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50 shades of Wodehouse homage

Faulks ReviewFor some time I’ve been threatening to write a fictional homage to P.G. Wodehouse – a statement that will induce some of you to sadly shake your heads, for there is a school of thought among Wodehouse lovers that such homages ought not be attempted. Stern words have been written on the subject. Alexandra Petri leaps to mind. She makes a sound case for the prosecution in her review of  Sebastian Faulks’ homage, ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is worse than bad fanfiction’ (Washington Post), in which she helpfully outlines the world of fanfiction (yes, it’s one word apparently).

I would submit that three kinds of fanfiction [exist]: the sanctioned published kind (spin-off Bonds, Star Wars sequels, many of these aimed at men), the kind you forget is fanfiction (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost) and the kind the word evokes, written on the Internet largely for and by women between 14 and the designated demographic of “50 Shades of Grey.”

However much I might fancy that my own homage might be classed with Paradise Lost, there’s no escaping the fact that I fit smack-bang in the middle of the latter derided demographic. And if that’s not enough to make the self-respecting female writer of homages think twice (or at least get herself a decent set of false whiskers), here’s what La Petri has to say about the motivation and content of fanfiction:

Fanfiction is motivated by the sense that there is something missing. Generally, what is missing is that not enough of the characters are having explicit sex, or that two of the characters that you wish were having sex with one another are not doing so, although in Wodehouse fanfiction this is not always the case. It’s a tribute, but it’s also about filling in the gaps.

The mind boggles! This was certainly not the sort of homage I had mind.

So, not only is fanfiction frowned on by some Wodehouse fans, it seems the last thing the internet needs is another sad old frump churning out homages. What was I thinking? Presumably I ought to be doing something more age and gender appropriate  — whatever that might be. Shoe shopping? Planning a diet and skin care regime to address the signs of aging? Reading the aforementioned 50 Shades of Grey? Well, sneer if you will, but writing Wodehouse homages sounds like a much better way to spend my time.

IMG_2318And I am in good company, with at least two dedicated Wodehouse communities at fanfiction.net: a World of Wodehouse’. group and one dedicated to Jeeves stories. Enjoyable tributes to Wodehouse spring up here at WordPress too: try Wooster and Jeeves, ‘Purloined Snuff Box Retrievers’ by Shashi Kadapa, or Tom Travers’ Travails at Totleigh Towers (an homage to P.G.Wodehouse) from the Chronicles of an Orange-Haired Woman! In published form, I highly recommend The Reminiscences of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood  by Wodehouse expert N.T.P Murphy, which combines Murphy’s enjoyable prose style with his research into the period of Gally’s days as a young man about town. And I can’t write this piece without mentioning the latest novel by Wodehouse lover, writer and cricket historian Arunabha Sengupta: Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes. It’s not a Wodehouse pastiche, but a great example of the possibilities of quality homage.

Respectful imitation (the sincerest form of flattery), and homage have long been part of literary tradition, just as they are in other art-forms. Many gifted painters have learned their craft by copying old masters; musicians and composers practice their art by replicating music conceived by others. Many pop stars make a substantial living by imitation alone. Unlike these art-forms, it is not possible for writers to earn a living in this way, but there is much that a developing writer can learn from imitating a beloved author. It is also possible for gifted writers with a strong, original idea to successfully and legitimately appropriate another writer’s characters. My favourite example of this is George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.

If we want Wodehouse’s legacy to extend beyond his own work, as an influence on future writers, we must not close our minds to imitation, adaptation and appropriation — as a starting point. This is particularly important given the lack of an emerging ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in current fiction. As the shortlist for the last Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize demonstrates, between Wodehouse and modern comic writing there is a wide and substantial difference. This isn’t censure — I usually enjoy the books shortlisted. But there is little on offer for Wodehouse fans looking for something new and original in the Wodehouse vein. It’s worth remembering that many modern readers have discovered  Wodehouse through later authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett,  both sadly no longer with us. A continuing ‘Wodehouse tradition’ in comic fiction would provide ‘an entry’ to Wodehouse for future readers.

