Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Uncollected Wodehouse

Source of book: Lent to me by my friend Peter, who, among his many good qualities combines a love for Wodehouse and the good sense to visit Powell’s whenever he finds himself in Portland.

I have made it my goal to read at least one Wodehouse book per year. This won’t get me through his entire output unless I live an extraordinarily long life, but it’s worth a shot.

Previous Wodehouse reviews on this blog:

This particular book contains previously uncollected works from the very dawn of Wodehouse’s career. There are a number of the more obscure short stories, including an unpublished “Reggie Pepper” story. (Pepper was the prototype for Bertie Wooster.) In addition, there are a number of miscellaneous bits that Wodehouse wrote for newspapers and magazines, before he made his name enough to set off on his own as a writer.

As typical for juvenalia, these works are a bit uneven, and do not capture the full Wodehouse experience - although his future genius shows through in bits. Several are quite hilarious indeed, but they are not quite unmistakably “Wodehouse,” as he appears in the mature works. Eh, they are fun anyway. I laughed at a number of lines.

So, I would not recommend them as a first Wodehouse experience, but as a bit of fun for the confirmed fan.

One of the fun things about this collection is seeing some new perspectives on the author and on the times he lived in. Wodehouse finally made his break in 1909 from salaried work, and went freelance after he sold a story to...Cosmopolitan. One must imagine that said publication has taken a sad journey down the ladder of taste to go from ol’ Pelham Grenville to “10 Ways to Transform Your Makeup In Under 60 Seconds.” Now if Wodehouse had written that article, it would have been great.

It was also interesting to read his poetry. Well, doggerel poetry, at least. Wodehouse also wrote lyrics for musical stage productions, so he could certainly make a humorous rhyme. In this case, he sold a few poems telling of the misadventures of love, with plots similar to some of his later short stories.

One of the best bits, in my opinion, is “The New Advertising,” a short bit indulging in a fantasy about what honest advertisements would look like.

For a patent medicine:

“We Hate to Seem to Boast,
Many Who have Tried It Are Still

For a novel entitled The Dyspepsia of the Soul (the very name makes me laugh):

“We advise all insomniacs to read Mr. Logroller’s soporific pages.”

Also worth a chuckle was “My Battle With Drink.” The narrator finally manages to kick his addition to the unhealthy and socially dubious ice cream sundae by replacing it with the more hale and healthy habit of booze.

Another short bit with a twist is “My Life As A Dramatic Critic,” in which the narrator notes, “If I say a piece is bad, it dies. It may not die instantly. Generally, it takes forty weeks in New York and a couple of seasons on the road to do it, but it cannot escape its fate.”

Snappy lines eventually became one of his calling cards, which he combined with an utter lack of seriousness about everything. In “Misunderstood,” a low level pickpocket sort gets accosted by a policeman, and finds himself a bit tongue-tied.

“Um,” said Mr. Buffin. If he had a fault as a conversationalist, it was a certain tendency to monotony, a certain lack of sparkle and variety in his small talk.

These little witticisms can be missed if you read carelessly, because Wodehouse doesn’t always telegraph them in advance. Blink, and you might miss it.

Another one that I couldn’t resist noting is from “The Best Sauce.” The heroine is dreading the presence of a certain young suitor.

There is a type of man who makes love with the secrecy and sheepish reserve of a cowboy shooting up a Wild West saloon. To this class Peter belonged.

Speaking of young men with odd courting habits:

“The fact that we cannot meet without your endeavoring to plant a temperamental left jab on my spiritual solar plexus encourages me to think that you are beginning at last to understand that we are affinities. To persons of spirit like ourselves the only happy marriage is that which is based on a firm foundation of almost incessant quarreling.”

I should also mention “Death at the Excelsior,” which is an actual mystery story. Well, with a Wodehousian twist, of course. He prefaces it with a gripe about women being allowed into mysteries. Because they inevitably end up getting “shoved into cupboards with a bag over her head.” Wodehouse also sends up a few other tropes: the ticking bomb, the dumb “heavy,” the incompetent minions, and so on. And then, he proceeds to write a remarkably serious mystery story, except with the right kind of intelligent woman involved.

One last one: I know a number of real writers (as opposed to people like me that write little blogs for fun and not profit), and rejection letters are a way of life, even for those who eventually break through. Wodehouse clearly got it, and wrote a hilarious little bit featuring those disappointing letters. You can read it for free online here: “An Unfinished Collection.”

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