Someone, one of those big-brained chaps no doubt, like Darwin or Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy, once said that trying to describe the pleasure of reading Wodehouse was like trying to describe the perfect dry martini. Similarly, someone else equally brain-burdened likened any attempt at criticizing a Wodehouse story to taking a spade to a souffle.
Just so. Therefore I'll limit myself to saying this story is standard Wodehouse fare, which means it's a cut above most other humor you're likely to find out there. Another tour of life among the inane and the earnest, the lovelorn and the broke. Of course, it all comes out right in the end. The fun is seeing how that happens. And the fun is also hearing Jonathan Cecil narrate how it happens. Like Frederick Davidson, Cecil gets Wodehouse and never overdoes it, giving the words and the humor the right, light touch.
For someone who hasn’t read The Hobbit since high school—nearly 40 autumns past—this was a journey of rediscovery. For years I’ve been reading things like Beowulf, The Mabinogion, Hrafnkel’s Saga and Audun’s Story, vaguely conscious that these were the Icelandic, Saxon and medieval wellsprings Tolkien drew upon to create his story. Now I realize this gifted medievalist really wrote the perfect vehicle to get younger readers hooked on those particular veins of Western literature. It worked for me and I’m hoping it works for our kids.
More, while every literary success in every age, from Chretien de Troyes to Bram Stoker, has bred imitators galore it is good to get back to the original tale that started all the fantasy/sci-fi conventions, the Dungeons and Dragons tournaments and the next season of Game of Thrones. The original retains its originality.
And, scholarly roots and modern imitators aside, the story is a delight. It was conceived as such and delivers in full measure. And it is made all the more delightful by Rob Inglis’ voice work. He brings the same sonorous, rolling ease to this tale that Patrick Tull lends to O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series.
And, now that I’ve (finally, after all these years) embarked on the first volume of Lord of the Rings, I can look back and say that The Hobbit, while a good story wonderfully told, is really no more than the necessary prelude to what looks to be a profoundly great saga. (Yeah, I know. Generations of Tolkien readers already knew that. But I didn’t and I added it on the off chance that you didn’t either.)
I’m also beginning to feel reconciled to the fact that Tolkien never finished most of his translations of Middle English epics and Icelandic sagas. The time was better spent with Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf.
Yes, it’s an obvious way to headline a review of Sherlock Holmes stories, but it fits.
As when I completed Dumas’ entire D’Artagnan cycle, I feel I have gained a familiarity with another cultural monument, another work more honored in the breach as it were, as most people only know it in terms of shorthand or stereotype. The Three Musketeers, Holmes and Watson, Dracula, they’re all characters we know more through spoof, parody or “serious” but necessarily skewed TV and film iterations. I know because I’m not immune from this cultural disorder either.
Back in the early 80’s I sat through through the TV series Sho-Gun and for several days after was under the curious impression that I could speak Japanese. Just so, many people sincerely believe they know Holmes and Watson because they’ve seen Disney’s Great Mouse Detective. I was wrong, of course, and so are they. That’s what makes the on-the-page Holmes and Watson so fresh, surprising and utterly satisfying.
Looking back over the entire cycle of novels and stories, Holmes is far more rude and sharp with Watson than I’ve ever seen him on the screen. Watson is far more long-suffering, patient and forbearing. His devotion is truly affecting, especially through the episodes of Holmes’ opium addiction. For someone raised on the film and TV avatars, other details are illuminating. I knew Holmes never stooped to swank about in a deerstalker, but I never suspected that Inspector LaStrade is far less of a presence in the books. Nor that Holmes disapproves of Watson’s literary career. Nor that Watson tells only a fraction of the tales he could tell.
