As If By Magic
The Plot That Thickened
The World of Jeeves
All About Jeeves
In The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh offers a harsh but affectionate, scarcely disguised picture of himself, a portrait of the artist as an old ogre. Mr. Pinfold, Waugh writes,
…abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime…. There was a phrase in the ‘30s: “It is later than you think,” which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.
The characters in Angus Wilson’s fiction, on the other hand, appear to have taken that Thirties exhortation to heart—too late, naturally enough. It is later than they thought, and they have time only to sketch out a few futile, decent gestures before death or disaster carries them away. Anthony Powell, Waugh’s friend and near-contemporary (Waugh was born in 1903, died in 1966; Powell was born in 1905), is closer to Pinfold. His characters know it’s always pretty late, but the narrator of Powell’s Music of Time would add a mild, Proustian postscript: the chemistry of Time itself, the process by which it gets just as late as you thought it was, is a fascinating spectacle, and not merely the exhibition of collapse and decay that Waugh insistently affected to see in it.
As for P.G. Wodehouse, the whole notion of time is so foreign to his work, and apparently to his life, that it seems rather crude even to mention its absence. Wodehouse was born in 1881, and has produced two very funny volumes each year since something like the age of three. Manor Books have just put out what they call a ninetieth-birthday edition of all the Jeeves stories, but Wodehouse is ninety-two already, pipping Time once again, as Bertie Wooster might say, at the post.
It’s later than Angus Wilson thinks in another sense: too late in the century, or perhaps simply in his life, for the kind of novel he keeps writing. I don’t mean it’s too late in some formal, scholastic way, that the gates are closed now, that no one can write old-fashioned novels any more and I refuse Angus Wilson the right to a comeback. I mean that on the evidence, Wilson’s talent no longer seems to be making much sense of this form of novel, with an omniscient narrator lurking inside the heads of several of the book’s characters.
Wilson’s omniscience is stretched too thin in As If By Magic and comes off badly when compared with Powell’s careful restriction of his narrative to the point of view of a single character. Wilson, for example, blandly attempts to impersonate Americans, has them say things like, “God rot his two-timing soul.” Powell has his Americans, in Temporary Kings, talk more or less like Englishmen (they say, “I’ve been spun many yarns” and “If you don’t mind my saying so”); but then they behave like Americans, whereas Wilson’s figures behave like nothing on earth. It is not a question of Powell’s having a technical alibi, since he can blame his failures on his narrator, and thereby make them part of the fiction. It is a question rather of Powell’s focusing his real subject properly: he is trying to get his thoughts on his Americans straight, and so manages to say something about the Americans themselves. Wilson is trying to catch his Americans, like a coleopterist, like a realist; and catches only corn.
As If By Magic is the story of two travelers, varieties of English innocents abroad. Hamo Langmuir, a diffident, queer agronomist who is impotent as soon as he notices signs of age in a boyfriend, has invented a formula for growing rice which will feed the hungry of the world. This none too subtle ironic set-up (the agent of fertility is himself gay, and sterile) becomes a sort of metaphor when Hamo, on a world trip, discovers that many of the really poor and hopeless in Asia are not helped by his rice because they can’t grow it in the rotten soil that is all they have. But then Hamo, converted to the cause of these people, dies accidentally in a riot in Goa. Meanwhile, his goddaughter Alexandra, badly confused by her squabbling parents, by an unexpected child of her own, and by a surfeit of D.H. Lawrence at the university, spends some time in a commune in Morocco before moving on to, of course, Goa. She inherits Hamo’s money and his desire to do something for the Third World, and while she has now learned that there are no easy answers in life, that nothing is solved by magic (or by Lawrence), she will struggle on, she will just try to be as decent as she knows how.
