I just finished reading P.G. Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning, one of the Blandings Castle books. As usual for Wodehouse it’s a romantic comedy with the emphasis on comedy, especially of the eye-rolling ironic kind. How can you go wrong with a story in which the plot tension rests on a pig-napping of the porcine pride of the Ninth Earl of Emsworth, perpetrated to clear the way for young love? For that matter, how can you go wrong with anything Wodehouse ever wrote?
So to celebrate this reading (re-reading, actually; possibly a second re-reading, I don’t remember how many times I’ve picked up this particular book) I’m going to highlight some of its better comedic literary put-downs.
But first, let’s establish the standard for such undertakings. To do so, I swing as far from Wodehouse as I possibly can, going back three-quarters of a century, to another continent, and to a work that is memoir rather than fiction; to wit, Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail, which I strongly recommend, if for no other reason than to savor this mordant description of his traveling companion’s intellectual capacity:
[H]is absurdities were all his own, belonging to no particular nation or clime. He was possessed with an active devil that had driven him over land and sea, to no great purpose, as it seemed; although he had the usual complement of eyes and ears, the avenues between these organs and his brain appeared remarkably narrow and untrodden. His energy was much more conspicuous than his wisdom . . . .
Parkman’s put-down sets the standard by which all others must be measured, as far as I’m concerned. Now to Wodehouse.
One character delivers a zinger to another that deserves a pause to consider the layered ambiguities: “Every day you seem to know less and less about more and more.”
Another character, a Mr. Pilbeam, asks Sir Gregory Parsloe: “Perhaps you will tell me the facts from the beginning?”
“The beginning? Sir Gregory pondered. “Well, let me put it this way. At one time, Mr. Pilbeam, I was younger than I am to-day.”
Lady Constance had a high, arched nose, admirably adapted for sniffing. She used it now to the limits of its power.
[Lord Emsworth is a figure esteemed lightly by the author/narrator, not to mention characters like Sir Gregory Parsloe:] How low an estimate Sir Gregory Parsloe had formed of his visitors’ collective sanity was revealed by the fact that it was actually to Lord Emsworth that he now turned as the more intelligent of the pair.
There had been a decade of his life, the dangerous decade of the twenties, when he had accumulated a past so substantial that a less able man would have been compelled to spread it over a far longer period.
[Sir Threepwood Galahad (love these character names) to Lord Emsworth:] “I should have thought it would be clear to the meanest intelligence.”
From boyhood up, Lord Emsworth had possessed an intelligence about as mean as an intelligence can be without actually being placed under restraint.
[And again, Galahad to Emsworth:] “‘Have you forgotten what I told you the other day?’”
“Yes,” said Lord Emsworth. He always forgot what people told him the other day.
[The author’s regard for the Lord Emsworth he created is really quite engaging:] “The cloud was passing from what, for want of a better word, must be called Lord Emsworth’s mind.”
Next time I think I’m deploying rapier wit in my writing, I shall remember, with humility, P.G. Wodehouse.