Several years ago, in the course of interviewing the author Frank McCourt, I asked him to name some of his favorite writers. One of those he mentioned was P. G. Wodehouse, and when it came out that I had never read a word of Wodehouse, he said, "Ohhh," which I took to mean that I'd somehow failed a test.
But it quickly became apparent that I'd misread that "Ohhh," because he went on to say, "How I envy you. You have such a thrill in front of you." And he was absolutely right. Reading Wodehouse for the first time really is a pleasure like no other. Because whatever you think it's going to be, it's not like that at all.
I think I expected something along the lines of stories about dotty aunts, elderly earls, silly twits and poker-faced butlers engaged in fey dialogue and plots filled with mistaken identities and foolish wagers and all the other feckless sins of the English upper class. But that, as anyone who has read a Wodehouse novel will tell you, is merely what they are about. It's like saying that "Moby Dick" is a fish story. Wodehouse himself described his plots as musical comedies without the music, which might sound pretty dreadful, except that no one reads Wodehouse for the plot. You read them for the language and the humor, which is more or less the same thing in his case. And no one can really tell you what that's like. But OK, fool that I am, I'll try, by quoting maybe my all-time favorite Wodehouse paragraph, from "Pigs Have Wings":
"'I haven't time to listen,' said Lady Constance, and swept from the room. These chats with the head of the family nearly always ended in her sweeping from the room. Unless, of course, they took place out of doors, when she merely swept away."
The jokes in Wodehouse aren't like anyone else's jokes, because they depend less on punchlines than on how he manipulates language--flawlessly, but with a well-honed sense of fun, as in this passage from "Quick Service":
"As a rule, this masterful woman shared with Napoleon the ability to sleep the moment the head touched the pillow. Others might count sheep, but she had no need for such adventitious aids to repose." These are sentences that kid themselves, and there are plenty more where they came from.
Really, though, you have to discover it for yourself. And there is, as McCourt told me, only one first time. You'd like to have that initial thrill again, but instead you have to settle for discovering merely new corners of this oddly wonderful literary kingdom like no other, whether it be Blandings Castle or the Drones Club or Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves (yes, Virginia, he is more than merely a search engine) or the enormous pig, the Empress of Blandings or, my favorite of all Wodehouse creations, Uncle Fred, the most wonderful reprobate ever committed to paper. Evelyn Waugh got it just right when he said, "Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in."
Now, though, there is something almost like another first time, since Overlook Press has graced us with a new series of small, affordable hardcover editions of several Wodehouse books, including "Pigs Have Wings," "Right Ho, Jeeves," "Heavy Weather" and maybe the weirdest Wodehouse of all, "Laughing Gas," a farce about Hollywood wherein two people exchange brains while visiting the dentist. You can't say I haven't warned you: again, you must not pay the slightest attention to the plots.
The best thing about these editions, well, setting aside the not inconsiderable facts that they are well-made and cheap at $15.95 or $16.95 per book, is their covers. Much as I hate to criticize anything about the Penguin paperback editions of Wodehouse with which we have all made do for years--since if there had been no Penguin Wodehouse, there might have been no Wodehouse at all--they did have lousy covers. They were, in a word, insipid. The people on the covers quite often bore no relation to the people in the books. The best, or worst, depending on how you looked at it, was the Penguin volume called "Uncle Fred," which contains three novels about that distinguished gentleman: "Uncle Fred in the Springtime," "Uncle Dynamite" and my all-time favorite Wodehouse, "Cocktail Time." (For the record, McCourt's favorite is "Ukridge.") The figure on the cover was a corpulent, choleric man who looked sort of like the old character actor Eugene Pallette with a walrus mustache. It looked nothing like Uncle Fred, a blithe and imperturbable fellow who must look, I have always thought, like Peter O'Toole. You just know the Overlook editions will not make this mistake when they get around to the Uncle Fred stories. Look what they've done with Bertie Wooster, rendered by the Penguin illustrators as both callow and stupid. On the Overlook edition of "The Code of the Woosters," he's slim, handsome and clueless, which is how Wodehouse portrays him. If I had encountered these editions before now, I would have been a fan years ago.
Yeah, yeah, it's not the covers, it's what's inside that counts, but you have to get people inside before they can enjoy what's there, and that's what covers do. You've got to at least start out judging books by their covers.
Enough. I just hope these grand looking books find their way into the hands of a receptive reader with an open mind and a lot of time to kill. Someone who's never read Wodehouse, someone with a pure heart, someone who's in for a thrill. I envy you.