Saturday, November 17, 2012

First-Person Perfect

“Don't you love this time of evening, Mr. Wooster, when the sun has gone to bed and all the bunnies come out to have their little suppers?  When I was a child, I used to think that rabbits were gnomes, and if I held my breath and stayed quite still, I should see the fairy queen.”

“Talking of shedding tears,” I said firmly, “it may interest you to know that there is an aching heart at Brinkley Court.”

This held her.  She cheesed the rabbit theme.  Her face, which had been aglow with what I supposed was a pretty animation, clouded.  She unshipped a sigh that sounded like the wind going out of a rubber duck.

There we have Madeleine Bassett, certainly among the dampest female characters in all fiction, as presented through one of comic literature's few perfect first-person narratives, that of Bertie Wooster, in P.G. Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves.  I go for years between Wodehouse novels, and then, when I read one, I ask myself why I read anything else.  Bertie is nonpareil.

These are, of course the “Jeeves” novels, but Jeeves—although he's certainly the world's greatest fictional butler—is almost a plot contrivance.  The genius is Bertie's narrative, absolutely consistent, totally confident, unerringly wrong.  Look at the verbs alone: “cheesed,” “clouded,” “unshipped.”  Unshipped?

And the rubber duck.  Not just the comparison of the sound of a sighing woman with a rubber duck, and the duck's perfect position at the end of the sentence, but the fact that rubber ducks figure strongly in Bertie's frame of reference and this does not surprise us.  In this book alone, he has two encounters with a rubber duck

Here's Bertie's description of one of the unfortunate secondary characters of What Ho, Jeeves:

Gussie Fink-Nottle lived year in and year out, covered with moss, in a remote village down in Lancashire, never coming up to London even for the Eton and Harrow match.  And when I asked him once whether he didn't find the time hanging a bit heavy on his hands, he said, no, because he had a pond in his garden and studied the habits of newts.

Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeleine Bassett's charms notwithstanding, it's no wonder that the Jeeves books haven't really worked in dramatic form (and I include the very good BBC series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, pictured above) because without Bertie's narrative, what you've got is somewhat mechanical drawing-room comedy with plot reversals that wouldn't look out of place in a sitcom.

This is not a knock on Wodehouse.  These elements suffer an almost mystical sea-change when filtered through Bertie's skewed and somewhat filmy perspective.  But only on the page.  As an example, one of the highlights of this book, Bertie's account of an eighteen-mile bicycle ride, over unlighted country roads on a dark night, to fetch a key no one actually needs, would be, on film, a man on a bike in the dark, whereas in Bertie's telling it takes on almost Homeric proportions.  If Homer had been an upper-class twit in whose frame of reference rubber ducks were prominently featured.

Wodehouse's magic is (to me, anyway) unique.  It's not just funny--I laugh more or less continuously when I read him--but it's comforting, this world of well-tailored dimwits named Bertie and Gussie Fink-Nottle and Tuppy Glossop and Pongo Twistleton and (best of all) Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, and gargoyle aunts and country houses and damp debutantes who can turn predatory in between the noun and the verb.  It's comforting to me in the same way that the so-called Golden Age mysteries are to those people who got all savage with me a year or so ago when I dared to suggest that they trivialized murder.  Wodehouse relaxes me the way only the very best writers do--he lets me know from the first sentence that he's in control, and that the world of the book, although it may not be much larger than a good-size snow globe, will be explored thoroughly, so thoroughly that it will seem, in retrospect, that I peered under every carpet.  And enjoyed it.

Few things are trickier than intelligence.  We've all read presumably brilliant characters whom we wouldn't trust to button their shirts straight and less-gifted characters whose relative thickness is suggested mostly by their use of short words.  In Wodehouse, we have acres of completely convincing idiocy on display, in varying degrees, and best of all, it's described by one who is supremely, even blithely, unconscious of his own shortcomings.  It is, I think, one of the funniest ideas in fiction.

Here's Bertie on Madeleine again:

It was not her beauty, mark you, that thus numbed me.  She was a pretty enough girl in a droopy, blonde, saucer-eyed way, but not the sort of breath-taker that takes the breath.

Two sentences.  Do you need to know anything else in the world?  About either of them, the observer ot the observed?  Every writer who breathes can learn about perspective, tone, and economy from these books. I rest my case.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Tim, from one Bertie Wooster fan to another -- I think I still have RIGHT HO, JEEVES on my Kindle for PC. Time to go back and read it again. Bertie is a pip.

    I loved the TV series, too. The reason I never watched "House" is because Hugh Laurie will always be Bertie Wooster to me.

    Love your post!

  2. Hi, Pat -- you and I share some serious reading preferences. I obviously loved this book, and I hope you enjoy rediscovering it.

  3. While I've long been aware of Wodehouse, I've never read any. I may have to rectify that.

    So many books, so little time. I used to HATE not finishing a book that I started (I'm sure that says more about me than I should probably reveal...), but more and more I find myself unwilling to waste time on a book that doesn't 'work' for me within the first 40-60 pages. As life grows short, you realize how short life is.

  4. As my graduate advisor used to say, life is short but art is long.

    The great thing about Wodehouse (well, one of the many great things about Wodehouse) is that he brings his books in at, probably, 70,000 words, 80 max. (There are also literally hundreds of short stories.) I'd STRONGLY recommend starting with a Jeeves book and the branching out if he suits your taste.

    And a huge amount of him is available free, or almost free for the Kindle.


  5. I love Wodehouse. A fine prose stylist as you say Tim, and no one has ever taken the piss quite so perfectly and deliciously. Also lots of references to cricket - Wodehouse was a devoted if limited player for many years - which always makes a good book better...

  6. You mean Wodehouse understood cricket? Does he explain it anywhere? I've seen courting rituals among mollusks that made more sense to me than cricket.

  7. But to your other point, Dan -- he was just a great master of his form.


    Ask Santa to slip it in your stocking Tim.