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Guardian 5 September 2004

Plum on target

Stephen Fry

Wodehouse: A Life Wodehouse: A Life
by Robert McCrum.
Viking. pp528.

The facts, briefly, are these: Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (two unremarkable British Prime Ministers in one name) was born in 1881 and died in 1975. In that time he edited a newspaper column, collaborated on Broadway musicals with, among others, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, adapted straight plays, wrote hundreds of short stories and gave the world more than 90 books whose charm, verbal brilliance and completeness of tone, characterisation and plotting earned him an Oxford doctorate, a knighthood and an unassailable reputation as the greatest comic novelist of the 20th century. The word 'reputation', of course, does not begin to describe the adoration, admiration, addiction and deep, deep affection in which the works, and therefore the man, have been held by so many around the world.

They say it would take a lifetime simply to copy out the works of Bach or of Telemann. Much the same is true of Wodehouse. I know: at school, I hammered out all of his novel Frozen Assets on an electric Remington in an effort to teach myself to touch-type, an effort that took me a term and a half.

So even if you know nothing of Wodehouse the man, you can work out that his must have been a life spent largely at a desk. 'I sit at the typewriter and curse a bit,' is how he put it himself. A manual typewriter, at that. Which is bully for PG the workaholic, and bully for his readers who couldn't get enough, but it's something of a problem for his select band of biographers, into whose fold we now welcome Robert McCrum, the Observer's literary editor.

Wodehouse's literary world has often been described as innocent, prelapsarian, paradisal, Elysian, idyllic, but he himself was fond of finding different ways of observing that every Eden contains a serpent. In the salad of Wodehouse's otherwise perfect life there lurked one undoubted caterpillar. The Berlin Broadcasts Business (hereinafter referred to as the BBB) continues, quite wrongly, to affect and infect Wodehouse's status in the world. There will always be those who wrinkle their nostrils and say, 'Ah yes, Woadhouse,' (they go out of their way to repeat that pronunciation despite knowing better), 'wasn't he some sort of fascist or something?'

It comes as no surprise then that McCrum's biography Wodehouse: A Life (modestly eschewing the definite article, despite the project's standing as family approved - estate bottled, as it were) opens in medias res, with Wodehouse in his late fifties being arrested as an enemy alien in Le Touquet by Hitler's invading army.

The dark import of this prologue hangs over the first half of the book like a cloud, or an Impending Doom, as Wodehouse might say. To those of us who venerate PGW this opening is something of a disappointment. 'Oh no,' we moan, 'he's going to turn the blasted BBB into the defining moment of his life.'

The reasonable part of us recognises this as inevitable. Wodehouse, at the height of his powers, was interned by the Germans in a more than usually unpleasant part of Poland ('If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?') and was daft enough to allow himself to be persuaded to broadcast from Berlin to his friends in America, assuring them that he was in good health and high spirits.

The 'global howl' that followed rang in his ears till his dying day. I shan't spoil the story by going into further detail or interpretation. McCrum's exposition is lucid, fair-minded and proper, and while it necessarily doesn't go into as much detail as Iain Sproat's more specific Wodehouse At War, it has the advantage of placing the whole business in a better perspective, that of Wodehouse's life up until that crisis.

McCrum tells the story of the early years well, but with an insistence on psychological conclusions which, while orthodox today, fail to convince. The young Wodehouse hardly saw his parents who lived abroad: normal then, not normal today. He was shown little close love and affection as a child: normal then, not normal today. Wodehouse himself wrote that his childhood 'went like a breeze', which McCrum is disinclined to believe. There is denial, there is 'splitting' (a psychoanalytic term with which I am unfamiliar). 'The completeness of his fantasy world reflects the intense and lonely bleakness of the inner world created by his early life,' McCrum writes, which having been written constitutes a fact to which he refers back from time to time throughout the book.

He concedes that Wodehouse's rare sunniness of outlook, optimism and refusal to allow darkness to shadow his life allowed him to 'cope' better than others, but still for him the childhood was not so much a breeze as an icy gale.

Wodehouse's upbringing was, of course, no more bleak and isolated than that of millions of his contemporaries and to interpret his life according to our contemporary moral and psychological shibboleths seems misguided to me. People judge their fortune not by absolutes, but by comparison with others. By those standards Wodehouse's view is right and McCrum's wrong.

Wodehouse's apprenticeship in his craft was steady throughout the turn of the old century and into the new, and McCrum captures quite marvellously the flavour of the particular London in which our hero worked, astutely anatomising the language and manners of the age, sifting the codes and nuances of the parade of Knuts, Mashers, Coves, Dudes and Blighters that bestrode the Edwardian stage. The Pooters of Holloway, Jerome K Jerome's be-blazered boatmen, the ballads of WS Gilbert and what EM Forster called 'the suburban sniggers' of Punch magazine are rightly identified as being quite as influential in the forging of Wodehouse's style as the more obvious monocled asses and gooseberry-eyed butlers with which he is associated.

America follows, providing the final linguistic ingredient to be added to 'the marriage of suburban vernacular with classical syntax' and to the mix of clerkish slang, youthful 'buzz', society yammer and aristocratic drawl to create the peerless Wodehouse prose cocktail.

While not claiming to be a literary biography, McCrum's book allows these connections between early life and final artistic flowering to be perfectly made. The rest is supremely well told and, considering its lack of eventfulness (the BBB excepted) surprisingly riveting.

Does McCrum like Wodehouse? Well, perhaps the years of trawling through the master's own thousands of letters have jaded him a little. Considering his subject is a man so celebrated by all those who knew him as modest, benign, utterly good-humoured and entirely self-deprecating (McCrum himself writes, 'one of Wodehouse's most attractive qualities is his modesty') it is astonishing how often he refers to him, while quoting the correspondence, as 'boasting' (once twice in the same paragraph). '"The actual work is negligible," he boasted to Mackail.' '"I don't feel a bit older than I did 20 years ago," he crowed to Townend.' Were he to do a word search on the incidence of 'boast', I suspect he would be embarrassed.

Also, 'writing to friends, he adopted a variety of euphemisms - "'my Berlin/ German troubles," for instance, and "the broadcast stuff"...' Well, how else should he describe them? 'My dreadful scandal?' 'My series of Berlin Broadcasts made during the Second World War which... blah, blah, blah?' The use of 'euphemisms' implies that somehow Wodehouse was shirking reality. But really, what phrase would anyone use in a letter to a friend? I don't think dislike is the right word, but an impatience shows through which is perhaps understandable, but can seem needlessly querulous.

There are some odd inconsistencies: on the subject of the Roman comic playwrights with whom Wodehouse has sometimes been compared, McCrum quotes a Wodehouse letter denying their influence 'for some reason Plautus or Terence never came my way' and yet less than a hundred pages later he firmly states: 'Wodehouse certainly knew his Plautus and his Terence.'

He describes the agony of plot creation, as does Wodehouse himself in many letters. At several stages in his literary career Wodehouse repeated his own plots or went so far as to borrow or buy the plots of others, yet McCrum suddenly claims: 'The plot-making was always the part he revelled in,' which certainly runs counter to orthodox Wodehousian belief.

These are far from caterpillars in the salad. Mere pips in a juicy grape. No lover of Wodehouse will want to be without this masterly appraisal of the good life of a good man. Who happened to be a very, very great writer indeed.

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