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The incredible lightness of being…

April 14, 2009 19 comments

If you find idolatry, hero-worship, fawning praise, unquestioning loyalty and other manifestations of the feudal spirit cloying in the extreme, you’d better give this post the old heave-ho. For others (I know who you are), let the orgy of head nodding and other, more enthusiastic forms of agreement begin, for I am about to pen a rather longish ode to that God among authors – PG Wodehouse.

  I must confess, compared to the adulation that I reserve for Wodehouse, I merely tolerate the other authors that I profess to like. After a childhood spent gorging on Enid Blyton, following the time-tested formula of many Indian kids before me, I had graduated to Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators and (heaven forbid) a Nancy Drew or two (OK, many more – I admit it!). I had fruitfully whiled away many a summer reading these books at a frenetic pace, competing with friends to see who landed on top of the end-of-summer count for the number of books read. In my pre-teen years, I spent many afternoons following the exploits of Perry Mason – more as a graduation ritual from Hardy Boys than anything else. (I also vaguely remember being subliminally dissatisfied by the lack of sexual chemistry between Perry Mason and Della Street – but this is not an issue I will delve into now :-)). Into this comfortable, but ennui-laden void in my literary development landed Wodehouse.

 I still remember the seminal moment in my life and the circumstances that lead to my picking up a Wodehouse novel, with startling clarity. Having run out of Perry Masons on my friend’s bookshelf and not bold enough to take more than the customary wistful peek at the beguiling and impossibly buxom beauties that adorned the covers of her father’s collection of James Hadley Chase novels, I resigned myself to the seemingly dull pleasures of a little white book with an orange sleeve with a little penguin on it – with the title “Uncle Fred in the Springtime”.  The rest, as they say they say, is history.  The book affected me in the manner of a bunker-busting bomb relieving the tedious monotony of contemplating the Almighty in an underground cave.  One is thankful for the break in the routine and to the new world that has opened up, but a nagging feeling that it has caused more than the doctor-recommended dose of disruption in the status quo, persists. Reading the book set off a singular obsession with getting my hands on every PGW book ever written – a happy obsession that continues to this day. To say that I began to exist on a higher plane from that day onwards would beggar belief amongst all but the most hardened of Wodehouse fanatics – but it is true! Freed from the pedestrian and prosaic dimensions of space and time by his unimaginably deft use of the language, life seemed to branch out into a fuller, gentler and lighter universe once I discovered Wodehouse. Summers (and all other months of the year) were spent in chortling, wheezing laughter thanks to this incredible lightness of being… a Wodehouse fanatic.

 If Jeeves and Wooster had been Wodehouse’s solitary contribution to literature, his place in the pantheon of literary greats would have been assured. Had he but written of Blandings castle and its menagerie of miscellaneous misfits and nothing else, he would have been hailed as the greatest comic writer ever. It is our singular good fortune that Sir PGW gave us all these and a whole lot more. As a writer he was prolific, ending up with a tally of over 100 books in a long life extremely well lived. He started writing at the end of the 19th century and continued until his death on Valentine ‘s Day 1975 at the age of 93. It is rumored that he passed away with the manuscript to his unfinished work “Sunset at Blandings”, in his lap.

 In addition to the leading lights mentioned above, he also introduced notables such as Psmith, Ukeridge and Mulliner into our lives – not to mention a collection of delightful schoolboy stories (with which he incidentally started his writing career) and a small treasure trove of golfing anecdotes. The world of Wodehouse is one of domineering, disapproving and sometimes diabolical aunts, larger than life butlers and valets, young girls who veer between Nietzsche-reading tough-uns to vacuous airheads, young men who are preoccupied with pinching policemen’s helmets and twinkle-eyed septuagenarian uncles who possess unblemished boyish charm. Evidence of the author inhabiting an alternate universe, one might conclude. But this conclusion would have to be drawn outside the context of (God, *please* send the right adjectives my way) the extraordinary miracle of Wodehouse’s prose, a prose that renders any analysis akin to taking a spade to a soufflé, a prose that makes even the prospect of criticism (or praise) moot, powerless and asinine – like this post, some might say!

