If you read, the chances are you’ve been introduced to The Hero’s Journey. It’s a narrative form – your Hero is called to embark on an adventure. He or she faces perils, learns much about themselves and the world, faces a terrible crisis and returns home changed. It applies to Frodo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen more or less equally and you’ll find it crop up in all sorts of places from mythology to crime drama.
P.G. Wodehouse doesn’t write them. The Jeeves books and stories are perhaps the greatest example in literature of The Idiot’s Progress. The Idiot differs from the Hero in a number of respects. Both are called to Adventure, but the while the Hero may initially ignore the call, the Idiot is often dumped into the adventure, or else willingly takes it on because they have no choice or no idea what they’re in for. The Hero usually encounters a mentor figure, or supernatural aid of some kind, whereas the Idiot is often accompanied by a carer to prevent their every action precipitating a disaster. In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero comes home wiser, maybe sadder, but more powerful. The Idiot is often lucky to make it home at all and very often returns to the status quo ante bellum.
The Jeeves books – the novels and collected short stories – are mostly told from the Idiot’s perspective. Bertie Wooster is young, rich, and idle. His stated aim is simply “to exist beautifully”. His valet, Jeeves, is the mentor figure and occasional apparently supernatural aid. The relationship between the two men is complex. Bertie employs Jeeves, but is clearly helpless without him. Jeeves, lower class but much more intelligent and savy, spends his time arranging for perpetual employment with Wooster on the grounds that he knows a good thing when he sees it. As the stories progress, you end up wondering who really might be in charge. Bertie isn’t, can’t be, as stupid as he seems (or as Jeeves believes him to be). Is his apparent ineptitude and his distressing habit of irritating Jeeves by wearing the wrong sort of socks, or learning the banjolele, really the Wooster method of injecting a little tension into his Valet’s life? It’s hard to tell.
The stories are funny. Funny enough that they have inspired a generation or two of British writers and comedians. They also seem lightweight, perhaps even inconsequential, and that’s where they enter the sort of territory that makes me want to look a lot more closely at them.
If you like books and are interested in more than just stories, the works of P.G. Wodehouse are essential reading. This is even more the case if you are a writer or aspire to be one. They aren’t so much a “must read”, they are a “must understand”. Some books – like 100 Years of Solitude – are art. Some books are entertainment. The works of P.G. Wodehouse are craftsmanship. If you read the Jeeves stories, or the Blandings stories, you’re witnessing a master craftsman at work. Anecdotes about his working method tell of pages being pinned to the walls of his study, starting at floor level. Those pages would be worked and reworked, sentences discarded or re-written and then polished and polished. The happier Wodehouse was, the further up the wall the page would rise until it was making a challenge for the cieling. The results of this relentless drive for perfection include sentences like “ice began to form on the upper slopes of the butler.” If you can find a better way of describing the change in expression from neutrality to chilly disdain, I will buy you beer.
There’s another effect of the sheer graft that goes into these books: they are light and they seem inconsequential. Yes, I’ve already said this, but in the light of how much blood and sweat Wodehouse puts in, wouldn’t you expect something of impact or import? Wouldn’t you expect arty prose? You don’t get it. “Eggs and B” is what you get. Describing walking as “ankling” is what you get. A work of epic fantasy world building is what you get. Bertie Wooster exists between The Wars, in a 1920s and 1930s England (and occasionally America) that never existed. You never question the reality of the books, and people insist on filming them as talking place in a definite historic period and with specific period detail, but England was never like that. Elements are real, but no more than you’d find in a Discworld novel. One of the triumphs of Wodehouse is he creates a world in which his tales of silly Englishmen (and women) can take place. His writing draws you in effortlessly, sets you down amidst the idle rich and you never once question that everything is running just as it should be. It’s majestic stuff, and the sort of thing that authors of more obvious fantasy regularly struggle to achieve.
This is why I’ve added Wodehouse, and Thank You, Jeeves to the list of books that Made Me. The lesson here is that hard work can replace genius, that a mastercraftsman is an artist in his own right and that if you want to be as good as Wodehouse was, you have to graft as hard as he did.
The Brew: After all that effort, you deserve to relax. So instead of searching high and low to find a beer that was also master crafted and stands out as paragon of its various virtues, I thought it was time for something without it’s foot on the accelerator. Bertie Wooster might prefer a cocktail, but I think a Brooklyn Lager goes well with Wodehouse.
It’s a Vienna Lager, for those keeping any kind of score. It has the same colour and the same well rounded flavour as the average German lager, but it lacks a Pilsner’s hoppy punch. Instead, this has a mellow and sweet flavour that sits in the mouth really nicely and manages to avoid offending anyone. This is a beer that knows the value of not learning the banjolele.
Properly chilled and consumed after a period of stressful work, Brooklyn Lager is a pleasant departure from the Bocks and Pilsners that craft brewers so love. It’s a beer for drinking and enjoying – at 5.2% ABV, you’ll want to do that responsibly – as an aid to existing beautifully.
Born in England, David Webb tried to identify his ancestral roots by having his DNA tested. The lab results came back accompanied by a note reading simply “oh dear.”
He lives somewhere in the middle of England, where his tendency for sarcasm and his crippling addiction to tea pass without comment by the general population. He likes reading and writing, history, science fiction and things that are silly, neatly combining all of these by venerating (as all Brits surely do) Doctor Who.
He recently acquired a Bowler hat and is not afraid to wear it in public. You can find more of his writing here.