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".

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war