BOOKS NOVEMBER 13, 2013
Those who doubt the inherent subjectivity of the reading experience would do well to pick up Sebastian Faulks’s new novel, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, advertised as “an homage to P.G. Wodehouse.” Even typing that sentence makes me cringe; fellow Wodehouse addicts are liable to undergo a similar shudder. The very thought of someone other than Wodehouse writing a novel about Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves is enough to ensure that those Wodehouseans with sufficient resolve to undertake Faulks’s effort do so with extreme wariness, if not indeed prejudice.
Faulks is actually somewhat of a strange case, or what Bertie might call an odd bird. A respected British writer and author of the superb World War I novel Birdsong, he went on to pen a very mediocre James Bond thriller titled Devil May Care. Although the book contained several passages that expertly recalled Ian Fleming’s snobbery, it was confusing and plot-heavy, without the liveliness of the original 007 stories. Faulks wrote Devil May Care in six weeks as a tip-of-the-hat to the speed with which Fleming cobbled together his novels, but writers are not interchangeable, and the strain showed. (This book’s back cover, evidently trying to prove that writers are interchangeable, quotes a bunch of reviewers lauding Wodehouse).
Now, apparently feeling that he hadn’t quite had his fill of borrowing other authors’ iconic characters, Faulks has taken on the two most fully formed Wodehouse creations. The strain is still evident, as are two looming questions: If he wants to put the same characters through the same paces, what’s the point? (The fact that Wodehouse wrote approximately 100 books in his 94 years only makes this question more acute). Secondly, if Faulks wants to go in a different direction, can he do so without betraying Wodehouse’s vision? Most of Faulks’s book reads like a poor imitation of a second-rate Wodehouse book (of which Wodehouse himself, given his prolific nature, wrote plenty). But Faulks, in crucial ways, also violates the spirit of Wodehouse’s work.
Wodehouse fans know that the plots of his stories are simultaneously dense and light. Jeeves and Bertie, the aimless aristocrat of Edwardian England, generally find themselves at some country estate where all manner of things go wrong: Bertie is pursued by a woman he has no interest in; relatives and friends get into trouble with either love or inheritances; beloved possessions are stolen by dastardly (albeit fundamentally unthreatening) thieves. With the help of the brilliant Jeeves, and usually after some combination of trickery and luck, Bertie remains a bachelor and happily makes his way back to London. (Wodehouse’s numerous non-Bertie stories cover similar ground).
Bertie is a bloody fool, interested only in leisure, but, crucially, sweet and kind. He has no interest in anything remotely serious—including marriage. Jeeves, meanwhile, is brilliant, wise, and unfailingly polite. Within this well-established mold, it is Wodehouse’s language that continually astonishes: his brilliant similes, his hilarious dialogue, his word games. Here is Wodehouse:
Boyhood, like measles, is one of those complaints which a man should catch young and have done with, for when it comes in middle life it is apt to be serious.
This starts intriguingly, but the sting is in the final clause. Faulks does his best to ape Wodehouse’s style, which is deceptively simple. Here is Faulks:
The afternoon reached a rather sleepy passage, like the slow movement in a bit of music at the Albert Hall when you snatch a bracing forty winks to give yourself strength for the rousing finale and the sharp exit to dinner.
No, not quite. For starters, Wodehouse was a master of concision. This may seem like nitpicking, but language is everything in a comic novel. This excerpt is too wordy and the final clause is much too long. The “sharp exit to dinner” is just a continuation of the joke—about having enough strength for the rousing finale—rather than the highlight of the sentence.
Now to women. Bertie is always getting into trouble with girls, and the descriptions of some of his potential love-interests are superb.
Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge. A beastly thing to face over the breakfast table.
Again, the last line completes the joke. Now, here is Faulks, introducing this novel’s major female character:
One rather wondered whether she should be allowed out at all, such a hazard did she pose to male shipping.
This is, quite simply, not funny. (I am not sure I even understand it). To Faulks’s credit, however, he is better with the snappy dialogue between Bertie and Jeeves:
“I thought a number of birds might be dispatched with a single stone, as it were.”“You speak in riddles, Jeeves.”
Still, there is nothing that surpasses even a midrange Wodehouse tale, and nothing truly sensational, either. And the story eventually delivers Faulks into the soup. The plot is a typically Wodehousean scheme, with all the twists and turns (and impersonations) of a usual Bertie adventure, but it goes badly awry in the final act. The problem with the girl described above is less the language used to delineate her personality than the fact that Bertie is completely taken with her. Faulks seems to want to split the difference by presenting the heroine as both annoying (so he can get in his one-liners) and fetching, but it simply doesn’t work.
Worst of all, the last several pages—spoiler alert—feel like a betrayal of everything Bertie and Jeeves are supposed to stand for. (The title furnishes a clue). By the time Bertie makes a big announcement, he is greeted by “the pandemonium of cheering and clapping.” This is the sort of phrase Wodehouse would use to describe some prank at The Drones Club—Bertie’s absurd lunching spot—not an unironic life decision. Near the end of this disappointing book, Bertie notes that he is in “what Jeeves calls terra incognita.” Precisely. And he shouldn’t return to it.