chronologically this is the second of the Jeeves’ collections, so far as I know anyway. It’s short stories but loosely tied together to create an overall narrative. Honestly, I’d read them more as short stories and space them out a bit. Wodehouse is brilliant but too many too quickly and you risk the underlying architecture showing which isn’t to their benefit.

Years back I wrote about the first Jeeves’ collection, Carry on Jeeves, which includes the story where he’s hired by Bertie. I wrote quite a bit there about how Wodehouse structures these stories and to be honest I think it’s one of the better pieces I’ve done here.

Anyway, not much else to say save that this is P.G. Wodehouse with his most glorious characters (sorry Empress and Psmith!) and a cast of: terrifying aunts; young men who mostly make up in spirit what they lack in intellect; young women who tend either to the sporty or the serious or to both; and vicars and con-men; dangerously precocious children and much more. It’s wonderful.

Others yet to come

I also read Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua and a C.P. Cavafy poetry collection but those I do hope to do individual posts for over the coming week.

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Filed under Ambler, Eric, Comic fiction, Conrad, Joseph, German, Post-apocalypse, Vienna, Welsh, Louise, Wodehouse, P.G.

You would not enjoy Nietzche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.

P.G. Wodehouse is one of the best comic writers in print, a master of the comic phrase, with a style of writing which I believe requires far more skill than is immediately apparent (much like Runyon in that, though the styles are very different in some respects). He is an incredibly funny writer, endlessly quotable, fully deserving of his fame.

Wodehouse’s most famous creations are of course Bertie Wooster and his Gentleman’s Gentleman, Jeeves. It’s unlikely anyone reading this doesn’t know who they are, but on the off chance Bertram Wooster is a wealthy young man of good family but, like Winnie the Pooh, of very little brain. Still, he’s a generous young man, innocent of harm and generally a pretty nice chap. Jeeves is his valet, a man of unusual intelligence and resource, a perfect servant and one on whom Bertie relies to get him and his friends out of their endless scrapes involving fearsome aunts, unsuitable chorus girls and other unlikely adventures.

‘Sir?’ said Jeeves, kind of manifesting himself. One of the rummy things about Jeeves is that, unless you watch him like a hawk, you very seldom see him come into a room. He’s like one of those weird birds in India who dissolve themselves into thin air and nip through space in a sort of disembodied way and assemble the parts again just where they want them. I’ve got a cousin who’s what they call a Theosophist, and he says he’s often nearly worked the thing himself, but couldn’t quite bring it off, probably owing to having fed in his boyhood on the flesh of animals slain in anger and pie.

Probably the best place to start with Jeeves and Wooster is the 1923 collection The Inimitable Jeeves, eleven connected short stories which as well as being among the first are among the best Wodehouse ever wrote. After that, comes Carry on, Jeeves – the collection I’m writing about today. Written in 1925, this contains ten stories, many of them set during Bertie’s sojourn in New York in hiding from his Aunt Agatha, and which are in the main brilliant.

Like the TV series House (for the first three seasons anyway) or the boxing stories of Robert E. Howard, almost every Jeeves and Wooster story follows much the same template. That doesn’t matter, one doesn’t read Wodehouse for the plot, one reads for the sheer brilliance of the prose, but it can mean that a collection can be more enjoyable if spaced out a story or two at a time between other reads. That said, I gulped this collection down in two days, and enjoyed it thoroughly, good enough writing after all forgives any fault.

So, what is this template? Well, it doesn’t hold for every story, but it does for most. Here goes:

1. We normally open to learn that Bertie and Jeeves have to a degree fallen out, normally over some sartorial experiment upon which Bertie is engaged and of which Jeeves does not approve.

… Soft silk shirts with evening costume are not worn, sir.’
‘Jeeves,’ I said, looking the blighter diametrically in the centre of the eyeball, ‘they’re dashed well going to be. I may as well tell you now that I have ordered a dozen of those shirtings from Peabody and Simms, and it’s no good looking like that, because I am jolly well adamant.’
‘If I might-‘
‘No, Jeeves,’ I said, raising my hand, ‘argument is useless. Nobody has a greater respect than I have for your judgement in socks, in ties, and – I will go farther – in spats; but when it comes to evening shirts your nerve seems to fail you. You have no vision. You are prejudiced and reactionary. Hidebound is the word that suggests itself. It may interest you to learn that when I was at Le Touquet the Prince of Wales buzzed into the Casino one night with soft silk shirt complete.’
‘His Royal Highness, sir, may permit himself a certain licence which in your own case-‘
‘No, Jeeves,’ I said firmly, ‘it’s no use. When we Woosters are adamant, we are – well, adamant, if you know what I mean.’
‘Very good, sir.’

