Laughing Gas discussion notes

laughing-gasIt was new Member Mike who won the day in proposing Laughing Gas for our next book discussion, but before posting his notes, I thought I’d mention my little challenge in preparing for our next meeting. I waited too long to order a copy of the book, and like many Wodehouseans, I am very fond of the Overlook Press editions. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a new copy and had to order a used one from Abe Books.

Being a frugal person, I jumped at the free shipping offer for an $8 book, but then felt rather stupid when I realized it would arrive March 11, and our next meeting is March 12. Fortunately I found a YouTube video of an audio recording of the book. It’s been a struggle, however, listening to it as I like to read before going to sleep. With a book, however, I am in less danger of falling asleep as the book falls down and hits me in the face if I do nod off. But I keep my iPad flat on my chest because it’s a little too heavy and cumbersome to keep upright, and so I’ve found myself drifting off. Ah, first-world problems.

Laughing Gas Notes

Or Bertie goes to Hollywood and has a transmigratory experience.

(Transmigration:  Transmigration [is] migration from one life (body) to another.)

McCrum’s description of the book is more concise than anything I could think up:

Laughing Gas, which reflects Wodehouse’s lifelong interest in astral matters, is set in Beverly Hills, and tells the story of an Englishman, Reggie, the 3rd Earl of Havershot, and the Hollywood child star Joey Cooley, who exchange identities while under the ether in a dentist’s chair. The novel is narrated by Havershot, who also provides the ‘love interest’ in his contrasting relationships with the star April June and the studio publiscist Ann Bannister. Havershot is trapped for most of the action in Colley’s pampered, juvenile frame. This gives Wodehouse the opportunity to make several cracks against the absurdities of the Hollywood system”
(pg 235 Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life)

This is really Bertie Wooster, without Jeeves, on a family errand in Hollywood. It is narrated in a first-person style, with many of Wooster’s expressions sprinkled throughout the book. Bertie’s first appearance in the Jeeves stories was not as Bertie Wooster but a Mannering-Phipps (short story: Extracting Gussie). Wodehouse may have recycled that name for this story. Eggy’s name after all is Mannering.  Jeeves must have been at Bognor Regis.

Set in America, written and published in 1936, this comes at the end of Wodehouse’s second foray into Hollywood. The nice thing that his publishers were doing to assist with the way Wodehouse was taxed, was to publish once in the US and the second edition in France. Both publications garnered him $20K each in 1936 dollars or $347K in current dollars. Meanwhile during his stays in Hollywood he picked up over $1M (current dollars) for negligible work for the studios.

Wodehouse’s brother Ernest Armine Wodehouse. Armie, was a poet, theosophist and editor of the Theosophical Society Magazine, The Herald of the Star. Occultism was a popular topic in the 20s. It was of interest to PG as he attended at least three seances in the mid to late 20s. When PG died, some sixty titles relating to the occult were found in his possession. In my opinion, while Laughing Gas deals with the “migration of one body to another,” I’m not sure this is “occult” related. Perhaps in the 30s such things were considered to be occult, today it seems that the title of the book is more appropriate when discussing such topics. Maybe PG was giving his brother a gentle poke.

Casual Racism:  No Blackface!  However we get some 1930s expressions:  Jap, Negroid Train Attendant, untutored savage, and Coloured Brother, (which is just a curious choice of words).

We have a full-fledged “souse” in the form of Eggremont “Eggy” Mannering, whose mannerisms are pure stereotypical drunkenness that would set a standard for “educated” drunks for decades (Arthur with Dudley Moore is the last of the sympathetic comic “drunken” characters).

Wodehouse’s writing has a sense of timelessness. Oh sure, there are things that don’t exist anymore: titles and clubs. But this book is a snapshot of 30s Hollywood, with the mention of several movie stars, (Jimmy Cagney, Ronald Coleman, Fred Astaire, Clark Gable) and a brief passing of Hitler and Mussolini as they compared to studio heads (with the German and Italian placing favorably in the lineup).

