Friday, July 13, 2007

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Black Mamba's comment on my post about travel reads reminded me of one other incredible travel read that I forgot to mention - mostly because I tend to think of it less as a book and more as an experience.

This happened on a trip my parents and I took to Darjeeling and Sikkim a decade and a half ago. I was twelve (thirteen?) and had discovered Wodehouse (starting with Joy in the Morning) some six months ago. On this particular trip, we were carrying two Wodehouses with us - Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves and The Luck of the Bodkins - brand new books bought less than a week before the trip as part of 'essential supplies'. On the first day out, sitting in our hotel room, we decided, just for a lark, to try reading one of the books out aloud. The plan was that we would take turns reading - each person taking one chapter (though when my chapter proved to be only a few pages long my parents were kind enough to let me 'share' theirs - even then I was infatuated with the sound of my own voice) and the whole thing progressing at three chapters a night.

I don't know if you've ever tried reading Wodehouse aloud. Hilarious as the man is read in the quiet of your own room, he's positively side-splitting when shared aloud in a group. Part of it is that reading him aloud forces you to linger over every little nuance, every clever aside. Part of it is that sharing the book with a group (and especially a group that includes one precocious twelve year old) creates an atmosphere of almost hysterical merriment, so that even some of the master's more predictable usages begin to seem uproariously funny. Part of it is that having the story drawn out over a whole week tends to amplify the element of surprise (not something I'd paid much attention to reading Wodehouse by myself) so that every new plot twist (arrived at, as it is, after days of chugging through the story) begins to feel like a wondrous discovery (remember, none of us had ever read the book before - so we didn't know what was going to happen), one that makes you laugh out loud. Finally, there's the inevitable gap between what the reader is reading out loud and what he or she is reading in his / her head, which means that every punch line, every comic turn of phrase hits you just one second before you actually read it - with the result that you have the reader breaking into a chuckle in the middle of a sentence, putting the book down and having a good long chortle, then going back to read whatever it was that was so funny; at which point, of course, the other two would start giggling and the whole room would rock with laughter. The closest thing I've ever experienced to the merriment of those is the experience of sitting with a group of friends while blindingly drunk (though obviously this was not something I was familiar with at the time).

At any rate, it wasn't long before this nightly ritual of ours had become one of the highlights of the trip. Even today, looking back on it fifteen years later, what I remember most vividly about that vacation is the nightly adventures of Messrs. Wooster, Fink-Nottle, Sidcup and Plank. Reading Wodehouse on that trip isn't just one of my happiest experiences on a vacation or one of my happiest associations with a book - it's one of the happiest memories of my life.

Oh, and Mom and Dad, since I know you're reading this - thanks.


??! said...

one played that same game with friends!
although personally, the Blandings series were much preferred - if only for the "Eh, what?" thing, which was pretty much impossible to get through without cracking up.

km said...

he's positively side-splitting when shared aloud in a group

Absolutely. And I am also wondering how many more Indian parents read out Stiff Upper Lip to their 12-year olds! :)

Now that I can't stand more than a page or two of PGW, maybe it's time to start reading his books aloud again.

Crp said...

Well, mine did... my earliest Wodehouse memory is Dad reading aloud the Crossword-Puzzle story from "Meet Mr Mulliner" to my younger brother (who was 9 at the time). It is amazing to me that something so inalienably English can have a 9 year old in small town India almost choking with laughter.

And I agree -- reading some (but not all) Wodehouse stories aloud works much better than silent browsing. That Mulliner story sounded pretty boring when I read it years later.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

You're so right. Now our local Wodehouse society is planning a public reading. Must check out the Mulliners.

The down-side is, if it's not read well it's awful.


Falstaff said...

Yes, I can see how it would work well with Blandings. We weren't really planning the whole reading aloud thing - it just sort of happened.

km: Could be. Personally, my problem is I've got to the point where I can read an entire PGW novel in under an hour - just by skimming the thing. Which, I suspect, robs it of three-quarters of its charm.

crp: Yes, it is pretty amazing isn't it?

JAP: Ah, best of luck. I don't suppose you could convince your local PGW society to fly me down for a reading, could you?

The Black Mamba said...

JAP: Precisely why audiobooks work great with Wodehouse. You can hardly go wrong with the BBC audio recordings. Besides, its really hard to do justice to the text while driving.

BSN said...

Try reading aloud the Market Snodsbury Grammar school speech scene from RH,J, right from where Bertie first laces Gussie's oj. A rollicking time is guaranteed.

There is a very active Wodehouse society in the US and at least a couple of excellent Wodehouse societies online, including and