Vo­cab

Friday - - Mind Games -

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.”

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