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New York Newsday, 21 November 2004

Plum crazy

Matthew Price

For a certain kind of literary Anglophile, there are few greater pleasures than taking a spin through the gently daft world of P.G. Wodehouse. In a long writing life that took him from the Edwardian era until the '60s, Wodehouse added scores of zany characters to English fiction's teeming ranks. For many a Wodehouse worshipper, few of his creations surpass the lovably batty Bertie Wooster - whom V.S. Pritchett once described as a "rich silly-ass with a monocle" - and his gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves.

Wooster had an unfailing knack for getting into trouble, but whenever he found himself in a jam, there was the ever- cool Jeeves to sort things out. "The man's a genius," Wooster once said of his valet. "From the collar upward he stands alone."

Yet if Wodehouse is sometimes reduced to just the writer who brought Jeeves and Wooster into the world, Robert McCrum makes the case that he was much more than that. "It is a good time to consider again his extraordinary versatility," McCrum writes in his new biography, "as a journalist, an essayist, a playwright, a librettist, a novelist and a poet of light verse."

To be sure, we often forget that Wodehouse was a crucial figure in the American musical theater between the wars, teaming up with the likes of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and both Gershwins. However, McCrum's strenuous advocacy is sometimes a bit too much. His approach is to pile on the detail - does it matter what the address of Wodehouse's place of birth is? - and overwhelm us with a barrage of facts. After reading "Wodehouse" you won't want to know any more about P.G.'s life.

But first things first. In case you're wondering, it's pronounced WOOD- house, and the P.G. stands for Pelham Grenville, though almost nobody called him that. (P.G.W. didn't much care for it, either.) To his friends, he was simply Plum or Plummie. Wodehouse's name sounds ridiculously old-fashioned. Then again, he was born in 1881 and came of age at the turn of the 19th century, when Britain was still a world power.

His childhood was relatively trouble-free, though McCrum tries to play up the trauma angle, because he was separated from his parents - his father was an imperial servant in Hong Kong - and sent to a boarding school in England.

Wodehouse skipped college and began his career as a banker, a profession that wasn't to his taste. Turning to writing, Wodehouse cranked out light sketches for Punch and other British magazines and published his first novel in 1902.

As McCrum notes, Wodehouse was happiest when he was at his desk banging away on the typewriter. He was a rather closed person, sometimes aloof (someone once described him as looking more like an "Oxford professor than a writer of humorous stories"), though by all accounts a kind man. He saved the high jinks for the page.

Though Wodehouse was a quintessentially English character, he loved America - he had a huge following in the States - and spent much of the teens and '20s to-ing and fro-ing between London and New York, and did a stint in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the early '30s.

McCrum provides an ample account of Wodehouse's American forays; he can't resist telling us everything about his finances, which admittedly were an important aspect of Wodehouse's life. (He was a fabulously successful writer but fell afoul of the IRS during his time in the States for back taxes.)

McCrum doesn't stint on discussing his subject's absurdly vast body of work. There is a major peril confronting the would-be critic of Wodehouse: sounding like a crashing bore. This writer's light touch doesn't need much explication, and comments such as "Wodehouse had been exploring the lineaments of the perfect servant for some years" aren't terribly helpful. Still, McCrum is a useful guide, and his enthusiasm for his subject will have you dipping into such classics as "Right Ho, Jeeves" in no time.

On balance, Wodehouse's was a happy life, but for all his success, there was one very dark - and still controversial - episode that cast a black cloud on his ever- sunny world. In 1940, he was living in France and found himself swept up in the war. After the Nazis invaded, Wodehouse was interned. When the Nazis realized they had a famous writer on their hands, they quickly moved to capitalize on his popularity. He was invited to deliver several radio broadcasts from Berlin, and he accepted the invitation.

This was arguably the stupidest thing Wodehouse ever did. Though he was studiously apolitical and hardly a Nazi sympathizer, his Woosterish stumblebum routine only made things worse. The "what a lark" tone of addresses such as "How to Be An Internee" struck many as deeply offensive.

Here, he recalls his first encounter with German soldiers: "All that happened, as far as I was concerned, was that 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.' And there they were, a fine body of men, rather prettily dressed in green, carrying machine guns." At a time when the Nazis were marauding across Europe, his comments came across as ludicrously flippant. Wodehouse sorely needed a real-life Jeeves to get him out of this mess.

Though George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh vigorously defended him (Wodehouse was a major influence on Waugh), the British press denounced Wodehouse as a traitor. His reputation suffered. After the war, he tried to make amends, but the world had passed Wodehouse by. Tastes changed, and he found himself out of fashion. American magazines, which had once paid him top dollar, were no longer interested in his material.

To a friend he complained, "They now want heavy, serious stuff about life in the swamps of Carolina and that sort of thing and won't look at my English dudes!"

But Wodehouse's English dudes endured. Today, his novels take up practically the entire "W" section on bookstore shelves. His is a timeless world, where geopolitical trouble rarely intrudes. The pleasures of escaping into a Wodehouse yarn hark back to a time before the 20th century (and the 21st) went off the rails.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.