Wodehouse Waxing Wanton
One hot afternoon, while chomping through the archives of The New Yorker, I came upon a column by Anthony Lane, who, with characteristic insight and cutting interludes, recalled his late uncle’s obsession with P.G. Wodehouse. His longform is autobiographical in nature, addressing in equal depth his beloved uncle and the master writer. High praise is ushered on their jocular persona, and many common traits identified, and the piece comes out as a fine tribute to the two men. But sifting through it what whipped my drowsy senses awake was the “escapist writer” tag that Mr Lane associated Wodehouse with.
Escapist fiction has long faced the ire of highbrow literary minds. Various genres like thriller, romance, science-fiction, fantasy have all come under its ignominious umbrella. The enduring popularity (and high book sales) of these works has not deterred scholars from calling such fiction sub-literary.
And so Mr Lane bracketing ‘Plum’ into this alleviated category seemed a slight I couldn’t accept. After all, I had devoured his works with a gleeful relish, shared favorite quotes with fellow readers, marveled at the subtle genius of his impeccable sentences, and often sought refuge in the castle of Blandings.
Until I scratched the surface, looked deeper, and saw light.
Wodehousean universe is idyllic to a headily disconcerting degree.
The world there is comely, lavish and scenically bathed in summer sunshine; bright flowers in multitude of colors flock its palatial gardens, and the crisp air carries with it the twitter of birds and soothing scents. Its occupants are soft-spoken and nattily dressed, conforming to the decency of the English elite. The countryside, devoid of the hullabaloo of the urban life, offers little scope for grand thefts and scandals. Its troubles are petty — a pig that refuses to eat, irksome church boys, parsimonious uncles and, most often, meddling, scheming impostors. And amidst all this, almost as a backdrop, glows the fine flame of young lovers seeking familial acceptance, with a quirky gent eager to tie knot with a beautiful damsel in distress.
In all, it is a world of hedonistic aplenty, one where time is conveniently paced, issues are seamlessly resolved and everyday life is one swell of a vacation. The mundane skirmishes that upset its countryside’s clockwork rhythm are silly and desultory, plotted by witless, feeble villains.
The complete lack of reality, or rather the excessive goodness, that permeates each of the Plum’s books is ideal to break away from our own clamorous chores. The books are enchanting and therapeutic to a disturbed mind. The gaping cave that is the Wodehousean world is easy to enter, and we, jaded by the routine, dive headlong in its riches. The linear story-lines, the accessible language, the short length of the story and the seductive ambiance are easy to fall prey to. It’s like stepping into a drug-den filled with hallucinogenic fumes, at once removed from the real, inimical world outside. Here, insulated and sealed off from the driving forces of our life, we, the readers, are sloshed in its pristine revelry. By doing away with all the forces of evil, real or imagined, Wodehouse serves joint after joint of sweet drags that lull us with their cheesy warmth.
The problem, however, lies in excess.
Fiction harbors at its core the power to transport the reader into the literary time-frame of its narrative, the geology of its setting, and the embracing pull of its characters. Its power to thrill and shock, inform and inspire, awe and enlighten, are as much to do with the story’s arc as the reader’s empathy for it — the primary reason why each of us has an opinion. But fiction, whether deeply rooted in the quagmire of earthly life or fantastically soaring in imaginary lands, always carries traces of the innate elements of human existence. This is certainly not limited to the scope of literary fiction alone. The realms of fantasy and graphic novel — prominently targeted as sub-literary — address issues of morality with a far more direct approach than the circuitous, ornate style of classical literature. Hence, with characters that’re easy to empathize and stories with defined good-and-evil entities, these genres appeal to the masses, proving influential in the long run.
But Wodehouse’s books shun the real world with the compulsiveness of a mythic saint. The books, notwithstanding the acrylic language, are flat and superfluous. They neither prick the fickleness of the human nature, nor prod the societal maladies, and nor do they expound on the grander truth of existence. The page-full of intelligent turn of phrases fail to plaster the dearth of topical value in its words. The satire, if at all, is more saccharine than cutting. Unlike the books vehemently categorized as pleasure reading — romances, thrillers, comic books, fantasy etc.— here is a creation totally set apart from all that He created. Yes, the characters are human, but make them goblins and jinns and still the matter would read same. Comparisons lead to trash-talk, but I dare venture one: Even the gluttonous, loosely plotted stories of Enid Blyton had villains who made smarter schemes, knocked kids unconscious, or were ‘man’ enough to drug a dog. A hidden treasure or a stolen scroll and its eventual rescue explored the human nature deep enough to pass as children’s book.
Because of a setting as unearthly as Blandings and characters as otherworldly as its residents, and, more significantly, because of the banal, stake-less plot-lines that are so alien to real life, it’s difficult to accept Wodehouse’s work as literary. The utter lack of real-life elements, its deeper turmoils and vagaries, its imperfections and perils, its puzzles that stay unsolved, in all, Wodehouse’s complete detachment from disorder — and instead his fetish to envelop the world in an utopic, anachronistic shell sets him at the pinnacle of escapist fictionists.
Granted, it offers a fine getaway from the battering ram of everyday life, and many a dull afternoons have turned heavenly because of Jeeves and Emsworth; the frothy, inventive language of Wodehouse is widely admired (and borrowed). But the hollow fall beneath its velvety perfect surface is ever present. The enchanting, cavernous call of his world is hard to resist, and harder still to climb out of. And it is this that I write to beware you against, to warn you against locking up yourself into something that’s too good to be true, and to say what no Wodehouse fan would ever say: that Blandings is an asylum for the avaricious and asinine.
A delectable pie is just that: a confection that when consumed in the prescribed measure heartens the being into a sound sleep. Too much of sugar, however, leads to catastrophic daydreaming.
Stay here, stay real.