A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I scanned my waiting-to-be-reviewed pile, to see what would be best to share with you lot this week, my eye fell on an orange Penguin I’d been reading back in June, but had yet to blog about: Jeeves in the Offing (1960) by P.G. Wodehouse. I think we all have those authors who waiting helpfully in the wings, always ready to be picked up when something undemanding but reliably good is needed.
I read somewhere once that, if Wodehouse had only written six books, they’d all be incredibly famous. His hubris, it seems, is in having written so many – nearly a hundred, I believe – so, while Jeeves and Wooster are well-known, and Psmith, Mulliner, and Blandings aren’t exactly obscure, he is renowned for his characters rather than his individual novels. That’s also possibly because there are so few duds in his oeuvre, and so few peaks – he is reliable in both a good and bad way. You know almost exactly what you’re going to get before you start, but you also aren’t going to be bowled over.
What you’re going to get, though, is a lot of laughs. If you’ve never read Wodehouse before, you’re in for a treat. He mixes exaggeration and litotes in such a brilliant way – spending pages going over the top with the monstrosity of a rampant aunt, and then telling us that “it is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine”. He writes so wittily, but without seeming to try as hard as other notable wits, such as Oscar Wilde. The humour flows from his pen, seeming silly but actually being a very sophisticated way of playing with language.
So, what is the plot of Jeeves in the Offing? It largely doesn’t matter, of course, as we know the novel will end as it begins – optimistic, stupid Wooster a single man, with quiet, determined, supernaturally intelligent Jeeves having dealt with all obstacles without batting an eyelid. In this case, Wooster (as per) is bustled off to an aunt – a more tolerable one than some, and one who lives in Worcestershire (a rarity in fiction, and nice for this Worcestershire boy). There are women who want to be engaged to him; there are women who don’t particularly want to be engaged to him, but pretend to be for their own purposes. There is a famed psychoanalyst; there is a man masquerading as a butler. It is an out-and-out farce, with just enough logic between stages of madness to keep the plot working neatly. Actually, Wodehouse is brilliant at plots; they do make internal sense, although any single moment is extremely unlikely.
The major fault with Jeeves in the Offing is clued in from the title. Jeeves is in the offing – he isn’t present. We don’t see him for most of the novel, and it is the weaker for diminishing their wonderful dynamic – of which this is a taste (Wooster speaking first):
“Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up the soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”‘
“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as so often happens with ghosts.”
Of course, even with this flaw, I loved Jeeves in the Offing. A reliably brilliant author – particularly a reliably brilliant comic author – is a wonderful thing to have on hand. So – do you have one? Which authors do you turn to in a crisis, when you need something you know you’ll love, but don’t want anything too earth-shattering?