Those tales are worth listening to even when the solution turns on a device—double identities, for instance—with which Conan Doyle’s legion of literary children have long since made us familiar. They’re worth listening to because they’re simply a delight to listen to. The prose is clear and well crafted; the plots expertly constructed, the characters distinct—helped, no doubt, by Charlton Griffin’s excellent narration. In this last set you also get a glimpse of Conan Doyle’s good sense when, as he lays his last collection of adventures before the public, he expresses a fear lest Holmes appear like “one of those popular tenors” who, though they have “outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences” It’s a kind of sensitivity few artists, especially musical ones, seem to possess these days.
He needn’t have worried, of course. It’s all, as the younger set say, good. We get one story told in Holmes’ own voice. We get the kind of details that will help if we ever make the cut for Jeopardy (Watson worked with Holmes for 17 of the detective’s 23 year career). There’s the question of whatever became of Watson’s wife, who he married at the end of A Study in Scarlet, way back at the very beginning. As P. G. Wodehouse observed, a writer has to be careful how he starts out in the “saga racket”; dates and details like marriages can pose awkward questions later on. Mrs. Watson lingers in the background for a while, is sometimes conveniently out of town, then is out of the picture altogether. One might have some fun with that: The Adventure of the Disappearing Wife, in which Watson murders her simply because she’s getting in the way of his quests for other murderers. But, on second thought, better not.
Out of all the pleasures of this third recording, I want to draw particular attention to a short piece called “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger”. The pleasure is not so much in the mystery as in the story; we see Holmes acting outside his usual orbit of bloodless, rational deduction and displaying something not unlike human sympathy—a weakness he often chides Watson for possessing in too full a measure. For all his ill temper with his slower-witted friend, perhaps the doctor’s good example started rubbing off on Holmes toward the end.
The one low point is entitled, “His Last Bow” subtitled, “An epilogue of Sherlock Holmes”. Fortunately, neither moniker is true; Conan Doyle went on writing for another decade. Set at the outbreak of the First World War and told in the third person (which, after hours of the good doctor, is disconcerting), it’s a cloak-and-dagger spy-ring tale that would be far more thrilling in the hands of John Buchan. Ironically, it’s the sort of assignment—international players, nations on the brink—that Watson occasionally alludes to without giving us any details, his excuse being the sensitive nature of the case or the high-placed names involved. Then again, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” covers the same territory in high Conan Doyle style, without sounding like a pale imitation of Buchan. It would have been too bad if “Last Bow” really had been Holmes’ swan song.
The only other complaint is with the recording itself. The other two volumes of this series are divided into three reasonably sized chunks; this one is a single download, all 22 hours, 35 minutes and 32 seconds of it. A bit unwieldy, even in this era of iPods.
Professor Shutt excels at creating comprehensive, comprehensible overviews of immensely complicated subjects. Along the way he puts Great Ideas and Great Works in their appropriate cultural contexts, telling us from whence they emerged and the extent of the impact they have had since. Armed with these insights, you can go to the actual Works and be that much ahead of the game.
But while that’s all good, there’s more. You also get Professor Shutt himself. He sincerely loves what he does and it shows. He never condescends; rather, he assumes you’re as interested in the subject under discussion as he is. Even better, he’s as astonished, amazed and just plain blown-away as you are by the insights under discussion. In a way he reminds me of Julia Child when she’d step back from a perfectly prepared roast and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?” She wasn’t congratulating herself; she was admiring—and inviting us to admire—what the art of cookery is capable of. In the same way, Shutt invites us to explore and admire what the West is capable of. He takes an almost palpable delight in getting at the nub of things. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he loves the Western Tradition unapologetically. For anyone familiar with the trendy trajectory of academia, that’s enough to make these lectures a must-buy. I’ll add that these lectures are eminently listenable and stand up to re-listening as well.
With the notable exception of his talks on naval warfare, all of the above is true of every course I have from Professor Shutt: Medieval Literature, Wars that Made the Western World, Dante and his Divine Comedy and now Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. In 14 lectures we trace the development of three unique, distinct cultures that answered the question, “What is the good life?” in radically different ways, and yet ultimately met and melded in a synthesis that created the West we live in today.
Along the way Shutt examines what he calls the “fruitful tensions” between, for example, the Greek ideal of individual human achievement and the Judeo-Christian call to humility and holiness. Rather than reject the one and embrace the other, the West said yes to both. It occurs to me that besides being what makes the West so complex, saying yes to both is what makes us so easy to criticize. We don’t “make sense”; we don’t “add up” in a neat, seamless package.
As a Catholic I especially appreciate Shutt’s handling of Christianity and the Medieval thought which amalgamated the ideals of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Of course, as an academic he’s not about to advocate the Faith. These are lectures, not homilies. But he’s as enthusiastic about the Gospel of John as he is about the Aeneid. As when he speaks of the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans, he keeps the focus on Christian ideas and ideals “at their best”, without any of the standard cheap shots. And, unlike most expositors of the Classical past from Gibbon onward, Shutt doesn’t view the advent of Christianity as a regrettable occurrence, a timid retreat from the rational, sunlit glories that were. I will venture to say, out of my admittedly slender knowledge, that he oversimplifies Saint Augustine's problem with Pelagianism. But he’s right about the clash between faith and works (more of that “fruitful tension”). By outlining the intellectual and cultural resonances and dissonances that created the West, Professor Shutt provides a reliable roadmap to, as he suggests at the very end, our own further and deeper reading.
At least about this. “Between Kipling and Fleming,” he said, “stands John Buchan, the father of the modern spy thriller.”
A nameless reviewer at Library Journal agrees:
“Buchan essentially invented the espionage novel with his Richard Hannay yarns.”
And a nameless officer serving on the Western Front offered this endorsement:
“It is just the kind of fiction for here. One wants something to engross the attention without tiring the mind. The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”
Finally, this bit of analysis from someone at the London Telegraph:
“[Buchan] understood that in a thriller…what matters above all is to keep the reader focused on what is going to happen next…It doesn’t matter that the reader has no clue where he is being taken or, when he gets there, how the thing happened as it did. All that matters is that once you’ve started, you can’t put the book down.”
The viewpoint that fascinates me most is from that line officer at the front. Granted, his comment was about Buchan’s first thriller, The 39 Steps. Nevertheless, it could apply the Greenmantle as well. It’s a neat trick to write about mortal danger in such a way that men who are living with it on a daily basis don’t chuck your book into No Man’s Land or, more likely, use it as necessary paper. Buchan treads a fine line when talking about the war. Yes, he and his hero are patriotic. There's a touch of Rupert Brooke here--soldiering is described as the only proper work for a man. And it's hard to remember, living as we do at the other end of the disastrous 20th Century, that soldiers cherish the camaraderie that grows out of shared dangers. Membership in a group of fighters who are also friends and the death of some of those friends makes war personal. It is a job that has to be done and there is pride in doing it well. Duty, as Ulysses Grant said, can be a beautiful word. War is hell but it isn't always hell. At the same time, Buchan and his protagonist never flinch from admitting the ghastliness of the Western Front. It's a combination of idealism and realism that may have done much to brace spirits at Ypres and the Somme--probably because it accurately reflected the general attitude in the trenches. As some of the poems quoted in Martin Gilbert's works on World War I attest, as bad as it was many believed in what they were doing in Flanders.
And our anonymous officer was right—like Dumas, the story grabs you and carries you along. So far from tiring my mind, I find Buchan (again, like Dumas) refreshes it. Unlike most who-dunnits I have in my audio collection, Buchan—along with Dorothy Sayers—will bear re-listening.
And the Telegraph makes a good point too. For all its improbabilities you accept the story and yes, you really can’t put it down. I attribute this to that same delicate mix of “real life” and spy thrills that Fleming was so adept at concocting. No doubt, as Hitchens suggested, he learned a thing or two from John Buchan.
Unlike 39 Steps, knowing a little history helps for this one. Fortunately, I recently read John Keegan's book on World War I and Gilbert's volume on the Somme offensive so when Richard Hannay met Enver Pasha or we hear that the effort at Gallipoli is being given up I wasn't completely at a loss.
