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BEST LOVED AS THEY ARE

JEEVES AND THE WEDDING BELLS By Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson, Rs 599

Masters invite imitation. Clever pupils avoid such temptation. Some succumb and are successful. P.G. Wodehouse created for himself a particular genre of fiction writing that is quite impossible to describe. But he delighted his readers with his deft touch, simple prose and his special brand of humour. His success is evident not only from the number of his devoted readers but also from the fact that his stories have stood the test of time. He began publishing early in the 20th century and his books remain in print today. The two most unforgettable characters he created are Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

Wodehouse is inimitable, not only in his style but also in the world he created. People have tried to be like him and failed. It is thus very brave of Sebastian Faulks to venture into Wodehouse terrain in an attempt to resurrect Wooster and Jeeves. His saving grace is that he is not trying to do an imitation. He tells his readers, “Wodehouse’s prose is a glorious thing; and there’s the rub. I don’t want to write too close an imitation of that distinctive music for fear of sounding flat or sharp. Nor did I want to drift into parody.” The book is billed as a “homage to P.G.Wodehouse.” They do say — don’t they? — that imitation is the best tribute. This is not quite imitation but a pretty close run thing.

The book opens with a surprise as Faulks carries out a role reversal. Readers are confronted with Bertie Wooster in the role of a butler and Jeeves as Lord Etringham. Having given the surprise, the narrator, Bertie Wooster, writes, “But hold on a minute. I see I’ve done it again: set off like the electric hare at the local dog track while the paying customers have only the foggiest idea of what’s going on. Steady on, Wooster, they’re saying: no prize for finishing first. What’s this buttling business... Are we at some fancy-dress ball? Put us in the picture, pray, murky though it be... Very well. Let me marshal my facts.” (Does “marshal my facts” sound remotely like Bertie/Wodehouse? Emphatically not. Bertie would be thrown out of the Drones if he spoke/ wrote like some academic juju man.)

There is some logic in this role reversal. Bertie and Jeeves are in the relationship of master and servant. But as readers know, this is only on the surface as Bertie is the one who employs Jeeves. But in all other matters it is Jeeves who is often the master — certainly in matters of intellect. Jeeves has his own ways of making his employer do exactly what he thinks should be done. There are too many stories that show the quiet victories that Jeeves scores over Bertie. It is an integral part of the Wodehouse plots. Readers love Bertie but it is Jeeves they admire. They are thus the perfect pair. Faulks casts Jeeves in the role of the master. To write about how this happens and how it unravels would be to reveal a key element in the plot and thus spoil the fun.

The story has some of the familiar elements of the Wooster-Jeeves yarns: slapstick, for one. Imagine Bertie trying to serve at the dinner table in a country house. The disasters are predictable but hilarious. Escapades with some narrow squeaks for Bertie. Mistaken identities but with a happy resolution. Bertie playing the gallant knight with unexpected consequences. A village cricket match in which Bertie makes an ass of himself and allows the opposing side to win. All these are present and neatly woven into the story. But Faulks breaks from the Wodehousian tradition and this is indicated by the very title of the book. The story ends — and there is no harm done in revealing this — with Bertie and Jeeves poised to get married. To lovers of Wooster and Jeeves, this seems like the end of civilization as we have known it. Bertie and Jeeves married? Can they, after taking such a fateful step, remain the same characters? The imagination boggles. In trying to resurrect Bertram and Jeeves through this story, Faulks may have sounded the death knell of the duo. In Wodehouse’s creation, there was a Peter Pan element not only in the two characters but also in the world they inhabited. Marriage ages the pair.

There are other features that jar. In this story, Bertie Wooster is made to reflect on his craft of narration. For example, he writes, “An odd thing I’ve noticed over the years, chronicling these adventures of mine, is that even in the middle of an absolute corker... there are days when not much happens. This is ticklish for the author. I dare say that at such a point in one of those novels beloved of Jeeves..., old Tolstoy took advantage of a lull in the action to bung in a bit of family history — how the Rostropovs had known the Ilyanovs, for instance, since the first bear was sighted on the Russian Steppe.” A reflective Bertie familiar with War and Peace is far removed from the original character that Wodehouse created.

Faulks writes in his author’s note that he “tried to... give people who haven’t read the Jeeves books a sense of what they sound like; while for those who know them well I tried to provide a nostalgic variation.” Those who do not know Wooster and Jeeves would be well advised to read about them as Wodehouse wrote about them. I went back to the originals not out of nostalgia but because I wanted to retrieve a whiff of the original. Wooster and Jeeves, stay as you are and never say bye bye.