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Jeeves vs. Pooh
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Boston Globe, 26 December 2004

Jeeves vs. Pooh

James Parker

Few events in the annals of light radio can have received worse reviews than the "talk" recorded by P.G. Wodehouse and broadcast on June 28, 1941. Within days, in newspapers across Britain, the beloved author of "Leave It to Psmith" and "Right Ho, Jeeves" had been called everything from a "performing flea" to a "Nazi stooge." His harmless, creaking upper-class voice, in its woolly muffler of static, speaking lightly and (as he hoped) inconsequentially, had outraged a nation for one reason: Wodehouse was broadcasting from Hitler's Berlin.

As Robert McCrum's new "Wodehouse: A Life" (Norton) makes clear, Wodehouse was never the shrewdest observer of international affairs. He had been caught flatfooted by the German occupation of France (where he was living at the time), taken into custody, separated from his wife, and eventually placed in an internment camp -- Ilag 8 -- in Upper Silesia. When tracked to the camp by an American journalist, Wodehouse suddenly became an object of great interest to the German Foreign Office. A succession of well-dressed, amiably aspected, English-speaking Germans -- of the sort to which the genial Wodehouse, who confessed himself "quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling," was peculiarly vulnerable -- appeared before him, and somewhere along the line the idea for a bit of light radio was floated.

Wodehouse, fatally complaisant, went along with it. He was removed from Ilag 8, transported to Berlin and installed in a luxury hotel. It was 1941, America had still not entered the war, and it was calculated in Berlin that some humorous, anesthetic words from a freshly-released Wodehouse, aimed at his vast audience in the United States, would help keep the American giant at bay. In due course he recorded five "talks" to be broadcast on German radio. The talks themselves were 10-minute slices of apolitical piffle -- "I was strolling on the lawn with my wife one morning, when she lowered her voice and said, `Don't look now, but there comes the German army"' -- but they would almost destroy him.

"I have come to tell you tonight," William Connor intoned on the BBC on July 15, "of the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale -- that of his own country. . .. It is the record of P.G. Wodehouse ending 40 years of money-making fun with the worst joke he ever made in his life."

Connor, who wrote a column for the Daily Mirror under the name Cassandra, was acting with the support of Alfred Duff Cooper, Churchill's Minister of Information. Wodehouse had his allies -- George Orwell, correctly intuiting the political background to the broadcasts, would write a thoughtful defense before the war was over -- but popular feeling ran against him. Libraries withdrew his books, and the BBC announced that it would broadcast no more of his stories and lyrics. Bewildered and horrified by the uproar, he retreated after the war to America; he would never again return to England.

. . .

Wodehouse was not a man to bear grudges. With William Connor, for example, peace would eventually be made. (The two men lunched together in New York.) But "Cassandra" had gone after him with a rhetorical blunderbuss; it was the gleaming literary scalpel of his fellow humorist A. A. Milne that gave the unkindest cut, and which was never forgiven.

A letter from Milne appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 3, 1941. It was quite a document: pale with fury, barbed with wit, and venomously ad hominem. Wodehouse "has encouraged in himself," Milne wrote, "a natural lack of interest in `politics' -- `politics' being all the things grown-ups talk about at dinner when one is hiding under the table. Things, for instance, like the last war, which found and kept him in America; and post-war taxes, which chased him back and forth across the Atlantic."

Milne's sneering tone outraged Wodehouse's friends, but how fair were his charges? Wodehouse had certainly, by luck or design, dodged World War I. He had certainly had his troubles with the taxman. And in the affair of the broadcasts he had been guilty of simple, colossal naivete.

Yet the animus displayed by Milne was, on the face of it, surprising. As young men in Edwardian London he and Wodehouse had been fellow literary swells, high earners, kings of light entertainment -- Wodehouse with his books and librettos, Milne with smash hit plays like "Mr. Pim Passes By." They had clubbed together and played cricket together. Now, in late middle age, they were also equally (i.e. world-) famous, and therein perhaps lay part of the problem.

The rivalrous Milne was famous for four swiftly-produced children's books -- "When We Were Very Young," "Now We Are Six," "Winnie-the-Pooh," and "The House at Pooh Corner" -- which, he was coming to realize, would erase everything else he had ever written. Wodehouse, on the other hand, was famous for a steady stream of brilliant comic novels, written in a style, a unique whip-up of vernacular and high-flown allusion, that he had been honing for decades.

Everything in Wodehouse's education and career -- his grammarian's grounding in Latin and Greek, his irony-tinged affection for Victorian poetry, his apprenticeship in journalism, his exposure to Jazz Age slang, his work in the buoyant, sentimental realm of the musical -- went into this style.

