How well he’s read, to reason against reading! William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost.
I have long since come to the profound conclusion that really good books ought to be read more than once if one is to derive full value from all the riches of the language that the author has sought to so joyously share with his or her readers. Not unlike listening to your favourite piece of music, repeatedly. It is entirely possible that a whodunnit could have been written extremely deftly, but once you know who it was who put the strychnine in the soup, there is little point in revisiting the narrative. The suspense has been laid to rest. You will always know that it was the butler who did it. As a category, by definition, murder mysteries do not generally merit a second reading, however well written. With due apologies to Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ruth Rendell and their ilk. The other issue I have with best-selling crime novels, even those written by éminence grises of the supreme quality of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers or P.D. James is that most of their works have also been adapted to film and television serials, and very well produced too. In fact, in the case of the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, over the decades many of his famous stories have been filmed in a variety of adaptations such that we have a surfeit of The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, et al. There is such a thing as having too much of a good thing. Let me reiterate, lest you get the wrong impression, that I yield to no one in my admiration for these great authors and their works. I am merely emphasizing that the genre tends to preclude a second reading for its own sake. I am open to a divergence of opinion.
Speaking of building suspense and climaxing with the final denouement, I would urge readers of this blog to key in on YouTube, The Missing Page, featuring that lugubrious British comedian of the 60s, Tony Hancock. The episode hilariously demonstrates what happens when our protagonist, Hancock, borrows a murder mystery novel, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, from his local library, only to mortifyingly find the revelatory last page missing, presumably torn out by the previous sadistic reader. He spends sleepless nights trying to outguess the author and takes the librarian to task for his lack of diligence in keeping books with pages missing. He even attempts to locate the author to uncover the mystery only to learn that he has died, and the book is out of print. It’s a laugh-a-minute episode, not slapstick, brilliantly scripted and wonderfully acted. A single viewing will not suffice.
Let us now take P.G. Wodehouse. Between you, me and the gatepost, I can take Wodehouse all the year round. Weaned on the master of farce, as he has often been described, from an early age, I have read most of his famous novels at least twice, if not more. You may well ask why. As I write this column, I am well into chapter five of The Code of the Woosters, a Jeeves / Wooster classic. This could quite possibly be my 10th reading of this ageless wonder involving Bertie Wooster’s escapades in an old English country pile, with his gentleman’s personal gentleman, Jeeves, on hand to rescue his master at every turn from a fate worse than death. A silver 18th century cow creamer plays a sterling part! There are, of course, several other novels by Sir Pelham featuring the likes of Lord Emsworth and his frightful sisters, not forgetting his magnificent sow, the Empress of Blandings, Galahad and Freddie Threepwood, Uncle Fred, aka Lord Ickenham and his greatly put-upon nephew, Pongo Twistleton, the Mulliner tales, the Golfing stories, Ukridge, Psmith (the P is silent), Gussie Fink-Nottle and so many more. On reflection, why do I waste words when I can quote one of our contemporary comic geniuses, Stephen Fry (who essayed Jeeves on television) on Wodehouse.
‘Had his only contribution to literature been Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle, his place in history would have been assured. Had he written of none but Mike and Psmith, he would be cherished today as the best and brightest of our comic authors. If Jeeves and Wooster had been his solitary theme, still he would be hailed as the Master. If he had given us only Ukridge, or nothing but recollections of the Mulliner family, or a pure diet of golfing stories, Doctor Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse would nonetheless be considered immortal. That he gave us all those – and more – is our good fortune and a testament to the most industrious, prolific and beneficent author ever to have sat down, scratched his head and banged out a sentence.’
I will move on from Wodehouse, but not before leaving you with a couple of gems, among hundreds, that demonstrate why we read the man over and over again. ‘The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.’ The Adventures of Sally. ‘The great thing in life, Jeeves, if we wish to be happy and prosperous, is to miss as many political debates as possible.’ Much Obliged, Jeeves. The last quote resonates like a ton of bricks with me every evening when I tune in to the chaos that is our so-called television debates here in India. As to those unfortunates who have never laid their eyes on a Wodehouse tome, they are more to be pitied than censured.
