Review: PG Wodehouse – The Man Upstairs and other stories

The Man Upstairs and Other StoriesThe Man Upstairs and Other Stories by PG Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wodehouse has lived on my ‘to do’ list for so long I may have been excused for charging him rent, (or at least demanding he did his own washing up for a change), and yet somehow he has evaded me. I’ve not even managed to see any TV adaptations. Many are the eyes that have goggled me providing visual accompaniment to the words ‘What do you mean you’ve never read him?’

Well now I have, and now I have I’m not entirely sure what to make of him.

Oh, the four stars are worthy to be sure, and were this some lesser light in the literary firmament I might even be tempted to wax mildly lyrical on his or her behalf but darlings, this is the long-anticipated and much-touted Wodehouse, and now I’ve met him I find him somewhat wanting.

On the positive side, the reason for the four stars, Wodehouse has an incredibly light touch. He at least gives the impression of a writer in jovial mood casting off witticism with ease of a dog shaking off bathwater in a sparkling cascade, though for all I know he never published anything without going through 107 drafts and as many sleepless nights. His writing is immensely relaxed with odd notions hopping up and down in whimsical garb, from unanticipated analogy to delightfully eccentric description. One story, were it not for the humour, may even have passed as post-modernist given that ‘the writer’ waved happily from the pages throughout. (I wonder with that one whether he was having a dig at some magazine editor with prescriptive notions of how stories should be written with which Wodehouse disagreed given the nature of the intrusions). The sense throughout is of a man rather enjoying himself at the literary coalface, swinging his pick with a song in his heart and an imp in his head.

For all that Wodehouse gets his four stars, but loses his fifth for plot and for character. How many writers and artists are there out there just waiting to fall in love? And why must fate always intervene most inconveniently to spoil the pleasure, only to prove weak in its obstructions thus to be overcome? A cat down a well would have been nice. I started each new story with a quick prayer ‘Please let this story be about a cat down a well’ but no well, no cat. What did Wodehouse have against cats and wells? The story lines themselves proved as weak as they were repetitive, and the humour would have been served equally with anecdote as its vehicle but no, these were stories proper with beginnings, middles, and ends arranged in precisely the right order. Certainly if someone had told me the plot of one of these stories to encourage me to read Wodehouse I’d have stepped away from them nervously giggling.

This tends to be underlined by the final story in the collection – or at least in my collection, I’m wondering whether I may not have a different one here – In Alcala. It sets out breezily enough in its description of a run-down room in a block of apartments, but the humour seems to ebb. However, this is the strongest story and hosts the most substantial characters. It’s as if Wodehouse felt he was at last on to something in terms of the story itself and didn’t want to distract from it with flippancy. The main character is… well, okay. A writer. And the theme is… yeah, okay, it’s a girl he meets and er… well, fate seems to get in the way and but… no, wait, hold on there, not all is lost! Spoiler alert! The guy doesn’t get the girl! Therefore it is literature, I guess… but no, sorry, though a perfectly fine story in its own right for sure, it’s not going to hack it as a classic.

And so to the summary. A good book filled with wonderful things riding in run-down carriages. A worthy work and I’ll read more Wodehouse quite contentedly but really… those oh-so unroadworthy carriages.

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