Hurrah For Wodehouse!
Comic novels and stories traditionally occupy a low place on the literary totem pole, even when they make serious points. Arguably the most regarded American comic novel in Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’, followed by Updike, Irving and Dunne. In the UK the sprawling comic epic – the type American authors construct so well – is largely unknown, and some, like those by Sterne and Fielding, are now a struggle to read. I’d place Austen, Waugh, Bennett and Priestley together. I’ve not enjoyed Amis pere or fils but many have – and that leaves a mighty hole at the centre reserved for PG Wodehouse.
Why a hole? Because for half of the 20th century he was persona non grata. Having been imprisoned by the Nazis after the capture of Le Touquet, where he lived during the Second World War (having refused to leave in time to reach the safety of England), Wodehouse was branded a traitor for making a series of broadcasts to Americans over enemy radio in 1941. The content was not remotely political, and consisted mainly of ill-judged jokes and assurances that he was fit and well.
But the Germans were close to victory, so the timing was bad and the fact that he was using an enemy channel caused outrage. His books were removed from British libraries, the BBC banned his works and he became regarded as a traitor for not defying his captors.
Even Wodehouse admitted that his actions had not been thought through, but he was forced to spend the rest of his life in the US, having been shunned by the country he loved. Five years ago the release of MI5 files detailing the agency’s investigation into the author’s so-called treachery concluded that he had not consciously assisted the enemy and that there were no grounds for prosecution.
However, the suspicion prevented public access to his writings, letters and diaries. Now that’s finally set to change. The British Library is to confirm that the Wodehouse archive will join its 20th-century holdings, a collection that includes works by Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter and Angela Carter.
The documents include the writer’s manuscripts, photographs of him with the Hollywood elite in the 1920s and 30s and, most notably, intimate diary excerpts made during his time as a prisoner of the Nazis.
Wodehouse has long been regarded as a genius by his literary peers, for his extraordinarily sustained tone of joyful bemusement. He is not at all someone you feel you have to read, and translates hopelessly to other media, but I have never met anyone who did not enjoy reading at least one of his novels. They have the ability to cheer up even the darkest days, thanks to Wodehouse’s ability to perfectly balance funny sentences with beautifully constructed plots.
Perhaps his belated inclusion in the pantheon of great 20th century literature will help to overcome British snobbery about comic novels.