The message is worthy, perhaps, but hardly invigorating, and it certainly won’t carry a long, tedious, portentous novel on its back. It might if the novel were better written, but I doubt it. As it is, Wilson’s language, which in Hemlock and After, say, or Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was a disciplined, intelligent, funny affair, now just tries half-heartedly for a few jokes and insights, then gives up, becomes the language of a writer who has mistaken. his own rather lazy literary manner for the way the world really is. Worse, in fact: a writer who can’t really be bothered even to have a manner, and who can’t work up much enthusiasm for the way the world really is either. Here is one of Wilson’s better descriptive passages:
…bougainvillea tumbled its magenta streams as in any respectable Victorian greenhouse, but the admired, showy colourful bracts were vestigial, and the modest, usually unnoticed cruciform, cream-coloured flower petals were monstrous and bold….
The very faint intention of making us see these flowers sinks into uncontrolled pedantry. Here is an analysis of a state of mind, in which a dull metaphor is made worse by an insistent, unimaginative symmetry:
…the sight let loose visual waves that bombarded the identity he had so carefully constructed over the last years and fractionated it far more completely than any audio waves of literary chatter could ever do.
But these are only minor reflections of a larger failure. As If By Magic is governed by a vast, careless, lordly condescension both toward its characters and toward its readers. The characters can’t complain, of course; but we can.
I had trouble for some years in reading Anthony Powell’s later novels. His imitation of Proust seemed blatant to the point of pastiche, even of plagiarism, and the imitation was not merely of Proust, but of Proust in English, Scott Moncrieff’s Proust. This, believe it or not, is Powell:
…nothing establishes the timelessness of Time like those episodes of early experience seen, on re-examination at a later period, to have been crowded together with such unbelievable closeness in the course of a few years; yet equally giving the illusion of being so infinitely extended during the months when actually taking place.
There is in Powell the same louche, semi-bohemian world, the ragged fringes of an aristocracy jostling with a mob of writers, painters, musicians, foreign royalty, and big industrialists; the same insistence on caricature, on comic set-pieces; the same intermittent reflections on time and life and love; the same multiplying cross references to figures met earlier in the fiction; even the same tricks of style, like the choice of playful, grandiose analogies for familiar, local events. Proust compares the sky above the Gare St. Lazare to the sky in Mantegna when Christ is being taken down from the cross. Powell’s sequence of novels begins by associating a group of workmen digging up an English street with a painting of the Seasons by Poussin, which in turn suggests an awkward, intricate dance to the music of Time and gives Powell the title of his novel sequence—twelve volumes are planned, Temporary Kings is the eleventh.
But Powell is scrupulously aware of how much he is borrowing; keeps showing us his narrator, Nick Jenkins, reading Proust; parodies Proust for a page or two at one point; has Nick find himself, at the end of the Second World War, in Cabourg, Proust’s Balbec. Nick recognizes the place only some time after a reasonably alert reader will have seen where he is, and is saddened by his failure of attention. He consoles himself with the thought that missing a trace of Proust was a Proustian enough experience in its way: “a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent.”
The joking, English diffidence of Nick’s formulation (think how Proust himself would have agonized on such a failure) marks the distance that separates Powell from Proust and indicates, perhaps, how one can come to read him with pleasure, can forget all about his extensive, and in any case fully acknowledged, debts. The Music of Time is a discreet, minor homage to Proust; but it is also a sort of muted answer to Proust, a restrained cross-channel echo. Not a quest, and not a record of an exceptional sensibility, it portrays merely a dance, and progressively reveals the not unattractive, as Powell might say, but distinctly ordinary mind of the man watching the dancers.
Although it looks like a chronicle, The Music of Time is really as set of strictly selected, highly focused scenes, spots of time rather than chunks or stretches of it. The scenes serve to underscore myths, point up patterns. connect characters, sever identities, and only incidentally, it seems to me, record anything much about the history of England. That is to say that the books offer the pleasures primarily of formal design, or more precisely of designs forming and unforming and reforming, like figures in a dance. The most persistent pleasure to be had from reading Powell is that of having your expectations skillfully and elegantly cheated: the musician plays a strange chord, or an old chord you haven’t heard for a long time, even a wrong note now and then. Characters drop in and out with what seems afterward to have been inevitability, but at the time surprised you completely: you really thought it was someone else at the door.
