Sunday, February 24, 2013

PG Wodehouse: the bland leading the Blandings

The recent TV adaptation of PG Wodehouse's Blandings stories appears to have provoked not a little discontent among the author's devotees, the gist being that the stories have been dumbed down to appeal to the same audience that is lapping up Downton Abbey; specifically, viewers in the United States. The latter charge does seem a little unfair; the stories were mostly written when Wodehouse was in the US (he became a citizen in 1955) and all were published in the former colonies before they appeared in the UK. In many ways, the new version is taking them home.

As to whether they actually work or not as adaptations of the stories, I've kept my counsel because, for no particular reason I'd never actually read a Blandings story until this week. To be honest, I think I've only ever read a couple of the Jeeves and Wooster yarns and I can't recall being desperately impressed by them. Of course, I've adhered to the orthodoxy that Wodehouse is in the ranks of the comic greats, simply because his best one-liners, his apposite, absurd metaphors and similes are endlessly quoted and requested. And very funny they often are; but are they enough to qualify him as A Good Writer?

I picked up a compendium of Blandings stories so I could find out; for the record, it's Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best, first published by Penguin in 1992 but containing for the most part stories written in the 1930s. The first time we encounter the titular earl (in The Custody of the Pumpkin) he is attempting to look through his new telescope and complaining that it doesn't work. Fortunately, his butler Beach is on hand to advise him that the lens cap is still in place. Ho ho. A dedicated Wodehousian would suggest that this immediately demonstrates the loveable, batty other-worldliness of Lord Emsworth; whereas an objective newcomer might be forgiven for thinking it's an old, tired, lame joke that would just about pass muster in one of the lesser Carry On films.

That said, The Custody of the Pumpkin does contain at least one of those quotations that are always being recited by fans keen to maintain his reputation: "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." It's quite funny the first five or six times you hear it, although it began to pall when it was wheeled out every few hours in the dying days of Gordon Brown's premiership. And when seen in context, applied as it is to Lord Emsworth's gardener McAllister, it highlights the fact that those characters who don't come from the landed classes are treated as little more than music-hall stereotypes. The gardener is less a character, more a manifestation of grim Presbyterian glowering through a ginger beard. He talks funny too, all stretched vowels and rolled R's. Similarly, we encounter a park keeper and a policeman whose discourse comprises little but comedic officiousness and dropped aitches; and in a subsequent story there is a Cockney called Gladys who offers the following:
"A treat, ain't they?" she agreed eagerly. "I got 'em for 'im up at the big 'ahse. Coo! The old josser the plice belongs to didn't arf chase me. 'E found me picking 'em and sharted somefin at me and come runnin' after me, but I copped 'im on the shin wiv a stone and 'e stopped to rub it and I come away."
Now, to be fair, Wodehouse does not invest his aristocratic characters with immense psychological depth either; but they tend to be rendered in something approaching two dimensions. Just about.

The odd thing - for me at least - is that many other writers, some of whom I admire immensely, are unstinting with their admiration for Wodehouse's craft. The Penguin compilation has an introduction by the late Frank Muir (another writer I find amusing in small, select doses but I couldn't eat a whole one) in which he quotes Evelyn Waugh thus: "One has to regard a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and quite original similes to every page." Well, it's an admirable skill, certainly, but does it really make him a master? Douglas Adams - also named by Muir as an admirer - was undoubtedly a very funny writer but I still maintain he never wrote an entirely successful novel; even his first and best has a deeply unsatisfying ending, mainly as a result of Adams's own procrastination. Waugh himself might only conjure up such a belter every few pages, but his own jokes are created to serve plot and characterisation and ideas, the stuff that matters in fiction, whether funny or serious. In Wodehouse, the funnies have to be good because, frankly, little else happens. The similarity between the two writers is that they deal with similar characters from similar social backgrounds; the difference is that Waugh often places his in scenarios of serious peril (over half his novels include a war or similar upheaval), the harshness of which accentuates the comedy when it comes. Peril for Lord Emsworth is when his pumpkin or pig seems unlikely to triumph at the local agricultural show. At least in Downton Abbey people occasionally die.

Of course, it's not inherently wrong in depicting a world in which nothing seriously disagreeable ever happens; one delight of books such as those involving Just William, Jennings and Billy Bunter, successful series published at the same time as Wodehouse's stories, is the extent to which the main characters perceive minor inconveniences (a bad school report; some missing cakes) as a crisis fit for a Greek tragedy. But these are stories about children; Wodehouse's world only makes sense if we accept that its inhabitants are suffering from some kind of arrested development, that they are essentially children as well. The critics argue that the new TV version is too crass, too broad, too obvious; too childish. I'm not arguing that its makers have created brilliant art; but in adapting the shows they may have seized upon a truth that the Wodehousians don't dare to confront.


Annie said...

I haven't seen it but a tv critic said that the crucial thing it was missing, which makes the books what they are, was the author's voice.

I don't agree with you about the novel. 'Plot and characterisation and ideas' are just elements - it's like saying all music has to be orchestral and that pop songs can't be masterpieces. And I'd choose to read Wodehouse over Waugh any day.

Vicus Scurra said...

I suspect, dear boy, that you should read more of his work before allowing your opinion to become entrenched. The stories are simple, have a repetitive theme, the characters are not imbued with deep emotions but the prose is sublime. It is not about jokes it is about the feelings one gets when one reads something so wonderful.
I still do lols when I am reading him, and often when re-reading. Very few authors have this effect, certainly not Waugh.
And is not any anti-American sentiment that made me ridicule the tv series - I hadn't even considered that aspect - just the rendering of something so warm and brilliant into something superficial and crass.

Steerforth said...

I'm with you. I must admit I've only read one Wodehouse novel, but compared to Waugh the characters seemed two-dimensional and the humour felt laboured. The humour in Waugh works because it taps a darker vein. Also, I don't like the 'Heritage Britain' world of chumps and chaps. Lord Tony Last from A Handful of Dust would simply be a chump in a Wodehouse novel, rather than the tragic character that Waugh creates.

For the same reason that I don't watch Downton Abbey, I've never felt tempted to read any more Wodehouse.

And yet some of the great and the good - people I really admire - are Wodehouse fans. I once had the chance to attend a gala dinner of the 'inner sanctum' of the Wodehouse society, when one of the guests was taken ill that morning. I was tempted by the food and the guest list, but I would have felt like a Judas. Also, it would have been a Wodehouse geekfest and my ignorance would have been painfully exposed.

Paddy Briggs said...

You make some good points. Language is important in Wodehouse and he is a master of it. But so is plot. The plots are only a bit preposterous and that is their charm. And the characters are also only slightly over the top. The problem with the BBC's Blandings is that both plots (as adapted) and characters are totally unbelievable. That is not Wodehouse at all.

Anonymous said...

My dear Footman, go back and try again. No one has to like Wodehouse's work. But by your own admission, and as utterly born out by your blindingly obvious but entirely beside the point statements about the nature of Wodehouse's work, you may have skimmed the deceptively flat surfaces, but you have missed the main chance. It is as if you dashed through some pocket Shakespeare on the dead run through an airport and came away with the impression that the Bard was an overrated hack writer of crossdressing sitcoms.

You seem to have a general familiarity with the the outlines of Jeeves and Wooster, as they survive as archtypes for an unreading public, but you evince no appreciation for Jeeves' exquisite deadpan scheming and in Bertie, you have missed one of the most disitnctive and doubtless the most delightful voices in all of literature. PG's peers (which include the likes of Waugh and Orwell) would have given a limb to have created such a long-lived stable of characters and to have been able to fill their mouths and heads with such hilarious stuff for all those decades. That stable did, in fact, contain working class stiffs, would-be radicals, starving poets, salesmen, hoods, and Psmith.

It is true that nothing more terrible than an angry aunt ever darkens a Wodehouse story. But you may as well have written that Wodehouse's prose in describing Spode's seriel concussions lacks the disturbing, shocking violence of Cormac McCarthy's most fevered writing. Why not instead enjoy Wodehouse for what he is? The television show offends because it fails to capture the spirit of the master at his best, and is tone-deaf in bringing the brilliance of his words to the screen. Wodehouse himself recognized this lost-in-translation problem, and its no shame in trying. But there is so much to live up to.

Vicus Scurra said...

What mmcpher said, really.
Give him another go. Read 2 or 3 of his books. I think you will love it and perhaps thank those who nagged you. If not, sorry - it could be worse, we could have recommended the Daily Mail.

expat@large said...

Pretty darn sure that Wodehouse was under no illusions as to the literary value of his exceptionally lucrative work. Write, make people laugh, sell many many books, do it all consistently, get quite rich really, what?

Tim F said...

Well, that's me told. Let's be clear, I'm not suggesting that Wodehouse was a bad writer; I'm just not sure that he was able to turn his undoubted talents into something more substantial. In this he's not alone; I've already mentioned Douglas Adams but Dorothy Parker would fit the description as well. Maybe I'm just looking at this through the novel-shaped glasses of 20th-century academic lit crit and in a txtspking universe there's more room for one-liners to stand alone. Would PGW have taken to Twitter? I think he might have.