We welcome the return of the that time-honored card game, known for parting a fool and his money … Persian Monarchs.

We meet Joey Cooley, who as a child star has to maintain a facade of golden curls and short pants. The “idol” of today’s American Motherhood, he longs to go home to Ma, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Not necessarily a sympathetic character, especially when he does start bopping people on their noses. On the other hand, we see from today’s perspective he was being exploited. Havershot’s life as Joey Cooley and his interactions with the other boys, probably gave Plum a chance to revisit some his “boys” books from 30 years earlier.

Reggie Havershot, (Bertie in an Earl’s clothing), is the adult in Joey’s body. As the two switch bodies, we learn little of Joey’s perspective during the novel and his visits are like apparitions, fleeting and ominous. His foray into bodily assault earns him the title of “fiend,” one that he relishes.

Two love interests—April June and Ann Bannister. Two ends of the Wodehouse female spectrum. One a gorgeous, phony movie star and the other an earnest, likable best friend female with a heart of gold. Guess who our hero will end up with?

If Plum’s defense of being “non-political” or politically naive was a stretch after his pre-War broadcasts, his interview that brought the wrath of the movie studios down on him was possibly met with the same innocent response. In the scene at April June’s where Havershot/Joey is interviewed and where he fixes himself a scotch and smokes a cigarette, he does get to mock the studios. Then to my thought, HE plays out the idea that it was the young child being preyed upon by the press. This may have been his response to the war time broadcasts. While not a child, he was naive.

The number of people impersonating other people in this book staggering.  From the main characters to the three kidnappers at the end, there have rarely been this many characters representing them selves as other people, or in disguise.

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Next up: Laughing Gas

laughing-gasThe Den(ver) of the Secret Nine will next meet at 12:30 pm March 12 at Pints Pub in downtown Denver to discuss Laughing Gas after having had a very enjoyable January meeting when we discussed Galahad at Blandings. I’m afraid I’m remiss in forgetting who eventually one the day in promoting Laughing Gas as our next book to read. I have a hazy recollection that it was either member Mike F. or member Ed D. Whichever of those worthies one the day, you are charged with providing the discussion notes for the meeting.

Laughing Gas is one of Wodehouse’s forays into the world of Hollywood and I think the story is a standalone, both in having little connection to the rest of the Wodehouse universe and also in being Plum’s most metaphysical work.

Galahad at Blandings discussion notes

As is our custom, the person who proposed the next book for discussion should provide the meeting notes, and this month Member Janette has that privilege:

