Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wodehouse - and deaths in books

I became a fan of P G Wodehouse's books when I was still in my teens, and have read most of the ones I have on my shelves.  I'd never read French Leave, and since it had been sitting on my shelves since I got it at a sale somewhere - it has Rental stamped inside the front cover in two places - and since I have marked it with a code that I used when I was still in the aforesaid teens, that sale must have occurred a long time ago.

I'd thought it was one of his later books, but the title page says it was published in 1955Wikipedia, curiously, insists it came out in 1956 - which makes it about two-thirds of the way through his very large canon.   Because I thought it was one of his later books, I assumed that was why it seemed a bit weak in places.  The plotting is intricate, and yet there are some very loose ends (what does happen to the dossier Quibolle, for instance?).  The metaphors are superb in many places and unusually clichéd in others.  It has some slow patches, and some brilliant ones - and for some reason, at the end of chapter 11, we skip nine months, arrive in chapter 12 and discover that most of the cast have been ditched (no matter at what point they were still trying to unravel themselves from the plot) and everything has been sorted out for a very small number of the main actors.  Having expected a good deal of unravelling, it's surprising to find almost none.

It takes some time to figure out who the main two lovers are (they survive into chapter 12, at least), since a variety of other characters get plenty of room to show off their nonsense.  There's a typical Aunt - mostly known as Mrs Pegler, but also by two or three other names - but she's dismissed around chapter 10 after making her presence seriously felt throughout most of the story.  It's a puzzle how she suddenly loses all her fire.  There's the hero's father, a Frenchman with a ridiculous title (Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie-Moberanne), who was Mrs Pegler's husband at one point; his first appearance is a delight, in which he deals with the boredom of an office job, and he has several funny scenes.  There is the French policeman, a Commissaire, who is always behind the eight ball because he knows no English and refuses to learn any.  In fact, some of the best parts of the book include scenes in which two people are talking to each other in two different languages without either having much idea what the other is talking about.  But Wodehouse also manages to make the scenes in which people are speaking the same language amusing, especially those which include only French characters.  There are a bunch of other characters, some of whom (the young ones in particular) are virtually indistinguishable, even though they seem vital to the plot.   

Looking back on it, and having got over the shock of it seeming to end so suddenly, I'm more in favour of it than not.  There are much better Wodehouse books, but this one obviously pleases a vast number of his fans, so why should I knock it any further?

And talking of shock endings: the last scene of the 2012 Christmas special of Downton Abbey Iwhich we watched last night) came across to me as inconsiderately brutal.  Julian Fellowes, the writer, had already killed off a major character in the middle of the 2012 season.  Killing off yet another seemed arbitrary and only done for the sake of making people miserable.  Yes, it leaves lots of questions to be answered, which is no doubt part of the reason for doing what he did, but the death came out of nowhere, in the dramatic sense, and damaged what had been an otherwise interesting episode.

I find such deaths can put me right off a story: I remember reading A J Cronin's Hatter's Castle in which the young man who makes one of the main characters pregnant is killed in a train crash not long after.  I put the book down, unable to read any further.  He hadn't done anything to justify such a death.  In the second book of Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials, (The Subtle Knife) the boy has finally met his father, who's been missing up until now.  Towards the end of the book, the father is killed in what seemed to me at the time to be a quite off-hand fashion.  I almost stopped reading the trilogy at that point, so angered was I by what had happened.  I'm sure authors take the deaths of their characters seriously - there's usually a reason for what they do - but such seemingly random deaths can affect their readers in ways the authors never intended.  Perhaps I get too emotionally involved with characters, but I suspect I'm not the only one.  After all, stories are intended to affect our emotions.

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