Saturday, November 13, 2004

Cure for Everything

Uncle Dynamite, by P.G. Wodehouse, Read by Jonathan Cecil, Blackstone Audio, 2001

I rarely bow to the words of another critic, but I think Library Journal hits the right note here:

We might save everyone trouble by not bothering to review Wodehouse audiobooks. Instead, we could simply announce, "Here's a new one. Come and get it!" ... First published in 1948, it is one of the few books about Uncle Fred (a.k.a. Lord Ickenham) and the usual complicated Wodehouse story line: A loves B but is engaged to C, whom D secretly loves, and so on. Of course, with Uncle Fred spreading sweetness and light, generous helpings of happy endings can be counted on. What sets this book apart is its outstanding dialog, which gives reader Jonathan Cecil broad scope to spread his wonderful gift for voices. A real treat for those who appreciate exquisite language; highly recommended.

I didn't make the connection when I first picked up the box to the brilliant character from some other Wodehouse works, though the first word of the title should have clued me in. Perhaps it was the cover art depicting a portly older man sprouting immense white moustaches. That's not how I'd always envisioned the beloved Lord Ickenham, aka Uncle Fred. (And as it turns out, the walrus on the cover is the book's villain and not its hero.)

And what a delight the book is. Imagine if you will a novel length treatment of the man who featured so prominently in perhaps one of the finest short stories ever written. When literary critics from the year 3000 look back on the last poor, pathetic century, one only hopes they will recognize the crown jewel of English literature, the sublime "Uncle Fred Flits By." Our own age decries as unliterary anything unserious.

The plot of the novel, like most by Wodehouse, is somewhat difficult to synopsize, being so incident rich, so filled with misunderstandings, reversals, topsy-turviness that a thumbnail sketch renders such a monstrous injustice. Suffice to say Uncle Fred goes about spreading sweetness and light, reuniting severed lovers, and deflating English countryside monsters and pomposities. The unfortunate side-effect of Uncle Fred is that he makes me look on my own relations with rather a jaded eye. Such regulars like Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton, Uncle Fred's nephew, make their appearance, as well as all of Wodehouse's usual plot devices.

For those of you unfamiliar with Uncle Fred, you owe it to yourself to immediately dash to the local bookshop and pick up one of the four novels featuring him, or at least the short story collection Young Men in Spats. Uncle Fred has a knack for getting into trouble--almost. His ability for getting into and then out of scrapes is simply breathtaking in its unforeseen simplicity. He has all the answers and is never ruffled in the midst of the closest scrapes.

What's most remarkable, though, is how often Wodehouse can return to precisely the same material--young love sundered, impostors, teetotalling and its ill effects, the soothing balm of the decanter, the troubles of women writers with their publishers, and older men's obsessions (be they prize pigs or African curios). It is not a stretch to say Wodehouse wrote one novel and then rewrote it dozens of times with minor variations in particulars. And is is never dull, no matter how often read.

And if there is no better definition of art than that you can always come to it, no matter how often, and come away refreshed in mind and soul, then Wodehouse is the artist supreme. Let the grumps and sad sacks of literary boards keep their moody reflections on man's puniness in the face of the universe's cold bleakness. If that's their art, they can keep it.

This book has the lovely added bonus of being read by Jonathan Cecil, who I might add has been one of my favorite readers of Wodehouse for quite some time now. He manages to make every character a force of their own, pumping up the blustery villains and rendering each twitch of Pongo's vocal chords at Uncle Fred's latest sally. Wodehouse nicely illustrates my principle of effective audiobooks: his writing is crystal clear, his characters drawn in stark contrasts, and his plots are--well, eventful is putting it mildly. One needn't ever worry about getting bored or distracted while listening to Wodehouse, one need only worry about keeping up. And Uncle Fred is dynamite at keeping you on your toes.

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