02 July 2012

Good Old Times with Jeeves and Wooster

Hardcover, 527 pages
Published 1994 (contents: 1923-63)
Acquired August 2008

Read June 2012
The Jeeves Omnibus
by P. G. Wodehouse

For some reason, this book combines the 12th, 1st, and 2nd Jeeves and Wooster books-- in that order! The typography isn't consistent between books, so they must have bunged some preexisting plates together.   

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves kicks us off with a tale of Bertie Wooster at Totleigh Towers, once again threatened by marriage with the dippy Madeleine Bassett.  It's sheer fun, as Bertie does his damnedest to stay out of trouble, not to mention matrimony, despite the efforts of everyone around him to goad him into doing stuff for them.  This story includes a great set of incidents where various people become convinced that Bertie is in fact a notorious thief called "Alpine Joe."  The fun of the events is only enhanced by Wodehouse's peerless prose; it manages what I imagine is the most difficult feat of being readable, clear, funny, and written by someone none too intelligent all at the same time.  Allow me to excerpt:
Dinner is usually a meal at which you catch Bertram at his best, and certainly it's the meal I always most enjoy. Many of my happiest hours have been passed in the society of the soup, the fish, the pheasant or whatever it may be, the soufflé, the fruits in their season and the spot of port to follow. They bring out the best in me. 'Wooster,' those who know me have sometimes said, 'may be a pretty total loss during the daytime hours, but plunge the world into darkness, switch on the soft lights, uncork the champagne and shove a dinner into him, and you'd be surprised.'
(It helps, of course, to imagine Hugh Laurie reading it all. Has he recorded audiobooks of this stuff? If not, he should have.)

I found The Inimitable Jeeves, a novel formed by joining together a number of Wodehouse's early Jeeves and Wooster stories, somewhat harder going. He doesn't quite have Bertie's joyful voice down yet, and the formula hasn't quite been worked out yet, either-- a few too many stories hinge on Jeeves knowing how to solve the situation because he conveniently has a relative with a convenient piece of knowledge. And in one story, Jeeves has a romantic interest himself, with seems completely at odds with the character as he is later developed.  I found Charles and Eustace, Bertie's cousins, a bit useless as character, but apparently Wodehouse did too, as they are packed off to South Africa after a few stories and never heard from again.

After a while, though, Wodehouse seems to discover what makes the whole thing work, and soon I was having a good time again.  My favorite one was "The Purity of the Turf," where Jeeves and Wooster are part of a gambling consortium centering on a village school treat, and underhanded sabotage becomes quite normal; I also really enjoyed "The Metropolitan Touch," where Bertie's friend Bingo attempts to bring city music hall programming to an antagonist country audience. (Bingo is quite a fixture in these early stories, though he seems to have faded away by the later novels, which is where the majority of my Jeeves and Wooster reading has taken place up to this point.)

The last part is Carry on, Jeeves, a collection of standalone short stories, shows that Wodehouse has nailed the whole thing in only his second book. The only story that sticks out as not working for me was the last one, which is narrated by Jeeves, and though it has some great moments, it was also slightly at odds with how I see his character (which may, admittedly, owe more to Stephen Fry than to Wodehouse himself).

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