Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

(Book Review)

Started: December 1, 2017
Finished: December 10, 2017

Why I Read This Book
So... I had literally never heard of P.G. Wodehouse until someone left a comment about him on this blog 11 years ago.

In my November 9, 2006 review of The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett, anonymous commented:

You should try reading one of Pratchett's favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse. Try Code of The Woosters. If you can contain your anti-bourgoise sentiment, you'll be unable to avoid loving it.
Uncited internet factoid: Wodehouse used the word death 8 times in 98 novels.
And here I am, 11 years later, finally getting around to reading some Wodehouse.
It just goes to show, don't be afraid to recommend books to me.  It may take me 10 or 20 years, but I try to get around to it sooner or later.
(By the way, anyone want to take credit for that 2006 anonymous comment?  I've got a couple good guesses as to who it is, but I'm not 100% sure.)

Anyway, ever since anonymous turned me on to P.J. Wodehouse, I've been seeing his name pop up in various places.
P.J. Wodehouse wrote an excellent satirical essay on Tom Brown's Schooldays (LINK HERE), which I referenced in my own review of that book.
While searching the Internet one day, I stumbled upon Orwell's essay "In Defence of P.J. Wodehouse", and was so impressed by Orwell's writing that I linked to it off this blog.  (I later re-visited this essay when working through a collection of Orwell's essays).

If you're not familiar with Wodehouse, he's a British humorist who had an impressively long career (1902 to 1975), but he's most associated with the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s.
He had a tremendous output, but his most famous characters are Wooster and Jeeves.  Wooster is a dim-witted English aristocrat, who always gets into trouble of various kinds, and Jeeves is his butler who is always responsible for getting Wooster out of trouble.

I've been meaning to start reading some of the Jeeves books for a long time now, but never got around to it.  Partly for the usual reason (there's so many other books in this world to get distracted by) and partly because it was difficult to find a good starting point for the Jeeves stories.
The completist in me wants to start from the very first Jeeves story.  But according to Wikipedia, Jeeves and Wooster first start appearing in Wodehouse's short story collection.  The very first Jeeves story appears in "The Man With Two Left Feet", (1917) and it's only one story in a collection of 13.  Meaning that I would have to read 12 other stories just to get to the one Jeeves story.
The next time Jeeves and Wooster show up is in "My Man Jeeves",  (1919), but even here only half of the stories in the book are about Jeeves.
Jeeves doesn't even get a book to himself until 1925.  And he doesn't get his own novel, Thank You, Jeeves, until 1934.

Not knowing where to start with this franchise kept me from plunging into it.

But eventually, a chap just has to say to himself, "Dash it all!" and plunge in wherever he can.
The first Jeeves novel "Thank You, Jeeves" was as good a place to start as any.  And if we missed a few of the references to the early stories, then so be it.

Fortunately, the other members in my bookclub were of the same mindset as me.  We all had been meaning to get around to reading Jeeves, but didn't know where to start.  So we just all agreed to start with Thank you Jeeves.

And now here I am with my review.

The Review
It's difficult to write a detailed review of a humorist.  One either finds him funny, or one doesn't.  There's not too much else to say.

For the record, I found P.J. Wodehouse delightful.

There was usually something on every page to put a smile on my face, and several times when I laughed out loud.

There are plenty of wacky situations in this book, but for me the situational humor isn't quite as good as Terry Pratchett or George Macdonald Fraser.

But where Wodehouse excels is the dialogue.  There are so many great one-liners in this book.
In particular, Wodehouse gets a lot of mileage out of how easily excitable Wooster is, contrasted with how calm and understated Jeeves always is.
I also love how completely dependent Wooster is on Jeeves.  To the point that even when he's in the middle of an argument with someone, Wooster relies on Jeeves to complete his quotations.

Example.  In this quotation, Wooster is arguing with someone who wants him to stop playing his banjolele.
"You're a public menace.  For weeks, it appears, you have been making life a hell for all your neighbors with some hideous musical instrument.  I see you have it with you now.  How dare you play that thing in a respectable block of flats? Infernal din."
I remained cool and dignified.
"Did you say 'infernal din' ?"
"I did."
"Oh? Well, let me tell you that the man that hath no music in himself..." I stepped to the door, "Jeeves," I called down the passage, "What was it Shakespeare said the man who hadn't music in himself was fit for?"
"Treasons, stratagems, and spoils, sir."
"Thank you, Jeeves.  Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils," I said, returning.
At our book club, we spent some time recounting all of our favorite one-liners from this book, and chuckling over them again.  I'm tempted to do the same thing here (list a bunch of my favorite lines), but there's no point really.  And it would only spoil the book to give away all the best parts in advance.  The best thing is just to go out and get a copy for yourself.

That being said, not every joke hit its mark.  There were a few groaners and some bad puns mixed in here. But a few bad jokes are easily forgiven in what is otherwise a thoroughly delightful book.

