A story is told of a genius designer who deftly fashioned a woman’s hat in its entirety using only a length of ribbon. His asking price was $100, at which she exclaimed “A hundred dollars! For a piece of ribbon!” He then unravelled the ribbon and proffered it to her, saying, “The ribbon, madam, is free.”
I quote the incident to emphasise the difficulty – futility, even – of deconstructing the work of P GWodehouse. He used the same materials (‘ribbon’, if you wish) that other authors do – verbs, nouns, adjectives and the like – but the magical results (the ‘hat’) were his own. He remains one of the funniest, wittiest and best-loved humorous authors in English. Most of the time he’d make readers laugh by surprising them with a turn of phrase.
Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize– winning book critic who writes for The Washington Post, takes a random extract from one of Wodehouse’s books and says, “There, in capsule form, are the Master’s mature virtues: the humorous name, the curiously arch tone, the beautifully balanced syntax and elegantly contrived diction, the learned allusion, some re-purposed stock phrases, and a simile that slowly unfolds to a zinger.” Here are some of his tricks: Using the positive form of a word more familiarly seen in its negative form. Here is Bertie Wooster as narrator, in The Mating Season: “Jeeves, in speaking of this Fink-Nottle, had, if you remember, described him as disgruntled, and it was plain at a glance that the passage of time had done nothing to gruntle him.”
Pausing for an unnecessary bit of detail, which adds to the general goofiness. In one story a Mulliner is brooding because the girl he loves is out cavorting with his rival, while he’s been dumped with the girl’s mother indoors: “How simple it would have been, had he not been a Mulliner and a gentleman, to remove the weapon [a battle-axe on the wall] from its hook, spit on his hands, and haul off and dot this doddering old ruin one just above the imitation pearl necklace.”
Perhaps the best tribute comes from Stephen Fry: “What can one say about Wodehouse? He exhausts superlatives. You don’t analyze such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.”