måndag 17 november 2014

Very good, Faulks

I was in a grumpy mood for most of last week, but one thing never failed to cheer me: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks's authorised sequel to P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster tales (novels and short stories). Wisely, Faulks doesn't even try to match Wodehouse's linguistic fireworks: there are plenty of good jokes, but not one in every sentence which you can expect from Wodehouse. But the tone is just right, and what's more, Faulks has a marvellous hand with the main characters, Bertie Wooster especially.

It may not seem much of a compliment to say that an author manages to capture Wodehouse's characters. Deep characterisation is not something for which he is famous. But in Bertie Wooster he managed to create a truly loveable character, and in the canny Jeeves an intriguing one. Faulks realises this and does honour to the duo. His bit-part players - with the exception of Bertie's love interest, the splendid Georgiana Meadowes (nice name!) - are no more fleshed out than they are in Wodehouse's books, but it doesn't matter: it's what we're used to.

It may be strange for a villain-lover to be fond of Bertie Wooster, but I confess I am. He may be the ultimate anti-villain, especially if like me you're into earnestly striving bourgeois baddies. He's unfailingly naïve, a bit of an ass, and has never done a hand's turn in his life. But he's sweet with it, and Faulks quite rightly highlights his best points: his kindness and generosity towards others. Few of the scrapes Bertie's got into over the years have benefited himself, except so far that they've ultimately helped him get dis-engaged to a bevy of unsuitable females: instead, he's time and again called upon to take considerable risks and potentially make a fool of himself in order to help his countless pals with their love problems. Faulks's plot follows the Wodehouse template successfully in this instance as in many others. In fact, Bertie may actually stand to lose by his school friend Woody and his intended coming together, yet this thought never even occurs to him, much less deters him from giving Woody a (somewhat ham-fisted) helping hand. I don't know if I'm alone in this or if other villain-lovers recognise the same phenomenon, but I find it easier to like one-hundred-per-cent good eggs like Bertie than characters who are a bit iffy yet still pride themselves on being morally superior to the resident villain. Maybe it's because good eggs are so unthreatening, and Bertie is furthermore helped by the fact that out-and-out villains are thin on the ground in Wodehouseland.

What of Jeeves, then? Strange to relate, there was a time when servants - male ones especially - vaguely unsettled me, and the character of Jeeves did little then to ease my middle-class nervousness. I have always been a little suspicious of his good intentions towards the young master. Bertie may fondly imagine that Jeeves is full of "the feudal spirit", but the gentleman's gentleman takes few risks himself in his convoluted plans: it is Bertie who has to do the dirty work, and in the end, it is Jeeves who gets his own way, in small things - like deciding Bertie's wardrobe - as in larger, like going to the Riviera instead of spending the Christmas season at home. Jeeves may have helped his master out of countless unfortunate engagements, but in doing so he has also done himself a good turn. Bertie's fiancées tend to have one thing in common: they do not like Jeeves, and should Bertie marry one of them, Jeeves would soon have to find employment elsewhere. So, is the brainy Jeeves really concerned about Bertie's happiness, or is he just looking after number one?

Of course, one would like to think the former, and Faulks's Jeeves proves himself to be benign. This time, he actually approves of the girl Bertie has fallen for, and does his darnedest to bring them together rather than to force them apart. This is not to say that Jeeves neglects getting something out of the whole affair for himself, nor that he is above putting the young master in a spot or two - for his own good, naturally.

In sum, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a lovely, sunny read, and just the ticket for surviving dreary November days. It's also one of the best sequels I've read so far. Great stuff, Faulks.