Monday, October 10, 2016

Smiles in similes

P.G. Wodehouse
British novelist Evelyn Waugh once observed that his contemporary P.G. Wodehouse wrote three original similes per page. I long ago realized that similes were central to Wodehouse's wit. Oh, yes, he could create some outrageous situations that produce belly laughs, but until those plots approach their hilarious climax, it is generally Wodehouse's similes that keep the reader smiling. But three a page? Surely that is an overstatement. Or could it be an understatement?

To get an idea of how close Wodehouse's prose might actually come to Waugh's three-similes-per-page estimate, I decided to put him to the test.  I chose one of Wodehouse's books at random from my shelf, finding Jeeves and the Tie that Binds in my hands, and opening it at random, finding myself on page 93 in my edition, the beginning of chapter 10. Let's start counting.

1. In the very first line, Bertie Wooster reflects, "I breathed rather in the manner copyrighted by the hart which pants for cooler streams when heated in the chase."

2. The next sentence: "The realization of how narrowly I had missed having to mingle again with this blockbusting female barrister kept me Lot's-wifed for what seemed an hour or so ..." He continues with the same simile in the next sentence when he says "gradually I ceased to be a pillar of salt."

3. Still in the first paragraph of the chapter, Bertie says: "It was as if Napoleon had dropped in for a chat with Wellington on the eve of Waterloo or District Attorney Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason."

Page 94

1. "Aunt Dahlia's (voice), of course, would be audible if you were at Hyde Park Corner and she in Piccadilly Circus."

2. "I have often thought that the deaf adder I read about when I won my Scripture Knowledge prize would have got the message right enough if the aged relative had been one of the charmers."

The rest of the page is mostly dialogue, so that's it for similes.

Page 95

1. "Whether of not Aunt Dahlia bridled, as the expression is, I couldn't say, but I think she must have done, for her next words were straight from the Frigidaire."

2. "I don't say that even now she would have asked Ma McCorkadale to come on a long walking tour with her, but her voice was definitely matier."

OK, so Wodehouse isn't quite averaging threes similes a page in my little sample. Even so he bats for a higher average than any other writer I know, and most of them are gems. His similes illustrate why it has been so difficult translating Wodehouse's humor to the screen when adapting his stories for movies. Similes are just not easy to slip into a screenplay, and that's where most of the humor lies.

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