Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: I own this.


Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of old Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (“WOOD-house”). I am trying to read at least one of his each year, even though I am unlikely to finish all of his books at that rate. He lived long and wrote quickly. And hilariously. Here are previous posts about him on this blog: 


Introduction to P. G. Wodehouse

Uncle Fred in the Springtime

The Adventures of Sally

Biffen’s Millions

Thank You Jeeves

The Uncollected Wodehouse

Love Among the Chickens

Jeeves And The Mating Season

Summer Lightning

Cocktail Time

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (aka The Cat-Nappers)

Uncle Dynamite


Because the books often have different titles in the United Kingdom and the United States, it is worth looking up both titles - often one or the other is available. 




Before discussing the book, I think it is helpful to have some context. In the run-up to World War Two, various Brits took different approaches to Hitler and the Nazis. Many of these turned out to be embarrassing in retrospect. Kazuo Ishiguro’s best known work is about one of those who more openly collaborated with the fascists, but many others simply failed to fathom the seriousness of the danger. 


And then there is the complexity of the case of P. G. Wodehouse. He was a rather well-known author by that time, in his late 50s, and had a villa in Belgium. Apparently a bit oblivious, he didn’t understand the danger, and was caught completely off guard by Hitler’s invasion of the low countries. He was captured and spent time briefly in a prison camp, before his celebrity got him a more cushy hotel. He also naively agreed to do a few “non-political” radio broadcasts (the contents of which appear to have disappeared during the war), which was viewed as traitorous by many. To a degree, his reputation never entirely recovered, and he was denied the knighthood until right before his death. 


The thing is, while Wodehouse was a political naif, he was hardly a Nazi sympathiser. His books are largely apolitical, and by his own admission, he largely avoided learning about political issues. In any event, he got a bit of a bad rap for what was clearly a stupid, rather than malevolent decision. 


If you want to read more about this, George Orwell (one of the original Antifa sorts) wrote a defence of Wodehouse back in 1945 that is worth reading. Even after the MI5 documents were released, Orwell’s take has stood up to the evidence. Wodehouse was a fool, not a traitor.


The reason this matters for purposes of this book is that shortly before the war, Wodehouse introduced a recurring character, that of Roderick Spode, leader of a local fascist group, the “Black Shorts.” (Shorts, because they were all sold out of shirts at the time…) Spode is, even by Wodehouse standards, played entirely for comedy. He is a lug, a bully, not that bright, and tends to hurt himself when he tries to hurt others. Naturally, he takes a dislike to Bertie Wooster. Spode is based on actual British fascists - specifically Oswald Mosley (yes, they existed, as did American fascists like Charles Lindbergh.) Spode also has a secret, which, while innocent enough, is embarrassing to one who aspires to Fascist toxic masculinity. I won’t spoil it. 


The Code of the Woosters is, in my opinion, one of Wodehouse’s best. It has all the elements of a classic Jeeves and Wooster tale, from the narrow escape from marriage to the outrageous scheme that somehow magically comes off at the end by accident. 


I have to at least give the setup. Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia (the one he likes, not to be confused with Aunt Agatha) has a problem. Her husband Tom, who has the money, collects old silver, and had his eye on a cow creamer. However, rival collector, Sir Watkyn Bassett, snaps it up. Dahlia wants Bertie to steal it, so Tom will let her have the money she needs to hire a famous author to write for her ladies’ magazine. 


But there is so much more! Bertie has had all too much experience with Sir Watkyn. First, he was fined a five spot for pinching a policeman’s helmet. Oh, and he was once engaged to Sir Watkyn’s daughter, the dreamy and over-earnest Madeline. (“The stars are God’s daisy chain!”) Now, Madeline is engaged to Gussie Fink-Nottle, collector of newts, and hapless schlemeil. 


But the plot thickens! Sir Watkyn’s friend Spode is there, and he carries a torch for Madeline. And Sir Watkyn’s niece (and ward) Stiffy Byng is secretly engaged to the curate (a school friend of Bertie’s), and she needs Bertie’s help getting Sir Watkyn’s consent. And this involves…wait for it…stealing the cow creamer. 