Galahad at Blandings—10 obscure facts

  1. The publishing house, Herbert Jenkins Limited, was sold after 47 years of publishing Wodehouse in England. When Barrie & Rockcliff took over, despite the fact that Herbert Jenkins Limited was one of the oldest and best-known names in publishing, the headline was: “Wodehouse Publishers are Sold”. Barrie & Rockcliff kept the imprint of Herbert Jenkins, mostly just for Wodehouse books.
    Galahad at Blandings was published in America by Simon & Schuster in 1965 as The Brinksmanship of Galahad Threepwood, and 6 months later on August 26, 1965 in England as Galahad at Blandings. Wodehouse was 84.
  2. A letter to J.D. Grimsdick of Herbert Jenkins, from Wodehouse from November 27, 1964
    Dear J.D.
    The Galahad books arrived after I had written to you. Did you ever see a ghastlier jacket in your life? One would have thought that anyone reading the book would have gathered that Gally was a dapper elderly man, considering that he is full described, and this son of unmarried parents has made him look twenty-five and one of the Beatles at that. Taken in conjunction with the loathsome title, one feels that P. Schwed (Wodehouse’s American publisher at Simon & Schuster) ought to rent a padded cell in some not too choosy lunatic asylum.
    Yours ever,
    P.G.
    — from P.G. Wodehouse, a Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
  3. Galahad at Blandings was Plum’s refuge from pain, as he was writing it during the time of the diagnosis of Ethel’s cancer. But it did not go smoothly. “The flow of inspiration was not what it had been.” He confessed to his editor Grimsdick that, although he believed his new Blandings novel was one of the best of the series, he had cheated in its composition. “For the American version I have put in one or two passages from old books, because nobody over here will remember them.”
    …has been called one of his “sunniest and funniest books”, which is particularly fascinating considering what was going on in his personal life when he wrote it.
    — from Wodehouse, A Life by Robert McCrum
  4. It is the 9th full length novel to be set in Blanding Castle. Two books of Blandings short stories preceded it as well.
  5. On the Empress’s diet:
    Wodehouse’s typescript for Sunset at Blandings reminds us of another problem: how much food did the Empress get? Lord Emsworth had always insisted on the Wolff-Lehmann diet as recommended by his favourite book, Whiffle’s The Care of the Pig on a daily intake of 57,000 or more calories. In three separate passages in earlier books Wodehouse had given it as 57,800 calories, in one passage 57,500 calories, and in others 57,000. But in Galahad at Blandings, he gave it twice as 5,700 calories, and this figure is repeated in the Sunset at Blandings typescript. I am assured by the Agricultural Press Ltd. Information Service that 5,700 is a far more realistic figure than 57,800, and that the Lehmann pig feeding system was essentially one in which boiled or steamed potatoes were used to replace barley meal on a 4 to 1 basis. The Berkshire was once a numerous breed: now, however, it is a ‘minor fancier’s pig’. All Berkshires are black, though sometimes white round the feet. Wodehouse refers to the Empress as a black Berkshire, but no illustrator took his word for it till after his death.
    — Plum Sauce, a Wodehouse Companion
  6. Wodehouse and Homer
    also from Plum Sauce by Richard Usborne
    “The long entry on Homer in my edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica is by the later Professor Gilbert Murray. In 1957, Murray said: ‘When I became ninety, many telegrams came to congratulate me or perhaps condone with me. The first was from the Prime Minister of Australia. The second from the Prime Minister of England. The third from P.G. Wodehouse. I have a great admiration for Wodehouse and the sequence gratified me.’
    “Murray did not bring any references to Wodehouse into his Encyclopedia article on Homer, but I have heard Oxford dons elaborate a theory that, quite apart from Murray’s admiration for both, there is a mystical communion between the two authors so widely separated by centuries. These Senior Common Room scholiasts (the Oxford English Dictionary defines a scholiast as an ancient commentator upon a classical writer, so I have the mot juste) say that Homer and Wodehouse write, with deliberate, artistic purpose, about comparable societies, lordly or near-lordly, past, almost timeless, and yet in certain respects engagingly anachronistic; that each author writes a private language, rich in imagery, allusions, repetitions, formulaic expressions and suppressed quotations; that if the subtitle of The Iliad was The Wrath of Achilles, the subtitle of any Omnibus of Bertie Wooster’s writings could well be The Wrath of Aunt Agatha. And so on.
    “Personally, I would add to the dons’ spot passages a quotation from T.E. (Lawrence of Arabia) Shaw’s Introduction to his translation of The Odyssey. Shaw was writing of the sort of man he deduced, from internal evidence, the author [Homer] to have been. The parallels are remarkable:
    …a bookworm, no longer young, living from home, a mainlander, city-bred, domestic … a dog-lover… fond of poetry, a great if uncritical, reader … with limited sensuous range, but an exact eyesight which gave him all his pictures… tender charity of heart and head for serving-men …the associate of menials, making himself their friend and defender by understanding… loved the rural scene. No farmer, he has learnt the points of a good olive tree (for Wodehouse read “pig” or “Pumpkin” for olive tree) … He had sailed upon and watched the sea … seafaring not being his trade (Wodehouse had been destined for the Navy as a boy). Neither land-lubber nor stay-at-home nor ninny … He makes a hotch-potch of [historical] periods … pages steeped in a queer naivity .. sprinkled tags of epic across the pages.. very bookish, this house-bred man .. verbal felicity … recurring epithets… the tale was the thing.
    It is at Blandings Castle that Wodehouse seems to offer his Homeric parallels most noticeably, particularly in the matters of trophies and counters of exchange.”
  7. American Novels also published in 1965 include In the Heat of the Night and The Sterile Cuckoo.
    British Novels published in 1965 include At Bertram’s Hotel, The Emporer of Ice Cream, Hotel, The Looking Glass War and The Magus.
  8. There is no Norwegian edition of Galahad at Blandings, although there is of most of his other books.
  9. There is a map of the interior of Blandings Castle. I will bring a print-out to the meeting.
  10. In a write up called “Probable references to Gilbert & Sullivan in Wodehouse, sits the following:
    Galahad at Blandings (US title: The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood, 1965)
    He was not quite sure what was the penalty for the crimes he had committed, but he had an idea that it was something lingering with boiling oil in it, and the thought depressed him. (Ch. 10.2)
    Source: The Mikado
    http://www.madameulalie.org

