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A corker, By Jove
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Mail on Sunday, 5 September 2004

A corker, By Jove

Craig Brown

PG Wodehouse was born in 1881, the same year as Picasso and a year before James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Even in his own day he was seen as an old-fashioned sort of writer, but a century after the publication of his early books, the world he created now seems infinitely fresher than his contemporaries'. This is because it was a world constructed entirely from the imagination, a world that towers above us without any need for the crumbly buttresses of reality.

The writer wrote and wrote, until eventually he disappeared into his writing. Most of his life, Wodehouse knocked off 2,500 words a day and even in his 90s he was still managing 1,000 words a day.

'He wasn't really there at all,' an earlier biographer, Frances Donaldson, once said. 'He spent nearly all his waking life in the company of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. And that was where he belonged.' Fans of his work who met him were generally disappointed by the marked lack of jokes. He preferred to mull over public school cricket scores. 'I never heard him utter a clever, let alone brilliant, remark,' observed one friend. Evelyn Waugh's brother, Alec, who enjoyed his company, nevertheless recalled: 'He had no peculiarities, of manner or expression.

He was not funny. He never repeated jokes. There was no sparkle in his conversation. He did not indulge in reminiscences. There was a straightforward exchange of talk . . . "It is an extraordinary thing," he would say, "Marlborough beat Tonbridge and Tonbridge beat Uppingham, but Uppingham beat Marlborough. What do you make of that?" ' P G Wodehouse once said that of all his characters, the one with whom he identified was Lord Emsworth, who wanted nothing more in life than to be left alone with his pig.

Wodehouse's pig was work. 'I am hopeless unless I'm creating fictional characters. I never feel that real people are interesting,' he confessed to a friend. He knew countless fascinating people, from Conan Doyle to WC Fields, but had precious little to say about them. His biographer reveals that when Wodehouse lived on Long Island, Scott Fitzgerald was a neighbour. Two of the greatest writers of the 20th Century struck up a friendship, but what did Wodehouse have to say about him? 'He seems quite normal, and is a very nice chap indeed.' It is said that when Wodehouse's wife went off to buy an apartment in New York, he said to her: 'Make sure you get one on the ground floor.' When she asked why, he replied: 'I can never think of what to say to the liftman.' The writer who spends his time writing rather than living, and prefers making things up to experiencing them, is bound to leave slim pickings for his biographer. For the best part of 93 years, Wodehouse did his level best to make his daily existence as routine and uninteresting as possible; if ever anything untoward occurred, he was careful to refuse it any sort of role in his prose.

This must have made Robert McCrum's job as Wodehouse's biographer extraordinarily difficult. In fact, there are times when his pickings are so slim, and Wodehouse has excised his own character so completely from memory, that one starts to wonder whether the whole nature of biography isn't based on a fallacy.

It seems more than likely, for instance, that the worst thing that ever happened to Wodehouse was the death of his beloved stepdaughter, Leonora, in 1943, when she was 40 and he was 62. 'Nothing much matters now,' he wrote to one friend. 'I thought she was immortal,' he wrote to another. But he said virtually nothing else on the matter. His biographer must surely be right in suggesting that this silence was 'profoundly eloquent', but it still leaves an imbalance, unavoidable but huge, in the biography: while his work as a Broadway lyricist gets a good long chapter, Leonora's death, and Wodehouse's reaction to it, are over and done with in a brief paragraph.

So it is testament to McCrum's intelligence as a biographer that he has managed to create such a rounded portrait of the elusive Wodehouse. He achieves this as much by a sleuth-like reading of the fiction as by a meticulous trawl through the life. He shows the instinct of a truffle-hound in sniffing out those few stray sentences from which the author has failed to excise the scent of the life.

For instance, he pinpoints an uncharacteristically heartfelt passage in Psmith In The City, published in 1910, in which a father tells his son that he can't afford to send him to Cambridge ('"Oh, that's all right," said Mike thickly. There seemed to be something in his throat, preventing him from speaking'), and must surely be correct in his suggestion that this is an accurate depiction of Wodehouse's feelings on being denied a place at university by his own father. When I first heard that McCrum had been assigned the biography of Wodehouse, I thought it an odd mismatch as McCrum's own fiction is unusually grey and gloomy and his journalism is never strong on laughs.

But I was wrong: anyone more jocular would have slid into the impossible trap of trying to ape Wodehouse's prose, with gruesome results.

Instead, McCrum keeps a clear head throughout, avoiding the longwinded smuggery of the pseudo-Wodehouseian.

Wodehouse emerged from childhood with his vision of the world beyond fully formed. McCrum quotes a sweet story he wrote aged seven about a thrush singing to animals in a forest. It ends: 'At last the song was done and the bird came down panting.' It is the idea of a little bird 'panting' that is so distinctively Wodehouseian. His comedy is all based on the juxtaposition of the lifelike and the absurd, fastened tightly together by the melody of his prose.

He is the most visual of writers, and his comedy often arises from the reader attempting to imagine the impossible. In the sentence, 'He was like a man who, stooping to pluck a nosegay of wild flowers on a railway line, is unexpectedly struck in the small of the back by the Cornish Express' it is the pedantically exact 'small of the back' that makes it so funny. In the passage, 'The least thing upsets him on the links. He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows' it is that little word 'uproar'.

>From The Clicking Of Cuthbert comes the sentence, 'He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg.'

This is one of those sublime Wodehouse sentences that carries his hallmark of linking two things that the reader knows to be impossible. It is a sentence that might also serve as his epitaph, for the most notorious event in his life came when, a civilian prisoner in Germany trying to keep up spirits during the Second World War, he inadvertently contributed to the Nazi propaganda machine.

In his grim and freezing camp, Wodehouse had cheered up his fellow prisoners with his humorous accounts of their situation. The Germans cleverly asked him to repeat these accounts in radio broadcasts to America, and he had happily obliged. But his happy-go-lucky humour, always reliant on the reader's imagination being able to bounce easily between reality and fantasy, was hideously misinterpreted in Britain. Just as his description of an aunt 'who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth' presumes that the reader knows no aunt could possibly behave like that, so his chirpy descriptions of camp life made a similar assumption. It was his fatal mistake.

Wodehouse never quite recovered from being branded a traitor by the ignorant and the envious, and went to great lengths not all of them as innocent as one might wish to restore his reputation. Happily, this biography helps wipe his slate clean, leaving his life an unblemished page upon which his miraculous characters can continue to sing and dance forever.

PG Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum Viking

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