|P. G. Wodehouse, at 23 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|1st US edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
For many years I have believed that the following paragraph is probably the greatest opening paragraph ever to grace an English-language novel:
“While I would not go so far, perhaps, as to describe the heart as actually leaden, I must confess that on the eve of starting to do my bit of time at Deverill Hall, I was definitely short on chirpiness. I shrank from the prospect of being decanted into a household on chummy terms with a thug like my Aunt Agatha, weakened as I already was by having had her son Thomas, one of our most prominent fiends in human shape, on my hands for three days.
“I mentioned this to Jeeves, and he agreed that the set-up could have been juicier….”
I am brought back to this favourite topic of mine, the Jeeves and Wooster novels of P.G. Wodehouse, by the absolutely superb biography of the master written by Robert McCrum under the title A Life of P.G. Wodehouse, published to wide acclaim in 2004, and picked up by me in excellent condition for a minuscule $10 from The Word bookshop, of whose proprietor Adrian King-Edwards, someone remarked this week that he is more like the curator of a collection than a bookseller.
I am sometimes accused of having gone overboard in my enthusiasm for the Wodehouse prose style. But look at that first paragraph quoted above: it is amazing. Within the six or seven orthodox lines of a perfectly straightforward English prose construction lie at least half a dozen almost unimaginable syntactical bombs: first, “starting to do my bit of time at….”, an expression normally reserved for imprisonment; second, “I was definitely short on chirpiness…” a throw-away semi-slang expression at odds with the formal setting in which it is found….; third, “being decanted into a household…” an expression usually used for pouring wine into a carafe; fourth, “ with a thug like my aunt Agatha…”, an expression almost unimaginable as a description of an Aunt; fifth, “one of our most prominent fiends in human shape…”, an unheard of description of a small boy; and sixth, at the beginning of the next para, “the setup could have been juicier…”, on a surface an expression so ludicrously inappropriate to the use to which it has been put as to be so funny as to make one laugh out loud.
This is a perfect example of what Mr. McCrum on page 253 calls “Wodehouse’s marriage of high farce with the inverted poetry of his mature comic style.” Seven pages later McCrum describes Wodehouse’s reaction to being told that on June 21, 1939, he was to be awarded an honorary doctorate of literature by Oxford University, an honour that, wrote The Times editorially, weighing into the considerable debate that had followed the announcement, was unquestionably deserved, because “everyone knows at least some of his many works and has felt all the better for the gaiety of his wit and the freshness of his style.” Wodehouse himself said, “I had no notion that my knockabout comedy entitled me to rank with the nibs.”
But a page later Mr. McCrum has discovered among Wodehouse’s vast writings an amusing description of a walk taken by him the day before that momentous occasion with the famous literary man, Hugh Walpole, who, as they walked, alluded to Hilaire Belloc’s recent judgment that Wodehouse was “the best writer of English now alive.”
“He said to me,” wrote Wodehouse in his memoir Performing Flea, ‘Did you see what Belloc said about you?’ I said I had. ‘I wonder why he said that.’ ‘I wonder,’ I said. Long silence. ‘I can’t imagine why he said that,’ said Hugh. I said I couldn’t, either. Another long silence. ‘It seems such an extraordinary thing to say!’ ‘Most extraordinary.’ Long silence again. ‘Ah, well,’ said Hugh having apparently found the solution. ‘the old man’s getting very old.’ ”
This is a perfect example of how Wodehouse would make everything that he was describing seem like a comedy. In fact, the description of the ceremony at which Wodehouse was honoured does sound highly comic, with the university’s Public Orator presenting Wodehouse to the Vice-Chancellor with “a brilliant and witty celebration of Wodehouse’s gifts composed in faultless Latin hexameters,” in which he made ingenious references to Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Mr Mulliner, Lord Emsworth, the Empress of Blandings, Psmith, and Gussie Fink-Nottle. He then described Wodehouse in Latin, as “wittiest of men, most humorous, most charming, most amusing, full of laughter.” Later, at the culminating dinner of 400 guests, all impeccably dressed in white ties and waistcoats (except Wodehouse, who wore a dinner jacket), the undergraduates banged the tables and demanded a speech from Wodehouse. “The new Oxford man,” records McCrum, “author of some of the funniest books in memory, rose awkwardly to his feet. If the guests were hoping for a comic tour de force, they were to be disappointed. Wodehouse simply mumbled, ‘thank you,’ and sat down in confusion.”
