Friday, February 06, 2009

Laughing Gas, by P. G. Wodehouse

You get the sense that P. G. Wodehouse’s influence on modern British comedy must be quite substantial.

I know on an Ab Fab DVD commentary writer / performer Jennifer Saunders talks about P. G. Wodehouse. In a funny way, the comedy series Bottom reminds me a lot of P.G. Wodehouse. On that show (and another Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall comdey series, Filthy Rich and Catflap) the characters like to truncate words in rather cutesy ways, just like Wodehouse does. In Filthy Rich and Catflap, the wastrel and impresario Ralph Filthy, played brilliantly by Nigel Planer, substitutes ‘trub’ for trouble and 'atmos' for atmosphere. And we of course know how ardent a fan of Wodehouse Stephen Fry is.

How do you read Wodehouse? His work certainly doesn’t fall into that ‘great novels’ bracket. Nor can you really name any of his novels individually as classics of their genre. Do any of his novels really stand out at all on their own?

From everything I’ve read so far there’s just the one type of main character, a twenty-five year old partying fop, boozing too much, cadging money wherever he can, being the bane of his family and generally having a wow of a time. Then there are the male chums and swells out for a good time, and the women who either put up or go along with it all.

Wodehouse of course is not interested in any type of introspection or revelation. Perish the thought! These novels are all froth and bubble. The only really deep and meaningful thing Wodehouse's books may say would be about the essence of English character and style. This is no doubt the reason for their ongoing success amongst readers. Everyone recognises Wodehouse, no matter where you hail from, as being quintessentially British.

Hence I would suggest you read Wodehouse in a kind of stream-of-British-consciousness way.

Wodehouse’s writing is page after page of glittering cleverness, punctuated by a wit that travels at full speed. His very energy and conviviality is extraordinary. You wonder how he keeps it up.

So I enjoyed this very much, but consider Wodehouse like a classic wallpaper or fashion design. Or perhaps more properly a genre all of his own. It’s something you want to be surrounded by and its also something that never dates (even though Wodehouse and his characters are clearly an anachronism – read more of George Orwell’s essay on Wodehouse for this.) I hope that doesn't sound like a put down of Wodehouse, because I'm a fan. It's just that I've yet to come across a 'classic' Wodehouse novel, and I doubt that I will. No matter, Wodehouse has his own classic style.

Laughing Gas is one of my more favourite Wodehouse books, yet it did make me long for his brilliant butler Jeeves, who does not appear in this book.

No comments: