Great Depression, New Deal and Self-development courses

Blandings

The Custody of the Pumpkin, the first story of the collection Blandings Castle and Elsewhere, is one of the best by the master in terms of the incredible similes and metaphors. It was penned by Wodehouse approaching the very peak of his phenomenal and indefatigably polished powers.

It has the immortal lines: “Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”

And if that is not enough, a few pages down the line Plum pens the other immortal gem: “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”

But as the plot glides smoothly through the many problems of Lord Emsworth — from Angus McAllister’s resignation that is on the brink of ensuring that the prize for the best pumpkin in the Shropshire Agricultural Show will elude the Emsworth coffers still longer, to Freddie Threepwood’s propensity to enfold strange girls in passionate embraces, to being accosted by the law for absentmindedly picking tulips at the Kensington Gardens — there are quite a few insights into human life that we find scattered about with careless carefulness.

Why, there is even a rare comment about national policies and economic situations in this story.

When Mr Donaldson, the proprietor of Donaldson’s Dog Biscuits and Freddie Threepwood’s prospective father-in-law, approaches Lord Emsworth, the cloth-headed earl first tries to draw himself up with hauteur. And then he wilts on catching the other’s eye; the strong, keen, level grey eye. “With a curious forcefulness about it that made him feel strangely inferior.”

It was the eye of success, of a man who has made a fortune across the pond. Given that Donaldson is a relative of McAllister, the head gardener at Blandings, the contrast between the remnants of feudal class system in Britain and the ‘money talks’ culture of the Americans is rather neatly outlined.

Donaldson has made something between nine and ten million dollars, which makes Lord Emsworth hasten through his blessings for Freddie, and also makes Plum himself indulge the self-made millionaire into making a rather serious statement about the world conditions. Believe it or not, Donaldson talks about the Great Depression and President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Only, he breaks it down in words of simple nature that even Lord Emsworth is able to fathom without being flummoxed.

“We have been through a tough time, a mighty tough time … but things are coming back. I am a firm believer in President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Under the New Deal, the American dog is beginning to eat more biscuits.”

The United States economic program to combat Great Depression … in a nutshell.

Apart from this, one of the most striking insight into society and culture that we find in the story is the harmless yet pointed fun Plum pokes at the self-help books and self-development courses, which promise to take people as lumps of clay and mould them into confident individuals, assertive employees, self-made millionaires, lion tamers and all that rot.

This occurs precisely when Emsworth quails on catching Donaldson’s eye. Wodehouse elaborates, “There is every reason to suppose that Mr Donaldson had subscribed for years to those personality courses advertised in the magazines which guarantee to impart to the pupil who takes ten correspondence lessons the ability to look the boss in the eye and make him wilt.”

In many of the books the master touches upon this theme of correspondence courses and self-help books. But seldom has he been this scathing in his sarcasm.

And even today if one takes a look at the shelves in the bookstores, or the ads on social media, promoting such absurd lessons through courses or books or webinars and all the rest, one can figure out how timeless the comment is.

There you have it. Great Depression, New Deal and scorching sarcasm about self-development courses … all in a story titled ‘The Custody of the Pumpkin’.

And they still say he had no message.

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The Shy Gene

Truth

Mr Mulliner flitted into our ken with that wondrous tapestry of humour and wordplay titled ‘The Truth about George’. And after that he remained one of the most sparkling members of Plumsville. Well, it is extremely difficult to pick a favourite with PG Wodehouse characters, but with Mr Mulliner one can hardly ever go wrong.

Perhaps what lends a different sheen of class to these tales is that by the time when Wodehouse turned his furiously working fingers to the fisherman-storyteller, he had already found his niche, his pen had found a flow, and the minutest jarring note of his formative years had long disappeared amidst the increasing guffaws of laughter that his writing brought forth.

In ‘The Truth About George’, the protagonist, George Mulliner stammers … and when he falls helplessly in love with fellow crossword enthusiast Susan Blake, he decides to consult a specialist for a possible cure to his ailment. The arrows of amore, after all, make the most effortless orators stammer in confusion when face to face with the beloved. A man naturally afflicted with this impediment, George found it frustratingly difficult to demonstrate his emotions.

The specialist, who came to know of the problem only after astutely advising George to sing him the details, came up with an ingenious prescription. George was asked to seek out three perfect strangers each day and speak to them.

The rest of the story needs to be read in order to savour the genius. However, the wisdom of Wodehouse is palpable even in this light hearted tale bordering on farce.

After the meeting with the specialist, George goes out in the world and thinks:

“The more George thought about the advice he had been given, the less he liked it. He shivered in the cab that took him to the station to catch the train back to East Wobsley. Like all shy young men, he had never hitherto looked upon himself as shy — preferring to attribute his distaste for the society of his fellows to some subtle rareness of soul. But now that the thing had been put squarely up to him, he was compelled to realise that in all essentials he was a perfect rabbit. The thought of accosting perfect strangers and forcing his conversation upon them sickened him.”

