Meet Mr. Mulliner
Penguin Books. First Published 1927.
We are introduced to the sage of Angler's Rest, telling charming tall tales about his extended family. The very first story is a corker, and features George, the crossword puzzle aficionado with a speech deficiency (he stammers), who 'knows more about Eli the prophet, Ra, the Sun God and the bird Emu than anyone else in the county'. [I remember a gang of us seated at the dinner table in C mess, IISc, discussing the day's crossword puzzle in The Indian Express, and Atre with the paper in his hand, pretended to read out one of the unsolved clues - 'Sun God (2)', and Amarnath immediately and proudly shouted out 'Ra'. How we laughed!] George's story is followed by three tales involving the inventions of the chemist Wilfred Mulliner, who 'revolutionized the world of chemistry'...'by proving that H2O + b3g4z7 - m9z8 = g6f5p3x' . He also 'electrified the world of Science by proving that if you mix a stiffish oxygen and potassium and and add a splash of trinitrotoluol and a spot of brandy you got something that could be sold in (prohibition ruled) America as champagne'. The invention that features in two stories is 'Buck-U-Uppo', a nerve tonic for elephants that is imbibed by a curate and two bishops to hilarious effect. Five more stories in a similar vein, with several nifties on each page, reveal Wodehouse at the top of his form, where he stayed about four decades. A thoroughly enjoyable book, no matter how many times you read it.
The world Wodehouse describes disappeared a century ago, if it ever actually existed. And certainly I (and my contemporaries) have never experienced any of it first hand. And yet the stories continue to appeal to us, as demonstrated by the prominent display of ever-new editions in bookshops. Obviously successive generations keep falling under his spell. Of all the authors I avidly read in my youth, Wodehouse alone survives. I don't see new editions of Alistair Maclean or Desmond Bagley or Eric Ambler or Irving Wallace or Max Brand or Len Deighton or ... How long will PGW survive? Is he already a classic? Is he great literature, in the same class as Dickens (or even Shakespeare!)? The difference is, of course, Wodehouse has no message for the world, except the insidious one of mild tolerance of all the stupidities and injustices of Life.