Novelist Sebastian Faulks pays homage to P.G. Wodehouse in new comic romp

01/05/2014 8:18 AM

08/08/2014 10:20 AM

“Jeeves and the Wedding Bells: An Homage to P. G. Wodehouse” by Sebastian Faulks (St. Martin’s Press, 251 pages, $25.99)

What ho!

A new novel starring the greatest comic characters of 20th-century English literature, bumbling Bertie Wooster and his unflappable, Spinoza-reading valet Jeeves?

How can this be, one asks oneself, scratching the bean with Bertie-like perplexity. Didn’t P.G. Wodehouse, who brought Jeeves and Bertie to life, hand in his lunch pail on Valentine’s Day in 1975?

Well, old tops, what we have in “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” – something even the mentally negligible Bertie could puzzle out unaided by Jeeves’ massive, fish-fed cerebrum – is imitation Wodehouse.

Very good imitation Wodehouse, from British novelist Sebastian Faulks, who helped himself to heaps of critical praise back in 2008 for writing a James Bond novel titled “Devil May Care.”

But winding up Jeeves and Wooster for new adventures after years on the library shelf is a far more difficult mission than putting 007 through his paces.

Wodehouse was a comic genius, a master of farce, with a distinctive voice. Have there ever been funnier books than “The Code of the Woosters” (1938) or “Joy in the Morning” (1946), or just about any of the dozens of novels and story collections Wodehouse produced over his 93 years? Do we really need someone to add to that corpus, especially since Wodehouse wrote so much that a reader can easily get lost in it for a lifetime?

Faulks knows he isn’t Wodehouse and doesn’t try to be. The voice sounds a lot like Wodehouse, but anyone who has read much Wodehouse will know it isn’t the master. That’s not a knock on Faulks: He’s a novelist, not a copyist. And he humbly – if that’s the word I want – labels his book “an homage” to Wodehouse.

Best of all, whether it’s Wodehouse or Faulks, “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” is a funny book, worth reading. Parts of it brought a chuckle to the lips:

“The Red Lion was a four-ale bar with a handful of low-browed sons of toil who looked as though they might be related to one another in ways frowned on by the Old Testament.” (Bertie describing a village inn in Dorsetshire.)

“I sprang from the armchair like a roosting water-fowl at the sound of a shotgun being closed.” (Bertie reacting to the entrance of a beautiful young woman.)

“The old dear read the message and began to shake her head. Then she peered at me in a way I have grown used to over the years: as though I had been licensed for day release from some corrective institution, but only by a majority vote.” (Bertie describing the reaction of a telegraph operator to a wire he had asked her to send.)

As in all the Jeeves stories, the Jeeves-Bertie badinage is the best part of the package. In fact, it’s where Faulks’ voice becomes almost indistinguishable from Wodehouse’s (and, thanks to the TV series “Jeeves & Wooster,” Bertie sounds like Hugh Laurie and Jeeves sounds like Stephen Fry):

‘Jeeves,’ I said, when I had finally regained the power of speech. ‘This is the bally end.’

‘It would appear that confusion now hath made his masterpiece, sir.’

‘Well, I jolly well wish his masterpiece didn’t involve me in a starring role.’

‘It is a most vexed state of affairs, sir, though perhaps not beyond hope.’

Faulks throws in the usual Wodehousian silly plot, revolving around a weekend at a country house where young hearts are trying to come together and something has to be purloined (in this case, copies of Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage and Burke’s Peerage & Baronetage) to make that happen. And there’s plenty of shinnying up drainpipes.

The biggest problem for a Wodehouse fan confronting Jeeves and Wooster redivivi is that the new author now has charge of the storyline and can take it in directions the characters’ creator probably never envisaged. Sherlock Holmes in the hands of Laurie R. King or Nicholas Meyer might have surprised Arthur Conan Doyle. Wodehouse fans may not care for the outcome of “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.”

Do we need Faulks’ book? No.

Is it worth reading? Yes.

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