Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, Ben Schott, 2020

jeeves-and-the-leap-of-faithWith his first departure from the canon — Jeeves and the King of Clubs — Ben Schott began the transformation of Bertie Wooster from Wodehousian gadabout and loveable dope to wise-cracking playboy and international man of mystery. Now, with this next installment, Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, the process is complete and the result is the anti-Wodehouse.

The Wodehouse formula is to populate absurd situations with eccentric characters and let it all play out for laughs. The anti-Wodehouse is a series of awkward, mainly unrelated clashes of cardboard cutouts — the good guys are all suave and witty and broadmined, and the bad guys are clumsy and dim and venal — and consequently there’s little foundation for comedy. Schott paints himself into a corner in almost every scene, as did Wodehouse, but the difference is that Wodehouse could talk his way back out again. Schott just plods through the wet paint of weak pun.

This second book descends beneath comparison to Wodehouse, leaving only comparison to the first book on which, it would appear, Schott expended his entire capacity to mimic the Wodehouse style. The clumsy, overwrought wordplay that was the occasional worst that could be said about King of Clubs is the narrative mean above which Leap of Faith rarely rises.

The absence of a resolution to King of Clubs is explained, dubiously, by the fact that many of the threads are picked up again here in what appears to be the second part of a trilogy. This would be valuable information to know before beginning the series, if these disparate threads ever conspired to form a plot. Instead, the tumbling spy story which positions a simple-minded Roderick Spode on the side of the fascists and an insipid Jeeves and rehabilitated Wooster seconded to British Intelligence unfolds in a series of clumsy set-pieces, sometimes relevant, sometimes mystifyingly not. The bizarrely unfunny scene in which Wooster, posing as a vicar, fails to say grace in Latin serves as one of many examples, but in fairness neither this nor any other sequence plummets to the depths of the absurd Eulalie Soeurs diversion from book one.

Wodehouse famously and painstakingly planned his stories, and the result is a legacy of largely unimpeachable comedy. Ben Schott made his name curating miscellany, and the result is just that. Jeeves and the Leap of Faith is a scattered collection of Latin aphorisms, Wodehousian trivia, crossword clues and historical minutiae. Indeed, the inflated appendix is a chapter-by-chapter justification for this mish-mash which is absent from the story itself, and it’s in fact more entertaining.

I confess my bias here at the end so that it can be easily edited out — the idea of a clever Wooster was already done better by Wodehouse in the form of Galahad Threepwood, and the idea of a clever Wooster solving mysteries is done better, even if it’s me saying so, in the form of Anty Boisjoly.

Cocktail Time, Wodehouse, 1958

cocktail-time-coverI can’t get enough of Uncle Fred and although I prefer him as or introducing an imposter into Blandings Castle, it’s refreshing to see his irrepressible wit thriving in this new terrain.

The title of the book is taken from the title of the book that Fred maneuvers his old friend Sir Raymond Bastable into writing, as an indictment of a debauched younger generation and as a reaction to having his top hat knocked off by a well-aimed Brazil nut sling-shot from a window of the Drones club by an assailant whose identity, by page two, provides a very clear idea of the ride the reader is in for.

The success of the book within the book is a catalyst for a sequence of problems which beget solutions which beget still larger problems and at the centre of it all is Uncle Fred, orchestrating the various threads to the inevitable benefit of timid suitors and sundered hearts. I think that Fred ties up more loose ends in Cocktail Time than he does in both his appearances at Blandings (Uncle Fred in the Springtime, 1939, and Service with a Smile, 1961) put together.

The subtly different flavour of Cocktail Time is derived from the new surroundings. There’s no Blandings Castle and hence no Emsworth, Empress, Connie and her type nor Freddie and his. Instead there’s marginally more Uncle Fred than usual and Bastable and his nephew, Cosmo, and Lord Ickhenham’s godson, Johnny Pearce, get to share their unique and uniquely amusing take on events as they rapidly unfold. In Cocktail Time, Uncle Fred doesn’t hog all the funniest lines.

