Kindle-licious on Wodehouse’s Psmith: Work is a Mug’s Job

used with permission

After the unappreciated carefreeness of school days, comes the unending weariness of work, if you’re like most of us. Especially if you live in the U.S. or Japan.

Then there’s Psmith. If he’s a less than ideal student for the school master who wishes to squash his friends, he’s an even less ideal employee for the manager who likes making his underlings’ lives miserable. Which is exactly what happens in Psmith in the City, when a wealthy and vindictive bank manager convinces Psmith’s father to put Psmith under his wing in the working world as opposed to sending him off to Cambridge for a law degree. It says unfortunate things for Mr. Smith’s attention span that he agrees to this proposition so easily.

Mike is along for the ride once more, as his family falls onto hard times, and he has to put in hours at a bank instead of going to University—and falls under the thumb of the same bank manager, who goes by the lovely name of Mr. Bickersdyke. There’s still some amount of Mike and cricket involved, but at the end it serves as a much better plot point than it did in Mike and Psmith.

In large part, however, the story is about Psmith sending up Authority while keeping himself and Mike amused and, later, out of trouble. There’s still a youthfulness in this adventure that recalls Schoolboy Days, as the first year of work invariably feels like. As a result, Psmith in the City is an enjoyable and irreverent romp that gives Authority the bird—and then some. It ranges from Psmith subtly pestering Bickersdyke at the club they share, with the most bang for the least energy from him:

Psmith found him a quarter of an hour later in the card-room. He sat down beside his table, and began to observe the play with silent interest. Mr Bickersdyke, never a great performer at the best of times, was so unsettled by the scrutiny that in the deciding game of the rubber he revoked, thereby presenting his opponents with the rubber by a very handsome majority of points. Psmith clicked his tongue sympathetically.

Dignified reticence is not a leading characteristic of the bridge-player’s manner at the Senior Conservative Club on occasions like this. Mr Bickersdyke’s partner did not bear his calamity with manly resignation. He gave tongue on the instant. “What on earth’s”, and “Why on earth’s” flowed from his mouth like molten lava. Mr Bickersdyke sat and fermented in silence. Psmith clicked his tongue sympathetically throughout.

Mr Bickersdyke lost that control over himself which every member of a club should possess. He turned on Psmith with a snort of frenzy.

“How can I keep my attention fixed on the game when you sit staring at me like a—like a—”

“I am sorry,” said Psmith gravely, “if my stare falls short in any way of your ideal of what a stare should be; but I appeal to these gentlemen. Could I have watched the game more quietly?”

“Of course not,” said the bereaved partner warmly. “nobody could have any earthly objection to your behaviour. It was absolute carelessness. I should have thought that one might have expected one’s partner at a club like this to exercise elementary—”

But Mr Bickersdyke had gone. He had melted silently away like the driven snow.

Psmith took his place at the table.

“A somewhat nervous, excitable man, Mr Bickersdyke, I should say,” he observed.

to… ah, this would spoil some surprises, but let’s just say that things escalate.

Wodehouse’s writing has stretched its humorous wings, touching upon other characters and actions with wry yet efficient descriptions that are at once both colorfully vivid and undeniably funny. I enjoyed, for instance, this description of Bickersdyke after Psmith’s subtle working-overs the night before:

Mr Bickersdyke sat in his private room at the New Asiatic Bank with a pile of newspapers before him. At least, the casual observer would have said that it was Mr Bickersdyke. In reality, however, it was an active volcano in the shape and clothes of the bank-manager.

It’s in Psmith in the City where Wodehouse’s talent for turning a phrase, one vital to the writer of comedy of any stripe, begins to truly bloom. One of my favorites is: “But, then, trouble is such an elastic word. It embraces a hundred degrees of meaning.”

In the battle between employee and manager, however, who’s going to win is not a question easily answered, even if one of the parties involved is Psmith, and the tension is tight throughout the book—tighter than it was in Mike and Psmith, not the least because Mike is a little more aware of the doom around him, which Psmith does a fair amount of shielding him from.

In large part, however, despite Psmith in the City starting with Mike, it ends strongly on Psmith’s side. At least the book is appropriately titled. But it’s obvious by now that the Psmith and Mike partnership falls strongly on Psmith’s side in every narrative way. By comparison, the Bertie and Jeeves relationship is much more balanced from a storytelling perspective, because the more powerful character works behind the scenes, while the less brainy character is more active in his own destinies (even if it’s mostly to screw things up).

This inequality did not escape Wodehouse’s notice, so the spotlight is unequivocally given to Psmith in the next book, Psmith, Journalist. And as we’ll see next time, now that Mike is not around anymore to be the author’s punching bag, Psmith meets with almost more trouble than he can handle.

Psmith Downloads
(where single quotes have been summarily dealt with)

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