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--
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Psmith Will Help You
Psmith Is Ready For Anything
DO YOU WANT
Someone To Manage Your Affairs?
Someone To Handle Your Business?
Someone To Take The Dog For A Run?
Someone To Assassinate Your Aunt?
PSMITH WILL DO IT
CRIME NOT OBJECTED TO
Whatever Job You Have To Offer
(Provided It Has Nothing To Do With Fish)
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
Address Applications To 'R. Psmith, Box 365'
LEAVE IT TO PSMITH!
--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.And the fun just continues--my favourite part is Ralston McTodd's poetry, in which nobody seems to get any further than:
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?"
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.
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