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The Spectator, 28 December 2002

The music of the language

Philip Hensher

Wodehouse, all in all, is lasting astonishingly well. His world is dated, but then it was always dated; it is basically Edwardian, and went on, barely changed, into the 1960s and 1970s. But his appeal is not the period charm of a Diary of a Nobody or a Saki; it is much more alive than that. By now we should probably start suspecting that he will prove one of the great novelists.

Apart from England, I think the only country in the world which truly loves and understands Wodehouse is India. It seems bizarre, but there’s something illuminating in that. Indian English is passionately in love with English grammar at its most formal; in the commuter trains of Bombay, the subjunctive and the gerund still thrive in ordinary speech. It loves, too, the vivid and racy idiom in un-English contexts; a sober report of a murder case in the Indian press may suddenly swerve into the comment that the police hope soon to ‘nab the culprit’. Wodehouse’s world may seem very far from contemporary Indian life, but that sensitivity to idiom and to the music of grammar are exactly what is so wonderful about him. He is, apart from everything else, a grammarian of genius.

Oh, come on, you’re saying! A grammarian? But exactly that. What entrances him, and what he uses for his most unforgettable effects, is exactly that, grammar, and the unique, ambiguous potential of English grammar. Plenty of writers can pun. But take one of Wodehouse’s jokes, and this is something rather more subtle.

‘Oh, Bertie, you know your Shelley.’
‘Am I?’

This is not exactly a pun, but a joke about grammar, about the way that the genitive can, with the help of hopeless ignorance, transform a complete sentence in English. I want to insist on this distinction between Wodehouse’s august play with grammar and the ordinary humorist’s punning, because Wodehouse, for me, attains a greatness exactly through his linguistic freedom, the sense that unlike most writers in a language he is the master of it and not its servant. The tenets of criticism generally hold now that a great writer deals with solemn subjects; that he writes with difficulty, and exiguously; that his chosen genre will not be comedy. By those standards, Wodehouse, who wrote almost 100 extremely funny books about rich, silly people, without a taint of satire, does not seem like a great writer. If, on the other hand, a great writer is simply someone with a powerfully creative ability with language, then Wodehouse will probably seem one of the ten or so greatest novelists in English of the 20th century. To make a bold comparison, there is something Shakespearean about him.

Like Shakespeare, or many of the greatest writers, Wodehouse is violently cavalier with English grammar. The dictionary will tell you that ‘window’ is a noun, ‘small’ is an adjective, ‘Fred’ is a proper noun. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra sees herself ‘window’d in great Rome’; Hardy has a figure which ‘smalls into the distance’; a character in Wodehouse can ‘out-Fred the nimblest Astaire’. Try to do that in German. The greatest writers in English aren’t those who have mastered the dictionary; they are those, like Wodehouse, with a profound feeling for the music of the language.

That inventiveness is everywhere. Sometimes it is a brilliant, mad postulation of an etymology, as in the figure who ‘if not exactly disgruntled, was far from being gruntled’. Often, it is a willingness to conjure up an extravagant word from some other, most unlikely part of speech — ‘there was a distinctly death-where-is-thy-stingfulness about her manner’. Sometimes it is a perfect, Jabberwocky coinage from the air, as Jeeves ‘enters with the vital oolong’. Very often — so often that whole anthologies have been assembled out of such moments — it is an idiom, whether an original one or one twisted into something fresh and absurd. Wodehouse can never resist picking an idiom to pieces — in every book there are a dozen conversations like the beautiful confession in Young Men in Spats where a girl is described as ‘an angel in human form’, and his friend points out that, in general all angels come in human form. But the genius comes in an inexhaustible stream of bold, vivid images, strange and hilarious and complex; the moment when ‘ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes’, or the amiable berk in one of the Mulliner stories whose brain, had it been made of silk, would hardly have sufficed to construct a pair of cami-knickers for a canary. These exotic conceits are effortless and inexhaustible; deliriously funny as they almost always are, they soar into a realm of poetry.

The mastery of Wodehouse is a linguistic mastery, I think, and nowhere more dazzling than in the ways he uses linguistic register. Wodehouse could not only use, with complete assurance, the appropriate and convincing register — one never feels for a moment that Bertie, Jeeves, Mulliner, Gussy, Madeline or Emsworth are saying anything inappropriate or unintended. But he had a mastery beyond that, which could drop into any context something completely alien, and draw a kind of delirious poetry from it. When Jeeves observes that Nietzsche is ‘fundamentally unsound’, or Bertie discusses Spode’s Fascist party, the Black Shorts, in cheery tones — ‘Footer bags? Golly!’ — or Mulliner’s nephew Archibald, immediately before seducing a girl with his celebrated imitation of a chicken laying an egg, rapturously falls into Tennyson’s ‘Maud’; these are moments not just of high comedy but of high poetry. Over and over again, the conventional register is insanely broken; there are quite a lot of funny exchanges of telegrams in the novels, but nothing to match Madeline Bassett, under the impression that Bertie has invited himself along to woo her and moon — ‘Surely twisting knife wound?’ It is fabulously, insanely inappropriate. Only the greatest of writers can say exactly the wrong thing, at exactly the wrong moment, and not break the spell but intensify it.

In the end, there is a mystery about Wodehouse. In some of the novels, you can see how it is done and analyse quite how he brings you to a pitch of absolute delirious hysteria. But at very many others the luminous hilarity defies analysis and must be put down to a sort of poetry. I wish I knew why it is so funny that in one novel, after explaining Madeline Bassett’s general beliefs about the stars being God’s daisy chain, Bertie should break off and say urbanely that all this is ‘perfect rot. They’re nothing of the kind.’ Sheer genius.

There is an extraordinary complexity about Wodehouse which tends to go unnoticed; try to summarise one of his plots, and you’ll see what I mean. And the mood and atmosphere of the books, and the emotions in them, are both very clear and difficult to pin down exactly. There is a deep-rooted tenderness in a lot of them, most perfectly done, of course, in the long, adoring relationship of Bertie and Jeeves. At some level, they deeply love each other, like a child and a nanny, and one of the great running jokes is the ingenuity with which Jeeves sees off all rivals for Bertie’s love. Wodehouse is terribly good on friendship, but this is a special case, perfectly clear but impossible to describe; if Jeeves comes close, on occasion, to giving Bertie a goodnight kiss on his forehead, it wouldn’t be surprising. The other day, I was talking to the great Philip Pullman about Wodehouse, and he observed that if Jeeves is a very successful version of an ancient literary convention, the servant wiser than his master, Bertie is something extraordinary; perhaps the only completely convincing and interesting character of unsullied virtue in literature. I think that’s probably right.

In short, Wodehouse strikes me as one of the greats, and if some of his novels, such as The Code of the Woosters, can more plausibly be described as masterpieces than others, I haven’t come across a single one which doesn’t contain stretches of pure delight. The insistent trivia of his concerns should not detract from the untiring mastery of his style, the extravagance of his English. Until now, this wonderful writer has only been available in part, and it is thrilling that the Everyman Library, that excellent publisher, has undertaken to publish all his books over the next few years in solid, handsome, lasting editions with charming and stylish woodcut covers. Twenty are now available, and the rest will follow in instalments. I urge you to acquire them, and your grandchildren will thank you for it. This is a writer who is going to last.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.