Evelyn Waugh, a contemporary of P.G. Wodehouse’s, had this to say of the great humourist, ‘Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.’ It is a quote that adorns many of Wodehouse’s book jacket covers. Waugh himself was no slouch when it came to the telling phrase that rousingly celebrates the English language. Author of some of the finest novels you could hope to get your hands on, special mention must be made of Brideshead Revisited, Put Out More Flags and The Decline and Fall. Mr. Waugh clearly did not care much for newspapers, about which he said, ‘News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.’ As with any great writer, words are Waugh’s stock-in-trade. As he memorably puts it, ‘One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die.’ That’s one in the eye for the lay person who keeps carping about writers ‘who use big words.’ Evelyn’s son Auberon, himself a journalist and satirist of note during the 80s, didn’t quite achieve his father’s everlasting fame.
It is rare, in the world of English Literature to witness a father and his son achieve stardom almost contemporaneously. The exception to the rule, Sir Kingsley Amis and his son Martin Amis, managed to do just that. Overly fond of his daily libation than was good for him, Kingsley Amis nevertheless wrote a clutch of highly acclaimed novels, most notably his 1954 debut Lucky Jim, a trenchant, rollicking send-up of the literary world, academia and those who peopled it. Here is the highly articulate atheist commentator, gadfly and essayist, the late Christopher Hitchens on Amis’ novel. ‘If you can picture Bertie or Jeeves being capable of actual malice, and simultaneously imagine Evelyn Waugh forgetting about original sin, you have the combination of innocence and experience that makes this short romp so imperishable.’ Lucky Jim requires to be read twice, at least, to savour its subtle and heady flavours. Again, not to miss the reverberating Wodehouse reference. Two great quotes from Lucky Jim – ‘If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.’ And this classic, ‘His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.’
The Amis scion, Martin, a close friend of Christopher Hitchens’ has earned the sobriquet of being the enfant terrible of contemporary English Literature. A prolific novelist, essayist and memoirist, Martin Amis is a modern-day literary celebrity on a par with the likes of Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and of course, Hitchens himself. Among his many books, he may be best remembered for three novels, collectively referred to as the London Trilogy – Money, London Fields and The Information. Martin Amis’ stories and essays are often dark, dense, thickly portentous and his descriptions and dialogues can take you into uncharted territory. Hence the need to re-read and get a grip on his amazing felicity and razor-sharp observations. His elegant prose can traverse comfortably from high-minded sublime to absolute down and dirty, but the Force is always with him. ‘Someone watches over us when we write,’ he says disarmingly. ‘Mother. Teacher. Shakespeare. God.’ How true, even if we are not aware of it and even if we are non-believers. And my personal favourite – ‘What we eventually run up against are the forces of humourlessness, and let me assure you that the humourless as a bunch don’t just not know what’s funny, they don’t know what’s serious. They have no common sense, either, and shouldn’t be trusted with anything.’ Strong stuff, but as a lifelong follower of humour as a genre, I concur unreservedly.
What I have shared with you, dear reader, is only a smidgen of a sample which does not even begin to scratch the surface of the riches that are available in terms of reading material. Before you hastily order your next best-seller from Amazon, take a quick look at the stack of books in your home library and ask yourself this question, ‘Should I be re-reading some of these great novels and discovering hidden literary treasures that might have escaped me at the first reading, ‘born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air,’ before splurging on new books with no space to keep them?’ You might duck that issue by turning to the digital Kindle, which obviates the space problem but that, in my humble opinion, would be indulging in prevarication.
As Oscar Wilde, who can never be kept out of any literary discussion, said, ‘If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.’
PS: In case you’re wondering, I have excluded Shakespeare from the ambit of this discussion for obvious reasons. We quote extensively from the Bard’s complete works, as I have at the top of this piece, but we do not pass an idle hour reading his plays from cover to cover, inviting cervical cricks. Unless, of course, it was part of our school or university syllabus, or if we were treading the boards in fancy dress, playing Richard III or Hamlet.