Saturday, August 21, 2004

Good Gnus

I am re-reading P.G. Wodehouse's Mr. Mulliner stories, which I've always thought represented some of Wodehouse's best work, maybe even his very best. Though it was written and collected as a series of short stories, it wasn't a series in the sense that the Jeeves or Ukridge stories were. The only thing linking most of these stories is the last name of the characters (Mulliner) and the fact that they are all "frame" stories narrated in a pub, the Angler's Rest, by a fisherman, Mr. Mulliner, who tells tales about things that happened to his inexhaustible supply of relatives. The "frame" story was a favorite Wodehouse device, allowing him to create a parody of a then-typical type of magazine story, and to tell various unconnected types of stories while passing it off as a series.

In his introduction to the collected Mulliner stories, Wodehouse admits that the point of creating Mr. Mulliner was to provide a suitable framework for his most offbeat story ideas, ideas that seemed "too bizarre for editorial consumption." By having them told by Mr. Mulliner, Wodehouse had a context for these weird stories: they were "tall tales" told by a fisherman. (Though in fact, Mr. Mulliner's job is pretty much forgotten after the first story.) The Mulliner stories take in some truly strange ideas, including:

- On a trip to San Francisco in 1906, a young man takes his first drink. Seeing a troupe of performing midgets, he mistakenly thinks he's having hallucinations brought on by the alcohol. So when the San Francisco Earthquake strikes, he believes that's a hallucination too, and sleeps in his hotel room through the whole quake.
- A photographer gets involved in a lawsuit where he proves, as a matter of law, that photographers should not have to be forced to take pictures of ugly people. The attendant publicity makes him the most popular photographer in London, and he becomes a specialist in photographing beautiful women for magazines. After a few months of this, he becomes so sick of photographing beautiful women in coy poses that he falls in love at first sight with an unattractive girl, since she's so different from all the other women he sees all day. Then he is kidnapped and held prisoner by the ugly Mayor of Bottleton East, who wants to force him to take his daughter's picture.
- A young man goes to Los Angeles to make his fortune. When he makes the mistake of entering a Hollywood studio, he is forced to become a screenwriter, working in a building known as "The Leper Colony," where hundreds of writers are working on the script for a picture called "Scented Sinners" (which has been in development for decades, and shows no sign of ever going into production). Since he can never leave the studio until the script is finished, he becomes strangely attracted to his assigned writing partner, the moll of a Chicago gangster who sent her to Hollywood to take care of his bootlegging interests.
- Archibald Mulliner, a complete idiot whose only talent is for imitating a hen laying an egg, becomes interested in Socialism, egged on by his butler, a member of the League of the Dawn of Freedom. Deciding he needs to do his bit for the "Martyred Proletariat," Archibald decides to go among the masses and spread largesse. His first act is to buy a loaf of bread for a poor child, who, furious at being fobbed off with bread when there was perfectly good candy available, hits Archibald with the bread. Then Archibald winds up in a ferocious argument with a man who insists that he must always eat the fat on a piece of meat.

Most of the stories follow the usual pattern of a Wodehouse short story, and the general pattern of the type of story that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post: a simple premise, leading to a series of misadventures, followed by a twist ending. The Mulliner stories are less heavily plotted than Wodehouse's novels or even some of his other short stories, and therefore offer more room for the author to indulge in digressions, or sheer nuttiness. One of the best stories (the only one featuring a female as the lead character), "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court," about an animal-rights-advocating poetess who visits a house that transforms everyone into a huntin' and shootin' sportsman, features as its highlight a poem she writes while under the influence of the house. The poem is called "Good Gnus," and she is shocked to find that it has been turned down by the Animal Lovers' Gazette:

When cares attack and life seems black,
How sweet it is to pot a yak,
Or puncture hares and grizzly bears,
And others I could mention:
But in my Animals "Who's Who"
No name stands higher than the Gnu,
And each new gnu that comes in view
Receives my prompt attention...

A brief suspense, and then at last
The waiting's o'er, the vigil past:
A careful aim. A spurt of flame.
It's done. You've pulled the trigger,
And one more gnu, so fair and frail,
Has handed in its dinner-pail:
(The females all are rather small,
The males are somewhat bigger.)

And of course, the main fun of reading Wodehouse is for the use of language, the memorable phrases, the nutty similes. Most of these stories, because they're so strange, allowed Wodehouse to indulge in his freeest associations and nuttiest descriptions, producing sentences like:

At this moment, however, the drowsy stillness of the summer afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G.K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.

Apart from the unpleasant, acrid smell of burnt poetry, the apartment, thanks to the efforts of Freddie Boot, had been converted into a kind of inland sea. The carpet was awash, and on the bed only a duck could have made itself at home.

"A friend of mine, a rhythmical interior decorator, once rashly consented to put his aunt's parrot up at his studio while she was away visiting friends in the north of England. She was a woman of strong evangelical views, which the bird had imbibed from her. It had a way of putting its head on one side, making a noise like someone drawing a cork from a bottle, and asking if he was saved. To cut a long story short, I happened to call on him a month later and he had installed a harmonium in his studio and was singing hymns, ancient and modern, in a rich tenor, while the parrot, standing on one leg on its perch, took the bass."

"Smoking is a subject on which I hold strong views. I look upon tobacco as life's outstanding boon, and it annoys me to hear these faddists abusing it. And how foolish their arguments are, how easily refuted. They come to me and tell me that if they place two drops of nicotine on the tongue of a dog the animal instantly dies; and when I ask them if they have ever tried the childishly simple device of not placing nicotine on the dog's tongue, they have nothing to reply. They are nonplussed. they go away mumbling something about never having thought of that."

And one that publishing bloggers might enjoy:

It is these swift, unheralded changes of the public mind which make publishers stick straws in their hair and powerful young novelists rush round to the wholesale grocery firms to ask if the berth of junior clerk is still open. Up to the very moment of the Great Switch, sex had been the one safe card. Publishers' lists were congested with scarlet tales of Men Who Did and Women Who Shouldn't Have Done But Who Took a Pop At It. And now the bottom had dropped out of the market without a word of warning, and practically the only way in which readers could gratify their new-born taste for the pure and simple was by fighting for copies of Parted Ways.

The best of the Mulliner stories include "Honeysuckle Cottage" (a brilliant parody of soppy romance fiction), "The Smile that Wins" (about a dyspeptic detective whose smile always conveys the impression that he knows other people's secrets) and "Strychnine in the Soup" (about mystery-fiction addicts). A lot of the Mulliner stories were adapted for TV in the BBC series Wodehouse Playhouse.

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