 Wodehouse lived a large part of his life in the US, but his readership in the US must sadly number in the low thousands today. Many in the US are no doubt acquainted with the “Jeeves and Wooster” series that PBS ran for several years – with Bertie being played by the inimitable Hugh Laurie and Jeeves, somewhat less satisfactorily in my opinion, by Stephen Fry. While Wodehouse’s books leap to life thanks to the plot and characters, it is his use of the language that really hits the spot. I loved the Jeeves and Wooster series on TV, but exchanges from Wodehouse work better on a page than on a screen. The actors, competent as they were, could convey the narrative of the stories and some of them even hit the nail on the head when it came to portraying the characters, but it is the act of reading that gives life to Wodehouse – through laughter mutually created from the commas placed just so, from the stilted Englishness in every “Sir”, “What”, “Pip-Pip” and “Toodle-oo”, and of course, the dozen or so exquisite hyperbolic similes (“she turned red, like a tomato struggling for self expression”) and hypallagees (“I lit a rather pleased cigarette”) littered around each page. One has to be fair to the actors – none of them can ever be as good as the ones faithful readers of Wodehouse carry around in their heads. Wodehouse in a book affords the reader the luxury of time to savor the delicious sentence and its nuances. However, on TV, the sentence whizzes past, like an attractive member of the opposite sex glimpsed while driving on one of the boulevards near Miami Beach. You try desperately to hold on to the image, maybe even steal a glance at the rear-view mirror, but it is too late and you risk missing the next dazzling beauty coming along if you dwell too long on what you just glimpsed.

 Here’s an example that illustrates the fact that his prose works best when read:

“Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?” said Wilfred.

“ffinch-ffarrowmere,” corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

Or this, about the British aristocracy’s predisposition with their first-born sons:

“Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”

 And one of my favorites, from Ring for Jeeves, that might illustrate the point about the sentence whizzing by too quickly:

 “It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused A. B. Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn’t.”

 Wodehouse works better as a book on tape, but again, you need someone with the right accent and more importantly a love for Wodehouse, to make the situational comedy work well when being read. I recommend getting your hands on those narrated by Jonathan Cecil, sold by Chivers Audio. I’d give any of the other readers a miss.

 To those of you sufficiently tantalized by the prospect of picking up a Wodehouse, I would suggest starting off with a “Blandings” story.  Blandings Castle is the epitome of all that is right with an old English country manor. It is, to borrow the tag line from Kerala’s tourist pitch – “God’s own country”. The cast of characters that dive in and out of the Blandings stories is too numerous to outline and I fear I will not be able to do justice in any case, should I be rash enough to attempt it. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. In fact, you might start with Wodehouse as I did – with “Uncle Fred in the Springtime”. And having sipped from the well of Wodehousian literature, you could turn your attention to “Right Ho, Jeeves” as an introduction to the genius of Jeeves and which, according to the cognoscenti contains the single funniest piece of sustained writing in the language – in an anecdote running into a few pages, where a gent by the name Gussie Fink-Nottle distributes prizes at a village school. As you read more of Wodehouse’s works, you will soon realize that Wodehouse’s skill lies in the fact that he can tell the same handful of basic stories over and over and over again – and, yes, many of his characters are almost interchangeable – while making the journey uncontrollably funny and undeniably interesting, every time. In fact, Wodehouse acknowledges this interchangeability of his characters in a tart preface to “Summer Lightning”, where he writes:

 “A certain critic-for such men, I regret to say, do exist-made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled this man by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy”

 And speaking of prefaces, I daresay this authorial dedication (from a collection of golf stories called “Heart of a goof”) must rank among the best ever written:

“To my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.”

 I can just go on and on, but – yes, you can shake that look of horror off your face – I won’t.

