Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Right Ho, Jeeves

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but certain authors, musicians etc. have names that are so annoying or colorful that I develop a judgment about them before reading or hearing their work. For example, I’ve always had trouble taking the idea of someone named “Saul Bellow” seriously, and I really haven’t read much by him. I avoided the excellent English writer Anthony Trollope for years because I thought he was French. I think I initially didn’t like Radiohead as much as I should have because their name is such a corny example of the most overused and annoying “alternative band” naming scheme ever, which is simply to make a new compound word: Candlebox, Audioslave, Stereolab, Soundgarden, Superchunk, Sparklehorse, Silverchair... This retarded band-naming scheme ravaged the countryside all throughout the ’90s, only to be replaced by the almost-equally irksome formula “The ___s” in the early oughts.

The name prejudice works the other way too, though: I’ll always have a soft spot for Rainer Maria Rilke, no matter how incomprehensible much of his poetry is to me, because of the way one of my literature professors, who was from Scotland, rolled the “r”s. You should have heard the way that guy said “Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov”. He could have charged admission.

Anyway, three British authors who(m?) I long avoided because their names sounded unbearably pretentious, and therefore I assumed their work would be too, were Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse. Those names are so fine, so foppish and so prancingly fancy that I wasn’t even sure if the authors were male or female, and I wasn’t eager to find out. Just forming your mouth to say “Evelyn Waugh” makes you feel like an enormous upper-class British twit – try it, but be warned that you might want to punch yourself in the face afterwards. Astonishingly, I recently learned that Evelyn Waugh, apparently something of a sadist, gave his son the only name that could have been worse than his own: “Auberon Waugh”. Try to imagine anyone other than the Queen saying that with a straight face.

Long story short, those guys with the fancy, fancy names are three of the greatest comic novelists of the last century and I highly recommend most work by any of the three. Waugh is my least favorite because he is the least funny and the most racist, upper-class and reactionary. A lot of the Waugh books I’ve read involve poking fun at the lower classes, “modern” anything, and black people. His Decline and Fall is worth a read. Kingsley Amis is also quite mean-spirited, but less upper-crust and much funnier. Lucky Jim is the best starting point for Amis.

The most humane, funniest and by far my favorite of this little trio I’ve arbitrarily assembled is P.G. Wodehouse. He wrote light and cheerful stories which mostly take place in a sort of idealized comedy England where everyone says things like “pip pip” and “right ho” and “what what” a lot. His most famous characters are a young idiot named Bertie Wooster and his superintelligent butler, Jeeves, but all the characters in all the books are almost equally funny. The plots are usually a standard sitcom-style setup where a misunderstanding forces two young lovers apart, and getting them back together involves pretending to be someone else, stealing a valuable object from a country manor, public speaking gone horribly wrong, tricking horrible old relatives into loaning you money, mistaken identities, etc. If that all sounds like very old-fashioned, superficial comedy, to some degree it is, but the way Wodehouse writes makes every line fresh and hilarious whether you’re a fan of Edwardian England or not. Here’s a passage from The Mating Season, not one of his best works, but with the following passage (slightly edited for length) where the narrator, Bertie Wooster, describes waiting to break into a house to intercept a letter or something:

...That was why on the following morning the commodious grounds of The Larches, in addition to a lawn, a summer-house, a pond, flower-beds, bushes and an assortment of trees, contained also one Wooster, noticeably cold about the feet and inclined to rise from twelve to eighteen inches skywards every time an early bird gave a sudden ‘cheep’ over its worm. My nervous system was seriously disordered, and one of God’s less likeable creatures with about a hundred and fourteen legs had crawled down the back of my neck and was doing its daily dozen on the sensitive skin, but did Nature care? Not a hoot. The sky continued blue, and the fatheaded sun which I have mentioned shone smilingly throughout.

Beetles on the spine are admittedly bad, calling for all that a man has of fortitude and endurance, but when embarking on an enterprise which involved parking the carcass in bushes one more or less budgets for beetles. What was afflicting me much more than the activities of the undersigned was the reflection that I didn’t know what was going to happen when the postman arrived.

It was just as this morale-lowering thought came into my mind that something suddenly bumped against my leg, causing the top of my head to part from its moorings. My initial impression that I had been set upon by a powerful group of enemies lasted, though it seemed a year, for perhaps two seconds. Then, the spots clearing from before my eyes and the world ceasing to do the adagio dance into which it had broken, I was able to perceive that all that had come into my life was a medium-sized ginger cat. Breathing anew, as the expression is, I bent down and tickled it behind the ear, such being my invariable policy when closeted with cats, and was still tickling when there was a bang and a rattle and somebody threw back the windows of the dining-room.

If you thought that passage, especially the phrase “...but when embarking on an enterprise which involved parking the carcass in bushes one more or less budgets for beetles”, was good, then please keep an eye out for Wodehouse next time you’re at the bookstore. If you enjoy eyestrain and/or are a cheap bastard, many of Wodehouse’s early works are starting to appear at Project Gutenberg. On the other hand if you didn’t like the above passage, then God help you.

I think I was inspired to give Wodehouse a chance in spite of his fancy name by a recommendation from Douglas Adams in, I believe, The Salmon of Doubt, and I’m very grateful to Adams for possibly introducing a new generation to these books. I’ve probably read two dozen Wodehouse books in the last two years and there are like 75 more where that came from. For me they’re like the literary equivalent of watching Seinfeld DVDs: you’ve seen it all a million times before, you know exactly what’s going to happen, but it’s always funny and it always cheers you up. By the way, I decided to write this post when I realized, in retrospect, that my post about being a Chinese detective was written in a very Wodehouse-y style.


albtraum said...

Great post as always, Al. I particularly enjoyed the part about alternative band names. Silverchair, indeed.

-Thanks, Al.

You're commenting on our own post. I think we've gone insane, Al.

-We haven't had a comment in weeks, precious. It burns.

Fair enough, Al. Carry on.

mairin said...

I love quirky British comedy, so I will be checking out P.G. Woodhouse on Amazon very soon---not sure about Lucky Jim, though, as it doesn't seem to be getting rave reviews.........;)

mairin said...

Whooops- I meant P.G. Wodehouse! Something tells me that in the high-brow British literary world, misspelling a writer's name is somewhat frowned upon! Whoever that guy is, I'll check him out!

srah said...

Have you read Saki? Saki is awesome and is one of those authors I put off reading for years because a) my dad liked him and b) What kind of a name is Saki? It turns out he wrote all of these stories that are sort of like P.G. Wodehouse except mean. There are all the crazy aunts like in Wodehouse's stories, but there are also people who get eaten by ferrets.

albtraum said...

srah -

Thanks for the recommendation, I'll investigate. As you say, Saki is another confusing author name. I always assumed it was a Japanese woman. Not that there's anything wrong with that.