This brings us back to the matter of Sebastian Faulks and his homage. It hasn’t been a universal hit with Wodehouse fans (although we’re not all as scathing as Alexandra Petri). I don’t know that it has brought many new readers to Wodehouse either — certainly no one has cropped up in our Facebook group or any other forum that I follow, claiming to have found Wodehouse through Faulks. But as homages go, it’s a sound effort and I have no objection to Faulks attempting it (you’ll find my review of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells here.), particularly if it makes homages more acceptable — or at least gets the conversation going.

My own homage-in-progress has been an exercise in developing my skills as comic writer by imitating the style of a master. I’ve adopted a similar approach to N.T.P Murphy and G.M Fraser, writing an original piece that avoids Wodehouse’s central characters and settings (there are no Jeeves or Woosters, Psmiths or Emsworths). I think this is where Faulks made his bloomer. We are simply too close to these characters. As imitation Wodehouse, my story has many faults, but as a stepping stone from imitation to original fiction, I have high hopes for it.

cover holmesI look forward to sharing it with you here in due course, once I’ve finished reading Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the Ashes.

HP

 

What’s up with you today? Nothing — now that I’m reading Wodehouse.

‘What’s up with you today?’ he asked.

He could hardly have chosen a worse formula. The question has on most people precisely the same effect as that which the query, ‘Do you know where you lost it?’ has on one who is engaged in looking for mislaid property.

‘Nothing,’ said Reade. Probably at the same moment hundreds of other people were making the same reply, in the same tone of voice, to the same question.

The Pothunters

I started reading The Pothunters yesterday. It’s a habit of mine, every so often, to set about re-reading the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse in order of publication, starting with The Pothunters (1902) — his first published novel. Invariably I get distracted from my purpose, somewhere between A Prefect’s Uncle and Love Among the Chickens. Sometimes, it’s the distractions of life. ‘Life!’ as Douglas Adams’ paranoid android Marvin says — ‘Don’t talk to me about life.’

More often it is Wodehouse who distracts me. I pick up The Mating Season or Pigs Have Wings, or possibly Mulliner Nights, in search of a quotation and end up reading the whole thing. Life goes on, time passes, until one day I begin with The Pothunters all over again. Fortunately, it’s a dashed enjoyable book.

I picked it up yesterday in an odd sort of mood. Life has been a bit of strain lately and I’ve been identifying with the aforementioned Marvin more than ever.

‘The first ten million years were the worst,’ said Marvin, ‘and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million years I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.’

Douglas Adams (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)

So I turned to Wodehouse, as I often do, as a soothing balm in troubled times.The therapeutic power of great comic writing has long been undervalued by self-appointed literary elites, who look down their noses at ‘light’ fiction, and sneer at those who read for pleasure. Even sensible reviewers and book bloggers often struggle when it comes to reviewing Wodehouse, and other comic writing. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Wodehouse novels ‘reviewed’ with a few sentences along the lines of — ‘I enjoyed it, but as a light comic novel, there isn’t much I can say about it.’ Others stick like glue to Stephen Fry’s view that ‘you don’t analyse such sunlit perfection.’

Is it any wonder that I have these odd moods? There is plenty to be gained from analysing Wodehouse. Why does his writing make us happy? What is is about his world and characters that appeal to us? Are there lessons we can take from his writing to make the world a better place? What can emerging writers learn from Wodehouse — so that his legacy extends to include future generations of writers who bring sunshine into our souls?

It’s all part of the Plumtopian vision — to inhabit a world where the healing balm of Wodehouse is liberally applied.

She melted quite perceptibly. She did not cease to look like a basilisk, but she began to look like a basilisk who has had a good lunch.

The Girl on the Boat

HP

What do Wodehouse lovers read when not reading Wodehouse?

“You are evidently fond of mystery plays.”

“I love them.”

“So do I. And mystery novels?”

“Oh, yes!”

“Have you read Blood on the Banisters?”

“Oh, yes! I thought it was much better than Severed Throats.”

