Psmith in the City by PG Wodehouse
PG Wodehouse is arguably the greatest comic writer of the twentieth century. His literary creations, as light as a soufflé and just as easy to digest, have provided English literature with some of its most delightfully amusing characters - from the incorrigible Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, through the hopelessly clueless Bertie Wooster to the crazed inhabitants of Blandings Castle.
Wodehouse is still best known for creating the indomitable duo of Jeeves and Wooster, however his first popular successes came from the genre of the school story, and it is from here that Psmith, his first great creation, appeared.
A startling sophisticate despite his tender years, the monocled Psmith is blessed with the languid soul of the true aesthete. Revolted by fashion faux pas and coarseness, yet eternally optimistic about his ability to improve the human race (for which he takes a martyr’s responsibility) he is so suave in his dress, so elegant in his talk that he is never ruffled.
Psmith in the City, finds the eponymous hero and his friend (or as Psmith styles him “my confidential secretary and adviser”) Mike Jackson, having just left Eton and being forced to enrol in the service of the New Asiatic Bank.
Due to a series of mishaps the pair find themselves on the receiving end of the wrath of Mr Bickersdyke, the head of the bank. So begins a tale of Psmith’s attempts to to enjoy life against the vagaries of honest toil. Yet the plot, amusing as it is, is really background to the acrobatic feats of Wodehouse’s dialogue. His language sings.
The joy of reading Wodehouse is in his other-worldliness. George Orwell stated in his defence of PG Wodehouse that although the majority of his ‘Jeeves’ stories, were set in the aftermath of the Great War, his characters stayed rooted in the Edwardian age.
Psmith in the City, (written in 1910) is no exception. Psmith inhabits a frivolous age untouched by the atrocities of the Great War. Indeed of all literature’s characters Psmith is most closely related to the short stories of Saki, and his own young and eloquent protagonists – Reginald and Clovis Sangrail.
Yet while Saki could never breach the novel form with quite the success he showed in his short stories, Wodehouse’s Psmith in the City sees humour restained throughout, making it one of the best comic novels ever written.