I’m taking one star away from the usually superb Simon Vance (aka Richard Whitfield) for a slight tendency to trip up ever-so-slightly, every so often in the middle of sentences. I may be overly sensitive—part of my daily work is reading things aloud in phone conferences and I am a lector at church, so I know what it is to trip up ever-so-slightly. These slight catches didn’t distract my attention or detract from the tale, but they were wrinkles in an otherwise pitch-perfect performance.
Of early Wodehouse novels I have observed—and I’m sure others have, too—that they show the author moving from the then-popular, sentimental yet more “real” world of human emotions and tragedies toward his signature style of persiflage, tempests in teapots and sheer physical comedy. But even after that mature style has asserted itself, we can have relapses. And I think Summer Moonshine (1937) is one of them. Perhaps it is the only one. (Perhaps not; The Coming of Bill, 1920, also stands out as an aberration in the canon.)
I don’t mean to say that the whole book is sloppily sentimental, a sort of Rosy M. Banks saturnalia. On the whole it is the usual Wodehouse fun. There is a young mutton head who can’t say no to girls, a Kensington-educated secretary who says “quate” instead of “quite”, a shilling-less baronet whose American brother-in-law insists on addressing as “your lordship”, and an irrepressible young man named Joe Vanringham who, with his endless persiflage and unsinkable good humor, strikes you—or at least me—as a sort of two-fisted, American version of Psmith. But there are also passages—and in particular one character—that we don’t run up against in any of the other later, mature works.
Her full name is Princess Heloise von und zu Dwornitzchek. And I can’t think of anyone whom I’d rather not run up against. Richard Useborne, in his Plum Sauce, a P. G. Wodehouse Companion, agrees: “The Princess, wicked stepmother and not a bit funny, is the most un-Wodehousian character in all the books.” Her stepson, Joe concurs:
“The effortless ease with which she overrode all obstacles and went complacently through life on the crest of the wave offended his sense of dramatic construction. She was so obviously the villainess of the piece that it seemed inevitable that eventually the doom must overtake her. But it never did. Whoever had started that idea that Right in the end must always triumph over Wrong had never known the Princess Dwornitzchek.
“He watched her as she sat there smoking and smiling quietly at some thought that seemed to be amusing her, and tried to analyze the murderous feelings which she had always aroused in him. She was, as he had said, undefeatable, and he came to the conclusion that it was this impregnability of hers that caused them. She had no heart and a vast amount of money, and this enabled her to face the world encased in triple brass. He had a sense of futility, as if he were a very small wave beating up against a large complacent cliff. No doubt the officials of the United States treasury Department felt the same.”
Yes, there is the little, the very little smile (and a wry smile at that) at the end. But where else in Wodehouse have we read the word “murderous” written in earnest? What other character besides Joe Vanringham has felt this frustrated about someone this appallingly real? Earlier in the book we learn that that murderous feeling took root as Joe watched the princess “killing” his father:
“Oh, I don’t mean little-known Asiatic poisons. A resourceful woman with a sensitive subject to work on can make out quite well without the help of strychnine in the soup. Her method was just to make life hell for him.”
True, Lady Constance Keeble can menace the peace of her brothers (and I defy you to find another subject as sensitive as the ninth earl). Lady Julia Fish is capable of anything from heavy-handed irony to outright rudeness when it comes to breaking up her son, Ronald, and his chorus girl fiancée Sue Brown. And Bertie’s Aunt Agatha is always ready to marry him off to some frightful female or other. But we end up laughing at all three. After all, they are routed by, in the first two cases, the adroit staff work of the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, and in the latter case by the fish-fed intellect of the best gentleman’s personal gentleman in London, Jeeves. Watching them try to make life hell for the men in their lives is fun because we know they won’t succeed. Besides, these women have a redeeming what-is-it about them. Sometimes they are even right—Lord Emsworth shouldn’t have come down with a brass paper fastener serving in place of a missing shirt stud. Lady Julia earns the grudging admiration from her brother Galley, “there are the seeds of greatness in that woman”.