A recurring theme in McCrum’s book is how unmemorable Wodehouse was in person, one person after another being quoted who found him, frankly, dull. Alec Waugh, for example, brother of Evelyn, and himself a popular novelist, wrote of meeting Wodehouse: “He had no peculiarities or manner of expression. He was not funny. He never repeated jokes. There was no sparkle in his conversation. He did not indulge in reminiscences. There was a straightforward exchange of talk… ‘It is an extraordinary thing,’ he would say, ‘Marlborough beat Tonbridge and Tonbridge beat Uppingham, but Uppingham beat Marlborough. What do you make of that?’ ” Yet Waugh remarked on how easy he felt in Wodehouse’s company, and how he could recall “only the pleasure of his company.”
Wodehouse was one of four sons of one of those incredible British families, raised in the so-called public (that is, private) schools, especially to administer the British Empire, who simply drifted off around the world, leaving their children behind to be looked after by someone else. He records that first the new baby (somewhat eccentrically named Pelham, like his brothers Armine and Peverill), born in 1881, was looked after in Hong Kong, where is father was a magistrate, by a Chinese nursemaid, but before he was three he had been brought back to Britain and deposited with a Miss Roper. He did not see his mother again for three years, and Mr. McCrum records that between the ages of three and fifteen, the child spent barely six months in the presence of his parents. “The psychological impact of this separation on the future writer lies at the heart of his adult personality,” McCrum writes. Somehow or other the boy survived: “the damage inflicted on him in childhood was counterbalanced by his exceptional good nature, and the light, personal sweetness that all those who knew him comment on.”
The writer says of his subject: “his childhood made him solitary, but his genius --- the word is not too strong --- made the solitude bearable and transformed its fantasies into high comedy.” He also adopted defensive strategies of evasion, one of them being constant travel. He could seldom settle anywhere, was always changing houses, made countless trips across the Atlantic (the fare was a mere ten pounds in those days), where he found editors willing to pay him more than in England, and got into writing for the stage. Before he finished, he was said to have contributed to more than 50 musical comedies, usually as a lyric writer, but also quite often as author of the book. He recorded in his memoirs: “My father was as normal as rice pudding. My childhood went like a breeze from start to finish, with everybody I met understanding me perfectly while as for my schooldays at Dulwich they were just six years of unbroken bliss.” What a lie!
He became what is called today a workaholic, always writing, day and night, month after month, no sooner one work finished than he was busy on another, so that by the time of his death he had published almost 100 books, in addition to his extensive work in the theatre. But the nature of those books is what counts. They described a world that really never existed in actual fact, but that became so familiar to his readers that they could never get enough of them. Although he was enough of this world to manage a busy, successful career for more than seventy years, there was also about him some sort of disconnection with what most people would call reality. Not long before the Second World War he wrote that “all this alliance-forming” reminded him of form matches at school. “I can’t realize this is affecting millions of men. I think of Hitler and Mussolini as two halves, and Stalin as a useful wing forward….anyway, no war in my lifetime is my feeling.”
Famous last words! Wodehouse owned a house in Le Touquet, just south of Boulogne on the Channel coast of France, close enough to London that he could indulge his restless nature by moving back and forth easily. He was staying there as the German armies began their assault on France. Like most other people he believed he was safe behind the Maginot line, but eventually he had to face up to the fact the Germans were on their way. Twice he tried to move, but both times he was stymied by mechanical breakdowns, and in the event he was captured by the Germans --- typically, he makes a comic scene of it in his description, quoted in this book --- but when they placed him in an internment camp, the laughter stopped. He was moved a couple of times, but when the Germans realized they had in their captivity a famous British author, they released him from such direct internment, and moved him to Berlin, where after a slight delay, they asked if he might be interested in recording some talks for them to broadcast on the radio. They whistled up two Germans whom Wodehouse had known in Hollywood, to help make him feel at home, and these men helped inveigle him into doing the talks. He himself thought he would take the opportunity to pay tribute to the stiff-upper-lip manner in which British detainees behaved. He had no idea that just by appearing on the Nazi radio, he was labelling himself a traitor in English eyes, and almost before his talks --- which were intended originally for the United States --- had been broadcast, a media onslaught against him had begun in London.
