A Discordant Note

[N.b.  I’m not going to blog the school shooting in Connecticut.  Not today.  Not until I push back and sort out my own thoughts.  Not with my kindergarten boy at home tonight.]

P. G. Wodehouse wrote roughly 89 novels, or at least that’s the number I seem to recall coming across some years ago.  I once found a web site that purported to list all of them (including the novels which were published under different names in the U.S. and Britain).  I printed the list off and checked it against my bookshelves.  I’m proud to report that I have well over 70 of the titles.  Which made the surprise all the more gratifying when my mother managed to locate and buy for me not one but two which I did not have.  One was an Uncle Fred novel, Cocktail Time, and was about what you’d expect from the Earl.  It was published post World War II, and like the rest of his post-war opus it just isn’t quite as uproariously funny as his earlier efforts.  I mean, there’s a reference in there to Uncle Fred watching television.  Television?  In Wodehouse?  That would be like stumbling across a reference to an off-track betting parlor in the early passages of Genesis. 

The second was The Adventures of Sally, and is I understand one of several books involving the same lead character.  The edition that my mother found noted only that it was first published in Britain in 1922.  It must have been written a bit earlier than that, because there are several references in it to the Spanish flu, which started in 1918 and had pretty much run its course by 1920.  That sort of a mentioning-something-that-wasn’t-very-funny was enough of a jar.  I mean, even Roderick Spode, he of the Black Shorts, was only an allusion to the S.A., and he shows up in the role of swanking buffoon.

What really made my head rotate on its vertical axis, though, was a scene towards the end of the book.  In it a main character appears in a falling-down-drunk, belligerent, wantonly destructive condition.  In fact, the way the scene unfolds I would have expected, had it not been Wodehouse I was reading, that I was about to read a depiction of a rape.  I mean, the staging, dialogue, and mood are that black.

At the risk of understatement, I’ve never come across anything in Wodehouse even remotely that — threatening is the only word I can think of.  Even when he allows that he is sure his critics will be eaten by wild animals, after the fashion of the Old Testament, he does so in a voice which you can hear laughing as your eyes run across the words.  His other depictions of characters who are staggeringly drunk are pretty much all humorous.  One thinks of Gussie Fink-Nottle dispensing the prizes at the Market Snodsbury grammar school.  That’s got to be one of his most famous scenes and it’s priceless humor.  In fact, Wodehouse only very rarely actually depicts a fully drunk character.  Mostly what you see is the aftermath, as when Tipton Plimsoll and (I forget who the other chap was) wake up in a New York jail after a night on the tiles, with every hoof in the Light Brigade dancing on their respective skulls.  Or when Augustus Sipperly and Bertie Wooster appear in court the morning after making an attempt on a bobby’s helmet on Boat Race Night (one of my all-time fave Wodehouse lines is when the magistrate turns to address Bertie and begins, “As for the prisoner Leon Trotzky . . . .”). 

[Update: 15 Dec 12]:  In mentioning Wodehouse’s depiction of the elevated, how could I forget Percy Frobisher Pilbeam, who gets thoroughly into the sauce at Blandings?  The conversation between Percy and Lady Constance is every bit as classic as Gussie at the prize-giving.

Most of the time Wodehouse doesn’t even go that far, only having someone give an indirect reference (usually without any details thrown in) to some past indiscretion, like Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and the story of the prawns, which Galahad Threepwood writes down in his memoirs, or Galahad continually referring to the time in ’95 when he and Puffy Benger put Old Wivenhoe’s pig in Plug Basham’s bedroom to cheer him up (or maybe it was he and Plug who put it in Puffy’s bedroom? I haven’t re-read the stories recently).  Or even, to recur to Uncle Fred, when he keeps making reference to his day at the dog races with Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton, invariably mentioning that a wiser magistrate would have contented himself with a warning.

So that was my background frame of reference for Wodehouse and then bang! there’s a violent drunk front and center in the action.  Disconcerting.  In fact, that whole book is something of an outlier among those of Wodehouse’s that I’ve read.  Sally and her beau are really the only ones who end up truly happy.  Most out of character.  I wonder what was going on in his life when he wrote that book that would have soured him so on life in general.  I do have his recent biography, but I don’t recall anything of that nature being covered.  And of course in 1920 he had nearly two decades of Class A stuff left in him, so it isn’t as if his muse deserted him.

Curious, in other words.

Leave a Reply