But the princess is uniquely, horribly different. Unlike Mrs. Rosalinda Banks Bessemer Spottsworth, another Wodehouse female worth millions, the princess uses her wealth as a weapon. And she is what we would now call now a cougar. But what makes her truly awful is that there is no Galahad or Jeeves to slip a well-aimed stick in her spokes. Her designs are not frustrated. She “wins”.
Fittingly, her paramour Adrian Peake also reminds us uncomfortably of unpleasant, manipulative, self-centered people we have known all too well in real life.
But all this is just a long way of saying that while there are elements in this novel that diverge from the usual Wodehouse romp, Summer Moonshine is still a satisfying, reliable romp. In fact, the princess and her twerp Peake provide an interesting counterpoint to the general Wodehousian fun, making it, if anything, more piquant. It seems to stand as an alternate universe to the self-absorption and destructiveness of the princess and her slimy consort. You get the distinct feeling that neither one of them would enjoy reading or listening to the Master’s works. People who take themselves too seriously seldom do.
A final word: Jonathan Cecil is pitch-perfect on this outing. His vocal portrayal of the princess—something between a spoiled Persian cat and a roused rattlesnake—is at times a little chilling.
When Audible gave this out for free two Christmases ago, we enjoyed it very much. And then, of course, I forgot to write a review.
It really was just what we wanted. A stiff drink or two, some cocktail nibbles, the snow sandpapering the side of the house, and a very fine performance of a wonderful little mystery. What more could you want?
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I love C. S. Lewis. His apologetics helped my wife and I keep our sanity in the Episcopal Church and he was among the galaxy of writers who lead us toward the Catholic Church. His scholarly works are a delight to anyone interested in medieval literature. His slim guide to Paradise Lost is indispensible to a satisfying understanding of that poem. Oddly, I have never dipped into his fiction to any great extent, though I did have a third grade teacher who read us chapters from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
So when I didn’t enjoy Screwtape as much as I thought I would, I was perplexed. How could I not revel in Lewis’ customarily incisive separation of modern misperceptions from the ancient perceptions, insanity from sanity, the comfortable lie from the uncomfortable truth? Fittingly, it was Lewis himself who explained my dilemma.
Truth be told, he didn’t much like this book either. His confession appears in his short introduction to the last chapter of this recording, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”. This exercise in what he calls “diabolical ventriloquism” proved to be something he could write with the greatest of ease, but with the least enjoyment. “Though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude” he writes, “it was not fun—or nor fun for long.” The “strain” of writing this book produced what he calls “a sort of spiritual cramp”. “It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.”
Now I didn’t feel so bad. My reactions to Screwtape’s correspondence tallied with their author’s. I, too, felt that spiritual cramp. An overwhelming sense of the relentlessness of sin, an airless, trapped feeling that verges on claustrophobia. While Lewis was aware of this problem with his book, he was even more painfully aware of his inability to solve it.
Ideally, he admits, the book should have included Arch-angelical advice to the “patient’s” guardian angel. “Without this, the picture of human life is lopsided.” (A fine example of British understatement, that.) The problem is one of style. “[F]or the style would really be part of the content. Mere advice would be no good. Every sentence would have to smell of heaven”. In today’s world it was “a book no one could write”, for “even if you could write prose like Traherne’s, you wouldn’t be allowed to, for the canon of ‘functionalism’ has disabled literature for half its functions.”
A typically telling insight, combining faith and reason and scholarship and a complete and easy familiarity with the greatest writers—all delivered without pride or pomposity. All the things that make Lewis such a treasure to read and reread.
So, while I am grateful to Audible for offering this as a Daily Deal for a mere $1.95, and Ralph Cosham does a fine job as reader, I can’t give this one all the stars I thought I would. And, based on the evidence, I think Lewis would agree.
And this is one of them.
