Writing light comic fiction is tricky, because funny won’t carry a full-length novel on its own. Something big needs to be at stake, and I always think it’s cheating to have characters risk death in this genre. Jerome K Jerome in Three Men in a Boat manages an episodic arc that keeps me in stitches every time I read it (Montmorency!). But above all others in my estimation, PG Wodehouse is most skilled at writing comic narratives. He can weave a plot more complex than a Rube Goldberg machine and still have me rolling on the floor on the tenth read. Take The Code of the Woosters, where Bertie Wooster’s goal is to adhere to his family’s traditional code: “Never let a pal down.” All his pals therefore shovel the worst possible duties upon his narrow shoulders, all of which are life and death to them: stealing a cow creamer, saving an engagement, avoiding a beating, swiping a policeman’s helmet, being flung into jail. And this in a “Golden Fleece”-type narrative clearly and hilariously told, all because no matter what, Wooster’s duty to his pal is more important than life itself. Here, a former girlfriend begs Bertie to take the rap for a crime.
‘I can’t have my precious angel Harold doing a stretch.’
‘How about your precious angel Bertram?’
‘But Harold is sensitive.’
‘So am I sensitive.’
‘Not half so sensitive as Harold. Bertie, surely you aren’t going to be difficult about this? You’re much too good a sport. Didn’t you tell me once that the Code of the Woosters was ‘Never let a pal down?’
Wodehouse’s themes are lofty and literary, involving loyalty, true love winning out, and apotheosis after sacrifice, each of which resonates grandly with readers’ hearts while we belly-laugh over individual scenes. (And I didn’t even mention Bertie’s valet Jeeves yet.) There is none like you, Wodehouse. None.