i came across an odd PG Wodehouse story yesterday, ‘The Castaways’, set in 30s Hollywood. Part of the pleasure of Wodehouse is his sameness – like a superior-quality McDonald’s, each book is more or less the same, that is, amusing, enjoyable, rewarding. ‘The Castaways’ is the only exception i’ve found so far – it reads like Kafka, without quite the same volume of brooding dread.

Bulstrode Mulliner’s hat is accidentally stolen by Jacob Schnellenhamer, president of a film company. Mulliner goes into Schnellenhamer’s office to ask for it back; Schnellenhamer hands him a contact to sign; Mulliner signs it, assuming it’s to do with the hat, but instead it’s a contact to write dialogue for Scented Sinners, an upcoming adaptation of a Broadway flop:

‘But I don’t want to write for the pictures,’ said Bulstrode.

‘You’ve got to write for the pictures,’ said Mr Schnellenhamer. ‘You’ve signed the contract.’

‘I want my hat.’

‘In the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Motion Picture Corporation,’ said Mr Schnellenhamer coldly, ‘our slogan is Co-operation, not Hats.’

Mulliner is given a cubicle in a building known as The Leper Colony. Each cell contains a writer, or pair of writers, working on Scented Sinners. Each cell seems to operate independently, without consulting other cells – which actually accounts for the peculiar, half-insane mishmash of many Hollywood scripts, i think.

Few who have not experienced it can realise the eerie solitude of a motion-picture studio. Human intercourse is virtually unknown. You are surrounded by writers, each in his or her little hutch, but if you attempt to establish commnication with them you will find on every door a card with the words ‘Working. Do not Disturb.’ And if you push open one of these doors you are greeted by a snarl so animal, so menacing, that you retire hastily lest nameless violence befall.

One day, Mulliner enters his office to find a large, plain girl called Genevieve Bootle:

‘They told me to come here.’

‘To see me about something?’

‘To work with you on a thing called “Scented Sinners”. I’ve just signed a contact to write dialogue for the company.’

‘Can you write dialogue?’ asked Bulstrode. A foolish question, for, if she could, the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Corporation would scarcely have engaged her.

‘No,’ said the girl despondently. ‘Except for letters to Ed., I’ve never written anything.’

‘Ed.?’

‘Mr Murgatroyd, my fiancé. He’s a bootlegger in Chicago, and I came out here to try to work up his West Coast connexion. And I went to see Mr Schnellenhamer to ask if he would like a few cases of guaranteed pre-War Scotch, and I’d hardly begn to speak when he said “Sign here”. So I signed, and now I can’t leave till this “Scented Sinners” thing is finished.

As in Kafka, Mulliner and Bootle, thrust together by an inexorable system, fall into each other’s arms; but are interrupted by Mulliner’s girlfriend, Mabelle, and Bootle’s bootlegging fiancé, Ed. After the usual row, Mabelle and Ed leave – but get as far as the gate before Mr Schnellenhamer’s secretary asks them to step into the head office. They obey, and end up signing a contract to write dialogue for Scented Sinners.

There is the same sense in Kafka, that, to paraphrase Chaucer, we are always keeping appointments we didn’t make; that we go blindly through life, peering into the future or regretting the past, and signing our lives away without a thought.

The story ends happily, as the studio suddenly realise they never bought the rights to Scented Sinners – so they’ve had hundreds of writers in cells for a decade for no purpose. The writers are released and joyously burn their scripts. Ed the bootlegger offers Mulliner a job:

‘Then come and join my little outfit,’ he said heartily. ‘I’ve always room for a personal friend. Besides, we’re muscling into the the North Side beer industry next month, and I shall need willing helpers.’

Bulstrode clasped his hand, deeply moved.

‘Ed.,’ he exclaimed, ‘I call that square of you. I’ll buy a machine-gun tomorrow.’

Even the happy Wodehouse ending is a little eerie, however; we never get away from the sense that we are at the mercy of inscrutable powers, powers which may seem familiar, affable, but are nonetheless sovereign and thoroughly without mercy. As in Dante’s Comedy, the deciding justice is, finally, beyond human comprehension (so in Inferno Canto 3 we learn that Hell was fashioned by ‘l primo amore, the first love). So in Wodehouse’s story, as the released writers rejoice in the lot:

In the Front Office, Mr Schnellenhamer and Mr Levitsky, suspending their seven hundred and forty-first conference for an instant, listened to the tumult.

‘Makes you feel like Lincoln, doesn’t it?’ said Mr Levitsky.

‘Ah!’ said Mr Schnellenhamer.

They smiled indulgently. They were kindly men at heart, and they liked the girls and boys to be happy.

Kafka would have loved that last line.

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