Hilarity ensues. And Jeeves has to extricate the parties from their own webs. 


This book was adapted into an episode of the excellent Jeeves and Wooster series, featuring Hugh Laurie (before House MD) and Stephen Fry (before The Hobbit.) The series isn’t completely true to the books, but it preserves a lot of the best dialogue, and is perfectly cast. Here is a bit of Spode.


So many of the best lines are in this book, so I have to share some of them. 


“If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn - season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”

“Season of what?”

“Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.”


And, of course, a line all of us true Wodehouse fans love - and use. 


He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from gruntled.


There is also the description of Spode, at least in Bertie’s view, which might not be entirely reliable. 


He was, as I had already been able to perceive, a breath-taking cove. About seven feet in height, and swathed in a plaid ulster which made him look about six feet across, he caught the eye and arrested it. It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment. 


Ah yes, and the Black Shorts:


“How do you mean, his mission? Is he someone special?”

“Don’t you ever read the papers? Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea, if he doesn’t get knocked on the head with a bottle in one of the frequent brawls in which he and his followers indulge, is to make himself a Dictator.”

“Well, I’m dashed! I thought he was something of that sort. That chin…Those eyes…And, for the matter of that, that moustache. By the way, when you say ‘shorts,’ you mean ‘shirts,’ of course.”

“No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.”

“Footer bags, you mean?”


“How perfectly fowl.”


“Bare knees?”

“Bare knees.”




One might suspect that Wodehouse cared a good bit about garments. Jeeves certainly agrees. Even a confounded mess should never interfere with making sure the pants hang just right. 


“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself ‘Do trousers matter?’”

“The mood will pass, sir.”


As should be expected, one of the “complications” is when Gussie and Madeline have to call off their nuptials. Gussie takes it hard, of course, because melodrama is as much his hobby as the newts. 


“I suppose,” he said with an absent, soliloquizing voice, “a chap could hang himself with that.”

I resolved to put a stopper on this trend of thought promptly. I had got more or less used by now to my bedroom being treated as a sort of meeting-place of the nations, but I was dashed if I was going to have it turned into the spot marked with an X. It was a point on which I felt strongly.

“You aren’t going to hang yourself here.”

“I shall have to hang myself somewhere.”

“Well, you don’t hang yourself in my bedroom.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“Have you any objection to my sitting in your armchair?”

“Go ahead.” 


Bertie gets Gussie calmed down enough to explain what happened. 


“Sir Watkyn has forbidden it.”

This was an angle I had not foreseen.

“Why? Did you have a row or something?”

“Yes. About newts. He didn’t like me putting them in the bath.”

“You put newts in the bath?”


Like a keen cross-examining counsel, I swooped on the point.



Aunt Dahlia is no fan of Gussie, and constantly botches his name. Here is a representative bit. 


“Bertie,” said Aunt Dahlia, “I am only a weak woman, but if you won’t tread on this insect and throw the remains outside, I shall have to see what I can do. The most tremendous issues hanging in the balance…Our plan of action still to be decided on…Every second of priceless importance…and he comes in here, telling us the story of his life. Spink-Bottle, you ghastly goggle-eyed piece of gorgonzola, will you hop it or will you not?”


In the end, Jeeves comes up with a plan, to let Gussie out by the window, and he can also take the suitcase with the purloined creamer and make his escape to London. 


I don’t think I have ever assisted at a ceremony which gave such universal pleasure to all concerned. The sheet didn’t split, which pleased Gussie. Nobody came to interrupt us, which pleased me. And when I dropped the suitcase, it hit Gussie on the head, which delighted Aunt Dahlia. As for Jeeves, one could see that the faithful fellow was tickled pink at having been able to cluster round and save the young master in his hour of peril. His motto is ‘service.’ 


And one might save of the book that it gives universal pleasure to all concerned. Except perhaps Spode and Sir Watkyn, but they will get over it. 


