P.G. Wodehouse and the Role of Humor (vs. Comedy)

The writings of P.G. Wodehouse might suggest themselves as antithetical to everything I cherish in literature, but that suggestion would be erroneous. In spite of my rabid disliking of golf, the foibles and struggles of a perfectly secure upper class, the utter lack of dramatic consequence, and in spite of my impatience for slapstick comedy and the excessively droll, I really enjoyed reading these two books. In what seems to be a continuation on a theme this year, I find that really good writing covers a multitude of sins.

Wodehouse writes about trivialities, but he manages to keep a dry distance from it, cultivating both a sense of self-awareness and objectivity. Wodehouse knows that there is nothing actually at stake in a miser winning fifty quid on an absurd wager involving who has the literally fattest uncle, but he makes it known that it’s damn important in the man’s own head, and this only adds to the absurdity of the situation (the story is far more hilarious than you’d think from my referencing it, but -as the saying goes- humor is like a frog in that it seldom survives dissection).

It all comes back to the language. Wodehouse deploys the same kind of precision command of the written word as Nabokov or John Gardner, but instead of pointing it at narrative (with occasional flashes of bitter comedy) Wodehouse uses it in the service of ridiculous humor. I quote here from a longer passage that describes Agnes Flack, a female club champion “built on the lines of the village blacksmith”:

“I have often seen the Wrecking Crew, that quartet of spavined septuagenarians whose pride it was that they never let anyone play through, scatter like leaves in an autumn gale at the sound of her stentorian ‘Fore!’. A dynamic and interesting personality.”

Recommendation: Read a couple stories. This shit is what the best sitcoms aspire to.


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