269. Why P.G. Wodehouse Is Absolutely Spiffing

This is a post I have long wanted to write for this blog, but have always put off. It will be difficult to write. How to put into words my appreciation and respect for the greatest humorist in all of literature? In one feeble post, how can this blog do justice to perhaps the wittiest human being ever to have graced God’s green earth?

This day has been long delayed, but no longer. Today we remember the man whose wit and humor have made our world a better, brighter place. Today we remember P.G. Wodehouse.

Michael J. Nelson, the comedian made famous by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, declared, “I adore P.G. Wodehouse, could read him every single day and not get tired of it.” He also said, Wodehouse is absolutely the gold standard. It’s almost unfair how good he was, how long he wrote, and how easy, generous and agreeable his prose is.”

Evelyn Waugh, the British author and journalist, said, “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”

Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, flatly stated, “Wodehouse is the greatest comic writer ever,” and left it at that.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the man whose gentle humor illuminated the twentieth century and still brightens our own dreary, postmodern age.

I give you P.G. Wodehouse, that overflowing fountain of goofy stories, witty jokes and shining optimism.

P.G. Wodehouse

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was a British humorist who wrote nearly one hundred books. (Yes, he was knighted for being hilarious. It was the least his country could do for him.)

Wodehouse’s stories mostly feature upper-class gentlemen in early twentieth-century Britain. These idle eccentrics get themselves into dreadful predicaments: accused of crimes, for example, or engaged by mistake to the wrong people. Escaping these frightful troubles takes luck, pluck and the occasional spot of brilliance.

There is a profound irony about Wodehouse’s writing: it’s fairly easy to criticize, yet all but impossible to call anything less than inspired. For example, his novels and stories are rather repetitive, yet never stale or tedious. Unlike many writers, Wodehouse has no particular masterpiece. His books are all masterpieces.

Wodehouse himself cheerfully acknowledged the repetitive nature of his books:

A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elijah [sic]; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against [my latest novel]. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

It must also be noted that Wodehouse’s work isn’t profound or meaningful. He doesn’t grapple with deep questions of morality or philosophy or faith in his books. He’s simply hilarious, and that’s all he ever needs to be. Wodehouse wrote fluff, but it was some of the best, cleverest, funniest fluff ever written.

Wodehouse mastered the English language and used it with cheerful abandon. Consider the following gem, in which Bertram “Bertie” Wooster drinks a spicy tonic to cure his hangover.

I loosed it down the hatch, and after undergoing the passing discomfort, unavoidable when you drink Jeeves’s patented morning revivers, of having the top of the skull fly up to the ceiling and the eyes shoot out of their sockets and rebound from the opposite wall like racquet balls, felt better. It would have been overstating it to say that even now Bertram was back again in mid-season form, but I had at least slid into the convalescent class and was equal to a spot of conversation. “Ha!” I said, retrieving the eyeballs and replacing them in position.

A final note about Wodehouse’s style: It’s very, very British, packed with colloquialisms, slang and misquoted fragments of Scripture, Shakespeare and other literary classics.

Here’s a typical Wodehouse exchange:

Bertie: Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something that would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.

Jeeves: 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 thy 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.”

Bertie: 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.

The speakers, by the way, are Wodehouse’s most famous duo: Jeeves and Wooster. Bertie Wooster is an idle, amiable and dimwitted gentleman. His good-natured innocence leads him into all kinds of social crises, from which only the brilliant schemes of Jeeves, his seemingly omniscient valet, can rescue him. It’s a wonderful yin-yang partnership, and it never fails to make me laugh.

This is the part in a Why [Insert Author Name] Is Awesome post at which I would recommend the author’s best books. In this post, I can’t. P.G. Wodehouse’s stuff is all superb. There would be no point in highlighting any of his books when they’re equally good. Just pick one of his novels at random, perhaps one starring Jeeves and Wooster, and you’ll be set.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, P.G. Wodehouse is awesome absolutely spiffing.

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