More on Oswald Mosley:

Mosley was quite the piece of work. Just a few highlights:

During his first marriage, he was also bonking his both of his wife's sisters and her stepmother. And that one sister, Alexandra, well, she had a long string of affairs, but was deep into the Nazi shit too. In fact, while sleeping with Mosley, she was the courier between him and Mussolini's ambassador (who she was also laying), and also simultaneously sleeping with Lord Halifax. 

Mosley's first wife died in her mid thirties of appendicitis. A few years later, he remarried, this time to one of the Mitford sisters. Oh, and the wedding was held at Goebbels' villa, with Hitler as a guest of honor. 

It is difficult to think of anyone more deserving of being mocked in the form of Roderick Spode.





Sunday, November 28, 2021

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


A couple of years ago, I had my first experience of Murakami when I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That book is, shall we say, a bit weird. It combines Magical Realism with Japanese history, and, well, some really weird stuff. I don’t know entirely how else to describe it, but you can read my post about it at the link above.


Having essentially set my expectations about Murakami through that book, it was interesting to read Norwegian Wood, which is surprisingly normal. I mean, it is a thoughtful love story, a saga of trauma and mental illness, and it isn’t filled with magic, history, or any of the bizarre symbolism that Murakami is known for. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The book is filled with gorgeous writing, thoughtful nuance, and a great set of characters. The narrator, Toru, is particularly compelling, and his journey from high schooler through his college years to become a more mature adult is believable and interesting. 


I should warn the potential reader that this book has no fewer than four suicides, as well as a lot of fairly graphic sex, so if that isn’t okay for you, this might not be the book for you. 


There has been some speculation about whether Norwegian Wood is autobiographical to some degree. Murakami has denied this, claiming that if it were autobiographical, it would have been 17 pages long, because his youth was completely boring. He may be protesting a bit too much. There are some obvious similarities between the narrator and the author, and some narrative parallels between the romance of Toru and Midori and Murakami’s courtship of his wife. Since Murakami is notoriously private and reticent about his family, we may well never know exactly how much came from his own life. In any case, the writing clearly indicates that he has drawn from the emotional landscape of that time in his life: the characters are drawn with so much love and care that they seem true to life despite the cultural differences. 


The basic plot is this. Toru and Naoko grew up together, along with their friend Kizuki, who is Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend. Alas, all is not well with Kizuki, who unexpectedly kills himself at age 17. Toru and Naoko are haunted by this, yet united by their grief and trauma. In Naoko’s case, the trauma is compounded by the suicide of her old sister, who she believed was perfect. For a time, Naoko and Toru are companions, but eventually, Naoko has a mental break and ends up in an asylum. Toru is in love with her, but she is still bonded to Kizuki, and cannot truly return his love, even though she wants to. Toru hopes his love can save Naoko, but, unsurprisingly, he cannot. 


In the meantime, Toru meets Midori, a fellow student dealing with her own grief. Her mother has died of brain cancer, which is now slowly killing her father. Midori is a free spirit, an unreliable narrator of her own life, and in love with Toru. The problem is, Toru is still sweet on Naoko, and even as he falls in love with Midori, he worries about abandoning Naoko. Midori is also, quite frankly, aggressively sexual, even though she and Toru do not have sex with each other during the book. 


Other characters in the book are Reiko, a middle-aged divorcee who shares Naoko’s room at the asylum; and Nagasawa, a “playa” extraordinaire, who drags Toru on his stag hunts, and treats his long-suffering girlfriend like trash. Part of Toru’s maturing is his rejection of Nagasawa’s values, and his embrace of a less selfish and juvenile approach to women. 


The novel is haunted by a sense of grief, the lingering damage of trauma, and a melancholy that colors everything with a bit of grey. And perhaps the most touching scene is when Toru cares for Midori’s dying father in his hospital bed for several hours so she can get a much needed reprieve. As sad and heart-rending as the scene is, it marks a turning point in Toru’s maturation, when he is able in a sense to caretake someone the way he wishes he had for Kizuki and wishes he could for Naoko. It also marks the point when Midori realizes just how drawn she is to Toru. 


