What Is It About Wodehouse?
Time and again I’m drawn back to PG Wodehouse when I feel a little low. In that spirit, this column is an amalgam of previous articles together with new observations on an eternally amusing author.
‘Isn’t it all just upper class stuff?’ asked a friend. ‘Who needs that now?’
No, it’s not, I told him. That’s just the setting, in the same way that someone like the superbly funny Jonathan Coe might use such locations. The stories are universal stories of human failings and kindnesses.
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 is Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’, followed by books 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 podium at the centre reserved for Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (15 October 1881 – 14 February 1975).
Perhaps that should be a hole rather than a podium, because for half of the 20th century Wodehouse was persona non grata. Having been imprisoned by the Nazis after the capture of Le Touquet, where he lived during the Second World War (he 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 the unworldly 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. A few 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 the British Library says 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 brighten even the darkest days, thanks to Wodehouse’s ability to precision-balance funny sentences with beautifully constructed plots.
He was a ridiculously prolific writer whose body of work included novels, short stories, plays, poems, song lyrics, scripts and journalism. It’s interesting how many people who’ve never read him dismiss him out of hand. Forget TV versions – none of them capture his style. It’s the books that count.
Two great things should be pointed out about Wodehouse. First, his ability to misdirect a sentence every few pages seems to me the mark of a brilliant humorist.
Says one character; ‘I like a man to be a clean, strong, upstanding Englishman who can look his gnu in the face and put an ounce of lead in it.’
Or here’s the hopeless poet invited down to a country house for a weekend, desperate to make a good impression, who has been smoking in his room and goes to the lawn to compose bad poetry about his hostess;
‘He was just wondering, for he was a severe critic of his own work, whether that last line couldn’t be polished up a bit, when his eye was attracted to something that shone like summer skies or stars above and, looking more closely, he perceived that his bedroom curtains were on fire.’
The greatly missed Dan Terrell of these Comments pages said of Wodehouse’s “misdirected sentences”; ‘Reading along one is like unexpectedly driving off the rising end of an opening drawbridge and landing on the other side of a completely different bridge.’
This leads to the second point, the effortless plotting of a master farceur. So when Jeeves and Wooster help out a friend who wishes to appear a hero in a girl’s eyes, they arrange to kidnap a child he will then rescue. Except that they kidnap someone else’s child by mistake.
Or when the pyromaniac poet above sets fire to his room, the flames are put out by his girlfriend’s other suitors, much to the annoyance of her parents, who were trying to burn the place down for insurance.
But are the books too Deep English? (Sorry, the phrase has bugged me ever since a reader applied it to my books.) There’s a lot more to Wodehouse than Jeeves and Wooster, and I would recommend the Blandings novels just as highly. His output rarely fell below average, which means that everything must have stemmed from his mindset rather than a created persona. Originality is a rare thing but consistency should be prized just as highly.
If you’ve never read Wodehouse, might I suggest ‘Weekend Wodehouse’, a collection of snippets to whet your appetite. Finally here’s Wodehouse on writing a long-running series;
It is now 14 summers since, an eager lad in my early thirties, I started to write Jeeves stories, and many people think this nuisance should now cease. They look down the vista of years and see the chronicles multiplying like rabbits, and the prospect appals them. But against this must be set the fact that writing Jeeves stories gives me a great deal of pleasure, and keeps me out of the public houses.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself.