This week's bibliotherapy: v. good for convalescence, as well as Sundays:
From time to time, on a Sunday evening, I feel a certain glumness descend, a gloomy foreboding about Monday morning, and all the responsibilities it entails. As tonight is a very Sunday-ish evening – the end of summer, the return to routine – a little light reading is in order. Most cheering of all in the circumstances is P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘Psmith in the City’, first published in 1910, but still consoling for anyone who would rather be somewhere else tomorrow.
Wodehouse himself understood the predicament of his central character, Mike Jackson, who yearns to be playing cricket at Cambridge University, but has been sent to London to earn his living as a clerk for the New Asiatic Bank, due to a collapse in the family finances. The young Wodehouse was dispatched in similar circumstances to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the City, where he endured an equally monotonous start to his career, before making his escape as a writer. In this early novel, Wodehouse introduced an instant antidote to boredom, in the form of Rupert Psmith, an expelled Old Etonian incarcerated in the City, but with the wit to find his way out. Psmith (the ‘P’ is silent, ‘as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan’) is an advocate of what he describes as ‘practical socialism’, making comrades of his colleagues, and undermining their odious boss, Mr Bickersdyke, thereby coming close to scuppering Bickersdyke’s political ambitions.
‘Psmith in the City’ is very funny, very subversive, and not at all what one might expect from a writer accused of being a Nazi sympathiser after his broadcasts from Berlin during the Second World War. In hindsight, the general consensus seems to be that Wodehouse was foolish, rather than fascist (George Orwell rejected the claim that Wodehouse had ‘consciously aided the Nazi propaganda machine’ as ‘untenable and even ridiculous’). Yet despite his political naivety, Wodehouse’s vision of the City as oppressive and incomprehensible – ‘the whole system of banking was a horrid mystery’ – now seems refreshingly honest. Unfortunately, we don’t all have Psmith as a comrade against the challenges of boredom or confusion, nor as an ally against the Bickersdyke-type. But Wodehouse remains reassuring; for as Mike discovers at the close of play, ‘He examined the future, and found it good’.