Friday, May 14, 2010

The Barber of Piccadilly

The funniest author in the English language is P.G. Wodehouse, creator of many novels featuring hapless young man-about-town Bertie Wooster and his rational, calm, and protective valet Jeeves.

I don't make this statement lightly. I have read, and re-read Wooster and Jeeves novels for many decades now I am familiar with both those who appreciate Wodehouse's particular genius and those who find him amusing, perhaps, but also somehow trivial, superficial, or even worse, problematic. I understand that to discuss how funny these books are is also to open to scrutiny issues of class, history, entertainment, literature, and personal preference.

Over the years, I have had many conversations about why and how Wodehouse is just so funny to read, the latest at a New York bar where I was compelled to insert myself into a conversation going on next to me.  I try to respect the view of those who do not find the works engaging or of those who are gently entertained by Wodehouse but not moved, as I am, to audible laughter on almost every page.  Still,  whenever I  turn to a volume of his work to retreat from the world for a time, to relish the troubles that Bertie Wooster brings upon himself and to watch how Jeeves, through his keen intelligence and insight and with a few deft moves, resolves the problems for Bertie, I am quickly reconfirmed in my contention that the funniest author in the English language is P. G. Wodehouse.

There are those who care about either his sympathy for or his antipathy toward the gentry class of traditional English society. Some feel the unrealistic settings and vague time references interfere with enjoyment. There are those who feel that he doesn't draw realistic or sympathetic female characters. There are those who cannot follow, or are confused by the antic story lines and numerous plot twists.

A brief response on those issues: his stories are designed to be timeless and his success in attracting generations of readers speaks to his success in transcending time and era. The class conflict (or class consciousness or unconsciousness) that bothers some is only part of a stage set. The novels present themselves like a commedia dell'arte play, enjoyable precisely because the characters and scenarios are constant and recognizable and because the pleasure derives from each character playing out his or her individual role so exactly.

As to reality or dignity of female characters, I point out that none of the characters, including Wooster and Jeeves, is multidimensional and that some number of female characters bring admirable qualities of strength, intelligence and civilization to the stories. Bertie's formidable Aunt Dahlia and Aunt Agatha are key characters and deliver as much power, strength and fear as the books (and reader) can handle. On the other hand, pompous, timid or ineffectual men, whether husbands, friends, business associates, or political figures, are clearly cartoonish and quickly sketched.  Again, they serve as props for irony, sarcasm, and mayhem.

The plots of these books are convoluted and confusing,  but essentially they are the same in in each book.  In the course of trying to enjoy life by going along the path of least resistance in just about everything, Bertie soon becomes tangled in a series of interlocking dilemmas that involve unwelcome romantic attention, broken friendships, and the threat of both social mortification and physical violence.  There is always some physical scrambling about at country estates.  Once you understand that you are anticipating everything that will happen, the story lines reveal themselves as excellent vehicles for the humor and insights Wodehouse delivers.

Amusing and effective though they are, it is not the plots that account for Wodehouse's genius. It is his language. Bertie Wooster, educated at Eton and Oxford, is somehow incapable of understanding the meaning of anything beyond a superficial level. Jeeves, on the other hand, seems to know and understand the motivations and inner workings of everyone with whom he is in contact. The less Wooster knows and understands, the more inclined he is to explain and comment. He is the narrator of the books and his language, ironically, is erudite, clever, complete with classical and contemporary cultural references, and a pleasure to read even though this eloquence only serves to highlight Wooster's ultimate opacity.  Jeeves with his powerful intellect and strong character is a man of few words but whose pared-down utterances only reinforce his superiority.

Perhaps that is why I find the stories so funny. Narrated by Wooster, we see events play out clearly that Wooster doesn't see at all. We see characters and events as they are really happening and as Wooster is misperceiving them. We are given a view of the Wodehousian world through mainly through Wooster's narration and an occasional quoted dialogue with or utterance by Jeeves.

We also get to watch the story unfold from a safe perspective. We are reminded throughout that we need not worry or be concerned about real danger to Wooster's serenity and bachelorhood because behind him stands Jeeves very much in control. We are exposed to chaos with the knowledge that it won't ultimately harm. We can be entertained by the dilemmas and laugh with the confidence that all will work out.

There may be a spiritual or even theological dimension to Wodehouse's art. Wooster is good-hearted and affable. His problems are mostly of his own doing, compounded by levels of misunderstanding and misdirection. His very existence seems threatened by his clumsiness and ignorance. I identify. He seems to represent the human condition of good, but flawed, and he is constantly in need of rescue if not redemption. Humanity can never escape the consequences of original sin.  Throughout it all Jeeves is present, like a guardian angel who finds it necessary or even amusing to allow situations and problems to snowball  to the limits of tolerance before stepping in to set things right. This is not just funny, it is very satisfying to read repeatedly. Perhaps it is reassuring for us readers to recognize our own personal capacity for bungling and mismanagement and also for the faith that all can be made right eventually.

Wodehouse has amused and entertained readers for nearly a century, readers from countries, cultures, and backgrounds very different from the stylized and exaggerated British society of Wooster's world. This was a portrayal of a society that was already out-of-date when the stories were written.  It is really a kind of "once-upon-a-time" that signals us to suspend any expectation for social reality and get right down to the business of laughing.

Wodehouse presents us with classic scenarios and highly stylized and recognizable character types who play out their roles exactly as we expect them to and want them to. I continue to compare the satisfaction of reading Wodehouse with watching commedia dell'arte or operatic productions. More than any other, the operas based on Beaumarchais stories that feature Count Almaviva, Rosine, and of course Figaro (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro) demonstrate how humor, satire, and a great respect for the foibles of humanity are combined to create art that elicits laughter. In the case of Rossini and Mozart, the music infuses the stories with life and elevates the production. In Wodehouse's novels, language and narration serve that same function.

Whenever I hear the first notes of the overtures to Barber or Marriage, I immediately begin to smile and settle in for a sublime experience. The first lines of  Wodehouse novel invariably do the same for me. They contain all of the familiarity, anticipation, and brilliance of the many sentences to follow and set the stage for a sublime reading experience.

I don't mind if you have read Wodehouse and feel differently than I do. If you agree with me, I do not expect you to risk a bar brawl by defending this position publicly. I do hope that if you are not familiar with Wodehouse and his iconic creations, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, that you get one of these books in your hands, read the first sentence and flip through the pages settling here and there for a descriptive phrase or portion of dialogue. Then I challenge you to put the book down.

I recommend Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit as as an excellent introduction but almost any Wooster and Jeeves novel will serve.