Is there a book you return to again and again, a work that would make life on a desert island bearable? Each weekend, between Canada Day and Labour Day, Globe writers share their go-to tomes – be it novel, poetry collection, cookbook – and why the world is just a little better for them.
I'd like to say that my favourite book is Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Joyce's Ulysses or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Instead, it is a slim volume of light entertainment called Uncle Fred in the Springtime, by P.G. Wodehouse.
I must have chuckled through this story of egg-hurling dukes, pig-besotted earls, What ho!-ing heirs and broke young men ever short of "the needful" a dozen times. Just the other day, riding the bus, I startled the young family in the seats opposite by letting out a sudden grunt of mirth when Rupert Baxter commences to sing The Bonny Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond, making him the target of a well-aimed egg from the Duke of Dunstable. Toronto frowns on public displays of hilarity, or indeed any human emotion, but Wodehouse has that effect.
I came to Wodehouse late. As a Serious Young Man plowing through Nabokov and Orwell and Zola, I couldn't imagine wasting my time on a bunch of stories about a goofy young toff and his butler. Then, marooned at my brother-in-law's cottage with nothing to read, I pulled a Penguin paperback of Wodehouse stories from the bookshelf. My reading life has never been the same.
Now, I have a shelf-full of Wodehouse at my own cottage, two Wodehouse collections on my iPad for emergencies and even a thick Wodehouse biography, bought in the vain hope of answering the question that haunts all writers who read him: How on earth did he do it?
George Orwell was a Wodehouse fan. So was Evelyn Waugh. The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane has called him "the funniest writer – that is, the most resourceful and unflagging deliverer of fun – that the human race, a glum crowd, has yet produced." If you doubt it, I challenge you – I absolutely defy you – to keep a poker face through the episode in Right Ho, Jeeves in which a sloshed Gussie Fink-Nottle takes the stage to present prizes for scholarship to the cheering schoolboys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School.
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (pronounced wood-house) wrote more than 90 books and 300 stories over a career that spanned two world wars (though he rarely mentioned either). They're all good – uncannily, impossibly good, with characters that never age, sentences that seem carved from ivory and a toy chest of metaphor and simile. "He groaned slightly and winced like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch." "He was a Frenchman, a melancholy-looking man. He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle." She was "one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge."
The central action in Uncle Fred in the Springtime takes place at Blandings Castle, the country seat of Lord Emsworth, that vague aristocrat who is preoccupied with the health and well-being of his prize sow, the Empress of Blandings. Into this sleepy world bursts Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, fifth Earl of Ickenham – or just Uncle Fred to his nephew Pongo Twistleton. Though the earl's hair has gone grey, he retains "the bright enthusiasms and the fresh, unspoiled outlook of a slightly inebriated undergraduate."
In short, he is trouble. Whenever he eludes his watchful wife and slips away from his own rural estate to step high, wide and plentiful in the world outside, Pongo, remembering that notorious day at the dog races, or, worse, the time Uncle Fred had him pose as a deaf veterinarian attending to a parrot (see the classic Uncle Fred Flits By), starts to tremble like a jelly in a high wind.
Uncle Fred is himself posing as that famous "brain specialist," Roderick Glossop, when he comes to Blandings. His aim is to engineer the preventive removal of the Empress of Blandings, who is under threat of kidnap from the duke. Joining the party are, among others, Claude (Mustard) Pott, the dubious former bookie who itches to plunder the wallets of the inhabitants by luring them into his favourite card game, Persian Monarchs; his comely daughter, Polly; her jealous boyfriend, Ricky, a poet who is seeking the funds to open an onion-soup bar; and the Duke of Dunstable, the choleric egg-chucker who hides the stolen Empress in his bathroom and thinks everyone but him is "potty."
Suspicions grow that imposters are in the house, Uncle Fred wriggles out of one jam after another and the whole works comes to an end in a chaos of erupting gunshots, fleeing pigs and unlikely explanations. As usual, Uncle Fred, even unmasked, emerges triumphant. To me, anyway, he is Wodehouse's ripest character, riper even than Bertie Wooster and his ingenious gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves (who are absent from this book).
If this all sounds a little frothy, well, it is. Wodehouse makes no apologies for that. "I believe there are two ways of writing novels," he once wrote. "One is making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going deep down into life and not caring a damn …"
Thank goodness he chose the first. The world has enough masters of tragedy. Comic writers of real genius are rare. Wodehouse came closer than anyone to making comedy into art. What flowed from his clattering typewriter is itself a kind of music. He had perfect pitch. That's why he bears rereading again and again, just for the pure pleasure of it.
So keep your Crime and Punishment. I'll take Uncle Fred any day, especially in the springtime.