245 & 246: NW and Uneasy Money

Both believed their own interpretation to be objectively considered and in no way the product of their contrasted upbringings.

Zadie Smith’s NW, a novel “of” (as they used to say) London, won me commiseration from an old lady on the train, who leant over and remarked that it had given her a great deal of trouble to read. Certainly it is not a straightforward story. Broken into three main parts, and then two much shorter, each of the first three has a laser focus on its central character. We get the friendship of Leah Hanwell and Keisha / Natalie Blake (the relationship around which the entire novel revolves) from both perspectives, becoming completely immersed in one and then being given the other. But what it is is admirably clear-sighted and deeply honest, in that way that a novel – fiction – an elaborate lie – can be entirely truthful.

The distinction between parts is reinforced by bold and entirely convincing style shifts. From the present-tense, speech-mark-lacking, often interestingly laid-out, divided into short numbered chapters of Leah’s story, through the ordinary simple past prose divided by the postcode district of the action, into numbered-and-titled paragraphs reminiscent of an essay’s section headings, then cutting speech marks again and using place names like postcode districts were earlier, and finally just continuous prose for a few brief pages. Each part is stylistically distinct, stylistically its own, meaning that the experience of reading each one is fundamentally different – and that in turn gives us tone shifts that reinforce the sense of seeing the action from a particular character’s unique perspective.

Maybe I’m overthinking this (or underthinking and it’s actually far more complicated), but that’s certainly what I got.

It’s not always an easy book; in that, the old lady on the train was right. But I think it rewards the effort. There’s a directness and a sense of personality on every page.

A man with a title has no right not to have money. It makes the whole thing farcical.

Leave It to Psmith is my favourite Wodehouse novel (and, indeed, my favourite novel). Uneasy Money runs it a close second. Lord Dawlish, the unfortunate peer referred to above whose spendthrift ancestors have left him with something of a cashflow problem, is perhaps the most thoroughly decent character imaginable, and at the same time entirely devoid of the priggishness or holier-than-thou attitude that can make so many deliberately good characters boring or insufferable. It is impossible not to be entirely and unreservedly on his side. He is the outright epitome of a genuinely lovely person.

Lord Dawlish, whom I will henceforth call “Bill” (because that’s his name) is engaged to Claire Fenwick, a beautiful young actress currently stuck doing touring productions rather than in London, and whom I always imagine as looking somewhat like Grace Kelly. He keeps body and soul together by virtue of being the secretary of Brown’s on some £400 per year. It is clear from the start that Claire is unhappy with the lack of business acumen her fiancé displays – or, put another way, his superfluity of scruple when it comes to things like foisting dodgy businessmen on his friends, or selling death-trap cars.

Look, every twist and turn of this book is an absolute delight, and I don’t really want to give a blow-by-blow account. Is it predictable? Possibly; I don’t remember the first time I read it. But as always with Wodehouse, you read it for the characters (and the prose and the bizarre improbabilities which nevertheless seem entirely natural). There is the wonderful Bill (“He had the not very common sort of mind that perceives the merit in others more readily than their faults, and in himself the faults more readily than the merit”; “He had always looked on himself as rather a chump – well-meaning, perhaps, but an awful ass”; “He had never actually had a criminal friend, but he was quite capable of intimacy even with a criminal, provided only that there was something spacious about his brand of crime and that it did not involve anything mean or underhand”), whose keen scruples are the driving force of the plot. There’s his young friend Jerry Nichols, who as junior partner of the firm of Messrs Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols does a “daily imitation of a young man labouring with diligence and enthusiasm at the law” (unlike his father, the third Nichols in the list, a dry legal mind who “loves red tape – wears it wrapped round him in winter instead of flannel”). There is beekeeping Elizabeth Boyd – “Talking to Elizabeth was like talking to an attractive version of oneself” – and her convalescent brother – “It had been the poor lad’s mistaken view that he could drink up all the alcoholic liquor in America.”

It would be hard to think of a better introduction to Wodehouse’s standalone stories. More than that, Uneasy Money should make you think about what you regard as admirable, and the codes we hold ourselves and our friends to. What do we expect from the people we spend time with, and what puts them beyond the pale? “The worst accusation that he could bring against a man was that he was not square, that he had not played the game.”

Author Zadie Smith
Published 2012
Pages 331
Best character Keisha / Natalie Blake’s duality of identity is fascinating.

Uneasy Money
Author PG Wodehouse
Published 1916
Pages 186
Best character I mean, it’s Bill. But other than him, Elizabeth Boyd; and other than her, keep an eye out for Jerry, whose few appearances are nevertheless delightful.

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