It's the usual romp at Blandings Castle, and by "usual" I mean unusual--a small universe that runs on it's own slightly off-balance dynamics. There's the continuing struggle for porcine supremacy between the ninth earl and his neighbor, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, Bart. Sir Gregory's struggle to lose a few pounds, and thus allay his future wife's fears that she will be accused of bigamy before she leaves the sacred edifice. There's Jerry Vale, a writer of detective fiction and temporary secretary to Lord Emsworth who wants enough cash to open a health establishment. And there's his betrothed, Penny Donadlson, who's also betrothed to Orlo, Lord Vosper. Add a former barmaid who now runs a detective agency and who once almost married "Tubby" Parsloe, a pig man who has been denied the beer that is so much a part of his daily routine and might do anything to get a pint, and a third pig--which is to say another pig altogether, neither Lord Emsworth's Empress of Blandings nor Sir Gregory's Pride of Matchingham--and you have enough to be getting by with.
But most importantly, there are six large, economy-size bottles of Slimmo.
Jeremy Sinden does it all more than justice. In fact, he is superb--as good as his stellar performance on Full Moon. From the quality of his voice to the way he inflects it for comic effect or bends it to portray a lord, a pig man or a young daughter of an American manufacturer of dog biscuits, he is flawless. It's a book and a performance you will be able to enjoy again and again.
Evelyn Waugh was about right when he said, “Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
This classic from the Monarch or Royal of the Master—he apparently used both brands of typewriter in the course of a longish authorial career—has certainly released me more than once from dull hours and duller cares. In a bookshelf with more high spots than a can-can line, Code of the Woosters is one of the highest; a story that delights no matter how many times I listen to it—and I generally fit it in at least once a year, in the autumn, the season in which the story is set.
The tonic effect of Wodehouse is, I believe, heightened with repeated listening. The rhythm of his sentences and then the almost bulletproof good humor of his perspective, begin to seep into your system and you notice bits of his Drones Club jargon in your own speech. Rather than say you don’t want to see someone, you observe that you’d run a mile in tight shoes to avoid them. Instead of merely feeling relieved, you start singing like a relieved nightingale. Don’t fight it. It means the inoculation against Modern Times is taking effect and the cure is working.
I’m not going to say a word about the plot because with Woodhouse plot is everything and it’s my object here to give away nothing. He once said that, on average, he generated around 400 pages of notes to work out the plot of one of his books—a book that generally ran half that length. Let’s just say that I’ve always suspected the notes for this plot may have run a tad longer. It in complex, contorted and convoluted, all words which, in the world according to Wodehouse, are good things.
One of the peculiarities about audio books is that, if there are different recordings of a book, the version you first heard becomes THE version; no others will satisfy. This is especially so with a writer like Wodehouse, where every inflection makes a difference. Years ago I first listened to this version of this book on audiocassette. So the fact that I think Jonathan Cecil is at his very best on this one may be due merely to my early, Lorenzian imprinting. Nevertheless, there it is.
Buy it, listen to it—and repeat the dose as often as needed.
My candidates for Very Best: The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy, Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit, Jeeves and the Song of Songs, The Spot of Art, The Love that Purifies, and Jeeves and the Old School Chum.
Let's see...that's six out of a total of eleven stories. And the remaining five are almost as good.
The only downside is that I first heard Frederick Davidson read this collection. As good as Jonathan Cecil can be--see his rendition of Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Uncle Dynamite or The Code of the Woosters--he doesn't come up to the mark set (at least in my mind) by Davidson on this set of stories.
I bought this version because 1) it was on sale and 2) I have Davidson's version on cassette tape and needed something more portable. Cecil's performance is good but too rushed. As a rule, his versions of the same book are always an hour shorter than Davidson's, the reason being that Davidson uses that hour to squeeze every nuance of humor or irony out of very line. While I enjoyed the listen--it is, after all, Wodehouse--I was constantly being reminded of how much better a version I had on cassette tapes in the basement. If only that old Walkman still worked...
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