Interview: Ben Schott, author, Jeeves and the Leap of Faith - “There is a clarity in the way Wodehouse uses words” - Hindustan Times

Interview: Ben Schott, author, Jeeves and the Leap of Faith - “There is a clarity in the way Wodehouse uses words”

ByChintan Girish Modi
Mar 17, 2023 05:41 PM IST

When and how did you fall in love with the work of PG Wodehouse?When I was a child, my father used to read to me

When and how did you fall in love with the work of PG Wodehouse?

Author Ben Schott (Courtesy the Kolkata Literary Meet)
Author Ben Schott (Courtesy the Kolkata Literary Meet)

When I was a child, my father used to read to me. I remember him reading serious books like Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – both by George Orwell – until he read me one of the Jeeves books by PG Wodehouse. I was struck by Wodehouse’s words, his characters, and the world that he built. His turn of phrase, the way he constructed sentences, just the fun that he had with language inspired me so much. I must have been 10 or 11. My father comes from a scientific background but what we have in common is our love for etymology, dictionaries and the beauty of language. The joy of Wodehouse is that he is silly, absurd and funny but so incredibly precise in articulation.

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What sets him apart from other writers of comedy?

The world that Wodehouse has managed to create with characters like Reginald Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, Rupert Psmith – and the Blandings Castle, of course – is very distinct. There is a clarity in the way Wodehouse uses words. The humour seems evanescent and fleeting but what makes it memorable for me is the precision.

Would you call yourself a fan boy?

I have never used that word but I guess I might say admirer or acolyte.

Has Wodehouse ever shown up in a dream of yours?

No, he hasn’t. And I resent that! He really should. I am waiting. Maybe he thinks that I am not deserving enough of his visitations. But if he did show up, I don’t know what I would say. Perhaps I would speak of my admiration for him; perhaps I’d shut up and let him talk.

Have you tried to eat all the foods that Wodehouse has described in his book?

I actually did. A friend of mine set up a dinner party where people cooked and brought some of the dishes that Wodehouse has described. It was quite elaborate. We all had so much fun.

What kind of support did you get from the Wodehouse Estate when you started writing Jeeves and the King of Clubs (2018) and the sequel Jeeves and the Leap of Faith (2020)?

The best support that I could get was their permission to use the crown jewels of Wodehouse’s work – the greatest comic characters ever created in the English language. I know as a matter of fact that I would not have written those books without permission. Wodehouse is too dear to me to take the kind of liberties that people do when they write fan fiction. I am still in awe of the trust they reposed in me, the kindness they have shown me.

At this year’s Kolkata Literary Meet, you mentioned a meeting with his grandson.

Yes, that is Sir Edward Cazalet. I had an opportunity to visit the Wodehouse family archives, to sit in Wodehouse’s chair, see his bookshelves, especially his Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have been to his school, and seen his typewriter. These magical objects that still glow with the master’s genius assisted me when I was paying homage through my books.

352pp, ₹2681; Little, Brown & Company
352pp, ₹2681; Little, Brown & Company

Tell us about the thought process behind working with readymade fictional characters.

I had various options. I could have written another novel in the Jeeves universe and added to what we already have from Wodehouse – 11 Jeeves novels and 35 short stories. I could have written up a young Bertie but then he would be at school. He would not have a butler. He would not have been able to drink or drive or go to the club. I would have to think about questions like: What about his parents? What about the First World War? It wouldn’t have been fun. Or I could have tried to create a modern-day Bertie in Mayfair, London. Then it would have become like the television series Succession or perhaps White Lotus. The one per cent – meaning the richest people in our society – are not funny any longer. They are grotesque. So, I had the idea to take Wodehouse’s universe, and turn Bertie into a British spy. I wanted to explore both espionage and the rise of fascism in my homage to Wodehouse.

What are your thoughts on the women characters and people of colour in his books?

I must confess that I do not feel truly qualified to talk about the people of colour in the Jeeves books. Well, about the women characters, it is a bit complicated. By no means am I an expert on this aspect of Wodehouse’s work. What I can say is that in the character of Iona MacAuslan, I wanted to create a female character who was smart, independent, and a match not only for Bertie but also Jeeves who looms large as the intellect in Wodehouse’s universe.

Are you planning to write more Jeeves books or play with characters of other novelists?

No. I don’t think I would want to become a professional homagist. When I wrote both the Jeeves books, the idea simply was to find a niche, do something that only I could do.

This is your first visit to India. Would you ever think of setting a book here?

I was invited to come and speak at the Kolkata Literary Meet three years ago but I had to cancel because of a death in the family and the Covid pandemic. I am thrilled that I am finally here. I am not sure about setting a book here. It would be pretty brave to do that. Perhaps I should stick to what I know best. But I am excited to travel in India for three weeks. In addition to my stay in Kolkata, I am going to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Mumbai.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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