Friday, January 14, 2005

Okay, but sometimes it takes a really big box

I've always adored the stories of P. G. Wodehouse because the characters he wrote about were so irresistible you ached for them to be real even as you acknowledged to yourself that if they were, the world would be in Big Trouble. (Even bigger trouble than it is already. Lots bigger.)

Although he had a genius for comedy, Wodehouse was a quirky guy that even biographer Robert McCrum was unable to fall in love with. But I'm eager to read McCrum's new book, The Whole Jolly Lot.

Here's a snippet from an article printed in Tuesday's Washington Post:

Set in gentlemen's clubs and on country estates...[Wodehouse's universe] doesn't even much resemble the genuine England of the Edwardian era, let alone the present day. Which leads one to wonder: Sure, a lot of people think he's funny -- but how does this antique blighter hold up so well in 2005?

One answer is the timeless characters he created. Nearly a century after they began to spring full-grown from Wodehouse's pen, Bertie, Jeeves, Aunt Agatha, Psmith and Lord Emsworth...appear to have at least a sporting chance of living forever.

Yet there's another essential aspect of Wodehouse that may help explain his continuing appeal. The man did his best to pretend that the 20th century never happened.

"He refuses -- he absolutely refuses -- to face reality," McCrum says. "Reality is bad."

That Wodehouse's universe was never real to begin with is precisely the reason his stories have not become dated. Reality is all well and good in its place, but there are times when a little vacation from it is called for. That's when I find myself reaching for my dog-eared copy of Quick Service or a collection of the "Jeeves" stories.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (pronunciation, WOOD-house; nickname, "Plum") lived his adult life in the century that invented large-scale trench warfare, the Final Solution and weapons of mass destruction. Combine these innovations with the eternal annoyances of the human condition -- famine, pestilence, death and man's inhumanity to man -- and you need scarce wonder at the perennially lucrative market for escapist fiction.

Never mind the Depression and the rise of fascism: The '20s and '30s were a Wodehouse golden age. He was writing furiously and selling in the millions. Broadway had beckoned and he was concocting musical comedies with the likes of Jerome Kern. McCrum cites one Wodehouse lyric that neatly sums up his attitude toward life:

Jam all your troubles in a great big box

And sit on the lid and grin.

We're all responsible adults with families to care for, bills to pay, jobs to do. We know all too well that life is a Very Serious Thing. But on those days when some attitude adjustment is called for, there's nothing like a little harmless rebellion to get you back on track. So jam all your troubles in a great big box. Then sit on the lid, open a volume of Wodehouse, and grin.

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