Laughing boys

What Ho!: The best of P G Wodehouse

P G Wodehouse with an introduction by Stephen Fry <em>Hutchins

To say one word in criticism of the fiction of P G Wodehouse is a blasphemy to some, a simple error of judgement to others and frank stupidity to the rest. This is strange for a writer who produced almost 100 books, none of which enjoy significant differences either in style or in substance. George Orwell, hardly in criticism, labelled the world of Wodehouse 's fiction " Edwardian" - and justly so, given that the loafers (the knuts) who populate this small fictional world were extinct by the first world war. The younger and superfluous sons of aristocratic parents, they were subsidised to do little except loaf, dress with dash and elan, and commit minor crimes. Their raison d'etre was irresponsibility: they slipped the moorings of obligation, and the tide took them away on to the carefree horizon. Wodehouse himself wrote that it was always a small world. Now it is not even small; it is non-existent.

Non-existent perhaps, but with the intangible charm and absurdity of fairyland itself. Evelyn Waugh pointed to this when he spoke of the idyll that is this small world, releasing its readers from the captivity of their own lives. For Wodehouse 's small world is a fantasy, where the social hierarchy becomes an eccentric farce, as social rules and conventions are broken and then repaired through deceit, ruses and chance. There is something fantastical about pig-obsessed earls shooting their secretaries in the arse, drunken newt-fanciers giving out the school prizes, butlers with a genius deriving from a diet high in fish, austere Russian novelists coming to suburban literary meets and wanting only to talk about their 18- handicap on the golf course of Nizhny Novgorod. Fantasy aside, the unusualness of Wodehouse as a writer is that he turns the literary order of things on its head: the themes of love, death and religion are trivialised and supplanted by peculiar pastimes and obsessions. Love becomes an irritation that puts a man off his golf, and worse, makes a woman more erratic than ever; violence and physical trauma involve laughter, rather than pain; religion is reduced to gambling on the length of a clergyman 's sermon; and death, well, as for that, it just takes the bally biscuit, what?

The characters are ruled by their obsessions: Gussie Fink-Nottle by his newts, Cuthbert Banks by his golf, Lord Emsworth by his black Berkshire sow. To threaten the obsession is to threaten the soul with damnation. Such fixity of mind prompts them to speak in a way reminiscent of Dickens's finest grotesques: speech does not enable them to interact with others, but furthers their alienation. There is little communication and routine misunderstanding, their preoccupied brains unable to produce anything much more considered than stream-of-consciousness. With Lord Emsworth, any use of the feminine first person singular must refer to his sow; Cuthbert Banks's comprehension is limited to golfing analogy; and Fink-Nottle is perfectly insane. To remove these individuals from their obsessions is to clamp their blood vessels and send them into irreversible shock.

This leads to a facet of Wodehouse 's writing where he has few peers: the use of simile and metaphor. They are all there, page after page of them, as natural and unforced as water following its course down a river; one fine example is the girl who is described as huge in shape, a bit on the lines of the Albert Hall. With lines like these, improbable plots and effortless fluency, any publication of Wodehouse 's fiction can only be praised. This volume features stories involving the most significant of his creations - Wooster, Jeeves, Lord Emsworth, Ukridge, Psmith, Mulliner - together with some previously unpublished letters, articles and poems, where, unsurprisingly, he writes with exactly the same charm and absurdity as he does in his fictions. As an introduction to Wodehouse, it is wholly appropriate, compiled with the input of the many Wodehouse societies across the globe including, memorably, "The Drones Club of Belgium". The value of Wodehouse 's legacy may be questionable, but his imaginative flair and the strange wonder of his small world are indisputable.

Henry Sheen is a vet and a writer