“So did I,” said Cyril. “Much better. Brighter murders, subtler detectives, crisper clues … better in every way.”

The two twin souls gazed into each other’s eyes. There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

P G Wodehouse (‘Strychnine in the Soup’ in Mulliner Nights)

I recently asked the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse’ Facebook community about their favourite authors – who they like to read when not curled up with Plum’s latest. The response was a staggering 370 comments (and counting) listing over 250 different authors. I’ve collated the replies and can now reveal the top 50 authors these Wodehouse lovers named as their favourites. I start today with the top 5.

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1. Agatha Christie

Christie and Wodehouse had much in common: they were contemporaries, prolific writers, and masters of their respective genres with huge audiences for their work. They both had problems with income tax, and were embroiled in personal scandals that continue to attract media speculation long after their deaths. In their lifetimes they were mutual fans, and Agatha Christie dedicated her 1969 Poirot novel  Hallowe’en Party:

“To P. G. Wodehouse — whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books.”

Wodehouse was an enthusiastic reader of crime stories, as Maggie Schnader discusses in her excellent piece: ‘On P.G. Wodehouse and Crime Fiction: Or, Wodehouse Writes a Thriller?’ , and Wodehouse’s plots are brimming with criminal activity – from burglary, fraud and impersonation through to assault and battery. Mickey Finns abound, and even Jeeves knows how to handle a cosh! Some of Wodehouse’s best ‘crime’ stories have been collected in a volume called Wodehouse on Crime.

With Christie and Wodehouse among the world’s most loved (and translated) writers, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see her feature so highly among Wodehouse readers.  She is certainly one of my favourites.

2. Douglas Adams

People sometimes say to me, “Do you ever aspire to write a serious book?” And my practiced glib answer to that is, “No, my aspirations are much greater than that. I aspire to write like P.G. Wodehouse.”        (Writing like P.G. Wodehouse)

Douglas Adams was open in his admiration for Wodehouse, calling him ‘the greatest comic writer ever’, and Wodehouse’s influence is clear in his wonderfully funny style. He contributed a Foreword to a modern edition of Wodehouse’s last novel, Sunset at Blandings, which was included in ‘The Salmon of Doubt.’

Master? Great genius? Oh yes. One of the most blissful joys of the English language is the fact that one of its greatest practitioners ever, one of the guys on the very top table of all, was a jokesmith. Though maybe it shouldn’t be that big a surprise. Who else would be up there? Austen, of course, Dickens and Chaucer. The only one who couldn’t make a joke to save his life would be Shakespeare….

What Wodehouse writes is pure word music. It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures. He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day.

Adams’ Introduction to Sunset at Blandings

Many modern readers of Wodehouse (myself included) read Douglas Adams before we discovered Wodehouse. Some have even come to Wodehouse on the strength of Adams’ recommendations – so it’s little wonder that Adams is so highly regarded among the modern Wodehouse-loving public.

3. Terry Pratchett

‘Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.’

Terry Pratchett (Soul Music)

Susan’s feelings on ‘Literature’ are in sympathy with views expressed by many a Wodehouse hero. As a huge Terry Pratchett fan, I was delighted to discover Pratchett is a popular author among fellow Wodehouse fans – and with good reason. There is much to enjoy in Pratchett’s wit and style, and like Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett is a superb creator of strong female characters. The following exchange ( for example) would not be out of place in Wodehouse:

“The female mind is certainly a devious one, my lord.”
Vetinari looked at his secretary in surprise. “Well, of course it is. It has to deal with the male one.”

Terry Pratchett (Unseen Academicals)

Terry Pratchett has also been a fitting winner of the Bollinger Wodehouse prize, awarded to authors who best capture the ‘comic spirit’ of Wodehouse. Many Wodehouse fans would agree!

4. Jane Austen

“It is not everyone,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.”

 Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility)

Elinor Dashwood might as easily have been speaking to Madeline Bassett, or indeed to thousands of modern females who delight in the romance of Jane Austen, but don’t ‘get’ the jokes. In a world where the commercialisation of Jane Austen has depreciated her work through ill-conceived adaptations for the soupy ‘bosoms and bonnet’ brigade, it is heart-warming to know there are still many – men and women – who read and admire Austen for her sharp, satirical humour.

Douglas Adams, in his introduction to Sunset at Blandings (cited above) also included Austen in his list of greatest writers. Oddly enough, Wodehouse wasn’t a great fan of Jane Austen. One can only presume he started with the ‘wrong’ book.

5. Jerome K. Jerome

“It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at.  The heroine of a modern novel is always “divinely tall,” and she is ever “drawing herself up to her full height.”  At the “Barley Mow” she would bump her head against the ceiling each time she did this.”    Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat)

Wodehouse, who preferred his heroines pint-sized, might well have approved. He would certainly have been familiar with Jerome K. Jerome’s much-loved classic ‘Three Men and a Boat’, which was published in 1889 when young Plum was still in sailor suits. Was Wodehouse a fan? Either the record is silent on the matter, or it’s a record I couldn’t find. Experts please advise.

Three Men in a Boat is a work often cited by Wodehouse readers. I read it following a recommendation from a fellow Plum fan several years ago, and I recall attracting unwanted attention while reading it on The Tube – as my feeble attempts to suppress laughter resulted in a fit of bodily heaving and shaking. Here is a classic excerpt:

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I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch – hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into – some fearful, devastating scourge, I know – and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee….I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

I went to my medical man. He is an old chum of mine, and feels my pulse, and looks at my tongue, and talks about the weather, all for nothing, when I fancy I’m ill; so I thought I would do him a good turn by going to him now. “What a doctor wants,” I said, “is practice. He shall have me. He will get more practice out of me than out of seventeen hundred of your ordinary, commonplace patients, with only one or two diseases each.” So I went straight up and saw him, and he said:

“Well, what’s the matter with you?”

I said:

“I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is NOT the matter with me. I have not got housemaid’s knee. Why I have not got housemaid’s knee, I cannot tell you; but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I HAVE got.”

These five authors were the indisputable (and deserving) favourites of our group, but if you think these choices reflect rather predictable reading tastes, think again!  The reading lists of Wodehouse fans are incredibly diverse, and I look forward to sharing more with you over the coming days and weeks.

You might also like to join the ‘Fans of P G Wodehouse‘ Facebook community (which is just one of many excellent Wodehouse groups) as well our new Facebook bookclub ‘The Wood Hills Literary Society’. We look forward to meeting you.

HP

Ridiculous Beginnings

Pigs Have Wings (1952)

All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.

Albert Camus

The world of literature is blessed with many brilliantly conceived and well-remembered beginnings, celebrated in fitting tributes across the blogoshpere. Inspired by Albert Camus’s appreciation of the ridiculous, I have been contemplating great beginnings in humorous fiction.

Terry Pratchett, the modern master of intelligent ridiculousness, begins Hogfather on a similar theme.

Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.

Further thoughts on the subject are offered by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe .

The story so far:

In the beginning the universe was created.

This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

One of my favourite beginnings comes from P.G Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith.

At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.

Wodehouse was a true master of the ridiculous and, despite what you may may have heard, dished out the treatment to all classes and political persuasions in equal measure. In Pigs Have Wings, he begins below stairs.

Beach the butler, wheezing a little after navigating the stairs, for he was not the streamlined young under-footman he had been thirty years ago, entered the library of Blandings Castle, a salver piled with letters in his hand.

One of the most famous first line of all time, and another favourite, comes from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

A provocatively ridiculous beginning from another author who delighted in the absurdity of human society. Jane Austen is shamefully regarded by too many as a mere romance novelist when she deserves pride of place among satirists. Perhaps this is because audiences are more familiar with (some) film and television adaptations that replace much of the humour with cleavage and bonnets.

So ends my beginning. In quoting the beginnings of others, I’m conscious that I have offered very little in the way of original thought, but I think it’s important to always begin with respect for what has gone before.

HP

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