Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Code of the Woosters



I do some strange kinds of reading. Possibly there are other shower-readers in the world but if so, we have yet to be properly introduced. My m.o. is to print out an intriguing poem (or one I'm working on), tape it up on the tile and try to inhabit it as deeply as I can while (say) washing my hair. One of the poems in my new ms. was written by slapping pieces of the old English lament "Deor" on the wall and rewriting sections of it, one by one, until it seemed like something of my own.

This took a lot of showers, which meant a lot of reprintings and fine-tunings on the computer, and in the process it was impossible to know whether I'd end up with anything that held together at all. But I had no other writing time, for complicated reasons, and this kept the brain engaged and was a lot more compelling than a shower radio to boot.

In the last few years I've also been reading by listening, and not to books on tape. When an old injury flared up my husband took pity on me and started to read while I contorted myself into various shapes, on orders from a physical therapist. We stormed through all 864 pages of Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit and can recommend them very highly to you. We read all of Eliot -- the poems that is -- all of Stevens, most of Whitman, although he alternately delighted and irritated us, till we finally moved on (it was the bardic airs and the occasional bombast). We read the Dhammapada (The Path of the Dharma) and Paavo Haavikko's Selected, in Anselm Hollo's wonderful translation.

Now, somewhat randomly, we're on to The Code of the Woosters. I'd never read Wodehouse before (although I've bought my husband shelves of it) and my helpless pleasure in this account of the adventures of people like Gussie Fink-Nottle, Pongo Twistleton and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright (not to mention Bertie Wooster himself) seems sure to get me summarily ejected from the Order of the Red Diaper, except that all of them, other than their servants, are such perfect twits.

The writing, though, is superb -- crisp and bright and hilarious. I've gotten so besotted with the thing that I've taken to
absconding with it between times, savoring especially Wodehouse's delicious portrayals of Sir Roderick Spode, the sinister "founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts," who is apparently based on Sir Oswald Mosley, the would-be British f├╝hrer who married Diana Mitford, sister of Jessica and Nancy.

Alexander Cockburn, of all people, writes an intro to our edition, and makes some pretty extraordinary claims, ones I don't sneer at a bit after my brief immersion:

Wodehouse's status? It's been vouched for by every major English writer of the twentieth century with a spark of insight or talent. He stands as father of the style of Evelyn Waugh, too acute ever to get lost in the prejudices that marred the latter's delicacy of touch towards the end of his career. Wodehouse took a language forged out of second-rate fiction and narrative techniques from stage farce and created a world as timeless and as true as that of Homer or of Shakespeare. And despite his own self-deprecation, Wodehouse had his ambitions. Joy in the Morning, to be read immediately after The Code of the Woosters, deliberately invites comparison with Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Wodehouse popped in enough allusions and quotations to bend the reader toward such parallel. And he survives it. The Wooster-Jeeves cycle is the central achievement of English fiction in the twentieth century; an achievement impossible to imitate, because -- as E.M. Forster remarked of the poet Cavafy -- the cycle stands at a slight angle to the universe, unreachable by almost anything but laughter itself.

10 comments:

Emily Lloyd said...

Upon reading "Possibly there are other shower-readers in the world," I instantly thought, "Rendezvous in the shower with dweeby Philip"...that's another one! Then remembered: nope, that was Loden. [grin]

Rachel Loden said...

Hi Em -- guilty as charged!

Other members of the secret society of shower-readers have yet to come out from behind their soggy curtains....

Marcus said...

I especially like the notion that by using paper and pen or pencil in the shower one might or might not at the end have something that hangs together.

Rachel Loden said...

Hi Marcus -- paper, yes, pen or pencil, no. All composition in the head, to be written down afterwards.

One irritating thing is that the ink from my old laser printer didn't run, but inkjet ink bleeds like crazy so the poem is a blur after awhile.

A wet blur, that has to be crumpled up and thrown away --a mystery to future archaeologists.

Tad Richards said...

Wodehouse is my reward...the treat I allow myself when I have been especially good.

For no other reason than the sheer joy of his creation. But if one wants to get social-criticky about it, I love that Jeeves does not exist to serve Bertie. His machinations end up smoothing one path or another for Bertie, but they are essentially designed for his own self-interest.

Rachel Loden said...

Exactly! Spot-on, Tad. And Bertie makes such a giddy unreliable narrator, with Jeeves always the real power behind the throne.

Sheila Murphy said...

Pip pip, old girl. I'm a Wooster addict - HONESTLY!

Rachel Loden said...

Sheila, hi, you're reminding me of one of my favorite passages in The Code of the Woosters:

"For a moment I toyed with the idea of pausing to pip-pip and enquire after his indigestion, a malady to which he is extremely subject, but wiser counsels prevailed. This uncle is a bird who, sighting a nephew, is apt to buttonhole him and become a bit informative on the subject of sconces and foliation , not to mention scrolls, ribbon wreaths in high relief and gadroon borders, and it seemed to me that silence was best."

Gadroon borders! I'm in heaven.

Anonymous said...

hi rachel --

p g is one of the absolute masters of english, "a joy forever" indeed. one remarkable aspect of his work is that it bears re-reading: his plots are pretty much all the same, but the *words,* the turns he puts them through, keep on startling and delighting. after you've read all, what? one hundred books of his, do proceed to henry green.

pip pip and cheers,
anselm hollo

and ps: thank you for kind words on my haavikko translations. there's another one forthcoming from aspasia books, ONE AND TWENTY. have you checked out saarikoski's TRILOGY and THE EDGE OF EUROPE, both englished by yours truly?

Rachel Loden said...

Anselm! Lovely to see you here.

Exciting to know that ONE AND TWENTY is on the way. We have (and love) your version of Saarikoski's POEMS 1958-1980 but will immediately set about looking for the others.

And thanks so much for turning us on to Henry Green.