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Very well, sir, if you insist
The Wodehouse estate has asked British writer Sebastian Faulks to pen a new Bertie and Jeeves novel. Fans are dismayed. Even with several vitalising oolongs, will Faulks be able to fill those eccentric shoes?
As a young child afraid of the dark, I would often sleep with a PG Wodehouse under my pillow. It was something to scare off the dark shapes, the monsters, and all the things the night brought. My soldiers against the terrors were the loony characters who inhabited that bright sunshine world: good-for-nothing saps, drippy young women, manic aunts, butlers with a thing for quoting Shakespeare, pig-loving lords, why, even ludicrous Hitler worshippers. Leading the army was Bertie Wooster.
The biggest disasters in Wodehousian neverland involved a teetotaller newt-lover getting drunk on a school prize-giving night or a dyspeptic uncle withholding money from a wastrel nephew or a cow creamer disappearing from the mantlepiece.
This world was my armour - and that of many other Wodehouse fans - against the tedium of the real world. While everything else was going wrong, Bertie was still waking up bleary eyed at noon to a vital oolong, and heading for a walk with his whangee to Drones Club for some serious bread-crumb chucking. You couldn't touch the bubble wrapped around him. He was beyond bad marks, heartbreak, horrid bosses and diabetes.
Wodehouse fans can get together and have long conversations no one else can fathom: about not batting an eyelid when someone asks "Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?" or even the most unanswerable question in the world asked by the temperamental French cook Anatole: "Would you or wasn't it?"
This is not a world you can revive in the 21st century, not even if you get the most savvy and intelligent wordsmith to do it for you. What new spin can you give it, what new plots can you fold in and how can you tap the ridiculous in a way that the master hasn't already? That explains the howl of protest that was unleashed when the Wodehouse estate announced that they had chosen the British writer Sebastian Faulks to write a Jeeves and Wooster novel.
Serious-minded pedants have criticised Wodehouse for chronicling an unreal society untouched by poverty or sleaze. But that was the whole point. It was, in fact, a mock world, an exaggeration of the foibles of a time. We believed it because it was so unbelievably funny and so impossibly untouched by reality. But it is gone, and gone so long that it is best it stays where it is, spun in a time warp, untouched by sequels, prequels, franchise and merchandise. It doesn't need a new title, a version 2. 0 or even a 140-character take.
I remember the release of the Stephen Fry-Hugh Laurie Jeeves and Wooster series in 1990 and the agonised argument among Wodehouse fans. Was Laurie goofy enough, wasn't there some intelligence in his eyes, was Fry pompous enough, shouldn't he be a little rounder than this? And once we settled into the series, they were the only ones we could ever imagine as Jeeves and Wooster. When Laurie took on the role of an angsty doctor in House it was almost like a personal insult.
Precisely who wants more Wodehouse books? Not his fierce fans. We have all given Bertie, Jeeves, Boko Fittleworth, Aunts Agatha and Dahlia, Uncle Tom, Gussie Fink-Nottle and several others closure in the mindspace occupied by beloved characters. I imagine Bertie living in the eternal vacant splendour of bachelorhood tended to by Jeeves. The fact is that Wodehouse led us on a riotous journey and then left us where he wanted us in the lives of his characters. We owe it to him to stay put there. We loved the highly charged romantic friction that marked Pride and Prejudice, we didn't really need to see Darcy and Elizabeth enjoying breakfast in marital harmony in PD James' Death at Pemberton.
A large part of the joy of reading Wodehouse and others like him is the knowledge that it is so precious, that there will be no more of it and so little of it. Now that prequels and sequels are a regular feature of literary and cinematic works, do they really give us that twinge the limited editions did? How does it matter if Obi-Wan Kenobi dies, we can go back to his early life, reimagine him...do what we choose with his life.
These literary continuations, as they are called, never work, not when someone else writes Sherlock Holmes, James Bond (Sebastian Faulks was chosen by the Bond estate to write a new Bond book in 2008), Bourne or even Enid Blyton's Famous Five. And it is not as if the new writers aren't good writers;they are, but not in someone else's bespoke shoes. In an interview with the Guardian, this is what Alexander Horowitz, who did a painstakingly good job of imitating Doyle in the 2011 Holmes novel, The House of Silk, had to say about sequels: "I'm not a huge fan of prequels and sequels, and the cynical rush to make money on the back of books by other writers who are now dead... But the notion of actually moving into 221B Baker Street and spending a bit of time with Holmes and Watson was irresistible. "
Filmmakers have it easier. They can play around with legendary characters, turn them around, reinvent them and get away with it. After all films are twice removed from books, there is a thing called a script in the middle. Which is the why we love Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock and salivate over smartphone savvy Benedict Cumberbatch as well. We can even deal with a female Dr Watson if we had to. But the written word it is better left alone.
Sample one of my favourite exchanges, the perfect Wodehouse brand of baloney or banana oil: Lady Glossop to Bertie (thinking he is romancing her daughter Honoria, which of course he isn't ): "Mr Wooster, how would you support a wife?" Bertie: "Well, I suppose it depends on who's wife it was, a little gentle pressure beneath the elbow while crossing a busy street usually fits the bill."
See what Faulks is up against? This isn't a template to follow, a stencil to fill in. It is pure genius.
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