2. Next, generally while the frost of disapproval is yet on, one of Bertie’s chums approaches him with a problem which to them seems insurmountable. Normally, it involves a disapproving relative on whom the friend is reliant for funds, but who for one reason or another is threatening to cut off the same, or it involves a desire to marry an unsuitable girl, generally of a theatrical persuasion (often in the chorus). Sometimes, it’s both.

I began to understand why poor old Bicky was always more or less on the rocks. To the casual and irreflective observer it may soud a pretty good wheeze having a duke for an uncle, but the trouble about old Chiswick was that, though an extremely wealthy old buster, owning half London and about five counties up north, he was notoriously the most produent spender in England. He was what Americans call a hard-boiled egg.

Sadly for poor old Bicky, he is dependent upon the above hard-boiled egg for his remittance, but that only flows because the old man believes Bicky is a success in business, and his forthcoming visit to New York will show that instead Bicky’s most notable feature is his ability to imitate a bull-terrier chasing a cat up a tree.

3. As neither Bertie nor his friends have much in the brains department, Jeeves suggests a scheme. And yet, despite the man’s undoubted brilliance, it often fails to quite come off on the first instance.

‘I was about to suggest, sir, that you might lend Mr Bickersteth this flat. Mr Bickersteth could give His Grace the impression that he was the owner of it. With your permission, I could convey the notion that I was in Mr Bickersteth’s employment and not in yours. You would be residing here temporarily as Mr Bickersteth’s guest. His Grace would occupy the second spare bedroom. I fancy that you would find this answer satisfactory, sir.’

[Later, Bertie hears that Bicky is not entirely happy with the outcome.]

‘What’s his trouble now?’
‘The scheme which I took the liberty of suggesting to Mr Bickersteth and yourself has, unfortunately, not answered entirely satisfactorily, sir.’
‘Surely the duke believes that Mr Bickersteth is doing well in business, and all that sort of thing?’
‘Exactly, sir. With the result that he has decided to cancel Mr Bickersteth’s monthly allowance, on the ground that, as Mr Bickersteth is doing so well on his own account, he no longer requires pecuniary assistance.’

4. Jeeves, however, is dauntless. With a little behind the scenes maneouvering and a great deal of native wit, he brings matters to a successful conclusion. Young love is brought together, aunts and uncles continue the provision of funds, all is well with the world. In gratitude, Bertie allows Jeeves to dispose of the offending garment over which they had originally fallen out.

‘Oh, Jeeves,’ I said; ‘about that check suit.’
‘Yes, sir?’
‘Is it really a frost?’
‘A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.’
‘But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is?’
‘Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.’
‘He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.’
‘I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.’

The suit, it is fair to say, is by this point not long for Bertie’s wardrobe.

And that’s it, with that template and the odd minor variation you could in theory write most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, except you couldn’t at all because none of that matters in the slightest. The structure, the plot, is merely a hook on which to hang the dialogue, the absurd situations, the general farce of it all.

Characters, too, follow types. As in the Commedia Dell’Arté the same personalities (though their names may change) recur time and again, story to story – the fearsome aunt, the rich but eccentric uncle, the intimidating fiancée, the irritating and untrustworthy young nephew, the dim but affable friend (usually either an impoverished artist or well off but dim chum from Oxford). Again, it doesn’t matter, the Commedia Dell’Arté is a meaningful comparison because it does precisely the same thing and for the same reason – the familiarity is a springboard for creativity, not merely a restraint on or lack of it.

And there we have it. On this occasion, the stories include the first encounter between Bertie and Jeeves, and one marvellous story told from Jeeve’s perspective (the stories are normally told in Bertie’s voice). Of the ten, nine are extremely funny, one a bit of a duff but that’s not a bad strike rate. This is an exceptional collection, from a major talent.

My analysis above may have made it all seem a bit dry, a bit formulaic, but it really isn’t. Instead, it’s the most wonderful froth, the foam on a glass of champagne, a quote on every page and a collection it’s impossible not to be cheered by. The formula allows Wodehouse in the space of a short story to create elaborate set-ups, mischances and misunderstandings that lead to quite simply hilarious outcomes. There is an inevitability, if an elderly aunt is convinced (wrongly) that Bertie hates cats, you know he’ll step on the poor thing before leaving the room, but watching it all unfold is a key part of the pleasure.

After the desolation of One Man’s Justice, this was the perfect follow-up and antidote, beautifully written, exceptionally funny, really quite wonderful. There is a reason these stories, these characters, are so widely loved. I’ll finish with one final quote, a conversation between Bertie and an unwelcome house guest:

‘What ho!’ I said.
‘What ho!’ said Motty.
‘What ho! What ho!’
‘What ho! What ho! What ho!’
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

Carry on, Jeeves – sadly the rather marvellous cover in this Penguin edition appears to be being discontinued, a great shame. On another note, Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes blog has written up one of the Psmith series here, which may also be of interest.

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Filed under Comic fiction, Wodehouse, P.G.