Thursday, September 1, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 3 stories from Carry On, Jeeves

Collection: Carry On, Jeeves
Author: P.G. Wodehouse (Pelham Grenville Wodehouse)

Carry On, Jeeves centers on Bertie Wooster, a jovial air-headed upper-class English bachelor, and his manservant, the cool, impeccable and intelligent Jeeves (a "gentleman's gentleman"), who manages Bertie's life and rescues him and his friends from various mishaps. The stories are set in the early 20th century; a gentleman like Bertie could have an easy-going life waking up late, dining at his club, and drinking throughout the day. Carry On, Jeeves is a fun collection; I didn't read more than one or two stories at a time - there are plot points that tend to repeat, though Wodehouse's cleverness with the English language is always a delight and the main reason I read his work. These are the stories that stood out for me:

The Aunt and the Sluggard
Most of the stories feature one of Bertie's close friends who is usually a slacker with a silly nickname (e.g. Biffy or Sippy). In this one the layabout is nicknamed Rocky (short for Rockmetteller); he lives in a cabin out on Long Island, NY where he spends most of the month sleeping and meditating on the movements of earthworms, except for a few days where he writes bad poetry that gets lapped up by American magazines. One reason I'm recommending this story is the poetry, a fine example of Wodehouse's satirical talents:
The past is dead,
Tomorrow is not born.
Be today!

In Wooster-Jeeves stories there's often a domineering aunt or uncle making demands on a slacker nephew. Bertie suffers such oppression from his Aunt Agatha, but in this story the victim is Rocky. His aunt lives out in the Midwest and would like him to send her colorful descriptions of life in New York City; in exchange she'll give him money and keep him in her will. Most men would be ecstatic at such a deal, but Rocky isn't most men; the thought of living in NYC, away from his cabin and earthworms, is horrifying to him.

Fortunately for him Bertie happens to be visiting NYC, and the plan is to send Jeeves out to do research on the city's high life; the image of Jeeves smoking a fat cigar at a cabaret and scrutinizing 5th Avenue fashions is classic. Of course things get complicated when Rocky's aunt, enthralled by his accounts of city life, decides to visit. Meantime Bertie and Jeeves have their own angst to work through. Another recurring plot point in these stories is Bertie rebelling against Jeeves by wearing a hideous outfit or refusing to shave his mustache. It's a regular battle of wills between them. Invariably they work through these rough patches in their relationship, with Bertie seeing the error of his ways.


Bertie Changes His Mind
It's strange to think of a Wooster-Jeeves story as dark, but this one has a darkness to it. Rather than being told from Bertie's point-of-view, we hear the tale from Jeeves. Jeeves is always clever, resourceful and manipulative, but the way he manages Bertie in this story is a little disturbing - he squashes Bertie's unprecedented desire for a more meaningful life. At the beginning of the story Bertie is out-of-sorts and wonders if there's more to life than waking up late, drinking, and being amiable. He considers inviting his sister and her children to live with him for a time, just to see what it would be like to have kids around. To Jeeves these impulses are alarming. If Bertie seriously contemplates marriage, and finally weds and has children, it will likely result in Jeeves having to find another position. Jeeves likes things as they are; he has a comfortable situation, and he has no intention of letting Bertie disrupt the relationship they have established, with Jeeves as a fatherly puppet master and Bertie as a mostly likeable (though at times recalcitrant) child.

There's some hilarious writing here, especially when Jeeves reflects on his former employer, Montague-Todd. As for the method he uses to cure Bertie of any wishes for a family - it's both funny and humiliating. Poor Bertie. Who knows what kind of man he might have become, and what meaning his life might have had, but by the end of the story he's back to his usual self. Settling down at the end of the day he explains to Jeeves why he's contented with his life again:
"I mean, looking at the clock and wondering if you're going to be late with the good old drinks, and then you coming in with the tray always on time, never a minute late, and shoving it down on the table and biffing off, and the next night coming in and shoving it down and biffing off, and the next night - I mean, it gives you a sort of safe, restful feeling. Soothing! That's the word."


Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest
Bertie's leisurely stay in New York City is disturbed when he finds out he has to look after 23 year old Wilmot (nicknamed "Motty"), the sheltered son of one of Aunt Agatha's friends, Lady Malvern, who hails from Much Middlefold, Shropshire. Wilmot seems at first to be a peaceable twit who will sit quietly in Bertie's apartment sucking on his walking-stick and leafing through books all evening before retiring to bed with a glass of warm milk. What Bertie doesn't count on is that a young man who has never been granted much independence will go wild in a place like NYC. As he explains to Bertie at one point:
"I've been cooped up in the ancestral home at Much Middlefold, in Shropshire, and till you've been cooped up in Much Middlefold you don't know what cooping is! The only time we get any excitement is when one of the choir-boys is caught sucking chocolate during the sermon. When that happens, we talk about it for days. I've got about a month of New York, and I mean to store up a few happy memories for the long winter evenings."

If Wilmot gets in trouble going on wild benders through the city, Bertie will face the double wrath of his Aunt Agatha and of Wilmot's mother. Thankfully Jeeves finds a devious way of helping Bertie out and making sure Motty will be kept confined.

Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest has the distinction of being the first ever Wooster-Jeeves tale I read. I love Bertie's happy ramblings and how they contrast with Jeeves's worldliness, eloquence and masterful understatements. There's no one who talks like Bertie: "Won't you have an egg or something? Or a sausage or something? Or something?" and -
It's only after a bit of breakfast that I'm able to regard the world with that sunny cheeriness which makes a fellow the universal favourite. I'm never much of a lad till I've engulfed an egg or two and a beaker of coffee.

*I've added this post to Short Stories on Wednesday #8 at the Bread Crumb Reads blog.