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‘I didn’t want to write parody; I wanted to write in parallel’: Ben Schott

Ben Schott   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The story started — like most stories these days — with Donald Trump. There was this report in 2016 about Trump’s former butler, Anthony Senecal, declaring on his Facebook page that President Barack Obama should be killed. British writer Ben Schott says that his first thought on reading this was, “What would Jeeves — the most famous gentleman’s personal gentleman (g.p.g.) in the history of literature — say? So, I wrote a short story about Trump and his butler meeting Bertie and Jeeves. People liked the story and I thought, ‘Well, it would be nice to write something more.’”

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Thus came the novel Jeeves and the King of Clubs in 2018, reimagining Bertie Wooster as a British spy who helps the government defeat the fascists. Its sequel, Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, is out now (both books have been authorised by the P.G. Wodehouse Estate). On a video call from New York, Schott, who is also known for the bestselling Schott’s Miscellanies and Schott’s Almanac series, tells us what to expect from the sequel, how he captured the Wodehousian language, and whether he thinks Bertie is “mentally negligible”.

Edited excerpts:

The first book had familiar faces like Aunt Dahlia, Madeline Bassett and Roderick Spode as well as new characters like Lord MacAuslan and his niece, Iona. Who and what can we expect to see in the sequel?

Well, it’s some old characters and some new ones. The relationship between Bertie and Iona carries on; we shall see what happens there. This book is set in Mayfair, Newmarket Racecourse, and Cambridge University, partly because I went to Cambridge. One of the joys of the King of Clubs was taking people to private worlds. So, you have the private clubs, banks and private gambling houses. Then, of course, the Cambridge colleges, and how they all work. The machinations of Cambridge are as private a world as betting and the Newmarket races. So, part of the joy is taking Bertie and putting him into amusing odd places and using the odd places as a springboard not only to force action and humour but also to describe [these] bizarre worlds.

How did you capture the spirit of Wodehouse’s prose? You don’t want it to be an exact copy...

Exactly. Also, you can’t. Wodehouse is a genius and you couldn’t possibly attempt some of the sentences he constructs. I didn’t want to write parody; I wanted to write in parallel. The tendency is to think, certainly with

the Jeeves and Wooster books, that everyone speaks in the same way. And they don’t. Every character has their own vocabulary and their own cadence. With Jeeves, for example, the difference between ‘Sir?’ and ‘Indeed, sir?’ is very subtle. So, to try and get each character and their vocabulary right, that is what I tried to do. Writing, say, 700 words in a day is like solving 700 crossword puzzles. Every single word has to fit horizontally and vertically into a grid.

In the King of Clubs, Roderick Spode says things like, “We must be ceaseless in our fight to keep Great Britain great.” Was it a conscious decision to merge present reality into the story?

A tiny bit. Again, I was guided by Wodehouse. If he hadn’t introduced Spode and the Black Shorts, which is a satire on the Blackshirts, these books probably wouldn’t exist. Because Wodehouse had introduced Spode and because he was clearly reacting to Oswald Mosley [the British fascist Spode is based on], he obviously thought that he was a cad and a bounder and someone to be mocked. It allowed me licence, I hope, to bring in a little of what’s going on in the world, just to make it relevant.

Involving Bertie and Jeeves in espionage and working for the British Government in tandem is a ploy that does seem to work...

There were two things that made it work: obviously, [in the original books] there was Spode, and then there was the Junior Ganymede [a club for butlers, valets, and g.p.g like Jeeves]. When you zoom out, you realise that the club was founded in 1878 to be a spy organisation. Suddenly, you think, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’

The Jeeves and Wooster books have what I call ‘furniture’. You have the Drones, the Junior Ganymede, aunts, Milady’s Boudoir [the periodical edited by Aunt Dahlia], and people want Bertie to talk about winning the prize for Scripture Knowledge and his article on ‘What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing’. You have to have these because that’s the format. My idea was to keep the furniture, especially the Junior Ganymede, and not change it, just give it a different context. So, it’s the same but it’s like, ‘Oh! It’s a spy club and it always has been.’

People have commented that Bertie in the King of Clubs seems smarter than he usually is. Personally, I don’t think he’s ever been that stupid…

Exactly! I have a lot of thoughts on this. First of all, I don’t think he’s as stupid as people think he is. He went to Eton and Oxford, and he won the prize for Scripture Knowledge. The second thing is that people tend to equate Bertie with the kind of drunken buffoon played by Hugh Laurie (in the television series, Jeeves & Wooster). [Stephen] Fry and Laurie were amazing; don’t get me wrong, but that was one interpretation.

Jeeves famously says [Bertie is] “mentally negligible”. But compared to Jeeves, everyone is mentally negligible! Maybe not Mycroft Holmes or Sherlock Holmes, but everybody else. But would Jeeves have spent 11 novels and 60 years manning the soda siphon for someone who is a complete buffoon?

For me, the absolute key to this is that Bertie writes the books. So, you have someone who keeps telling you how stupid he is [but] also writes these amazing stories in the most incredible prose. It’s this bizarre oxymoron of having somebody incredibly eloquent telling you how dim they are that gives the books their charm, ingenuousness and freshness. That’s the incredible balance, I think.

Can you talk about the characterisation of Iona MacAuslan? She’s different from the women in the Jeeves and Wooster books in the sense that she is not soppy, out to improve him or land him in the soup.

They tend to come in three varieties: simpering fools (Madeline Bassett), exacting harridans (Florence Craye), and brutal aunts (a sub-species of harridan). This somewhat antique worldview served the books well, up until Plum died in 1975, but times change. As Jeeves would doubtless murmur: Tempora mutantur, sir, nos et mutamur in illis.

It was an absolute pleasure, therefore, to devise a female character who might out-Ginger the deftest of Rogers and whose intellect even Jeeves has to respect. Furthermore, she does faultless impressions of Aunt Dahlia and she can fly an aeroplane.

There is a mention of Bertie’s sister and her three daughters in ‘Bertie Changes His Mind’ from Carry on Jeeves, the only story narrated by Jeeves. Do you think you might introduce her at some point? Perhaps they were in a witness protection programme…

Oh, plot ideas! [Laughs] Well, that’s book three. The sister’s interesting. That’s a very good question. I will have to think about that. It’s conceivable that she might come in or it might just confuse... I mean in Bertie’s family, the aunts are quite enough.

Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, like the King of Clubs, has endnotes. As the writer of the Miscellanies and Almanac series, was that a personal touch?

Yes, it’s partly a personal touch and partly because I love footnotes and endnotes. And it’s partly a sign of respect to Wodehouse, telling him, as it were, here’s my working. In mathematics, you get certain marks for getting the answer right but you get more marks for showing your work.

What I want to say is, I really respect this author and respect what he has done for language. Every time he uses a word for the first time, like ‘cuppa’ or ‘zing’, I put it in the book. It’s me showing my working and tipping my hat to say, ‘I’m not you, I’m not trying to be you. This is how I tried to do it’.

Do you see yourself writing more Jeeves and Wooster books or perhaps a Blandings novel?

Tempting as that is, I think the Wodehouse oeuvre doesn’t need me treading over every one of the characters. However, it will be fun to continue this series just because it’s fun to write them. Writing these books is the most fun you can have with your clothes on; it’s a joy. But obviously, it’s up to the Wodehouse Estate and whether people like the books or not. But I could certainly see myself writing at least one more novel if people liked it.

aparna.as@thehindu.co.in

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