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Deepti Menon



The Plum Deal – PG Wodehouse


On the days when I need a quick pick-me-up, I reach out for any book by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, flip open just any page and let the words flow over me in a cool refreshing shower. A trifle embarrassing when I am at the dentist's, or on a train, as the giggles burst out of me, much like a soda pop, and people look at me as if I were barmy! But any book by Plum, as he is fondly known, does that to me.

An air of geniality pervades all his books, which makes you suspect that he was that kind of bloke in real life too. In an interview in the Paris Review, he spoke about his happy childhood, even though his parents stationed in Hong Kong, despatched him to England to live with another family.

Plum was born to write, and thank God he was, as he created unforgettable characters like the woolly-headed Bertie Wooster and the intellectual Jeeves, the absent-minded Lord Emsworth who had his pig on his brain and little else, Bertie's formidable set of Aunts, PSmith with a P, the Oldest Member at the Drone's Club who was a master storyteller, Bingo Little and myriad others.  

His marriage to Ethel proved a meeting of true minds as she left him alone to write, provoking him to remark, "I should imagine an unhappy marriage would simply kill a man." He drew extensively from real life as he took inspiration from his priceless collection of twenty aunts, warts and all, bringing them, to life in his Blanding Castle sagas. His fifteen uncles also came across as the spineless gentlemen in his stories, and he wrote about them "with friendly irreverence but without mockery".

The lovable pair of Bertie and Jeeves, who shimmied in like a sudden shower of summer rain in ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, was destined to stay with him forever more. Bertie Wooster was the lackadaisical idiotic young lord with limited imagination, who depended on Jeeves’ prodigious brain to extricate him and his equally inane pals out of the most ludicrous of scrapes. 

“Well, there it is. That's Jeeves. Where others merely smite the brow and clutch the hair, he acts. Napoleon was the same.”

Amusing were the incidents that revolved around Blandings Castle. The amiable Lord Emsworth only wanted to be left alone to dream of his precious pig, The Empress of Blandings. Instead, he had to put up with constant meddling from his dictatorial sisters, the antics of his brother, Galahad, whose memoirs were a ticking time bomb, the foolhardy capers of his nephew, Bertie and the never-ending love affairs of others that made his head reel.  ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’ expressed the Wodehousian take on love. 

“You know how it is with some girls. They seem to take the stuffing right out of you. I mean to say, there is something about their personality that paralyses the vocal cords and reduces the contents of the brain to cauliflower.”

Another view appeared in ‘The Old Reliable.

 "Warm though the morning was, he shivered, as only a confirmed bachelor gazing into the naked face of matrimony can shiver."

Wodehouse would make copious notes, putting down his thoughts, incoherent or otherwise. While working on his plots, he would often write a scene, working backwards and forwards till the whole plot dovetailed into one plausible whole. He was fond of saying,

“Writing my books I enjoy. It is the thinking them out that is apt to blot the sunshine from my life.” 

His dialogues punched you in the eye with their irreverence and their back-slapping hilarity. Evelyn Waugh marvelled that Wodehouse could spring three wholly original similes on each page.

How can one not be astounded by the amazing word play and irreverent humour that exemplifies the Wodehousian style?

A melancholy-looking man, (he) had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle." The Man Who Disliked Cats

"He heaved himself up in slow motion like a courtly hippopotamus rising from its bed of reeds on a riverbank." Something Fishy

“He has an enormous bald head, all the hair of which ought to be on it seeming to have run into his eyebrows.” Carry on, Jeeves

“Good God, Clarence! You look like a bereaved tapeworm.” Heavy Weather

What made a story funny for Wodehouse? Most probably, the unique characters bathed in the light of bonhomie and high spirits, often walking into almost farcical situations that worked perfectly, because of the way they were described by a master craftsman. His penchant for descriptions was inimitable.

“(Lady Malvern) fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season." Carry on, Jeeves

"It isn't so much his dancing on my feet that I mind - it's the way he jumps on and off that slays me." Money for Nothing

And the brilliance of - “The ice was not only broken; it was shivered into a million fragments.”

In 1934, the couple moved to France. In 1940, when the Germans invaded, Plum and Ethel refused to flee to England. Their hearts broke at the thought of leaving their two dogs behind, the English quarantine laws being rather stringent. Wodehouse was imprisoned for almost a year, and he made six “forced” broadcasts via German radio to the US that raked up a hornet's nest in England, even though they were breezy and apolitical. He could never return, fearing prosecution. He spent the rest of his life in America, a place that had fascinated him even as a boy, a place which he considered 'a land of romance'.

Wodehouse was a courageous writer. His writing sparkled with puns, literary allusions, slang, hyperbole, mixed metaphors, classic poetry, all sprinkled with a vigorous dose of good humour, a Herculean task indeed, spread over more than ninety books, two hundred short stories (a genre he loved!) and around forty plays. He was meticulous even in his first draft, correcting and polishing, before being satisfied with his final draft.

The genius of Plum sparkles on every page.

"There's only one real cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. He called it the guillotine."

“This was not Aunt Dahlia, my good and kindly aunt, but my Aunt Agatha, the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth.”

"Why do you want a political career? Have you ever been in the House of Commons and taken a good look at the inmates? As weird a gaggle of freaks and sub-humans as was ever collected in one spot."

And finally, to end with one on India…

“[He] saw that a peculiar expression had come into his nephew's face; an expression a little like that of a young Hindu fakir who having settled himself on his first bed of spikes is beginning to wish that he had chosen one of the easier religions.”

When Wodehouse was knighted, he was termed "the solitary surviving English literary comic genius" by journalist Dennis Barker. He died at the age of 93 in 1975, in Southampton, New York. His mass appeal was untarnished as, in 2004, Robert McCrum paid him the ultimate accolade, when he wrote, "Wodehouse is more popular today than on the day he died", and "his comic vision has an absolutely secure place in the English literary imagination."