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

The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear