By Doug Wagner
When my wife presented me with the gift of Ben Schott’s Jeeves and the King of Clubs, it was like a blank check from heaven. I couldn’t believe it—there was someone out there who appreciated the Jeeves and Wooster books enough to add to the library forty-three years after P.G. Wodehouse’s death. I’d missed the reviews (outside England, its publication would have mattered to an audience the size of a pretty small cult, after all), and here it was in my hands like a new Harry Potter title that no one had known was in the works (at least no one I know).*
Normally, I go to my J&W collection only once a year to ensure that I’ll have corks to pop for many years. Reading such cellar-worthy stories back-to-back would be akin to binging on a case of ’21 Chateau d’Yquem (sorry, the similes tend to flow like you know what after reading Wodehouse and, now, Schott). But this time I dived in with no regard for pacing myself. In other words, I showed moderation as much regard as bibulous protagonist Bertie Wooster does.
For the masses who haven’t had the pleasure, Bertram Wilberforce Wooster is a British gentleman about town (usually London, circa the ’20s and ’30s) who possesses just enough knowledge to be dangerous and whose entanglements with his idle rich cohorts inevitably land him in sticky wickets that only Jeeves, his apparently all-knowing valet, can pry him out of. That’s the “plot” of every J&W title, and the details couldn’t matter less. Reading J&W is about relishing the words on the page that the book happens to open to at any given moment, letting Wodehouse’s facility with both humor and the English language warm you from within like—apologies—a stiff aperitif. Usually, if you thoughtlessly interrupt my annual Wodehouse holiday to ask me what the book is about, I won’t be able to tell you. The story is just a vehicle.
That said, Schott (who’s made a name for himself with a series of almanacs and “miscellanies” that are somehow both esoteric and addictive) has invested noticeably more effort into the manufacturing of his vehicle than Wodehouse ever sank into his. I would be able to tell you what The King of Clubs is about. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth recounting here. It’s worth mentioning, though, as a point of comparison. If you’re a J&W fan, you’re no doubt curious about how effectively Schott flatters Wodehouse with imitation. And the answer is, overall, very effectively. The fact that the plot actually holds the reader’s attention from chapter to chapter does nothing to distract from the pleasure to be found in the Wodehousian language that dazzles from sentence to sentence.
A bigger departure, though, is the fact that Bertie often comes off as downright competent, able to both carry out schemes and plot his way out of them, whereas Wodehouse’s Bertie was unwaveringly inept. And the new Bertie has taken his relationship skills to a new level, to the point where we’re led to believe that should Schott write another installment, it may finally find Bertie in the arms of a woman who’s neither a twit nor a barracuda. A good woman. A woman worthy of pursuing rather fleeing from. Of course, that would mean the end of Bertie’s footloose, fancy-free ways and maybe even his need for Jeeves’ protective genius, so I for one will be hoping for the worst for Bertie, love him as I do.
As for the rhapsodic language I keep waxing about, that represents the biggest challenge for anyone who would become the twenty-first century Wodehouse. Let’s just say Wodehouse is the fanciful Fitzgerald. Though both wrote about the independently wealthy of roughly the same era, Wodehouse took their problems a jot less seriously, and the result is its own kind of poetry, delivered from a perspective and in a voice that are both unique in literature. More impressive, the J&W books are laugh-out-loud funny. There’s not another author who regularly makes me laugh out loud, and that’s as high as any praise I can offer anyone for anything. Granted, humor is a highly subjective thing, so you really need to explore J&W yourself (the early-’90s TV series that perfectly cast Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry might be the quickest way to test the waters). In the meantime, I present for your consideration some first-rate passages where Schott proves to be in perfect harmony with Wodehouse’s ebullient spirit, listed by category:
PUNS “ ‘Et tu, valet?’ ” (Though this level of wit also seems beyond the range of the Bertie of old.)
COLORFUL EXPRESSIONS “ ‘Splendid! Come and wash your neck (have a drink) any time after nine.’ ”
WORDS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN OR HAVEN’T SEEN IN A WHILE, LET ALONE IN DIALOGUE Poltroon (coward), mystacinous (having a stripe or fringe of hairs suggestive of a mustache)
POETRY WITH A SIGNATURE TWIST “Lambert Lyall is one of those curious old shops even Dickens would have called Dickensian. No matter the date, or the weather outside, once you are ensconced within its dark, oak paneling it’s perpetually Christmas Eve and you have trudged through drifting snow to locate the perfect gift for a brutally exacting aunt.”
I could go on. And I could also pick some nits in the name of lexicographic perfection, considering Wodehouse’s supreme command of words and his characters’ revelry in their impeccable use. (Hey, when you’re trying to replicate a master’s mastery, proceed at your own peril.) I could point out that within a span of three pages in The King of Clubs, Bertie tosses off the word campanological like a champ and mispronounces tenterhooks as tenderhooks. Not bloody likely, to quote some countrymen he isn’t likely to rub shoulders with. Granted, Bertie isn’t always certain about a particular word’s use, which he’ll acknowledge up front, as in “All had been verve, if that’s the word I want, and animation” (from Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves), but mispronunciation isn’t among his plenteous foibles. I could also cite at least one case where Bertie declines to use a gerund that’s begging to be used. He may not do much to advance society with the broad vocabulary he bought at Eton and Oxford, but there’s no denying that the man can put words together like few other characters in fiction and knows when to use a gerund.
Like I said, nits, and I’m not going to pick them. That would be like complaining about a blank check from heaven. Instead, I’ll just say my prayers that Bertie’s personal development proves as fleeting as his interest in most things that require work.
JEEVES AND THE KING OF CLUBS
By Ben Schott
320 pp., Little Brown, $27
* I’d also missed the reviews of 2013’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, by Sebastian Faulks, and it never occurred to me to do the occasional Google search for homages to Wodehouse. Lesson learned.