This translation was by Jay Rubin. Unlike in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, this book doesn’t have any unfortunate cuts (the publisher demanded them of Rubin, to fit the book in a certain size.) In general, I find Rubin’s translations to capture a certain cadence that I assume is in the original. The language is evocative and beautiful. Since my second kid is learning Japanese, I might have to have her compare the original with the translation someday. 


The novel opens with Toru looking back years later on a day in a mountain meadow near the asylum with Naoko, where she describes her vision of a hidden will in the meadow - the well that she fears, or even knows, will eventually suck her down. Wells are a metaphor that Murakami uses often. In this book, rather than a recurring motif, like in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it is introduced at the beginning, and essentially sits in the back of Toru’s consciousness, even if it is barely alluded to. The description is amazing. 


From that day forward, the image of a thing I had never laid eyes on became inseparably fused to the actual scene of the field that lay before me. I can go so far as to describe the well in minute detail. It lay precisely on the border where the meadow ended and the woods began - a dark opening in the earth a yard across, hidden by the meadow grass. Nothing marked its perimeter - no fence, no stone curb (at least not one that rose above ground level.) It was nothing but a hole, a mouth open wide. The stones of its collar had been weathered and turned a strange muddy white. They were cracked and had chunks missing, and a little green lizard slithered into an open seam. You could lean over the edge and peer down to see nothing. All I knew about the well was its frightening depth. It was deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world’s darknesses had been boiled down to their ultimate density. 


This is Murakami at his best, plumbing the depths of the darkness of the human psyche through metaphor and carefully chosen language. Another theme that runs through the book, but more explicitly is the idea of death as an integral part of life. 


Until that time, I had understood death as something entirely separate from and independent of life. The hand of death is bound to take us, I had felt, but until the day it reaches out for us, it leaves us alone. This seemed to me the simple, logical truth. Life is here, death is over there. I am here, not over there. 

The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. 


Unlike Toru, Naoko’s family has enough money to send her to a rather posh private high school. 


She was also in her second year and attending a refined girls’ high school run by one of the Christian missions. The school was so refined you were considered unrefined if you studied too much. 


As Toru and Naoko spend time walking the streets of Tokyo together, keeping each other company, he realizes that he is just not enough for her. 


My arm was not the one she needed, but the arm of someone else. My warmth was not what she needed, but the warmth of someone else. I felt almost guilty being me. 


Toru becomes friends with Nagasawa through their shared love for unfashionable Western literature: Balzac, Dante, Conrad, and Dickens. And Gatsby. Nagasawa explains with a line I have quoted before as part of my own philosophy of reading. 


“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs.” 


That is one reason I try to read broadly, not spending all my time in any one era. And also why I seek out books in translation. America is not the only place that matters, and English is not the only language that matters. 


Eventually, one night when Naoko is in a bad place emotionally, she asks Toru to sleep with her. They do, and it is both good and really, really bad. Naoko never entirely seems to be okay with what happened, even though she wanted it. We don’t find out the reason until far later in the book, but it is all tied up with her experiences with Kizuki, and her own emotional issues. One line particularly stood out in this achingly sad scene. 


Her cry was the saddest sound of orgasm I had ever heard. 


The book is set against the background of the student protests of the late 1960s, and it is clear that Murakami is no revolutionist, although he is hardly an establishmentarian either. He describes the protests in fairly unflattering language, particularly when he describes the signs and speeches, which seem flat. As he puts it, “The true enemy of this bunch was not State Power, but Lack of Imagination.” Yeah, pretty much. Later in the books, Toru elaborates further.


People screamed there’d be revolutionary changes - which always seemed to be just ahead, at the curve in the road. But the “changes” that came were just two-dimensional stage sets, background without substance or meaning.


Midori’s family lives above their small bookstore, in a neighborhood that has seen better days. 


