Book Review – Summer Lightning by P. G. Wodehouse

10 May

You can’t be serious about writing humorous fiction – maybe I should just leave it at that, but what I was going to say is that you can’t be serious about writing humorous fiction without some degree of familiarity with the works of the great P. G. Wodehouse, for many the funniest writer in the English language.

I recently renewed my acquaintance with the master after many years and read “Summer Lightning.” This is one of the Blandings Castle books, after the Jeeves and Wooster tales perhaps the best known and best loved of Wodehouse’s creations.

A little way into the book, I was surprised to find myself enjoying it less than I expected to. It’s not difficult to figure out where my problem lies. The plot is funny, of course, and the language is sublime, but – and it’s a big but – there’s no Bertie Wooster telling the tale.

In the Wooster books, it’s Bertie’s character and his reaction to events that makes us chuckle more than the plot. This is heavily dependent on Wodehouse’s brilliant use of the first person narrative, which puts us right there in Bertie’s muddled brain. Bertie leads us through the story, and he is excellent company. It’s this fondness we have for the narrator that lends the stories their charm and immediacy. Take away the first person narrative and you still have the plot and the language, but there’s no Bertie. This is also the reason why no television series has ever been able to do justice to the books, no matter how good the adaptation and how excellent the efforts of Messrs. Carmichael and Price or Lawrie and Fry.

Served up in the third person, Wodehouse’s characters can seem bland. Imagine Aunt Agatha, if she were not seen through Bertie’s eyes. She would not seem half as terrifying. Worse, the “romantic leads” can occasionally be annoying, a case in point being Ronnie Fish in Summer Lightning. The situations his childish jealousy lands him in, make me roll my eyes rather than laugh. This is never a problem in the Wooster books, as Bertie himself never plays this role and the amorous friends he attempts to help are clearly silly asses and a source of exasperation to Bertie, rather than to the reader.

Just when it looks like Summer Lightning is going to be a bit of a disappointment, the action switches to Blandings Castle and Wodehouse hits his stride with a plot whose very complexity makes it hilarious and a set of characters to savour – Lord Emsworth, the Honourable Galahad, Beach the butler, Percy Pilbeam, private eye, and especially the Efficient Baxter, his Lordship’s ex-secretary, whose every action aimed at correcting the widely held view that he is completely bonkers only serves to reinforce the impression that he is not only a first rate loony, but also the kind of scoundrel who would steal his host’s prize pig and blame it on an innocent butler.

Very funny and recommended. I have to give it five stars, even if it is not in the same sublime class as the Jeeves and Wooster books. Those should have six stars.

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