Sarita Sarvate

Waiting for Wodehouse

Jun 21, 2004

India Currents

BY SARITA SARVATE

Just as I was beginning to think that P.G. Wodehouse was dated and that most people in the English speak-ing world could no longer remember who he was or what he had written, I came upon an essay in a recent issue of the New Yorker by Anthony Lane that reassured me that Wodehouse was still alive and well, at least in the minds of the genuine literati.

It wasn’t so much an essay but homage to a master unlike any other. The part that stands out in my mind is an anecdote in which someone asked Lane when he had last read Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in Springtime and he replied, “last week,” with a straight face. He went on to say that he found it unnecessary to read any other writer because the reading and re-reading of P.G. Wodehouse was such a completely fulfilling experience.

I was gratified to note that there are other literature fanatics out there who read the same books over and over again. To me, re-reading a favorite book—say V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas—is a much more enriching experience than reading a new book straight off the New York Times bestseller list. Somehow, upon a second or a third or a 10th read, you finally begin to grasp the cadences of the sentences, the clever turns of phrases that can transform a paragraph from the merely descriptive to the utterly poignant.

There was a phase in my life when re-reading of Wodehouse books—even reading them aloud with friends or intimate partners—was a much-cherished activity.

Even today, it would take me only half-an-hour of reading of one of Wodehouse’s old classics like The Code of the Woosters or Summer Lightning to be able to jump out of the French windows at Blandings Castle with Bertie Wooster in tow and hide in the rhododendron bushes while the bumbling Lord Emsworth looks for the cow creamer that Jeeves pinched from his study. Or something to that effect.

My connection with P.G. Wodehouse is an intensely personal one and therefore full of nostalgia. Like most Indian students, I read Wodehouse in college. Unlike most Indian students, however, I dismissed him as too frivolous. I was young and dead earnest about life then. Later, at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, I would ridicule a young man who would tell me that his favorite author was Wodehouse. Later still, when that young man would fall in love with me but could not marry me because of his poverty and youth, out of a need for solace, I would turn to the familiar cast of characters that would include Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Lord Emsworth, Roderick Spode, Bertie’s aunts Agatha and Dahlia, and friends Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little, and discover an enchanting Wodehousean world. It was a world in which there was always springtime in England, where birds always chirped in the trees, and where the only worry a person had was whether to sing “Sonny boy” at the county fair.

In Wodehouse’s world, strange foods like jam rolly polly pudding, steak and kidney pie, and Jeeves’s picker-uppers consisting of raw eggs and other mysterious ingredients, were consumed at a place called the Drones Club by characters with names like Percy Pilbeam and Tuppy Glossop; sports consisted of booking bets on ill-fated romances or prize pigs; and women with square chins and strong constitutions made men tremble.

Then there were Wodehouse’s golf stories, complicated by the fact that most Indian readers like me had no idea what the 18th hole looked like or what a par was. But they were regaling stories nevertheless, and they made one forget that one was wilting in the 118-degree heat of the tropics in a place called Nagpur where terraced castles and laurel bushes and hot water bottles in bed were as strange as Martians.

Here is one of Wodehouse’s idyllic descriptions of England: “Blandings Castle slept in the sunshine. Dancing little ripples of heat-mist played across its smooth lawns and stone-flagged terraces. The air was full of the lulling drone of insects. It was that gracious hour of a summer afternoon, midway between luncheon and tea, when Nature seems to unbutton its waistcoat and put its feet up.”

Wodehouse has been blamed for creating in his books an England that never existed. He has also been accused of colonial snobbery and much else. For he did not portray the plight of the working classes nor the colonial exploitation that created idle rich like Lord Emsworth who could indulge in nothing else than, say, the study of newts.

For the last couple of decades, therefore, I myself undertook a sort of a revisionist evaluation of Wodehouse. I felt guilty of enjoying him. I read instead politically-correct fiction by ethnic writers with chips on their shoulders. And one day recently I woke up to realize that life had become all too serious, with voices droning on radio and television against the tyranny of globalization, imperialism, biotech exploitation, and worse. And I began to long for frivolity and humor and joy, only to discover that they had almost entirely been expunged from serious literature today.

Perhaps the last truly humorous American author was Mark Twain, not counting writers like James Thurber, whose highbrow wit was often inaccessible to the masses. Today, comedy survives on television and in the movies, however lame and predictable. But humorous American literature died a slow death long ago, and no one noticed its loss.

So I picked up an old Penguin edition of Wodehouse the other day and realized that Wodehouse was a truly great writer because he could create for you a world that was idyllic and yet true, thanks to the frailty of the characters it housed. And as long as no one else comes along to regale us with wit and humor, we will have to rely on P.G. Wodehouse to take us away from that mundane and not so mundane pathos of our lives.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.