Near the end of the last century, I was traversing a difficult break-up. It seemed the only thing that got me successfully out of my depths was watching “Law & Order” which aired incessantly (several times a day, but still not frequently enough) on the cable channel A&E. Those gritty formulaic crimes and solutions, riding on the noble backs of wisecracks from well-worn characters like Lennie Briscoe, helped me survive my dark forest. For an hour at a time, I was distracted enough to gain the relief called numbness–sometimes needed when real things are too hard to face.
Fast forward thirteen years or so, and I need another escape. But we canceled cable last year, and now it wouldn’t be the classic L&O but instead one of its million children or grandchildren, the watered down spin-offs. And I’m sure as beautiful as Mariska Hargitay may be, these pale descendents would not offer the comfort of long-ago Jerry Orbach.
So, to reading. I’m enforcing a brief “vacation” from work-related reading. First I picked up Animal Farm, which I haven’t read since high school, and I love Orwell so want to read it again. But quickly I surmised that wasn’t the right book. Instead, on the beloved shelf I discovered a small gem called The Girl In Blue by P.G. Wodehouse. A student had recommended it to me after a chat when we each admired Wodehouse (on whose birthday, incidentally, I was born). I bought the book without knowing I wouldn’t have time to read it until now. I’ve adored the Bertie Wooster stories since I read the first after watching their dramatizations with the unequaled (pre-“House”) Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. But I’d never ventured outside the sunny, funny confines of Wooster and Jeeves.
The Girl In Blue stands alone, that is, it’s the only book he wrote about this set of characters. But Wodehouse’s hilarious hyperbole rings like a carillon throughout, and will sound to anyone who’s read his other books like the verbal equivalent of tucking into a good silk robe and a mohair chair before the fire, belly full of Anatole’s cooking. The perfect escape. A rollicking plot, and many hilarious twists, unfolding in a world blessedly unfamiliar to mine. But it was impossible to ignore the habit of reading like a writer, and this is good because this time, I found the novel better than escape. It’s Wodehouse’s prose.
In grandiose trappings, his sentences dance through and around what could easily turn to cliché, but he saves them just before they tumble; his facility with the shades and nuances of English spins what could be a simple fun romp into much finer stuff. To hell with the high art/low art debate! To hell with that lofty, sniffing disdain for stories created with the intention of (gasp!) entertainment. (I’ve never really cared about that fight anyway, but it’s fun to officially cast it off here.)
Could I please just spend a year reading through all of Wodehouse? Don’t they award grants for stuff like this? For 2.3 seconds, wild-eyed and laughing, I consider applying for Ph.D. programs, dream of researching a dissertation on the women in Wodehouse, if only so I could immerse myself in the genius of this man’s words.
(Okay, just one more book…)
Now that I have stepped from the safety of Brinkley Court, I will follow Wodehouse anywhere.