Powell rings the changes on his images in this way too, even on images which seem at first glance too banal to be of any use. Thus in Temporary Kings we meet up with old acquaintances of Nick’s who have become vintage car buffs. Since one of them used to be a racing driver this seems a particularly apt interest for his declining years, a nice joke from Powell; and since all these men seem to be feeling their age, they may even sense an unconscious kinship with those old vehicles. In any case the hobby is pointless enough and expensive enough to suit these people very well, and we forget about the cars, since nothing suggests we shall see them again.
At the end of the novel Nick is walking back across Westminster Bridge, having been to see a friend in the hospital. A persistent, light rain is falling and in this drizzle appear clusters of vintage cars, their drivers dressed in Edwardian rig. It is an enthusiasts’ rally, but it is also, in the 1960s, a baroque procession of Time itself, a frieze of things past, and a wonderful figure to end a novel on. Nick meets his ghastly old schoolmate Widmerpool, a powerful figure these days, who has survived accusations of spying for a communist country and the singular demise of his wife, who died during intercourse with her lover. Mrs. Widmerpool appears to have taken an overdose of pills just before the act in order to secure this lurid effect. Widmerpool, although still distressed and edgy, seems fundamentally unchanged. He is the continuing, ludicrous present. Nick and he separate; and the farcical past, in the shape of those old cars, continues across the bridge in the rain.
Blandings Castle slept in the sunshine. Dancing little ripples of heat-mist played across its smooth lawns and stone-flagged terraces. The air was full of the lulling drone of insects….
It was a lovely day of blue skies and gentle breezes. Bees buzzed, birds tootled, and squirrels bustled to and fro, getting their suntan in the bright sunshine. In a word, all Nature smiled….
This is Wodehouse weather, the eternal climate of Wodehouse’s perfectly frivolous version of pastoral. The scene is an English country house, of course, overrun with silly asses, pretty girls, various coves and blighters, dignified manservants, the odd beetle-browed father or uncle and a devastating aunt or two, possibly even one of those beefy intellectual girls like the redoubtable Honoria Glossop, who reads Nietzsche and is said to have “the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.” There will be a pair of crooks after the local jewels, a henpecked husband regularly in trouble for his excesses at the pastry tray, and a grumpy, rich old suitor of one of the sterner ladies staying at the local inn, his temperament soured perpetually by crippling indigestion. There will be a few impediments to the course of true love, which never doth, Wodehouse would say, run all that smooth anyway, but all will be well in the end.
The human lives in the story, aided by Jeeves if he is in attendance, by a few sharp strokes of extraordinary good luck if he isn’t, will shape up and do what they can to approach the paradisal standards of the weather. I have described the action of The Plot That Thickened, more or less; a new novel, but the description will serve for countless other Wodehouse works—Time is canceled again.
It is hard not to see Wodehouse as an important influence on both Waugh and Powell, an impressive example of the range of possibilities of English fatuity as a source of style. But Waugh and Powell, even at their lightest, smuggle hints of seriousness into their work, and Wodehouse has never been serious at all. We shouldn’t complain. Genuinely trivial literature, absolutely innocent of larger meanings, is very rare indeed; it is as close as a writer can come to an acte gratuit, pure play; and paradoxically enough it takes a lot of hard work to achieve it.
Of course Wodehouse’s work is not absolutely innocent of larger meanings, because no ordered structure of words is. But he has done his best. He is neither nostalgic nor wishful, his batty world has no place either in a lost past or in a desired future, it is as unreal as an imagined human world can be, a frozen universe of archetypes, a dance of entirely predictable assumptions about English social life. Here is Bertie Wooster at an entertainment in the village hall at Twing—the transparency of the idées reçues and the skill with which Bertie’s breezy silliness is put across are what matter. One would need to change only a few words to make the whole thing very heavy going, and quite ugly—just as in many movies one would need only a clumsier performance from the actor playing the villain for a balanced ritual encounter to turn into a sort of loose celebration of sadism.
