Leave It To Psmith & The End of the Affair

August 10, 2013

One summer, two books – both from 20th century English authors, both dwelling on love and hate, and yet they couldn’t be more different.

P.G. Wodehouse brings the lighter touch. He spins words into elaborate gossamer webs that seem completely insubstantial, and yet they have the power to ensnare. Consider this description of an late morning lack experienced by Wodehouse’s hero, Psmith: “For, though he had celebrated his first day of emancipation from Billingsgate Fish Market by rising late and breakfasting later, he had become aware by now of that not unpleasant emptiness which is the silent luncheon-gong of the soul.”

I have never had to escape an uncle’s fish market, but every summer I shift my rising and breakfasting to later hours than are possible during the school year. And that ‘not unpleasant emptiness’ that Wodehouse identifies seems like a daily occurrence.

Unanswered luncheon-gongs, a reluctant love interest, and a skeptical host (more accurately, a skeptical host’s secretary) make Psmith’s life tolerably difficult. The fact that the P is silent offers additional challenges. But Psmith does prevail in the end.

This is not the case for Graham Greene‘s antihero, Maurice Bendrix. This adulterer and would-be home wrecker is slowly overwhelmed by forces beyond his ken. As he eventually discovers, his true love, Sarah, has left him because of a bargain she has made with God (a bargain that she believed was necessary to preserve Maurice’s life). God is always silent, and it is likewise unclear whether He ever keeps his side of any bargain, but this doesn’t prevent Sarah et al. from filling page after page with love-hate confessions. I wasn’t in the mood to play the part of confessor so I had to put the book down after every few pages. Reading was just too tiring.

Although each book had its drawbacks (Affair was thick going, Psmith was predictable), both were loaded with gems like the following. I’ll leave it to you to guess which quote came from which book:

“Hatred seems to operate the same glands as love: it even produces the same actions. If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?”

“The ability to sleep soundly and deeply is the prerogative, as has been pointed out earlier in this straightforward narrative of the simple home-life of the English upper classes, of those who do not think quickly. The Earl of Emsworth, who had not thought quickly since the occasion in the summer of 1874 when he had heard his father’s footsteps approaching the stable-loft in which he, a lad of fifteen, sat smoking his first cigar, was an excellent sleeper.”

“I have never understood why people who can swallow the enormous improbability of a personal God boggle at a personal Devil.”

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