Hurrah For Wodehouse!

Reading & Writing

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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.

13 comments on “Hurrah For Wodehouse!”

  1. davem says:

    Good to hear.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    My 92 year dad still thinks of him, and Gracie Fields, as traitors and was never happy, when as a teenager, I discovered Wodehouse.

    “Beyond a Joke” a play about his life, went on a tour about 20 years ago. I saw it at the Richmond theatre (the Surrey one). It was very good. Anton Rogers played Wodehouse and Angela Thorne played Ethel Wodehouse, his wife. It was written by Roger Milner. In the play Ethel was portrayed as being very pushy and that it was her refusal to leave France that got them into the mess. And it implied that Malcolm Muggeridge (portrayed by Ian Gelder) was responsible for hounding the couple.

    I wouldn’t mind betting that Admin saw the play.

    I still have the programme of the play and have just been reading again. It has a lot of detail in it about the story..

    Wodehouse was knighted when he was in his early 90’s, which rather implies a line was drawn under the incident and that “You are Forgiven.”

    Interestingly, Wodehouse described his novels as musical comedies without the music. Reading them bears this out as about 95% of the stories are (brilliant) dialogue, with only minimal time given to description. I think it is this that lifts them off the page.

  3. ceci says:

    Years ago we had a few wonderful audio tapes of Wodehouse novels – don’t recall who was reading them but it as a perfect combination of voice and accent. Weirdly they were huge favorites of my young sons and there are still some “Bertie” jokes and expressions that find their way into conversations. It would be a good winter project to dip into them again…..

    ceci

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    Anyone who thought that Wodehouse was in any way Pro Nazi clearly hasn’t experienced Bertie Wooster’s nemesis Roderick Spode, founder of the ‘Brownshorts’, a fascistic bunch of buffoons financially supported by Spode’s secret business – a magazine called ‘Milady’s Boudoir’ and a line in designing ladies underwear.

    Hard to know what Bertie would have made of Hitler.

    Jeeves; Hitler Sir?

    Bertie; You know the one Jeeves, odious little blighter with a Brown Windsor soup stain under his nose, wears leather shorts when he’s not on holiday doesn’t play golf and can’t play tennis because his arm keeps shooting up at right angles. How does a chap like that get to run a country?

    Jeeves; I couldn’t hazard a guess Sir, but one invariably finds that the answer lies in inconsiderate parentage and childhood trauma.

    Bertie; You mean his mother got his arm trapped in a mangle when he was three years old and was rushed to the krankhaus wearing only his fathers ill fitting lederhosen?

    Jeeves; Precisely Sir.

  5. Ian Schofield says:

    Admin, I agree with you that “[Wodehouse] translates hopelessly to other media”. Most dramatisations over do the ‘silly ass’ characterisation and lose the freshness of the writing.

    There is one exception however: check out the BBC radio series featuring Richard Briers as Bertie and Michael Horden as Jeeves. This was broadcast in the early 70s and produced by Simon Brett (and possibly others). They are available on CD and download and are perfect adaptations. I listened to them as a teenager and I still listen to them regularly today. It’s always difficult not to laugh out loud. If you’re stuck for a Christmas gift idea, I strongly recommend them.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I read them in the fifties, read them out loud without a proper accent. My mother and I laughed extensively (the only word I can think of to cover that giggle to laugh, gasp, pause, and laugh uproariously.) She told me about the treason accusations but said that she hadn’t felt he’d helped the Nazis, more that he’d stumbled into being a Bertie himself. I haven’t read one for a while – perhaps that would help with the mood lately. (I liked the BBC series, especially the opening sequence. Produced by Bentley?)

  7. Roger says:

    An interesting example of the difference in attitude and method between English and American writers can be seen in Waugh’s response to Catch-22: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/you-are-mistaken-in-calling-it-novel.html
    The Diary of a Nobody surely deserves mention. I suspect that Mr Pooter is an ancestor of Bertie, though neither would admit it.
    Whatever his other faults, Kingsley Amis gives the most convincing portrayal of God in English literature in The Green Man.

  8. Rachel Green says:

    So good to hear. I always view him as the ‘golden age’ of literary comedy.

  9. Vincent C says:

    I have spent endless hours delighting in the writings of P.G. Wodehouse and my hope is that, as a result of the British Library acquisition, we will see a new biography of the Master before too long.

    Malcolm Muggeridge was involved in, and conducted a significant portion of, the investigation of Wodehouse and it is my understanding that it was Muggeridge who played a significant role in clearing Wodehouse of the charges then being considered to be brought against him. I also understand that Muggeridge’s interview of Wodehouse was the start of a lifelong friendship between the two men.

  10. Trace Turner says:

    One of the British imports shown on our PBS station when I was a teenager was Wodehouse Playhouse, a series of adaptations mostly of the Mr Mulliner stories. It was my introduction to his work and something that my parents and I enjoyed immensely. It starred Pauline Collins and John Alderton and the first few were introduced by P G Wodehouse himself.

  11. Jan says:

    It’s curious how resistant the Jeeves and Wooster stories are to translation to stage or screen.

    In a limited way they are good to listen to but somehow the camera obscura inside my readers brain won’t accept any actor as Bertie. Hugh Laurie comes pretty close to Wooster physically the slim build goofy expressions as does Dennis Price as Jeeves who despite being helpful to his master is just a tiny bit disdainful – but no one can really cut it. It’s the magical phrases that run through your mind and the comic visions PG summons up. The story where Jeeves’ replacement seems to Bertie to want to string him up to a lampost along the Mall in fact others of the leisured classes will accompany him lining the Mall heralding the forthcoming revolution. I can remember sitting for hours parked up in stationary vehicles reading those magic stories.
    The old paperback copies I read said “the magical world of Wodehouse will never stale”and that’s very true

  12. snowy says:

    The reason they seem to be difficult to adapt is that all the sparkle is in the parts that you can’t use/have to cut if you dramatise it. Some examples:

    “She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season.”

    “At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.”

    “He trusted neither of them as far as he could spit, and he was a poor spitter, lacking both distance and control.”

    “Breakfast had been prepared by the kitchen maid, an indifferent performer who had used the scorched earth policy on the bacon again.”

    Some are thoughts of characters, some an omnipresent narrator, some the author speaking from the page. Imposible to untangle.

  13. John Howard says:

    Have been reading him since my teens. I note that many of the regular blog contributors have done so to. Coincidence that we have Wodehouse and admin in common I wonder.?

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