the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

Iwas at a Quad­rant din­ner the other night more or less ded­i­cated to cel­e­brat­ing the great BA San­ta­maria. I loved Santa but felt at pains to say that he was not re­ally the main in­tel­lec­tual in­flu­ence on me. So I started try­ing to work out which writer re­ally has most in­flu­enced my life’s out­look.

Af­ter ma­ture re­flec­tion, the an­swer was ob­vi­ous — PG Wode­house. I had been re­minded to think of Wode­house again be­cause this year is the cen­te­nary of the pub­li­ca­tion of his first, sublime Bland­ings novel, Some­thing Fresh.

Still, am I con­demn­ing my­self to be judged a mere cal­low prat­tler, a foolish fla­neur, a ver­i­ta­ble flib­ber­ti­gib­bet, by ad­mit­ting that my whole world view was shaped by an au­thor of light com­edy?

It’s not re­ally nec­es­sary to tell you that Wode­house — cre­ator of Jeeves and Wooster, Emsworth and Bland­ings, Psmith and Gussie Fink-Not­tle — was re­garded by Hi­laire Bel­loc as the great­est prose stylist of the 20th cen­tury, and judged in sim­i­lar, if less ab­so­lute, terms by Ge­orge Or­well, Eve­lyn Waugh, Mal­colm Mug­geridge, Tony Blair and count­less oth­ers.

I got the Wode­house bug very young. In pri­mary school I read his novel Mike. It was the first novel of 400-odd pages I had read. In its later se­quences, it tran­si­tions from school­boy hero­ism to comic ge­nius in the fig­ure of Psmith.

Im­mer­sion in Wode­house cer­tainly in­flu­ences your prose style, but more than any­thing it en­cour­ages a cer­tain tem­per­a­ment of mod­estly an­ar­chic ir­rev­er­ence.

Wode­house wrote 100-odd books and I think I own and have read al­most all of them, the favourites over and over, though not re­cently (the one ex­cep­tion be­ing a stint in hos­pi­tal a few years back, when Wode­house was once more my boon com­pan­ion).

Let me give you just a cou­ple of ex­am­ples of the Wode­house style: “It was as if Na­ture had in­tended to make a go­rilla, and had changed its mind at the last mo­ment.” Or con­sider: “Fred­die’s views on ba­bies are well de­fined. He re­sents their cold stare and the su­per­cil­ious and up­stage way in which they drib­ble out of the cor­ner of their mouths on see­ing him.”

Wode­house fa­mously made an elab­o­rate comic uni­verse out of cer­tain types of Ed­war­dian Eng­land — Bland­ings Castle and its ec­cen­tric in­hab­i­tants; Ber­tie Wooster, the idle young man, and his valet, Jeeves, at times trans­ported to New York; and much else. The English­ness was ex­ag­ger­ated, satirised, cel­e­brated, lam­pooned. It was such bril­liant light com­edy, and so suc­cess­ful, that it in­flu­enced pro­foundly the at­ti­tude even of the English to­wards their own English­ness.

Wode­house had a su­perb clas­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion at school but fam­ily fi­nan­cial mis­for­tune pre­vented his go­ing to Ox­ford. This was a great bless­ing. He wrote there­fore from the best, most ar­tis­ti­cally help­ful, of all mo­tives — to make money. He was an early en­thu­si­ast for Amer­ica. And so he had at his dis­posal clas­si­cal lan­guage, the in­tri­ca­cies of Ed­war­dian slang, and then Amer­i­can slang.

One of his count­less comic tech­niques was to sub­vert a clas­si­cal sen­tence with a slang end­ing, as in ex­plain­ing (irony alert) how suf­fer­ing had made him a great writer: “If he turns out any- thing amus­ing, he does it sim­ply in or­der to ob­tain re­lief from the al­most in­sup­port­able weight of an ex­is­tence which he has long since re­alised to be a wash-out.”

The “wash-out” per­fectly sub­verts the un­der­stated pom­pos­ity of the pre­ced­ing sen­tence.

Wode­house joy­ously mocked all artis­tic pre­ten­sions from the point of view of the in­no­cent fel­low af­flicted by his bet­ters. Con­sider: “She was a pretty enough girl in a droopy, blonde, saucer-eyed way, but not the sort of breath­taker that takes the breath. No, what caused this dis­in­te­gra­tion in a usu­ally fairly flu­ent prat­tler with the sex was her whole men­tal at­ti­tude … her con­ver­sa­tion, to my mind, was of a na­ture cal­cu­lated to ex­cite the liveli­est sus­pi­cions.”

Wode­house tran­scends anal­y­sis. No one has ever used words more clev­erly, for more fun, and words are the foun­da­tion of civil­i­sa­tion, if not of hu­man­ity. If for any pe­riod you lived in Wode­house’s pages, you are marked for­ever by that good for­tune.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.