Bonus:

From http://www.Blandings.no

Facebook Pages about Wodehouse:

Fans of P G Wodehouse (Open group)

The Drones Club (P.G. Wodehouse Fans) (Closed group)

P G Wodehouse Quotations (and similar material) (Open group)

P. G. Wodehouse – Illustrated (Page)

P. G. Wodehouse (Page)

A Toast to Plum (Page)

Blandings.no (Page)

P. G. Wodehouse in the Globe Newpaper (Page)

The Wodehouse Project (Page)

Drones (Page)

P G Wodehouse Covers (Page)

The next meeting will be at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 8 at Pints Pub.

Notes for The Mating Season

nov-13It would be hard to conceive of the person who does not like P.G. Wodehouse’s 1949 novel The Mating Season. It has so many things going for it: it’s part of the Totleigh Towers tetralogy involving Bertie Wooster’s off again/on again engagement to Madeline Bassett (and yet mercifully spares us the presence of that young gawd-help-us); there are enough impersonations to qualify this as a Blandings story; a rich cast of characters including newt fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle, the sparkling Corky Pirbright and her brother Catsmeat and although she was but a cameo, the enjoyable Hilda Gudgeon; a complete synopsis of that Rosie M. Banks classic Mervyn Keene, Clubman; an unusually blunt and physical Jeeves; a set piece that rivals the Market Snodsbury Grammar School speech; and finally, five aunts—“As far as the eye could reach, I found myself gazing on a surging sea of aunts.”

matingseason1Also viewed through the lens of history, it’s poignant to realize that the story was begun during the war and that it was finished in 1946. There’s nary a hint of the recent war in the story (no navigating through bombed out London streets or rationing), except for the many sore wounds Wodehouse was still nursing because of his imprudent wartime broadcasts following his “release” by his German captors. This is most evident when Bertie, while impersonating Gussie, has to recite at the village concert one of the Christopher Robin stories by A.A. Milne. Milne, who had been a friend, had criticized Wodehouse as a collaborator because of the broadcasts.

“It is unnverving to know that in a couple of days you will be up on a platform in a village hall telling an audience, probably well-provided with vegetables, that Christopher Robin goes hoppity-hoppity-hop.”—Bertie Wooster

Of course this is just why we admire Wodehouse—that his idea of revenge is to make someone have to say: “Christopher Robin goes / Hoppity, hoppity, / Hoppity, hoppity, hop.” The Russian Wodehouse Society has a reprint of a Daily Telegraph article discussing the rift between Milne and Wodehouse.

Wodehouse gets in a few other “zingers” at his detractors. Gussie, who’s before the dock for chasing news in the Trafalgar Square fountain, gave as an alias the name Alfred Duff Cooper. This same Cooper was a conservative politician and Minister of Information who also thought Wodehouse behaved as a traitor. Another subtle dig occurs at the village concert where a Miss Eustacia Pullbrook’s violin solo leaves Bertie altogether unimpressed. This is a reference to Sir Eustace Pulbrook, a fellow Dulwich College alumnus who objected to Wodehouse being readmitted to the school’s Old Boys Association. I like to think of Wodehouse chuckling to himself as he writes these barbs and saying, “And thus I am avenged!”

