54. Thank You, Jeeves, P. G. Wodehouse (1934)

To be honest, any of Wodehouse’s Jeeves books could have been on this list; I’ve picked Thank You, Jeeves because it’s the first of the full-length novels and therefore as good a starting point as any. If you aren’t familiar with the territory, Jeeves is the clever valet, Bertie Wooster his adorable-but-dim young employer, and the plots usually revolve around some daft romantic misunderstanding which gets Bertie into a scrape. On one level the books are slight and unrealistic, and some people don’t like that. I think it’s the whole point. As I get older, I value the reading experience as much as the content or meaning of a book – if a writer can delight me, that’s as important as informing or even moving me. I’m not easily delighted, I hasten to add, and it takes a craftsman of genius to get to these heights. The Jeeves books are utter, unalloyed delight, largely because of Bertie’s daft first-person narrative, thick with slang, abbreviations and bathos. I imagine these books would be very difficult for foreign readers, and they must be hell to translate. For me they represent a perfect golden moment of English comic writing – and I’ve often wondered if any other world literatures contain anything comparable. I went into a French bookshop once asking for ‘light social comedy’ and they gave me Boris Vian. I mean, please.

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