Sunday, June 10, 2018

Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)

My first foray into P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories was a good time in spite of inevitable high expectations from the high praise I've been hearing on and off all my life. It's funny—actually funny. It's the second novel of the Jeeves series, but he had published dozens of short stories from that world since 1917. Bertram Wooster is the first-person narrator. Jeeves is his butler, or valet, or man. He's always there, waiting on Bertie. In this particular novel the story involves keeping the principals in two impending marriages together until they can make it to the altar. Circumstances keep mitigating against the happiness and Bertie takes it upon himself to get this thing done. In many ways, it plays like classic situation comedy—Dick Van Dyke, say—where the humor is in how everyone's elaborate patrician manners keep cocking everything up. The title is a recurring phrase used in any social situation that threatens to become awkward. "Right ho, [name]." "Right ho," the response. This is a rhythmic device that frequently becomes hilarious by its constant use. Right Ho, Jeeves also recalls the sophisticated film comedies of the era, such as The Thin Man, Fred Astaire, or Busby Berkeley musicals. Bertie has an irreverent and slangy way of slipping into a knowing, confiding tone: "Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m." (Not knowing Kipling, I imagined it as "face of the sun being more dark than the moon," but when I looked it up it's "female of the species being more deadly than the male.") At the same time, Bertie is perhaps the least self-aware person in the whole thing. His Aunt Dahlia loathes him unrelentingly, another rhythmic device that often grows hilarious. The comical climax, a gift-giving ceremony at a boy's school, is a long scene of sustained inspiration. You wonder how long Wodehouse can keep this up and then he keeps it up longer, ratchet by ratchet. Wodehouse evidently spent a lot of time figuring out the intricacies of the plot, and it shows, even as his language sparkles. This is just a big pile of fun start to finish, with a careening plot—screwball comedy is another parallel—and lots of ingenious twists all the way.

In case it's not at the library.

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