John Banville’s introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of The Old Devils is underwhelming. It is basically just an overview of the novel’s general plot, with an obligatory nod to the amount Kingsley Amis could drink. (It was a lot.) Banville front-loads a minuscule amount of analysis, opening the piece by attempting to establish Amis within the context of other 20th century British satirists (non-italics are my own):
A single strain runs through the work of all the so-called comic British novelists of the twentieth century, which might best be described as comic despair. It is there in the novels of Evelyn Waugh [yup], John Wain, Muriel Spark, and can be detected even in P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy concoctions [nope], which present the spectacle of Bertie Wooster and his silly-ass chums engaged in unflagging japery, like an ice-skater desperately cutting more and more light-footed sweeps and spins because he knows the ice is thin and when he comes to a stop it will shatter under him.
This is bunk. I’ve read upwards of twenty P.G. Wodehouse novels, and a damn lot of short stories, and never once have I detected a hint of despair, comic or otherwise. That’s precisely why I read the things! Wodehouse lived in a little world of his own and his novels are just as cloistered as his actual life was. His characters have little, if any, experience of death, war, work, poverty, disease, sex, depression, or ideology. They exist in a fairy tale realm for adults, where cigarettes don’t cause cancer and the only things to be feared are teetotalers, ferocious aunts, gainful employment, and the odd pig thief. This above sentence just reads like Banville is trying to think of something interesting to say. And it would be interesting, if it were only true.
Also, why “so-called comic British novelists”? They are all, I trust, funny, British, and novelists…