As always on these occasions, the first few rows were occupied by the Nibs—consisting of the Squire, a fairly mauve old sportsman with white whiskers, his family, a platoon of local parsons and perhaps a couple of dozen prominent pewholders. Then came a dense squash of what you might call the lower middle classes. And at the back, where I was, we came down with a jerk in the social scale, this end of the hall being given up entirely to a collection of frankly Tough Eggs…. Take it for all in all, a representative gathering of Twing life and thought. The Nibs were whispering in a pleased manner to each other, the Lower Middles were sitting up very straight, as if they’d been bleached, and the Tough Eggs whiled away the time by cracking nuts and exchanging low rustic wheezes.
Wodehouse can swop Groucho-style jokes with the best of them (“George is very high-strung.” “You couldn’t string him too high for me”). But his characteristic manner is less energetic, a calm pursuit of the improbable analogy. “Silence fell upon the room, broken only by a crackling sound like a forest fire as Mr. Steptoe champed his toast.” Jeeves, displeased, replies to Bertie in a “cold, low voice, as if he had been bitten in the leg by a personal friend.” And Wodehouse’s stylistic signature is the jovial, casual, camped up allusion. Macbeth’s “If ‘twere done, ‘twere well ‘twere done quickly” becomes, “As Shakespeare said, if you’re going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over.” Keats, longing for a beaker full of the warm South, “the true, the blushful Hippocrene,” is described as needing a drink. We hear of a “family group out of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s less cheery yarns”; of a man sipping a cocktail in a “frowning, suspicious manner, rather like a chappie having a short snort before dining with the Borgias”; of someone else groaning and wincing “like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch.”
These jokes compromise the innocence of Wodehouse’s world to a degree, for they represent an old-fashioned and not all that playful English variety of anti-intellectualism. They conscript all culture for jokes, tame it, deflate it, and while they do this beautifully, there is a genuine reactionary edge to this activity. “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir,” Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster. “He is fundamentally unsound.” A good joke; and true enough, for that matter.
But the point is aimed not only at Honoria Glossop, who reads Nietzsche (and has a “laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast”), but at everyone who speaks about Nietzsche or anything like Nietzsche except as a joke; and the larger implication of these gags, as it is of all the Jeeves stories, is that brains have to be kept in their proper place—in Jeeves’s head, that is, and at the service of the half-witted aristocracy, who need all the intellectual help they can get (but won’t put up with any intellectuals). Brains must not, for example, be allowed to go galloping round Europe giving people ideas. Thus the Jeeves stories are particularly comforting if you are inclined to worry not only about the lower classes getting uppity (Jeeves, a man of remarkable intelligence, is happy to be a gentleman’s gentleman) but about excesses in the way people are using their minds these days: anything from Nietzsche to the Russian Revolution to students occupying buildings or throwing eggs at Tory politicians. What Jeeves means is that the best brains are still on our side; in our pay. Jeeves, in his retiring, impeccable way, is James Bond.
But of course even at this modest level, the function of Wodehouse’s fiction is not really to comfort worriers. Its function is to flesh out whatever dim fantasy it is that makes Anglo-Saxons on both sides of the Atlantic so keen to see England as a place of thatch and grace and mindless courtesy. It is a desire, as I say, not for the English past, but for an English-speaking pastoral; quite unimportant for most of us except as an occasion for Wodehouse’s jokes. Wodehouse is nonaddictive, irrelevant, he won’t get you hooked. Except that we do get hooked, taken by the almost unimaginable frivolity of our pleasure. Wodehouse must be the only good writer left whom no one has told us we ought to read.