The Genius of P. G. Wodehouse

Evelyn Waugh considered P. G. Wodehouse the greatest comic writer of his time: that would be from 1900, when he sold his first magazine article, to 1974, when his last book came out. (He died a year later, at 93.) And Waugh predicted that his determinedly escapist stories and novels "will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own." Right on both counts. The irksomometer overloaded years ago, and on the jacket of the new Everyman's Library anthology "The Best of Wodehouse," Waugh shares blurb space with David Foster Wallace.

Wodehouse's most popular creation, the team of foppish, feeble-brained Bertie Wooster and his quietly omniscient valet Jeeves, is a common literary archetype: Don Quixote/Sancho Panza, Mr. Pickwick/Sam Weller, Lear/the Fool, Frodo/Sam. But Wodehouse adds a folktale element: Bertie is a descendent of those witlings and third sons who complete their quests because of their innocence. In Wodehouse, the servant not only has street sense—Jeeves always knows which horse to bet on—but also a master's bearing and book-learning. "There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn—season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." "Season of what?" "Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness." "Oh? Yes. Yes, I see." This master has only, as W. H. Auden argued, a simpleton's saving humility—"and so he is blessed: it is he and no other who has for his servant the godlike Jeeves."

Jeeves's allusion to Keats's "Autumn" ode comes in the anthology's first selection, the 1938 novel "The Code of the Woosters." Not the worst choice for neophytes, but Wodehouse had already been writing about Jeeves and Bertie for two decades; the whimsy is starting to feel labored—the plot turns on a "silver cow creamer"—and the catchphrases (Jeeves "shimmering" out of the room and returning with a "tissue restorer") seem obligatory. Some of my own best of Wodehouse lies ahead—"The Great Sermon Handicap," "Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit"—and much more, inevitably, does not. Each chronic rereader has a different canon, but whose is this? John Mortimer phoned in an introduction, but he doesn't say he made the pick.

The new anthology doesn't slight Wodehouse's other worlds: Blandings Castle, home of the fogbound Lord Emsworth, often invaded by the unruly Uncle Fred; and the Angler's Rest public house, where the storytelling Mr. Mulliner always holds the floor. We get two (only two?) stories about Ukridge: perpetually failing con artist and perpetually unfailing innocent, who calls everyone "laddie" or "old horse" and whose trademark oath is "upon my Sam." All these works have the same well-wrought farcical plots—Gilbert and Sullivan meets the jazz age—and take place in the same Neverland of country estates and London clubs. (Meanwhile, Wodehouse became a U.S. citizen in 1954 and lived the rest of his life in the Hamptons.) And we get an excerpt from his witty, absolutely unrevealing "Over Seventy," an "Autobiography with Digressions."

Today you have to forget more and more if you want to find refuge in Wodehouse's upper-crust Eden. And it's harder to keep from noticing his childish view (to say no worse) of women: the domineering aunts, the overbearingly brainy girls, the droopy poetic girls, like the "ghastly" Madeline Bassett, who fancies that rabbits are gnomes attending a fairy queen, and the stars are "God's daisy chain." The men are boys—except for all the preposterous father figures—and despite their constant attacks of lovesickness over this girl or that, sex does not exist. And mothers, which real "girls" might become after real sex, must be disguised as aunts. Or valets.

But Wodehouse's true appeal doesn't lie in his "timeless" stage sets or his "inimitable" stock characters, but in his language—a pure well of English dazzlingly defiled. (The Google-like Jeeves would get this allusion.) Only Donald Barthelme—or perhaps Wodehouse's now-neglected American counterpart, S. J. Perelman—takes, and gives, so much pleasure in the manipulation of words and idioms, tones and dictions. "I was pushing a bit of breakfast into the Wooster face at the moment," Bertie tells us in "Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit, "and feeling fairly well-fortified with coffee and kippers, I decided to break the news to Jeeves without delay. As Shakespeare says, if you're going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over." Pushing a bit of breakfast into the Wooster face? Macbeth misquoted to the max? When such meticulously calibrated play ceases to give us joy, let the nukes fly, the icecaps melt and the Great Irksomeness begin.