The hubris of Sebastian Faulks: trying to imitate the inimitable PG Wodehouse

The fizzy, fascinating style of P G Wodehouse cannot be imitated - Sebastian Faulks is a fool to try, says Michael Moran.

 

P G Wodehouse, perhaps more than any other writer, created the myth of the English gentleman. His characters, well-educated goofs all, became ambassadors around the world for the tweedy, well-bred, public school educated sort of chap who used to run our empire.

In fact the real chaps who ran our empire were entirely tougher, more uncompromising than any Wodehouse creation but it suited us to be thought of as effete, tea-drinking fops.

Lord Emsworth, Mr Mulliner and Wodehouse’s best-known creation Bertie Wooster were in essence avatars for Wodehouse himself – an agreeable, eager-to please character entirely in thrall to the women in his life. He was overseen as a young man by a regiment of aunts who were later immortalised in his books and as an adult abdicated all responsibility to his beloved wife Ethel. And he was happy that way.

Somewhat ineffectual in real life he revealed his power in his prose. Wodehouse’s gift was not necessarily as a crafter of great plots – few would contest that his stories are somewhat repetitive in nature – but in his mastery of language. His words dance off the page and into the brain where they fizz around like the bubbles in fine champagne.

One need not have had the benefit of Plum’s classical education to enjoy the giddy cocktail of allusion and reference that pervades his work. Indeed, by stealth, he inculcated into readers without the remotest chance of enjoying his academic wealth enough knowledge of Cicero, Shakespeare and Spinoza to get them through the most demanding cocktail party.

But you couldn’t teach someone to be Wodehouse. He is more poet than humourist. Although one might draw parallels with Waugh or Thurber PG Wodehouse is closer, I’d suggest, to TS Eliot. Only funny. He’s a poet, not a plotter. And imitating him is frankly a fool’s errand.

And Sebastian Faulks is no fool. Many writers, myself included, were mildly surprised that Faulks opted to write a James Bond novel in 2008. But equally many writers, myself included, will write more or less anything to pay the mortgage so having raised a collective eyebrow we allowed it as an aberration and got on with our quotidian business of harassing editors and railing at accountants. 

Faulks displayed admirable technique in writing as Ian Fleming. He evinced a keen awareness of Fleming’s stylistic tropes and crafted a neat pastiche of which a creative writing student might justifiably be proud. From a fêted novelist it was an odd move, but impressively done.

The announcement that Faulks is now to pour his inarguable gift into a new Jeeves novel –  Jeeves And The Wedding Bells , to be published in November – is a fish of altogether different odour. I don’t describe Wodehouse as inimitable because I like his stuff. I describe Wodehouse as inimitable because he cannot be imitated. One might imagine Craig Brown or Hugo Rifkind making a decent fist of a Wodehouse knockoff for a page or so but a whole novel? This is hubris. We already have in the 11 Jeeves novels and 35 short stories an ample supply of Wodehouse's wit. We have no need of ersatz Plum.

The Wodehouse canon cannot, should not, must not be material for a literary version of Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes. Faulks is quoted as saying ‘Wodehouse is inimitable but I will do the very best I can’. I will never be the writer that Faulks is, but as an editor I can tell you that that sentence is precisely nine words too long. 

At the end of every episode of his long-running impressions show Mike Yarwood would say “…and this is me” and sing a few bars of a song in his own voice. Sebastian, as an admirer I would say – lay off the impressions. Let’s have a bit more “…and this is me.”

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write"

 

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster. Photograph: Carnival Films

Michael Moran is the television columnist for the Lady magazine and the creator of the literary spoof “100 Books I'll Never Write".

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem