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« Not seeing the oak for the acorn | Main | A Democrat who speaks his mind, for a change »

September 30, 2009


There is this, for those liking to read online, and for free:

That is from the States, and copyright situations differ nation-to-nation, but ten items are returned, and if some are out of print and presently unavailable except online, that link, it is worth the time commenting.

"attempting to analyze Wodehouse's peculiar hold on middle class India's imagination"

I've seen more than one article attempting to analyze this "peculiar" phenomenon, and there's always recourse to natives keeping alive the Raj, prudish demand for bland literature, analogy to Bollywood and so on. This is well and good, but the real question is always ignored - why is Wodehouse ignored in his homeland? What is up with modern brit-twits that they fail to read this so excellent author? Have they lost all taste?

Haven't read a lick of him, but this may do the trick. Perhaps today I'll wander to Moe's, the four story used bookstore south of Berkeley's campus, with credit slips in hand. I wanted to challenge the hypothesis that he's ignored in England, so I threw a couple strings into Google: christopher ricks or anthony burgess and wodehouse--figuring one of them must have written something laudatory about him. Nothing, but then I only tried Google. (What would Jeeves have found had I asked?) I did find this, however (have patience, the server's slow to respond). It provokes me all the more to explore his work. "The mastery of Wodehouse is a linguistic mastery..." That's all I need.

I also wanted to respond to D by noting that all literature is "bland," i.e., not stimulating, flat, odorless, tasteless. That's its attraction. But then Hensher writes of Wodehouse, "Over and over again, the conventional register is insanely broken..." Well, yes, good literature is that, too: insane.

When I was recovering from a very, very serious heart attack in 1990, the first, and several subsequent, books that I read were of Wodehouse. The humour was mindless, as was my own state of mind at the time. But it was soothing and healing. The only problem was that my ribs would hurt when I laughed. Some of them had been fractured when the doctors bashed them when they were reviving me. But that was a small price to pay for the fact that I could actually laugh, given my predicament.

strange, for some reason i've steered clear of wodehouse. i've heard the story of my uncle (if alive now, would be well in his late seventies) who was a hardcore wodehouse fan - of how he once fell off the chair laughing in wodehouse's company!

stranger still, i've associated anglophilism with wodehouse fans.

this posts tempts me to try him out.but i fear it's too late in the day. guess once has to get hooked to him early in life.

Wodehouse does a French accent. The short story is about 'The Man who disliked cats'- thought you might enjoy this one, Ruchira, if you haven't read it before.

Eric: Thanks for the link to the Google Books.

D: Twits, indeed. The only Brits that I have met who know something about Wodehouse are of a certain age - my peers and older. The younger enthusiasts are all Indian. I visited the Wodehouse Society's party in Houston in 1999 at the invitation of John Fletcher, the gentleman I met in the plane. All the British and American attendees were at least middle aged. The few young faces I saw, belonged to Indian born men and women who had found Wodehouse in India. And yes, there was a cricket match.

Dean: That is what got me hooked as I said - the breaking of the conventional "linguistic register" and making exquisite sense, every time! Thanks for the link to Philip Hensher's exuberant review. And by the way, not only does the Indian police "hope to nab the culprits" as newspapers report, they are also from time to time apt to "thrash the culprits after they have been nabbed," the same papers will tell you.

Manoj: I know about your Wodehouse reading in your sick bed after the heart attack. We were all happy and relieved when you recovered from your terrible ordeal. I am sure P.G.W. contributed to it.

Sujatha: I had read that story before. It was still fun to re-visit it and once again find gems like these:

He was a Frenchman, a melancholy-looking man. He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle; of one whom the clenched fist of Fate has smitten beneath the temperamental third waistcoat-button.

KPJ: You are never too old to discover the joys of Wodehouse! Go for it.

See also The Great Bus Mystery by Richard Dawkins

I thought of my own teenage interest in PGW's books and found it difficult to sort out why he fell out of favor with me. The simplest reason is that my concept of funny took a drastic turn when I discovered libraries (as opposed to lending libraries which abound in India), and later, when I absorbed the wealth of American humor. It is not out of Anglophobia; about the time I stopped reading him I became addicted to live and extemporaneous comedy on the BBC. I have fond memories of those programs heard through the annoying crackle of short-wave broadcasts. There are no Anglophiles in my extended family, the school I attended was run by Americans, and there was an ample supply of classical reading at home (Dumas, Hugo, Hardy and the like) to sustain my interest. So PGW was an acquired taste at a certain age, a guilty pleasure easily shed when I began to resent the lack of subtlety, variety and content in his humor. To me, the Psmiths and Fink-Nottles who populate his books are simply adult versions of Billy Bunter and his crew. Why is PGW in such esteem when we don’t accord equal praise to Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld for precisely the same kind of situational and personality driven comedy?

I can think of a dozen other reasons.

The reason PGW is not popular in England is possibly that his humor is so dated and cannot compete with the currency and immediacy of the sustained growth of British comedy for the masses. To be stuck on him is to deny oneself much heartier laughter. Perhaps too, Brits grew out of their caste system after the War and PGW’s humor is a reminder of the bad old days. I wonder if his fans in India are at all aware of that great social change; I myself only learnt of it only after leaving India (at least with respect to England, Indians are blinkered).

As to why his books are so popular in India, the analogy with unchallenging Bollywood sop/pap is most appropriate. PGW exemplifies the narrow interests of casual readers in India where availability trumps the search for variety. I believe Indians have a poorly developed funny bone, and I have been booed on occasion for saying so. Part of his appeal may be his prolific work (wretched excess perhaps) that attracts collectors and fans - as in, “I have all of his books”, or “have you read his latest just in?” I might still like him if he had just written a handful of books. For example, I like Lawrence Durrell for his four hilarious books, sadly unacknowledged and out of print (Amazon carries none and lists but one).

For all his recognized worth as a writer, the material of PGW’s humor, limited as it is to English upper-class twittery, is the antithesis of American humor (Thurber, Perelman, Baker, Allen, Trillin, and the Israeli Kishon are among my favorites), which is life-affirming, resonating with everyman’s encounters with life’s absurdities. Like most of Hitchcock’s films, PGW’s books are dated, over-rated and puerile. Cultural icons such as these are hard to dislodge from pedestals – who’d want to risk going against the tide? It’s just not done. I am suspicious of all the famous writers who praise PGW’s writing. And why should Orwell rise to defend PGW if not for cause?

Let me retract everything I’ve said by citing ‘de gustibus non disputandum est’, and chide myself with ‘de mortuis nil nisi bonum’ (which, I gather from a close reading of The American Way of Death, means “don’t nobody f*** with the funeral director”).

Narayan's comment is really begging for response. I've never heard Jerry Seinfeld say anything funny, so I'm not sure that he's the best example of American humor. Better perhaps, although I'm not all that familiar with his work, would be Stan Freberg, the title of whose autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, gets an allusion in Manoj's comment.

Which four Durrell books? The Quartet? Durrell wrote a ton. My favorite, not for humor, but for wordsmithing an evocation of a place and time gone for good, Bitter Lemons.

Dean - They are right there in your link, under 'Humour'

Banerjee: Thanks for the link to Dawkins' Wodehousian flight of fancy - quite funny. He doesn't do as well as the master though.

Funny I missed that. And now for something completely different...

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