 My literary consumption these days (and I suspect a vast majority of yours’) consists of the doom and gloom peddled by schadenfreude-filled  journalists dissecting the follies of Wall Street. This new age of sobriety that we now live in, characterized as it is by the antithesis of irrational exuberance, is sorely in need of a pick-me-up. A yarn by Wodehouse is a perfect tonic, a panacea, for these troubled times.

 I will close this out with a small collection of my favorite lines from various works of Wodehouse. Small because I do not have the elephantine memory I’d need, if I wanted to remember all the lines I’ve loved. 

 “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

“The woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.”

“She snorted violently, like one of those gas explosions that slay six.”

“He was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When!'”

“‘Yes, sir,’ said Jeeves in a low, cold voice, as if he had been bitten in the leg by a personal friend.”

“And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”

“Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror.”

“Nature, when planning this sterling fellow, shoved in a lot more lower jaw than was absolutely necessary and made the eyes a bit too keen and piercing for one who was neither an Empire builder nor a traffic policeman.”

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoi’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”

If some lines from Wodehouse have afflicted you with uncontrollable laughter, or even a mild chuckle or two, please do share them through a comment or two in response to this post.

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Museum Musings

April 6, 2009 3 comments
Very Guggenheim-ish, I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If one were crazy enough to write a book titled “Weekends in Walldorf”, it would have precious little in it. The place, quaint little rural hamlet though it is, singularly lacks sex appeal – dull as a doorknob, one might say if one is in an uncharitable mood. I am definitely in said uncharitable mood. I can see why SAP has chosen this particular corner of the German boonies to setup shop – coming into work sure beats sitting around with *nothing* to do.
Surely you exaggerate, I hear you say. OK – a little. Walldorf does have a nice IKEA – if that sort of thing floats your boat. With wheels at my disposal and the great autobahn beckoning, I decided to stand on the bored shoulders of those who had visited Walldorf before me and head south to Stuttgart for the day. Tolerably well stocked with Muesli after the morning meal, I put my leaden foot on the accelerator and headed down the pike, with a view to checking out what the vaunted Mercedes-Benz museum was all about.

I had budgeted about 4 hours to take in the sights and boy was I optimistic. The museum was FANTASTIC. Starting from the post-modern structure that the museum is housed in, to the way the exhibits, automobile history, world history and the prevailing zeitgeist at each point are woven together into a big picture – the museum didn’t disappoint one bit. The museum is laid out in seven (or was it eight?) floors with the viewing starting on the uppermost floor. There on, each floor deals with roughly a decade’s worth of development of the automobile (specifically, those from the stable of Daimler-Benz).  Each floor focuses exclusively on the cars of the age, giving broad details such as mechanical advancements that were seen, the social milieu of the time that shaped (and was shaped by) the cars, etc. The distance between one floor and another is bridged physically by a ramp. The time-periods that the floors represent are bridged by a montage of photographs and other exhibits that provide a birdseye-view of history (e.g. WWII) and how the auto industry was affected by the events. An audio-tour of the museum is facilitated by a device slightly bigger than a BlackBerry that one can activate on demand when one is near an exhibit relevant to the audio tour.

I spent a wonderfully instructive afternoon learning all there is to know about the Mercedes-Benz collection. I learnt the correct story of one piece of misinformation I had received as a kid and had actively propagated ever since. The theory that the car was named after Carl Benz’s daughter. Not true, it turns out. It was named after the daughter of Emil Jellinek, who was one of Daimler’s best car dealers and a speed fiend, who pressed Daimler into building faster and faster cars – culminating in one that was named after his daughter and swept the podium at the annual race in Nice, catapulting the car to the brand we so admire today. Ironically, Mercedes (the girl) never learned how to drive. Incidentally, the name means “grace” in Spanish. Brand mojo doesn’t get better than this. Pre-ordained to  succeed, methinks.

At 8 euro, the place pays for the price of admission within a few minutes. Two thumbs up!

Public transport vehicle from Buenos AiresQuaint British double-decker

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