Its triumph was the brimming double-act of Jeeves the butler and his employer Bertie Wooster. Jeeves is an apparition of sanity and formality, barely manifest on the physical -- "a kind of darkish sort of respectful Johnnie," observes Wooster at their first meeting, pretty much leaving it at that for the remainder of their long association. But if Jeeves is rendered minimally, the narrator Bertie -- jangling, babbling, pop-eyed, exclamatory, incipiently alcoholic Bertie -- comes spilling off the page, with freshly-minted, lunatic imagery ("He writhed like an electric fan," "The policeman regarded me in a boiled way") and a hyperbolic twang that previews those later, more hectic exercises in comic subjectivity, Saul Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King" and Martin Amis's "Money."

Milne, by contrast, has dated. Indeed, in his own lifetime he dated: By the `30s critics were comparing the characters in his plays to "caged dormice." A more recognizably artistic type than Wodehouse -- shifty, combative, thin-skinned, self-lauding -- he was also more politically engaged. He had written a book-length pacifist polemic called "Peace With Honor." He had also, unlike Wodehouse, been to war, as a signals officer in the trenches of France. What can we say of a writer who, having seen men literally flattened by shelling at the Somme, finds himself able in later years to write lines like "God bless Mummy. I know that's right/ Wasn't it fun in the bath tonight?"

We can say that he knew exactly what he was doing. A comparison with J. M. Barrie, author of "Peter Pan" and an early sponsor of Milne's career, is handy here. Where Barrie was a wizard, Milne was a conjurer; he knew children, could perform brilliantly for them, but he lacked -- did not want -- Barrie's magic cloak of misery, the lonely shroud (materialized in a series of oversized greatcoats) within which the sunken little Scotsman could incubate his fantasia. Milne's Hundred Acre Wood is tastefully free of the billowing nostalgia of Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows," or the terrors and yearnings of Barrie's Neverland. It tickles and it charms, but the world of Pooh is less a halcyon vision of childhood than a scale model -- stuffed animals that bubble into a fitful sentience in the mind of one very closely and cleverly observed little boy. It was this knowingness that exposed the Christopher Robin books to the accusation, made by Dorothy Parker, of "sedulous cuteness."

. . .

Wodehouse was what we might call a concealed visionary. The benign fug of absence that emanated from this man, the comfortable, Pooh-like perplexity as to his own nature -- one friend compared his presence in the room to "the ticking of a clock" -- was a smokescreen. Beneath it, he was as fierce an artist as ever lived.

If the Hundred Acre Wood had happened to contain, along with the orally fixated bear and the sociopathic tiger cub, a large bald animal who could not stop writing, that animal would have been P.G. Wodehouse. As Pooh to his honeypots, so Wodehouse to his typewriter -- endlessly, obsessively, insatiably. Two and a half thousand words a day in his prime, and rarely less than a thousand even into his eighties. Nothing stopped him. Even in Ilag 8 he kept working, somehow managing to complete a novel, "Money in the Bank," "in a room where fifty men were playing ping-pong and talking and singing."

Milne, in his rancor, recognized this; he knew that Wodehouse had protected himself, with the ruthlessness of genius, from all interference. War, sex, reality -- it was all kept at bay for as long as possible. Wodehouse's run-in with the 20th century -- the one actual Event in his life -- was in the strictest sense tragic: His greatest artistic gift, his essential levity, was mercilessly revealed as his greatest moral flaw, and the beauty of his comic style was reduced to a ghastly mechanical flippancy.

The odd truth is that of the two writers, Wodehouse was the purer fantasist. His world is totally comic -- "idyllic," as Evelyn Waugh famously declared, in an 80th-birthday salute to "The Master." The transports of romantic love have, on Wodehouse characters, the approximate effect of a strongly mixed drink, and the nearest they come to sadness is an infantile petulance, generally expressed by kicking things and dealing shortly with menservants (or caddies). Passion and seriousness are elsewhere, in some dim Tennysonian realm where "those poet and philosopher Johnnies" do their brooding, and deep thought is the exclusive province of "brainy birds."

With a reflexive topicality acquired in his days as a journalist, Wodehouse would import the occasional detail from the real world -- a Modern Poem, a Socialist -- but reality itself, gray and daylit, never intrudes. He had his revenge on Milne, satirizing the Christopher Robin shtick in stories like "Rodney Has a Relapse," but history would avenge him over and over -- remembering Milne as a writer for the nursery, and Wodehouse as one for the ages.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.