Sunday, 2 January 2011

Penguin no. 994: Quick Service
by P.G. Wodehouse

I took this book off the shelf on New Year's weekend, when Perth was sweltering in 40 degree heat. I felt the need for something simple, light and untaxing to read, and so I thought a book by P.G. Wodehouse would be perfect. I love the associations it brings immediately to mind: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, John Alderton and Pauline Collins. Wodehouse was very prolific, but my knowledge of his work is restricted to these TV adaptations and the Jeeves and Wooster novels. Nonetheless, I was fairly sure I knew what to expect: something witty, farcical and perfectly crafted, with ferocious older women, hen-pecked husbands who see nothing of merit in the younger generation, and trustees who refuse to hand over funds. And this was all delivered, but I was left with a sense of disappointment. I think the Jeeves stories had raised my expectations too high, and this book didn't quite meet them.

The Jeeves stories are perfect, their characters are wonderful and charming. Much of their humour comes from the sheer unreasonableness of the tasks imposed on poor Bertie Wooster by his  friends and formidable relations, principally his Aunts, and the misunderstandings that inevitably ensue. And here, this book begins with a similar plot device: the seemingly pleasant Lord George Holberton is denied access to his own money by his trustee, Mr Duff, unless he agrees to steal a portrait from the country home of Mrs Steptoe. George is a guest in her home, and not unreasonably, this is a task he is reluctant to undertake. Poor George is reminiscent of Bertie, he may well be just as charming, but we never find out because this is not his story. We only ever see him through the eyes of the other characters, and they think him feeble and inconsequential. I suspect Bertie Wooster would seem feeble too, if we only knew about him through the descriptions of others; his charm is evident through his narration. The hero of this story is Joss Weatherby, the painter of the portrait, and he has no qualms about committing the theft. He knows something that George doesn't: the owner wants it to happen.

Joss Weatherby combines the charm of Bertie with the resourcefulness and capableness of Jeeves. He is romantic, confident and optimistic, he seems to excel at everything, he treats people well and is willing to shoulder all the blame when things go wrong. In many ways he seems perfect, but he had this one quality which I found unbearable. They call it 'freshness' in the book; it involves being ever ready with a witty one line retort. There seemed to be page after page of this banter, and it made me cringe. It was reminiscent of sitting through a Marx Brothers' film; it's a kind of humour which appeals to many people, but I prefer something a little more subtle.

The book is very much of the time in which it was written. Wodehouse assumes a certain level of shared knowledge with his audience, and there are many contemporary references, all now meaningless. And he has a few small digs at the readers of novelettes and crime stories. I was glad I persisted past the banter, because the book contains some memorable characters, and although it doesn't reach the standard of the Jeeves stories, it was a pleasant way to spend a relaxing morning.

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