Much of the plot of the book takes place in the course of one long night, and it's one of those nights where everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and poor Wooster moves from one disaster to another.
It's a lot of fun seeing absurdity pile upon absurdity all in the course of one night.  But it can also be somewhat tiring as well.
Some of these humor books are best read in short doses, so you don't get too tired out off all the shenanigans.  And in fact, I think for exactly this reason 2 out of the 4 people in our bookclub had trouble finishing this book on time.
But assuming you take this book in small doses, it should be no problem.

Let me now turn to the question I posed at the beginning of the review...

Is This Novel a Good Place to Start for the Uninitiated?
So, although this is Jeeves's first full-length novel, he had several books of short stories before this.   Which made me slightly worried about starting here.

And indeed, right from the first chapter, there are references to previously established characters, and call-backs to previous stories.
Sir Roderick Glossop, who Wooster apparently has had a long antagonistic relationship with from several previous stories, appears right in the first chapter, and there's a shared history between him and Wooster that gets referenced back to frequently.

And throughout the book, Wooster makes frequent reference back to previous adventures, and to his  long list of enemies.

So, I suppose in ideal conditions, one would want to start with the very first Jeeves story, and read them in order.

But, then again, I think at one point or another we've all had the experience of jumping into a series of books in the middle.  You usually figure out who's who and what's going on easily enough.  And so it was with this book.  I'm sure I would have appreciated it more if I had had knowledge of the previous adventures, but I was never confused about the plot or the character relationships.
And given how hard these books can be to track down if you're an American, I wouldn't recommend waiting around until you find the perfect starting point.  (Don't wait 11 years like I did to try out these books!)  Just grab whichever one you find first.

As for me, I now count myself a fan of this series.  And I plan on snatching up any future Jeeves and Wooster books that I see in any bookstore.  (In the coming years, you may see a lot more Jeeves on this blog).

Other Notes
* I don't want to spoil anything, but there's a brilliant parody of A Tale of Two Cities at the end of this book, in which Jeeves even works in Sydney Carton's famous quote.

* If you haven't read it already, that Orwell essay I linked to above is interesting.  Orwell makes the point that even by the time this book was written (1934), Bertram Wooster and his upper-class aristocratic life-style was already an anachronism.  To quote from part of Orwell's essay:
But there is another important point about Bertie Wooster: his out-of-dateness. Conceived in 1917 or thereabouts, Bertie really belongs to an epoch earlier than that. ...A humorous writer is not obliged to keep up to date, and having struck one or two good veins, Wodehouse continued to exploit them with a regularity that was no doubt all the easier because he did not set foot in England during the sixteen years that preceded his internment. His picture of English society had been formed before 1914, and it was a naЇve, traditional and, at bottom, admiring picture. ...His books are aimed, not, obviously, at a highbrow audience, but at an audience educated along traditional lines. ...In his radio interview with Flannery, Wodehouse wondered whether “the kind of people and the kind of England I write about will live after the war,” not realising that they were ghosts already. “He was still living in the period about which he wrote,” says Flannery, meaning, probably, the nineteen-twenties. But the period was really the Edwardian age, and Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915.
* And speaking of stuff that's not aged well...
A lot of this book is politically incorrect by today's standards.
Put this book in along with Huckleberry Finn in the category of "Old Classics Which Are Now Problematic Because of the use of the N-Word"
Obviously the use of the N-word is forbidden nowadays.  In our book club, we briefly discussed how appropriate it was back in 1934.  I'm given to understand that even back then, it's use was frowned upon in polite society.  At least in America.  But then Wodehouse was writing for a British audience.  So who knows?
Also, it's a subtle thing, but it's noticeable that Wooster uses the term "nigger minstrels" whereas Jeeves calls them "negro minstrels".  I assume this is meant to indicate some differentiation between Wooster's vulgar speech and Jeeves's more careful speech.
Although someone in my bookclub pointed out that the term "nigger minstrels" was used in Britain at the time specifically to denote white performers in blackface.  Actual black performers were called "colored minstrels".
I didn't actually realize this while I was reading this book.  I thought that in the book there were some black performers, and then some white people who disguised themselves as black performers using black face.  But as my friend pointed out to me: "No, there were no actual black people in the whole book.  Everyone was in black face.  That's what 'nigger minstrels' meant."  (Wikipedia backs him up on this, by the way.)
Also...blackface.  I shouldn't forget to mention that characters dressing up in blackface plays a big part in the plot.
All of which makes the book very problematic by today's standards.  I still enjoyed it.  (I think it is possible to enjoy a book for its good qualities, while still condemning its bad qualities), but it would make me hesitant to recommend it.
Although... if you were to make a spectrum of racist attitudes, I'd put this more on the "ignorant and insensitive" side of the spectrum than the "viciously malicious" side.  So I don't think Wodehouse is as bad as someone like Sax Rohmer.

* In my review of Sherlock Holmes, I said that there was a strain of xenophobia that ran through the stories, where anything that was not British was suspect.  This extended even to Americans, who were often portrayed as not understanding that Britain was a land of law-and-order, and that policeman could not be bribed.
The same stereotype of Americans is present in Thank You, Jeeves.  The American millionaire character has to be reminded several times that England is a land of laws, and that public officials cannot be bribed in this country.

Video Review
Video Review Here and embedded below:



Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - What We Really Want

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