The fact that Frederick Lord Ickenham also manifests as Galahad Threepwood and Psmith, according to requirements, doesn’t alter a bit his status as a Wodehousian pillar as distinct and reliable as Jeeves and Wooster. Indeed, as Cocktail Time so deftly illustrates, this mutability gives Fred enormous latitude. This has given me a particular appreciation of Cocktail Time as I plug into it for regular refills of attitude while writing The Case of the Ghost of Christmas Morning, the second mystery featuring Anty Boisjoly whose character is shamelessly inspired by Uncle Fred.

Leave It To Psmith, Wodehouse, 1923

LeaveItToPsmithLeave It To Psmith is, to my mind, the book in which Blandings finds its voice. There’s yet no Empress, and she’s sorely missed, but the absent-minded Lord Emsworth substitutes flowers for his prize pig and Connie is present, as is the efficient Baxter, romance, imposters, a conundrum and, above all, someone like Galahad.

In this, his final appearance, Psmith (the P is silent) has also found his voice as the totem of free-wheeling, free-thinking and fast-talking flippancy that will later be embodied by Emsworth’s brother Galahad and, later still, by Lord Ickenham (Uncle Fred). The perfectly acceptable twist in this case is that Psmith is among the sundered hearts that need joining, and the imposter he introduces is himself, playing the role of volatile Canadian Poet Ralston McTodd. He joins a cast of fellow poets, valets, archivists and thieves to further or foil Freddie Threepwood’s plan to allow Connie’s oppressed husband to secretly divert funds to his step-daughter so that her husband and Psmith’s school chum might buy a farm, ensuring the couple’s happiness.

The full Blandings prior to Leave it to Psmith is Something Fresh and it’s an entertaining book on its own, introducing many of the themes and devices which become, in time, grist for the mill of Psmith and his kind. Henceforth, a Blandings without some variation of Psmith, Uncle Fred, or Galahad is like Wooster without Jeeves.

From my own biased perspective, this might even be the best Blandings because it has, as a percentage of the narrative, more Psmith per square foot than any of the others. The irrepressibly optimistic and interchangeable souls of Psmith, Uncle Fred and Galahad infuse and inspire my own Anty Boisjoly, my answer to a net global shortage of Blandings.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Wodehouse, 1939

UncleFredInTheSpringtimeUncle Fred in the Springtime is the fourth time that Wodehouse has sent imposters to Blandings (the first being Something Fresh, in 1915) and the third time he did so on behalf of thwarted romance. He would go on to spirit imposters into the castle on no fewer than ten occasions, eight times in aid of joining sundered hearts.

This was the Wodehouse formula: set the scene with familiar problems, tweak the details, rotate the cast of clever, eccentric, or simple-minded characters, and let them sort themselves out in the most entertaining manner possible.

There’s almost always at least one fragile romance, an imperious sister, and an intransigent peer, and there’s always an Uncle Fred. It’s not always Lord Ickenham, as it is here and in Service with a Smile. In fact it’s usually not the witty, urbane, fun-loving, fast-talking bon-vivant. It’s usually Galahad Threepwood, but the effect is invariably the same — an absolute delight.

Galahad and Uncle Fred are interchangeable in the same way that Connie and the rest of the (eleven and counting) sisters to the beleaguered Lord Emsworth are effectively the same person. Fred and Gally embody an attitude manifest in quick and quick-witted, irrepressibly optimistic dialogue, indifferent to the originality or lack thereof of the underlying plot.

Which is just as well, because of all solutions that Wodehouse has applied to the same problem, Uncle Fred in the Springtime is the least inventive. The strategy of “stout denial” is employed again and again and, while it’s every bit as funny as any solution that Wodehouse has ever thrown at thwarted romance, it’s a little shiftless compared to the infinitely creative dissemblance of, say, Full Moon, in which Galahad introduces a minor painter into the castle as Edwin Landseer, or Leave It To Psmith in which the title character (another proxy for Fred) appropriates the identity of an obtuse Canadian poet so that he might steal Connie’s necklace in the cause of, obviously, thwarted romance.

