The worst idea in literary history: Sebastian Faulks is writing a "PG Wodehouse" novel

7 March 2013

The history of literature is replete with folly but the news that Sebastian Faulks is writing a novel featuring Reginald Jeeves and Bertram Wooster knocks all other blunders into a cocked-hat. We are not gruntled.

Madness, not to put too fine a point on it, seems the only explanation for such a project. Perhaps, like Gussie Fink-Nottle, Mr Faulks is a glutton for punishment. Like the newt-fancier, one supposes he must spend a good deal of time staring at himself in the mirror.

As for the rest of us, well, like the BBC’s present lamentable adaptation of Blandings this news has us groaning and wincing “like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch”.

Harry Mount says most of what needs to be said about this nonsense (though he is too kind by far to Faulks’ lame Bond novel). Be that as it may, he cannot be permitted a monopoly on umbrage. I suppose that if Faulks wishes to make a fool of himself that is his business but the endeavour seems unusually pointless even by windmill-tilting standards.

As Faulks’s pastiche of Fleming was only partially successful there appear no grounds upon which to suppose this vastly more demanding task will be within his competence. Even Bingo Little would think this a bet worth passing on. It ain’t as though there’s a lack of Wodehouse to go round. Even enthusiasts don’t clamour for more Plum, even of the fake kind. Not when the old boy churned out more than 90 books of his own.

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It is hard to think of any truly successful literary impersonation. I have not read Andrew Motion’s Treasure Island sequel but recall it received only muted praise. But none of Fleming’s imitators, not even Kingsley Amis, have quite mastered the trick of inhabiting the role. Writing books in another fellow’s voice requires more than just donning the clothes and mannerisms of the chap you’re impersonating. Similarly, none, I think, of Conan Doyle’s successors bear re-reading.

And that is one of the tests. PG Wodehouse, like ACD, is endlessly re-readable. Blandings is eternal, an Elysian creation (as Waugh put it) that never fails to refresh even the most-knackered spirit.

Faulks’s impersonation, however well-intentioned, cannot possibly meet that standard. Wodehouse’s formula was his own and it cannot be recreated. Not least because Wodehouse believed in it utterly, whereas any impersonator knows that what he is doing is creating, at best, an ersatz Wodehouse. The real thing cannot be copied any more than someone else can write a blank verse tragedy or a Mozartian symphony. However faithful the attempt it will still sound, feel and taste phoney.

So why bother? Perhaps it is just a jape. But to what purpose? Who is supposed to purchase this book? As a curiosity it lacks interest; as a means of prodding a new audience to discover Wodehouse for themselves it is both an arrogance and a mistake since thrusting a dud Wodehouse (of which there are a number) upon an unsuspecting novice is the surest way of murdering any interest the poor young fellow may have in exploring Wodehouse’s world. Faulks’s project cannot please; it can only annoy. Impersonators are usually unmasked.

Jeeves’ caution regarding the works of Nietzsche applies to this endeavour too. It is a fundamentally unsound idea. For that matter, Mr Faulks might recall Vladimir Brussilov’s verdict* that there exist “No novelists anywhere any good except me. P.G. Wodehouse and Tolstoy not bad. Not good, but not bad.”

As Harry Mount says:

Faulks can of course use all these [plot and linguistic] devices, and he has the advantage that Wodehousians are all familiar with them, irrespective of the writer. But, whenever Wodehouse reuses them, the reader feels an involuntary, unacknowledged glow at the reappearance of such sublime invention. When Faulks borrows them, there will just be the dreary recognition that he is paying lip service to someone else’s genius.

Indeed. It is all enough to leave one looking, like Uncle Tom, a bit like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow. The pity of it or whatever what’s-his-name said.

Mr Faulks, history’s verdict will not be kind: “It is young men like you who make people with the future of the race at heart despair.”

*You will remember, of course, that “Cuthbert was an optimist at heart, and it seemed to him that, at the rate at which the inhabitants of that interesting country were murdering one another, the supply of Russian novelists must eventually give out.”


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Show comments
  • Mark Cooper

    Can’t be worse than A Week in December.

    • Eddie

      Oh my mum hated that book! She said it got better as it went on though, but it was still pretty dire, apparently.

  • Reg Jeeves

    Although perhaps it is not my place to comment, nevertheless I believe the idea behind this venture is fundamentally flawed, and I pray that should Mr Faulks actually complete his manuscript it must be purloined from the table in the hall before it ever reaches the offices of Messrs Riggs and Ballinger.

