P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith saved my life.
It happened like this.
We were on vacation in the woods of Wisconsin. I did not fish. When fishing went on, I slept soundly, or if I woke up, I stayed indoors and read P. G. Wodehouse.
I left the cabin occasionally to walk the Birkie, slap bugs, and visit a fish museum. Then I slapped one too many bugs. I got ill.
Imagine being rushed to the hospital with a puffy and infected ankle and clapped into the infectious disease ward.
Illness is mysterious. Was it a spider bite? Maybe. They didn’t know. The edges of the bite were dark and necrotic. The team of doctors couldn’t identify the infection. They gave me X-rays, MRI, ultrasounds, blood tests, EEGs…
They gave me IVs; they tried different medications. I tried to be brave, and then stopped being brave. After a week, my arms were sore and bruised from IVs. I argued with an intern on a weekend about the IV. I was there so long they had finally put the needle in my hand. There were no more veins.
“Change it NOW. I’m in pain.”
“The only place left is the crook of your arm. You won’t be able to bend it.”
“Fine. Just change it.”
I was dazed and scared. My arm ached, but anything was better than having the needle in my hand.
The nurses looked like aerobics instructors, bouncing into the room in white sneakers. I was disheveled in a pink bathrobe over scrubs, and IV bags hung decoratively from my arm. I would go out to the nurses’ station and say, “I can’t sleep.” Finally they gave me Benadryl.
I got sicker and sicker. I just lay there for days. I couldn’t read my books.
Finally they gave me sleeping pills. And I got better from one of the medicines, though they never identified the illness. And then a friend brought me P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith.
If you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s comedies, you must add them to your canon. Tropes repeat, but never boringly: in almost every novel there are cases of mistaken identity, impostors, thefts of jewelry or pigs, and accidental engagements. Wodehouse’s stock comic characters are stuck in an Edwardian, or possibly slightly later, time frame, where nothing very bad ever happens, but they never seem hackneyed. Wodehouse’s pitch-perfect dialogue and flawless prose are mesmerizing.
The plot of Leave It to Psmith is very silly, thank God. (I would not have liked to be “healed” at the hospital by something very serious.) Lord Emsworth at Blandings Castle is concerned about his hollyhocks and roses, while his sister Connie insists on entertaining literary types. She arranges for Lord Emsworth to meet McTodd, a Canadian poet scheduled to join them, and he sets off peevishly.
Here is an example of Wodehouse’s wit.
“He shuffled morosely. It was a perpetual grievance of his, this practice of his sister’s of collecting literary celebrities and dumping them down in the home for indeterminate visits. You never knew when she was going to spring another on you. already since the beginning of the year he had suffered from a round dozen of the species at brief intervals; and at this very moment his life was being poisoned by the fact that Blandings was sheltering a certain Miss Aileen Peavey, the mere thought of whom was enough to turn the sunshine off as with a tap.”
Meanwhile, Lord Emsworth’s son Freddy has hired, or tried to hire, the clever Psmith, an upwardly mobile fishmonger-turned-jack-of-all-trades, to steal Aunt Connie’s diamond necklace for his uncle, who plans to give some money to his stepmother and to Freddy–it’s complicated. And Psmith, who falls in love with the young woman who has been hired to catalogue the Blandings library, decides to impersonate McTodd and…
Does that sound sufficiently silly?
Is it any wonder that it became one of my favorite books?
I asked the doctor, Did the reading help? The doctor said it was hard to know how these things worked.
They found a medicine that worked. They didn’t know what I had had to begin with.
May P. G. Wodehouse be read by all of us in need.