The whole atmosphere of the place suggested that most of the people who used to live here had become fed up with the cars and the filthy air and the noise and high rents and moved to the suburbs, leaving only cheap apartments and company flats and hard-to-move shops and a few stubborn holdouts who clung to old family properties. 


I grew up in Los Angeles, and this sure evoked places I knew. I suspect every major city has these sorts of neighborhoods, not trendy enough to gentrify yet, and with the kind of grit and malaise that you can taste in the air. 


Midori’s family sounds like mine in one way: they feel the need to feed guests well. She is a bit cynical about it, but Toru loves it - when he shows up, she feeds him in style. 


“It’s no feast,” answered Midori without turning my way. “I was too busy to do any real shopping yesterday. I’m just slapping together a few things I had in the fridge. Really, don’t worry. Besides, it’s Kobayashi family tradition to treat guests well. I don’t know what it is, but we like to entertain. It’s inborn, a kind of sickness.” 


Midori is quite a character, often saying bizarre things, sometimes just to shock Toru, but sometimes, as part of her defense mechanism against her traumatic life. For example, she explains why the idea of dying in a fire doesn’t bother her that much. 


“No, I just wanted to see how you’d react,” Midori said. “But dying itself, I’m not afraid of. Really. Like here, I’d just be overcome with smoke and lose consciousness and die before I knew it. That doesn’t frighten me at all, compared with the way I saw my mother and a few relatives die. All my relatives die after suffering with some terrible illness. It’s in the blood, I guess. It’s always a long, long process, and at the end you almost can’t tell whether the person is alive or dead. All that’s left is pain and suffering.” 


It is easy to see why, and Toru understands once he spends that afternoon with Midori’s dying father, talking to him about his life. This passage was interesting - it rather reflects my own love of ironing as a pleasure and therapy. 


“I mostly do laundry on Sundays - wash the stuff in the morning, hang it out on the roof of my dorm, take it in before the sun goes down, do a good job of ironing it. I don’t mind ironing at all. There’s a special satisfaction in making wrinkled things smooth. And I’m pretty good at it too.” 


The slow evolution of Toru’s relationship with Midori is fascinating. One does wonder if it resembles Murakami’s own grand romance. I find it has some interesting parallels to my own relationship with Amanda. Midori has a perhaps exaggerated level of sexual aggression, but it is clear that for Toru, it is a breath of fresh air to have a woman who knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to just say it. She also doesn’t play the games like other women - and men - Toru knows. For most of the book, Midori has a boyfriend, but she finds him uptight and boring, and eventually breaks up with him when she realizes she loves Toru. I love the line she gives Toru when she finally admits here love. 


“But you, well, you’re special to me. When I’m with you I feel something is just right. I believe in you. I like you. I don’t want to let you go.” 


Toru is a bit slow on the uptake, and can’t figure out why she would break up with a guy who is, on paper, a better catch than he is. 


“Why?!” she screamed. “Are you crazy? You know the English subjunctive, you understand trigonometry, you can read Marx, and you don’t know the answer to something as simple as that? Why do you even have to ask? Why do you have to make a girl say something like this? I like you more than I like him, that’s all. I wish I had fallen in love with somebody a little more handsome, of course. But I didn’t. I fell in love with you!”


I’m pretty sure Amanda fell in love with someone a lot less handsome than her ideal, although since she wasn’t planning on falling in love at all, I suppose she wasn’t spending that much time fantasizing about “tall, dark, and handsome” but was fine with “short and funny looking.” 


That gives a bit of a feel for the book. It is fairly straight forward for a Murakami book, but it is a lovely story. Murakami himself was shocked and a bit disturbed when this book went on to become a huge bestseller. His previous books were successful, but within a certain literary sort of readership, while Norwegian Wood exploded into a universal book, the kind everyone was reading. One could argue whether his other books are better or not, but there is a certain charm and beauty about this book that clearly has resonated with millions of people not just in Japan, but around the world.