Now touching upon PG ‘Plum’ Wodehouse, it irks me to hear it repeated so often by so many pompous, self-indulgent ‘scholars’ in their pig-headed patronising tones that he had no message.
Yes, he did not charge at you with the ‘message’ held as a battering ram, with the plot just pretty garnishing around the all-important ‘deep meaningful essence’. That was not his style. As Plum himself pointed out, “There are two ways of writing a novel. One is making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going deep down into life and not caring a damn…”
But, that was Plum all over. Wisdom trickled out un-self-consciously from the serene stream of self-effacing humility, did not fall like a raging tornado out of a self-important mind. That is perhaps the highest form of wisdom.
He did not write novels and short stories because he wanted to use them as footnotes to a great preface, or as the sugar coating for bitter pills to cure the human race of some malignant spiritual disease. He wanted to make people laugh, and that is acknowledged as the best-ever medicine.
He claimed to ignore real life, and he did so in much of his works. He did not go into the deep intricacies of human relationship, the moral dilemmas of truth and lie, of reason to live and the meaning of it all. But he wrote about a world that was as real as any other. According to the momentous researches of Norman Murphy and Tony Ring, the two foremost authorities on the writer, most of his fiction was built on some very verifiable blocks of fact. Only, he took those facts as mould in his hand and constructed comic sculptures on paper.
And since real life did creep in as an ingredient in the tales, rather than as the theme, there were elements in his tales that reflected wisdom gleaned from actual reality. Since humour was his medium and real life one of the several brushes, sometimes they did combine to produce streaks of satire that can be found in the tapestry of his plots.
Once again, these satirical elements did not form the framework of his works, but they were delicate veins that ran through the body, sometimes palpable sometimes concealed, but always performing a function.
Never was this so apparent to me than in the modern days in a Hilariously Trumped world, with the US elections, Brexit and peculiarities of several leaders of nations around the globe sending the world into a frenzied fanatical deluge of opinions and arguments across traditional and social media.
And then I rediscovered Bertie Wooster, in Much Obliged Jeeves, sharing this fascinating piece of wisdom. Informed by Jeeves that the debate between Mr Winship and his opponent was to take place at quarter to seven, and would go on for an hour, Bertie informed the valet that he would be back at about seven-thirty.
“The great thing in life, Jeeves, if we wish to be happy and prosperous, is to miss as many political debates as possible.”
Never have these words rung out so true as they did now.
We may tarry here to note that this particular novel was published in 1971, when Wodehouse was 90. If ever a sentence crystallised a long, happy and prosperous life’s learnings, it was this. However, he never came across as didactic or preachy. Even this great piece of advice, which the human race will do well to follow in these times, was mouthed by his perpetually bungling, dim-witted hero.
There are gems like this spread across his works in fine streaks, modest, inconspicuous, but ready to be discovered.
In Merchant of Venice, another humourist was described by the following words: “Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice. His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.”
Wodehouse is at the other end of the jocular spectrum. His works do amount to near infinity, but it is perhaps the nothingness that serves as balm for disturbed times, lending itself to charge us back into motion just like the spoke of a wheel. Like Gratiano’s reason, two grains of Wodehousean wisdom has to be sought out of a sheaf of pages, but they are far from bushels of chaff. They are delightful pages of lyrical language, magical metaphors and uncontrollable mirth. Even if we somehow end up not finding the little nuggets of satire, the search is always worth it.
In these pages, it is this largely neglected aspect of Wodehousean works that will be unravelled, bit by delightful bit. And it will be a labour of love like no other.
Arise Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, in the guise of the understated satirist.