Commentary: A birthday salute to PG Wodehouse

News & Politics

Sunday marks the 142nd birthday of English humorist P.G. Wodehouse, who was born in Guildford, Surrey, in 1881. I posthumously honor his genius by saluting the simile, that most enchanting of comparative literary devices, which he so blithely deployed throughout his writing.

Admittedly, there is risk in paying tribute to a master in his own currency. Like taking a fashion tip from a rodeo clown, it brings with it more downside than upside. Might I miss the mark, sharing Wodehouse’s love of similes but not his consummate facility with them? Perhaps.

I hope that chance, though, is as unlikely as hearing Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” sung as a high church hymn. It’s worth risking ridicule if only to encourage lovers of language and laughter, of fiction and frivolity, who have never read Wodehouse quickly to right that wrong.

So warned, I don’t fear I am, like a dinner guest who describes a chatty mountaineer seated nearby as a social climber, misleading anyone. Characters like monocle-sporting Rupert Psmith, amiably dense Bertie Wooster, and sage Jeeves, Bertie’s trusty valet, never disappoint. I press on with my panegyric.

Second-guessing myself now would be as ill-timed as hesitating over the tire spikes when returning a rental car. At best, it will summon a smile to recall the writer whose work was joy itself. At worst, it will seem a forgettable amuse-bouche before savoring the sweetest Plum (as Wodehouse was nicknamed).

Either way, I’ll have done my duty. I discharge this responsibility as sure as a grade school spelling bee contestant whose nemesis has drawn “cymotrichy” in the first round that Wodehouse will rekindle, as he invariably does in my heart, a love of the beautiful English language.

The writing, as clever as a fox with a double first from Cambridge, yields belly laughs that are as frequent as National Public Radio pledge drives. As pages turn, worldly troubles fall away like a pair of wet corduroys. It’s simply the most fun you can have while reading a book. Plum himself must have giggled as he typed.

In the end, falling short of Wodehouse’s mirthfully master-class standard of similes only proves his greatness. It’s more embarrassing than unforgivable, like confusing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” with Europe’s “The Final Countdown” in the opening notes.

Amateur similes aside, fellow Anglo writer Evelyn Waugh put it best: “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.”

This is exactly right and, as surely as selective-voice noise-canceling headphones are a money-good proposition, no small feat. Happy birthday, Plum.

Mike Kerrigan is an attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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