My personal bias transcends even that — it doesn’t matter if there are pigs or broken hearts or clever plots and ploys and, in fact, it doesn’t even matter all that much that there’s a Blandings. The single pillar of the castle for me is the persona of Galahad/Fred/Psmith that gives voice to the free-wheeling, free-thinking, and fast-talking flippancy that inspires Anty Boisjoly. This is my answer to the problem of not enough Galahad, even within the books, which I find myself wishing were in the first person and entirely infused with this happy character in the same manner that the Jeeves & Wooster stories are told from the perspective of Bertie.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs, Ben Schott, 2018

jeevesAndTheKingOfClubsJeeves and the King of Clubs by Ben Schott has been received with such fanfare that I find myself in the ironic position of struggling to find something new to say about something which struggled to find something new to say.

There’s been a rush to observe that this daring departure from the beloved Jeeves and Wooster series by PG Wodehouse is not an extension of the canon. Mister Schott himself describes it as an homage, which seems safe enough (although we here at Indefensible have wrapped ourselves in an extra layer of dissemblance in referring to our own The Case of the Canterfell Codicil as having been “written in the style of an homage to Wodehouse”). Nevertheless, there’s plenty here to which a purist could take offence, if offence is what said purist is looking for.

Above all, there’s the rehabilitation of Bertie Wooster, who in Schott’s parallel take on Wodehouse’s world has experienced an intellectual renaissance. The loveable, affable, dependent and dependable Wooster is, in this book, a sort of a cross between Noel Coward and, I suppose, Jeeves. He’s witty and urbane and he regularly and handily gets the better of the dangerous and devious Roderick Spode (Lord Sidcup, to you), who himself has been recast, ham-handedly in some cases, as a Trumpian oaf.

Consequently, the role of Jeeves is rewritten as well. It’s also diminished, not inconsiderably, and the title character has been largely reduced to a supporting technician, working behind the scenes to advance the plot in improbable ways.

Improbable and, rather often, inscrutable. For instance, there’s an entirely extraneous scene set in Eulalie Soeurs, quality foundation garments for discerning ladies, and Spode’s dark secret from The Code of the Woosters. The sequence is so unfunny and awkward that it’s tempting to assume that it’s a genuine editing oversight, something left in from a frivolous early draft in which The King of Clubs was initially going to be written as a Kafkaesque allegory. It’s when encountering these digressions that it becomes most valuable to recall that you’re reading an homage, because as comical and theatrical a scene might be in a Wodehouse plot, it’s always at least tangentially related to the story at hand.

Some and probably most of these departures are unavoidable and predicated on one of the pillar assumptions made by Schott — that readers want to see Jeeves and Wooster address larger threats than crossing Aunt Agatha or marrying Honoria Glossop or facing twenty-eight days without the option. In this variation of Wodehouse’s Britain, war is looming, and his majesty’s government must call upon the wily duo to foil Fifth Columnists already operating within the borders of the kingdom. The theme is a provocative mashup — like those literary exercises that ask how Pride and Prejudice might have unfolded if Netherfield had been besieged by zombies. In Jeeves and the King of Clubs, however, nothing seems to actually get resolved, which may be on its own the single greatest liberty taken by Schott.

Which might leave someone who has yet to read the King of Clubs wondering when all this homaging starts. The answer is the very first line, which is a delight, and representative of a slew of rapid-fire crackers that Schott sets off with not merely an uncanny impersonation of Wodehouse’s voice but a more than passing resemblance to the Master’s apparent ease of execution. There are some clunkers — not the least of which is the jarringly bad joke about Marx and Engels which literally caused me to put the book down for a day — but even they serve to give the breezy narrative style a foundation of confidence, a plucky indifference to the gravity of drafting two beloved icons into the fight against fascism and parachuting them, metaphorically, behind enemy lines.

In Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks carefully and gently nudged the canon over the line that Wodehouse dared never cross. That was homage. Jeeves and the King of Clubs is more daring than that, more exhaustive, more to My Man Jeeves as Robert Downey Junior’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is to the Hound of the Baskervilles.

It’s helpful to think of Jeeves and the King of Clubs as an homage to Wodehouse, but it’s even more helpful to read it as a reboot of the Jeeves and Wooster franchise.