Friday, December 05, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #339: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

The pastiche is one of our oldest literary artforms, and one of the lowest esteemed. (Perhaps only the dirty joke and the limerick can match it either way.)

What is The Aeneid if not Homer fan-fic?

Oh, sure, the entire concept of literary originality didn't arise for another thousand years or so, but, still: shared world, Mary Sue, writing your own sequel to your favorite story? You gotta admit it.

So I try to treat a pastiche like any other book -- sure, this author didn't invent Sherlock Holmes or Bruce Banner or James Bond, but what can she do with those characters? And I similarly try not to mind if the pastiche diverges from the original, because that's the point of an original work -- if you want a Xerox, just call Rochester and they'll hook you up.

All that brings me to Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, the first new novel about Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his amazingly brainy gentleman's personal gentleman in forty years, since Aunts Aren't Gentlemen. Since their creator, P.G. Wodehouse, died just the year afterward, we didn't expect there would be any more freely-available stories about the two until the series dropped into the public domain (which will be never, if Disney has anything to say about it). But the Wodehouse estate, perhaps needing a fresh wodge of the green stuff, commissioned Sebastian Faulks to go back to the old Wodehouse well and see if he could draw up something sweet.

I must warn you that Faulks is a real novelist, who believes in things like character development, specific historical settings, and believable motivation. So some of his choices might come as a bit of a shock to those of us used to Wodehouse's pure musical comedy in words, where the combinations may change but the essential set-up is as fixed and as eternal as the commedia dell'arte. Faulks' ending -- which I won't describe in any detail -- is the perfect example of this: it's the ending of someone who will write one Jeeves and Wooster novel, and not the ending of someone expecting to write another one every three or five years until stopped by the grave.

Faulks also sets his novel explicitly in the 1920s by including a few telling dates -- the Lusitania is mentioned, for one -- which is plausible enough, though it's generally not what Wodehouse did. (A few of the middle Jeeves books try to be contemporary, but Wodehouse mostly gave up all connection to the real world in the mid-1930s, and instead constructed his own world out of one part Edwardianism, one part Roaring Twenties, and about ten parts pure Wodehouse whimsy.) He also doesn't quite try to ape Wodehouse's writing style, though he does settle into a decent facsimile of the right feel: lightly floating, mixing in slapstick and verbal humor equally well, running through a plot filled with absurdities that nevertheless always seems perfectly reasonable in the moment.

There is an impostor here, and a new love for Bertie. There's yet another old schoolfriend, who is as bluff and accomplished and bland as any in the Wodehouse corpus. There's an aristocrat in straightened circumstances, and the shadow of Aunt Agatha. There is a big country house to roam through, and a village fete to perform.

It is not a novel Wodehouse would have written, but he's dead and not writing anything. It's a brisk, funny and Wodehousian novel by Sebastian Faulks, and that, again, isn't something we thought we'd get -- and it's entirely pleasing and amusing.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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