Wodehouse: A Life, by Robert McCrum
W. W. Norton & Co., 1994. 530 pages.
I grew up watching episodes of Jeeves & Wooster on VHS; they were a birthday present from my mum to my dad, but by far I got the most mileage out of them. It wasn’t until years later I actually sat down and read a Wodehouse story and, as is the way of literature and its adaptations to the screen, realized what I had been missing.
Wodehouse formed in my young mind an image of England which persisted long after I knew better. His England (and, for that matter, his France and America) were untouched by and unaware of either World War, or the changing of class structures and relations.
Still, I knew nothing of the man P. G. Wodehouse, except what I read on the back of some book or another, and then all I learned was he really did love Pekingese dogs, which appear in so many of his stories. The full story is fascinating, and McCrum has told it beautifully.
In a sense, Wodehouse wrote much like J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien retreated from the relentless forward march of modernity, which he hated, into his fantasy world representing strongly the medievalism he longed for. The universe Wodehouse strove to preserve was the Edwardian world in which he came of age. It had almost entirely disintegrated by the time he began writing, but the writer was unfazed, and persevered in his craft. The amazing bit is how very thoroughly he persevered, and how authentically detached he was from world events.
For instance, he and his wife lived in France at the time of the German occupation in 1939, and in short order he found himself in an internment camp. His global naïveté led him to be used as a sort of tool of the German propaganda machine, reading broadcasts on Nazi radio. He was subsequently branded a traitor, and never did return to his home country, living out his final years in America instead. Yet throughout all of this (and plenty more before and after the war) Wodehouse continued to write the same old thing, by which I mean brilliant and optimistic stories about Edwardians.
By the way, I don’t intend to hash out Wodehouse’s wartime experience, and in my retelling of the retelling the story suffers tremendously. McCrum on the other hand is more than up to the job. It is a testament to his skill as a biographer that the reader never loses perspective of Wodehouse’s tactless bumbling through the Second World War and the gravity of the consequences of his actions. Yet you see the world through Wodehouse’s eyes so well that you almost find yourself resenting the War for its sins against one clueless Briton.
McCrum convincingly makes the case that Wodehouse ought to be considered as much an American author as a British one. Toward the end of his life—well, twenty years before his death in 1975, but when a fellow lives til the age of 93, his last couple decades can arguably, I think, be called “toward the end of his life”—realizing he’d likely not ever return to England, Wodehouse became an American citizen. This prompted the comment by the New Yorker’s Frank Sullivan that the United States’ acquisition of Wodehouse “makes up for our loss of T. S. Eliot and Henry James combined.” But the humorist’s identification with America began long before; he first visited New York City in 1904 and fell in love. He spent many years working off and on in musical theater, writing for and alongside such icons as Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins (Ira Gershwin considered Wodehouse a mentor). Twice he moved with his wife to California to work in the burgeoning film industry. Not only did a number of his stories and novels take place in the States, they were hugely popular among the reading public.
McCrum is clearly a fan of Wodehouse’s, and throughout this book is the great writer’s ardent defender (where defense was found needed). But McCrum’s affection does not blind him, and however little he may think Wodehouse is to blame, the biographer is faithfully frank about his subject’s failings. His prose is lucid and bright, and best of all compelling. This last is true in more ways than one.
As I read I experienced a conflict never found when reading Wodehouse’s own work. Namely, I was doubly compelled, to write and to read. Partly due, I think, to the infectious quality of Wodehouse’s enthusiasm for his art, and partly due to his biographer’s ability to draw that quality out, I frequently wanted to close the book and go to my own desk to work on my own short stories. It was not Wodehouse’s wild success that drove me, but his obvious love for the writing craft. On the other hand, I was compelled by McCrum’s narrative to continue turning the page. As I was driven away, a greater force kept me in the book.
McCrum appears fairly meticulous in details, for example naming the actors who played Wodehouse’s characters on stage and in film. So it was conspicuous (to me) that he neglected to mention the names Fry and Laurie who played Jeeves and Bertie, in my estimation convincingly. I can hardly doubt they were in mind, however, when he mentioned in passing, in the Epilogue, “Film and television producers continue to toy with adaptations of his work, generally proving the rule that the best literature makes the worst cinema.” Although my attachment to the Fry and Laurie series is at least in part sentimental, and I am enough of a curmudgeon when it comes to literature-come-film to appreciate McCrum’s feelings.
Besides, the book is not about television or cinema, but about the man and his art. And or one of the more significant authors of the last century, and almost certainly the most significant humorist, I could ask for no better biography. I don’t doubt that if you read it, you’ll skip the DVD collection altogether and, like me, toddle down to your local library for some of the juiciest stories you can find.
The book I ended up picking up at the library to sate my appetite for Wodehouse was an early American novel called The Indiscretions of Archie. Archie Moffam (“‘It’s spelt M-o-f-f-a-m, but pronounced Moom.’ / ‘To rhyme,’ said Archie, helpfully, ‘with Bluffinghame.'”) is a pre-Bertie Wooster character showing iconic Wodehousian density of skull, lovability of nature, and tendency toward the absurd. It’s a hilarious book.
But something else than the story itself struck me. Typos riddled the little hardcover I borrowed, or at least cropped up far more than I should think acceptable. Yet they served as a reminder of the fragility of even enduring art. The Indiscretions of Archie was published, as most of Wodehouse’s novels, serially. Installments of a chapter or few therefore regularly found their way into countless dustbins across England and America, tossed there by readers who did not realize the significance of the work, but rather who just liked a good story. And so Wodehouse’s works joined the ranks of so many literary classics which suffered the same fate. Think The Brothers Karamazov, or The Pickwick Papers.
Just a thought.