Foremost among these was William Connor, the acid columnist Cassandra of The Daily Mirror, whose bitter diatribe on the BBC against Wodehouse attracted more unfavorable comment than favourable from listeners. An early defender was George Orwell, whose childhood had been not dissimilar from Wodehouse’s, but the broadcasts, however innocuous their subject might have been, were a fatal error of judgment, and their fallout were a blight that hung over Wodehouse for the rest of his life. For some time he was accommodated by an anglophile German woman, Baroness Anga von Bodenhausen at her country estate, where he, typically again, soon became Oncle Plummie to the children, and a family favourite (although his wife Ethel, a more aggressive, bustling, self-interested person, one of whose functions in life had been to spend much of Wodehouse’s hard-earned money, was not a favorite). A revealing anecdote illustrating his air of being out of touch with reality is that of a young German journalist who was asked to talk to Wodehouse. He found the writer wanted to sue some of the perpetrators of the slanders emitted in England. “I need a lawyer I can talk to here who could then plead for me in England. Would you know any?” he asked Michael Vermehren. “Mr. Wodehouse,” said Vermehren. “I do know such lawyers, but do you think it is likely that they would get a special permit to cross the war zone and the frontiers and go to England and plead your case?” Wodehouse replied, “Do you think it would be difficult?” “I said, ‘Actually I think it would be completely impossible.’”
This man later became a close friend of the writer, as had the Baroness who had put him up in her country estate, but both were disappointed when, after the war, hoping to renew their acquaintance with him, he failed to respond, a curious affirmation of how much he had been wounded by his German experience, and was determined to put it behind him.
Later he was permitted to go to occupied Paris, where he was when the war ended. He then turned himself in to the British authorities, who sent people to interrogate him, as was done with other British subjects who had spent the war in Germany. The first interrogator was Malcolm Muggeridge, who immediately fell under his spell, and declared the fuss about the broadcasts was nonsense. Later came a Major Cussen, who was persuaded of Wodehouse’s innocence, but who turned in a report that, while exonerating him, was no whitewash, as McCrum writes. Cussen concluded that “a jury would find difficulty in convicting him of an intention to assist the enemy.” Finally, the French government cleared him, and he was free to go. He decided to go to the United States, and never set foot in Britain again.
It summarizes Wodehouse’s attitude towards the world he found himself in that when he was arrested by the Germans in 1940 he was within four chapters of finishing Joy In the Morning which many aficionados of his work regard as his greatest novel. And while Churchill was warning the British that he could offer them nothing but blood, sweat and tears, and urging them to fight on the beaches, landing fields and so on, this dedicated artist, for whom the work always came first, was engaged in finishing a narrative of, as he says on page one of the book, “the super-sticky affair” of Nobby ‘Stilton’Cheesewright, Florence Craye, his Uncle Percy, J. Chichester Clam, Edwin the Boy Scout and old Boko Fittleworth --- “or, as my biographers will probably call it, the Steeple Bumpleigh affair.”
By 1942, in the throes of the worst turmoil of his life, Wodehouse began thinking about the plot of The Mating Season (my favourite book), and its dramatis personae of “a surging sea of aunts,” who occupied Deverill Hall, with Bertie undertaking a task imposed by his Aunt Agatha (“who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth,”), namely, to ensure that Catsmeat’s fiancee Gertrude remain true to him, while promoting among the aunts the idea that Gussie Fink-Nottle (“goofy to the gills, face like a fish, horn-rimmed spectacles, drank orange juice, collected newts”) was a worthy catch for Madeleine Bassett (“England’s premier pill.”). The motivating factor for Bertie, the narrator, was, as usual, that he had previously been engaged to Miss Bassett, and could consider himself safe only so long as she was affianced to someone else: because the moment she was free of such entanglements, she was poised to make herself available to Bertie, a helpless victim who she mistakenly believed was pining away for her.
These two books are described by Mr. McCrum as the main wartime production of this remarkable writer who allowed nothing to get in the way of his work. Need anything more be said? The man was a genius, a great writer, an innocent, and as sweet a guy as ever trod the earth. He was awarded a knighthood at New Year's 1975, a symbol that all was forgiven at last, and he died within six weeks at the age of 94. He was found sitting in his armchair with a pipe and tobacco pouch in his hands, the manuscript of yet another unfinished novel close at hand.