Another great instalment in the Wodehouse canon.
A lot of this is exactly what you expect. The usual great expression and wit – that’s the reason we’re here. There’s a typical range of peers, whether dotty, surly, benign, clueless, resolute, whimsical – or whatever combination. Light comic mix-ups and interactions. And a romance to tie it together.
But there’s also some enjoyable peculiarities in this variation (ones I was more aware of soon after reading the book – I really must try to get to these reviews quicker).
There’s perhaps less of a focus on proto-Bertie (Freddy in this incarnation). Rather we tend to centre on a more classically heroic couple, a damn plucky gel, and, gracious, an Adonis of a boy. But fear not – he may have good abs, but he’s way more Hugh Grant than Arnold Swartzennegger. Interesting that some of their heroism relates to their poverty: they rise above their circumstances, rather than merely swim though them, like some of Wodehouse’s later independently wealthy characters. And this may relate to the relative earliness of publication – this book came out in 1915 – before Wodehouse himself was established (or, perhaps, while he could still better remember times of living on a shoestring). Indeed, a glance at the unimpeachable wikipedia suggests that this book was his big break, the book that helped him escape the wolf at the door, previously barely held off by freelance journalism, contributions to musicals, and his more traditionally formulaic (but still enjoyable) schoolboy novels.
But this brings me to my postmodern bit. No surprises to have an author drawing on his own experience in creating characters. But Wodehouse is so self-aware of this in this book. Sure Derrida et. al. came up with some insightful points, but I do more and more cringe when hearing scholars treat this sort of thing as some utterly new concept. So here we have as our lead character a public school graduate who has to scrape by by writing fodder for the market – material that he himself finds absurd (no surprises that Wodehouse never returned to the Ripton stories once he could afford not to). We have the fun of the irony of a gushing fan – within the text – who loves the stories a world more than the author. But there are deliberate similarities between Ashe and his over the top hero – similarities that Ashe acknowledges in his final gambit. Moreover Wodehouse kicks around issues of feminism as Joan must navigate the tricky course of somehow maintaining independence without losing romance (but this is a sacrifice she’s very prepared to make). Yeah, but how postmodern is this exchange in the last few pages of the book, as Joan and Ashe try to make sense of the story, to find a plot, a resolution:
"Do you ever get moods when life seems absolutely meaningless? It's like a badly-constructed story, with all sorts of characters moving in and out who have nothing to do with the plot. And when somebody comes along that you think really has something to do with the plot, he suddenly drops out. After a while you begin to wonder what the story is about, and you feel that it's about nothing—just a jumble."
"There is one thing," said Ashe, "that knits it together."
"What is that?"
"The love interest."
Their eyes met and suddenly there descended on Ashe confidence. He felt cool and alert, sure of himself, as in the old days he had felt when he ran races and, the nerve-racking hours of waiting past, he listened for the starter's gun. Subconsciously he was aware he had always been a little afraid of Joan, and that now he was no longer afraid.
"Joan, will you marry me?"
Her eyes wandered from his face. He waited.
"I wonder!" she said softly. "You think that is the solution?"
You could pull this apart in ten different ways, but if nothing else it just hammers that Wodehouse was as capable as Calvino of sharing a wink with his readers about what is or isn’t ‘beyond the text’.
This aspect doesn’t drive the story, and most of the fun is in Wodehouse’s peerless narration, and evocation of characters that are at once both ludicrous and recognisable. There’s also plenty of material if you wanted to discuss class: is, for example, Wodehouse an inexcusable snob because his servants are usually boorish and/or narrow-minded and/or unintelligent … yet no more so than any of his aristocrats! I suppose this has been kicked about a lot with the whole Jeeves/Wooster dynamic: just who is in charge here (and there’s no question who is the smartest). For all the silliness of the midnight confusions and relationships, the story framework does actually hang together effectively. And the self aware bits aren’t half as laboured as, say, McEwan's: this little excerpt incorporates postmodernism (or is that prepostmodernism?) with perfect restraint, wit, and to effectively dovetail with the plot. A lovely bonus to an already thoroughly enjoyable book.