  • Mr Grumpy

    “It ain’t as though there’s a lack of Wodehouse to go round. Even enthusiasts
    don’t clamour for more Plum”

    Kindly stop talking rot! He didn’t fully connect with his muse until after WW1 and they parted company again in WW2. Practically nothing but duds from then on (which itself underlines the hopelessness of Mr Faulks’ enterprise). If there was so much of the good stuff I wouldn’t have to keep returning to Right Ho, Jeeves!

    • Eddie

      OK – so which are the best then? (Those of us who haven’t got time to read all 130 novels can then select the best).

      • Mr Grumpy

        My top 10 in roughly descending order:

        Right Ho, Jeeves
        The Inimitable Jeeves
        Very Good, Jeeves
        Summer Lightning
        Mulliner Nights
        Eggs, Beans and Crumpets
        Carry On, Jeeves
        The Code of the Woosters
        Uncle Fred in the Springtime

        • Eddie

          Ta very much!
          I’ve only read Heavy Weather – all very pleasant, cheerful and gentle, with what I recognise as elegant sentences of classical structure (directly from the Latin). But it didn’t blow me away really and I wouldn’t call it memorable either, as I can’t remember much about what happened in it.
          I have Money in The Bank waiting to read (a later one, I think).
          I shall copy and paste that list for future reference!

          • Mr Grumpy

            I endeavour to be of service, sir. I trust you will find the volumes to which I refer more to your taste.

    • Philip Virgo

      What I think you mean is that his muse departed for Elysium when most of his friends from Dulwich were killed or scarred (mentally if not physically) for life in World War 1. “Psmith Journalist” indicates the American Satirist he might have become had he not decided that his mission was to entertain a world wallowing in misery: his American audiences with musicals and his British audiences with that which appeals to Mr Grumpy. His departure from Hollywood (arguably, though never by him nor by any of his mainstream biographers, because he was sickened by the links between the studios and organised crime) and his subsequent portrayal of those links at and time when the subject was taboo, would obviously be viewed by Mr Grumpy as a faltering of the muse. So too would his hatchet job on Oswald Mosley, turning him into a figure of fun among his potential middle class supporters. I certainly agree that his muse broke when it found that gentle satire had no place in a world that was once again at war, this time with even greater savagery and intolerance.

      • Mr Grumpy

        A true Herald of the Red Dawn! I rather doubt that there was ever much overlap between Plum’s audience and the people who were genuinely “wallowing in misery”. And may I gently point out that his (actually not very political) satire on Mosley is in my top 10. It’s not as good as Right Ho, Jeeves, but Spode is the best thing in it.

  • NorthBrit

    R. F. Delderfield, “The Adventures of Benn Gunn”. Arguably better than Treasure Island.

  • Eddie

    The motivation fo all this if cold hard cash – people buy the familiar and many will buy a new Bond or Wodehouse novel out of curiosity.
    It’s like the Beatles reforming, calling themselves The Beatles, writing ‘new Beatles songs’, and yet comprising some blokes from Take That and Blue (coz, like, they’ve already made records a stuff).

    I reject and ignore all these silly sequels. It’s a publishing gimmick – thassall!

    And as for Faulks – I have read 3, liked 1 of his books. Pretty prose but waffly; romatntic and relationship-focused. I can see why women like his novels.

    Wodehouse? Light comedy, written with many linguistic classical tropes and syntax. Pleasant cheery and unchallenging – and there are scores of Wodehouse novels anyway, (over 100?), as his lived so long and wrote at least 1 a year. So why cobble together another?

    Ah yes, money – and the publicity it gets for publisher and author, who hope some of the fairy dust of internationally-remowned authors will rub off on them (and make them big in the US and elsewhere too).

  • Austin Barry

    Oh, dear.

    If not actually disgruntled by this news, I’m far from being gruntled.

    Why doesn’t Faulks write a self-parody, ‘Birdshit’ perhaps, or have a go at Hemingway, ‘Across the Bar and Into the Gents’?

  • Tim

    “Blandings is eternal, an Elysian creation (as Waugh put it) that never fails to refresh even the most-knackered spirit.”
    Oh dear. “Knackered” is acceptable, if a little coarse, but the hyphen? Really?

  • Steve Payne

    “I have not read Andrew Motion’s Treasure Island sequel but recall it received only muted praise.”

    You really should have. Not so much for a critical opinion on it – I haven’t read it either and therefore have absolutely no idea whether, to me, it’s any good or not – but because it would have put you in that group of people whose opinion is worth a damn, as opposed to those whose doesn’t.

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