There. In a small paragraph, Wodehouse lays bare the deepest secret of millions of shy men and women around the world, with the light touch of humour laced with honesty.

I need not elaborate on this. Every shy individual who has walked the planet has gone through this absolute alarm of society and conversation, while almost every one of this tribe has, sometime or the other, rationalised his or her terror as ‘subtle rareness of soul’.

This was experience crystallised into wisdom. Wodehouse would have known, for he was one of the shyest of them all. And he had the phenomenal gift of not taking himself too seriously. Hence, he could slice through the abstract layer of ‘subtle rareness of soul’ and lay bare the perfect rabbit. Wondrous insight into human nature.

Of course, Wodehouse does not hold back while speaking of the other end of the spectrum. When George cures himself of the condition: “Since that day George, believe it or not, has not had the slightest trace of an impediment in his speech. He is now the chosen orator at all political rallies for miles around; and so offensively self-confident has his manner become that only last Friday he had his eye blackened by a hay-corn-and-feed mechant of the name of Stubbs.”

Well, there is a bit of delightful political satire thrown in … One has to look for it, but the works are full of such glittering gems.

 

Hollywood and All That

Luck of the Bodkins

In Luck of the Bodkins, Ivor Llewellyn, the millionaire President of the Superba-Llewellyn Motion Picture Corporation of Hollywood, stands morosely on board the trans-Atlantic vessel back to America, brooding on the way his wife’s relations were leeching from his reservoir of finances.

His despondence peaks when sister-in-law Mabel comes along, asking him to ingratiate himself to the ‘detective’ by offering him a job in the movies. Caught between the onerous task of smuggling necklaces through the customs and his dislike for dishing out jobs in the motion picture industry at the behest of matrimonial relations, Ivor Llewellyn goes into a trance.

This is how Wodehouse describes his train of thoughts.

“Unless absolutely compelled to do so, Ivor Llewellyn had no desire to add to the number of blood-sucking parasites already battening on his firm’s pay-roll. Every Saturday morning he was paying out good money to his wife’s brother George, his wife’s Uncle Wilmot, his wife’s cousin Egbert and his wife’s cousin Egbert’s sister Genevieve — who, much as he doubted her ability to read at all, was in the Reading Department of the Superba-Llewellyn at a cool three hundred and fifty dollars a week.”

This is not only satire, it is aimed at multiple targets close to Plum’s heart.

Having crossed the pond early in his writing career, Wodehouse had to deal with the motion-picture industry as an aspiring author. The first roadblocks on the way to success for a writer in Wonderland comes in the form of readers employed by the motion picture companies, intent on rejecting the manuscripts based on whims and wills; those products of sweat, blood and soul of the creative men skilled in penmanship cast aside carelessly by men who were almost imbecilic in the eyes of the youthful scribblers.

It is the perennially inefficient system of evaluating numerous scripts and submissions that gave rise to this breed of readers, who even today masquerade as bone-headed filters of talent in the publishing and motion-picture industries. Wodehouse’s disgust with these men is absolutely apparent from his description of Genevieve.

Apart from that, with almost casual nonchalance, he paints a rather stark picture of the amount of nepotism rampant in the industry. Being close to the scene for so many years, he must have dealt with all the frustrations of such an environment.

The Luck of the Bodkins was published in 1935. By then Wodehouse was established and thriving, but apparently had not forgotten those early years of struggle. Incidentally, more detailed looks, as well as very satirical ones, at his experiences in Hollywood are documented in Bring on the Girls, his joint autobiography with Guy Bolton.

However, in The Luck of the Bodkins,  as always his satirical plume is of fine-nib and the resulting strokes are unobtrusive. He does pen down his frustrations, but all that it is supposed to emit is a chuckle.

 

 

The Civil Service

World of Mr Mulliner

In the story Another Christmas Carol in the delightful The World of Mr Mulliner, Plum provides a sterling cause and effect relation between Egbert’s mental faculties and his eventual occupation.

Egbert Mulliner, if you recall, is nicknamed L Nero Wolfe on account of his approach to calories. He had been bouncing as a baby, bulbous as a boy and at 41 was a man beneath whom weighing machines quivered like aspens. In fact, Orson Welles would have looked slender beside him.

As Plum puts it, “As Egbert from boyhood up had shown no signs of possessing any intelligence whatsoever, he had gravitated naturally to England’s civil service, where all that was required of him was to drink tea at four o’clock and between lunch and four to do the Times crossword puzzle.”

The sarcasm can be seen dripping from the lines.

Another Christmas Carol had been published as an additional story to append the existing Mulliner tales for the publication of The World of Mr Mulliner in 1972. It had seen first light late in Wodehouse’s life, in 1970, interestingly enough in the December issue of the Playboy magazine. There is, therefore, in certain ways, some serious non-Wodehousean reality associated with this one.

All evidences suggest that this was another of the deep lessons that Wodehouse had painfully arrived at after a lifetime of navigation in the corridors of the confines of the Civil Servants, frequently bumping against their dead ends.

PG Wodehouse – The Satirist

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 have 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.