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Guardian 16 July 2000

Right ho

Robert McCrum

He was born in 1881, the same year as Picasso and Bartok; the year Dostoevsky and Disraeli died; the year Ibsen published Ghosts and Henry James Portrait of a Lady. He is said to be one of the Prime Minister's favourite writers. John Updike and Salman Rushdie are both lifelong fans. He died on St Valentine's Day, 1975. His books, all ninety-something volumes of them (estimates vary), are currently being republished by Penguin and Everyman. He is, of course, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, D. Lit (Oxon).

There is no other English writer in living memory who has so many passionate devotees. According to Everyman's David Campbell, P.G. Wodehouse takes no fewer than a third of the places in Amazon's top 25 comic titles. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an Observer column saluting the first of the Penguin reissues. One thing has led to another and now I find myself commissioned by the P.G. Wodehouse estate to write the first fully authorised life, a task which in prospect is as daunting as it is delightful. (Observer readers who have anecdotes or documents relating to Wodehouse are very welcome to get in touch.)

From Alaska to the Zuyder Zee (there are flourishing Wodehouse Societies throughout the world), Wodehouse is remembered as a quintessentially English humorous writer, a discreet, good-natured dog lover who enjoyed a regular round of golf and a stiff drink at sundown. Closer examination of his long and highly productive life suggests that this characterisation misses a number of important aspects to his life.

If he was a great comic novelist who cut his creative teeth in the Fleet and Grub Streets of Edwardian England, he was also the toast of Broadway and Hollywood throughout the Twenties. If he was English by birth and upbringing, he was also a devoted American who, as he once put it in a rare autobiographical admission, fell in love with the United States on his very first visit there in 1904. More than that, he was, in the autumn of his life, from 1955, an American citizen, living and working quietly on Long Island.

Almost all of this has been forgotten. This is partly because there has never been an authorised biography fully researched from the author's papers, and partly because, if Wodehouse is remembered for anything, besides his books, it is for the radio broadcasts he infamously made while interned by the Third Reich during the Second World War. Many people, indeed, still describe him, quite erroneously, as a 'fascist sympathiser'.

The starting point for any writer's life must be the work. My summer holiday this year will be devoted to a leisurely perambulation down the long, sunlit avenues of his incomparable oeuvre, from the pre-Great War school stories to the posthumous Sunset at Blandings, by way of The Code of the Woosters, The Mating Season and Stephen Fry's entertaining recent anthology, What Ho! (Hutchinson £15.99, pp560). Normal service will resume here again in August.

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