Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Leave It to Psmith by PG Wodehouse

Oh no. I've never reviewed Leave It to Psmith. This must be rectified at once.

So here's a brief introduction to PG Wodehouse, for those who are just joining us:

Funniest writer in the English language.

"That's it?" Yep. "The funniest? Oh, come on. What about Terry Pratchett?"

I curl my lip. Modern Dutch.

Wodehouse is best known today as the author of the Jeeves and Wooster series, of which perhaps the crown jewel is that glorious work Right Ho, Jeeves. My favourite of Wodehouse's books, however, is not a Bertie Wooster book at all. It is the somewhat earlier book Leave It to Psmith, and it is wonderful.

We meet Ronald Psmith ("the P is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan") about to leave the family pfish business and make his way into the world on his own account. To this end he lodges an advertisement in the papers--

Psmith Will Help You
Psmith Is Ready For Anything
Someone To Manage Your Affairs?
Someone To Handle Your Business?
Someone To Take The Dog For A Run?
Someone To Assassinate Your Aunt?
Whatever Job You Have To Offer
(Provided It Has Nothing To Do With Fish)
Address Applications To 'R. Psmith, Box 365'

 --and is immediately hired by the gormless Freddy Threepwood to steal his aunt's diamond pnecklace, to prevent her discovering that her husband had it sold and replaced with a fake years ago. Psmith goes off to the Threepwood family home, Blandings Castle (famous in Wodehouse canon as the castle that has imposters the way other stately homes have mice) under the assumed identity of Ralston McTodd, the celebrated poet, and is thrilled to discover also on the premises the love of his life, Eve Halliday, whom he met once for five minutes in the rain. But Psmith is not the only one at Blandings Castle under an assumed name. Soon, zany pschemes, heists, and flying flower-pots thicken the plot considerably.

PG Wodehouse wrote Leave It to Psmith at the turning-point in his career, when his own private genius woke up and convinced him to quit writing school stories and romantic novels, and try his hand at farce. The process took a little while to complete--this was the fourth Psmith story, the first of which was actually a fairly ordinary school story. In fact the original book had featured quite a different leading man, Mike Jackson; Psmith began life as his psidekick and comic relief, but outshone Mike to the extent of eventually taking over from him altogether. After Leave It to Psmith, the best of the books featuring the loquacious and ever-at-ease young man, Wodehouse avowed that the well of ideas had gone dry, and launched into the never-ending Jeeves and Wooster books--though he did admit later on that the character of Frederick, Earl of Ickenham was basically an elderly Psmith.

So Leave It to Psmith has a pnumber of interesting features, including a relatively serious romance, and a climax that actually threatens danger, as some of Psmith's competing thieves become impatient with his meddling. I suspect this aspect of the novel plays into why I find Leave It to Psmith so compelling. Bertie Wooster, though lots of fun, is a bit of a dweeb. You can respect Psmith, and therefore care a little more what happens to him.

That said, the main pfeature of the book is the absolutely wonderful humour. You know what you're in for from quite early on:
"A scaly neighbourhood!" he murmured.
The young man's judgement was one at which few people with an eye for beauty would have cavilled. When the great revolution against London's ugliness really starts and yelling hordes of artists and architects, maddened beyond endurance, finally take the law into their own hands and rage through the city burning and destroying, Wallingford Street, West Kensington, will surely not escape the torch. Long since it must have been marked down for destruction. ...Situated in the middle of one of those districts where London breaks out into a sort of eczema of red brick, it consists of two parallel rows of semi-detached villas, all exactly alike, each guarded by a ragged evergreen hedge, each with coloured glass of an extremely regrettable nature let into the panels of the front door, and sensitive young impressionists from the artists' colony up Holland Park way may sometimes be seen stumbling through it with hands over their eyes, muttering between clenched teeth "How long? How long?"
And the fun just continues--my favourite part is Ralston McTodd's poetry, in which nobody seems to get any further than:
Across the pale parabola of joy...
What can I say? It's Wodehouse, possibly at his very best. Plus, it's Psmith, and Psmith has only to show up and open his mouth (but I repeat myself) to psteal the scene. If you wish to read something from the very pinnacle of English humour--and I know of at least one classical Christian college where this book is part of the syllabus--you cannot go wrong with Leave It to Psmith.

Find Leave It to Psmith on Amazon, The Book Depository, or The Ultimate Ebook Library.


Christina Baehr said...

Some of my favourite passages right there! Did I tell you I convinced our book club to read it?

Suzannah said...

No! It's wonderful, though, isn't it?

Rachel Heffington said...

Long a Jeeves fan, I read this book a few months back and adored it too. Have you read "Something Fresh"? It's a Blandings Castle novel--actually the first Wodehouse I ever read--and I've been hooked on dear old Plum ever since. <3

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Evidently I have to read this one. I so agree with you about Right Ho, Jeeves—it was the first Wodehouse book I read, and I still think it's the funniest. I re-read it this past weekend while down with a cold (the definition of a 'comfort read') and my mom asked me if I was laughing or coughing. I said "Both." :)

Oh, and I've read Something Fresh too—that was another occasion where I got odd looks from family because I was struggling with strangled laughter all through trying to read it and prepare dinner at the same time.

Rachel Heffington said...

Elisabeth, this is where I get my reputation as an oddity when in the bookstore. I always head for Wodehouse and I ALWAYS laugh aloud. He was a rare man.

Suzannah said...

Rachel--Yes, I've read SOMETHING FRESH, I'm positive, though all the Wodehouse I've read has sort of blurred together in my mind. I recently read and particularly enjoyed MONEY IN THE BANK--quite a remarkable achievement; he wrote it in an internment camp in Germany during WWII!

Elisabeth--LEAVE IT TO PSMITH is right up there with RIGHT HO, JEEVES as the very best Plum has to offer...you're going to love it!

Rachel Heffington said...

I KNOW. I haven't read Money in the Bank but I have read all about it--I bought Dear Old Plum: The Letters of P.G. Wodehouse and it's FASCINATING. That man...

Jill Stengl said...

My original introduction to Wodehouse (almost 40 years ago) was "The Truth About George" from Meet Mr. Mulliner. I fell in love. :-) I need to pick up his Blandings Castle novels again--it has been awhile! I do love his way with words.
Our family has long been addicted to the Jeeves & Wooster television show--the first two seasons, anyway. Fun stuff!

Suzannah said...

Mrs Stengl, we enjoyed Jeeves and Wooster too--though the later seasons drifted a little far from the source material, I thought!

Jill Stengl said...

Yep, that's why we liked the first two seasons best. :-) They were the most genuine Wodehouse.

Anonymous said...

Tastes in reading styles - and accents - ('tastes' or even tolerances!) can differ considerbly, and I am not sure what the copyright-law situation is in different countries, but I have thoroughly enjoyed getting acquainted with various sorts and examples of early Wodehouse thanks to the volunteer-read audiobook versions at LibriVox.org.

By the way, did you happen to see the BBC production, Wodehouse in Exile, and, if so, what did you think of it? (I know little detail about his life, but enjoyed it.)

One of Wodehouse's fellow-internees was the composer, William Hilsley, who, among other things, wrote the music for a pantomine retelling of Bluebeard featuring not only Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter but also Miss Dorothy L. Sayers, produced in the civilian internment camp!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

David, thanks for the Librivox tip!

No, I never saw that BBC production, though I read Wodehouse's own account of his time in an internment camp. Can't believe he wrote MONEY IN THE BANK in there! And that pantomime sounds utterly hilarious...


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