Ignoring Wodehouse’s revenge agenda and just looking at the plot of the story one can see its wonderful structure. I think the best Wodehouse stories move from set piece to set piece and it’s best when we have something to look forward to like the village concert. It’s a brilliant piece spread over two chapters and filled with incidental characters that shine like the Kegley-Bassington troupe. Although I’ve never attended a concert at a rural English village hall, I can imagine the domination of a theatrical family. (I’m thinking of my local Gilbert & Sullivan society and the frequency of certain last names among the volunteers.)

In contrast to the set piece one is expecting in the novel, there’s a totally unlooked for gem when Bertie attempts to retrieve Gussie’s letter to Madeline when he tries to call off their engagement. The scene of Bertie hiding behind the sofa at The Larches, Wimbledon Common, is a hoot, followed by the delightful Hilda Gudgeon and her carefree gun work, followed by Madeline Bassett explaining to Bertie how his actions so reminded her of the hero from Mervyn Keene, clubman.

I prefer not to examine too closely the motivations that cause an author to write a particular book. The Mating Season to me is just good, clean fun, with the mildest of jabs at his detractors. Some people detect in the novel a declaration that Wodehouse has forever turned his back on England and that he positively espouses the virtues of America. Despite my reluctance to look too deeply into the matter, I do have to admit the Thomas Paine references, Dame Daphne Winkworth’s praise of the American justice system and Jeeves’ pragmatic use of the cosh to silence Constable Dobbs does make the story seem very American, but then again we could say this of any Wodehouse story. There’s alway been a lot of gunplay, Mickey Finn’s and skullduggery that occurs in a Wodehouse story.

Other items of note: Although Esmond Haddock to my knowledge only appears once in Wodehouse’s novels, Sebastian Faulks employs the character in his pastiche Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.

If you’re wondering of the history of Bertie’s many engagements, I found this handy list that attempts to list them in order.

The Mating Season is still under copyright and so I can’t direct you to a place to read it online, however there is a audio version read by Richard Briers and Michael Horden. The audio quality isn’t great, but it rather lends to the charm of the thing. There are extensive annotations at Madame Eulalie.

And for those of you wondering, here are the words for the Yeoman’s Wedding Song.

Our next meeting will be as usual at Pints Pub on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 12:30 p.m. Apparently this is also the opening weekend of the Star Wars costume exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, so provide plenty of time to look for parking. I hope to be recovered sufficiently from my affliction to attend the meeting.

 

Happy Birthday, Plum!

Although we’re known for our fanatical devotion to P.G. Wodehouse, no one expects The Den(ver) of the Secret Nine to pay much attention to the calendar, and so we were a little late to celebrate our favorite author’s birthday a week late on Oct. 23rd. Nevertheless, seven (if Lee becomes a member) of the Nine met at member Jennifer’s home to stuff themselves with little finger sandwiches and drink tea from delicate porcelain, not to mention tiramisu cake and apple pie.

We entertained ourselves with pointed commentary about the elections currently afflicting the American public and also listened to a simpler time: the first of Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts. Although we didn’t have an actual recording of the broadcast, we used a synthesized British voice to read back the transcript, which you can find at the UK Wodehouse society. (There’s supposedly a CD called The Spoken Word—Writers, compiled by Richard Fairman in 2003, that includes a recording of one of the wartime broadcasts, but I’ve never been able to find it.) This might sound a little gloomy for a birthday party, but you had to be there.

We also decided as a group that we will annotate Wodehouse’s If I Were You. This reporter will tackle the first chapter shortly and post it here.

Our next meeting will be Nov. 13, held as usual at Pints Pub at 12:30 pm. We’ll be discussing The Mating Season.