Why I read P.G. Wodehouse on my summer vacations

Whether I've got my nose in The Adventures of Sally, Leave it to Psmith, or any of the classic Jeeves tales, I read Wodehouse to remember how much fun it can be to string words together. What more can a writer ask from a summer beach read? 
The Adventures of Sally
By PG Wodehouse
Penguin, 1997 (first published 1922)

Reading P. G. Wodehouse reminds me how much fun writing can be

It helps that I find Wodehouse to be effortlessly funny, which makes me much more inclined to take him along on my summer vacations.

Some reviewers disparage Wodehouse for failing to provide sufficiently deep characterization or plots with substance. To me, that sort of talk misses the point. Wodehouse revels in language.

The things that man can do to a cliché!

Whether I’ve got my nose in The Adventures of Sally, Leave it to Psmith, or any of the classic Jeeves tales, I read Wodehouse to remember how much fun it can be to string words together and I am never disappointed.

What more can a writer ask for from a summer book?

What I mean by that

Update (November 2019): As you'll see in the comments, reader Dani wrote in to ask what I meant by "the things that man can do to a cliche!", so since I'm no longer on vacation I thought I'd update this post with more information on what I was thinking. 

Sometimes it’s as simple as reducing cliches to their abbreviations and letting the reader’s mind fill in the rest. Often, Wodehouse will simply write “b. and e.” instead of bacon and eggs, for example.

But when I opened up my nearest Wodehouse (The Code of the Woosters, not The Adventures of Sally, because Sally appears to be shy this morning) to look for a specific example, I remembered that it’s not just his habit of reducing cliches to abbreviations that’s interesting, but the fact that whenever he uses a cliche there is nearly always some sort of twist to your perception of it.

For example, right there in the first paragraphs of The Code of the Woosters, Wodehouse writes:

“He shimmered out, and I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes… Indeed just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head–not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.”

From The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

The idea of a hangover feeling like spikes being driven into your head is hardly original, but that bit about Jael the wife of Heber was completely unexpected. I had to look her up, and that sort of thing is always fun for me.

I also find Wodehouse’s improbable use of words highly entertaining

“Jeeves shimmered out”

Really? How likely is it that a full-grown man could shimmer? And yet I can see how it might appear that way to a person with a monstrous hangover.

That’s what I mean when I say that I read P. G. Wodehouse to remember how fun writing can be.

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6 comments

    • Hi Dani,

      Thanks for visiting BostonWriters. At the time I wrote that I was mostly thinking of the way Wodehouse will do things like write “b. and e.” instead of bacon and eggs and allow the reader’s mind to fill in the rest of the very familiar phrase. But when I opened up my nearest Wodehouse (The Code of the Woosters, not The Adventures of Sally, because Sally appears to be shy this morning) to look for a specific example, I remembered that it’s not just his habit of reducing cliches to abbreviations that’s interesting, but the fact that whenever he uses a cliche there is nearly always some sort of twist to your perception of it. For example, right there in the first paragraphs of the story:

      “He shimmered out, and I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes… Indeed just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head–not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.”

      The idea of a hangover feeling like spikes being driven into your head is hardly original, but that bit about Jael the wife of Heber was completely unexpected. I had to look her up, and that sort of thing is always fun for me.

      I also find his improbable use of words highly entertaining. “Jeeves shimmered out” — really? How likely is it that a full-grown man could shimmer, and yet I can see how it might appear that way to a person with a monstrous hangover.

      Hope that helps,

      Shala

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      • Dear Shala,

        Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m currently listening to The Adventures of Sally, my first taste of Wodehouse, and I’m struggling to get through it. I recognize that he has away with words, but it is saddled underneath this dreary story. I was thinking that once I finish this story, I would never pick up another Wodehouse again, but your response is making me rethink that. Perhaps I’ll try one of his Jeeves books.

        Like

      • I’m sorry to hear that you’re not enjoying The Adventures of Sally. I’ve never listened to a Wodehouse story. I wonder if I’d enjoy the stories as much if they were read to me. Maybe if Stephen Fry is the narrator.

        Anyway, my advice is to simply stop the slogging and find a Jeeves book instead. All of Wodehouse’s plots are completely ridiculous, so if that bothers you, there may be no point. However, the writing in the Jeeves books is generally stronger. He has an affinity for the Wooster character and it shows.

        It’s possible that Wodehouse just isn’t your cup of tea, but before you decide that I’d recommend reading one of his Jeeves books. (Get it from the library though. No sense in wasting any money on it. 🙂

        Good luck!

        Like

  1. I thought about the fact that perhaps my not reading the physical text was hindering my liking the book, but then I reasoned that my having listened to Tess of the D’Urbervilles would not have prevented me from liking it. I’m pretty sure it’s the story.

    Anyway, I finished the story a few hours after your last post and I have to say that the last two chapters kept me from completely disliking the book.

    I don’t think I’m one for inane plots, but I am willing, in the somewhat distant future, to give Wodehouse another shot.

    Like

    • Excellent point re: Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I don’t listen to audiobooks much, but I do wonder if a sense of comedic timing would be important in a narrator reading Wodehouse. The story in Tess wouldn’t rely on that sort of thing as much to work. (Now I’m curious to know if I’d like Wodehouse read to me. May have to go track down an audio book myself.)

      Regardless, although I find his use of language refreshing, Wodehouse isn’t for everyone. Even I have to be in the right mood/place to read him. I can’t always stomach an inane plot either. Sometimes I want a good story well-told. Not just a silly plot told by a narrator with a skill for adroit turns of phrase.

      Thanks for letting me share this experience with you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Congratulations on finishing the book. I hope you like the next book you pick much more.

      Like

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