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Biography of a humorist for the ages
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Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 December 2004

Biography of a humorist for the ages

Michael D. Schaffer

Wodehouse: A Life
By Robert McCrum

The sun has never set on the gentle comic empire of P.G. Wodehouse.

A full century after his first novel was published, Wodehouse's writing still gives "uniform satisfaction" (to borrow a favorite phrase of that most cerebral of servants, Reginald Jeeves).

The 90 novels and short-story collections that Wodehouse produced over the course of a long life (1881-1975) are uniformly delightful and hilarious.

Wodehouse (pronounced WOOD-house) created a world of prize pigs and potty peers, of formidable aunts and accidental engagements, of young men in spats who greet one another with a cheery "What-ho, what-ho, what-ho and again what-ho."

In Wodehouse: A Life, Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer in London and the author of six novels and two nonfiction works of his own, has given us a sympathetic but critical account of a brilliant writer, a master of "literary escapism" who created "his own lunatic Eden."

Wodehouse's fans have been a diverse contingent, including Kaiser Wilhelm II, Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Eudora Welty, John le Carre, H.L. Mencken and Salman Rushdie. (Admiration for Wodehouse's work was not universal. McCrum writes that the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey dismissed Wodehouse as "the performing flea of English literature.")

McCrum himself clearly belongs in the fan club. Although he concedes that some may undervalue Wodehouse's work as mere popular comedy, McCrum insists that Wodehouse deserves a place in the canon of 20th-century English literature.

McCrum, no slouch himself in the business of turning phrases, writes that Wodehouse gave substance to lightness "in a language that danced on the page like poetry, marrying the English style of the academy with the English slang of the suburbs."

The fertile imagination of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (known to his family and friends as Plum) spawned an array of unforgettable characters: the perpetually adolescent Bertie Wooster; Bertie's brainy, unflappable valet, Jeeves; Bertie's irascible Aunt Agatha, who regards him (in Bertie's words) as "a worm and an outcast"; Lord Emsworth, the dimwitted peer who dotes on his prize pig, Empress of Blandings; and Psmith, the worldly young pseudo-socialist who has changed the common spelling but not the pronunciation of his common last name: "The P, like the grave, is silent."

Wodehouse came to manhood in the reign of King Edward VII (1901-1910), and his writing would always be tinged with the exuberant optimism and the idiom of Edwardian England, but an Edwardian England "transformed by... remarkable powers of fantasy into something timeless - and permanent."

Reality intruded minimally on Wodehouse's fictional world. Unfortunately for Wodehouse, it intruded extensively - and rudely - in his own life, landing him in scrapes that couldn't be waved off with a peevish "Tinkerty tonk."

There were long-running tax disputes in England and the United States, but worst of all was the jam Wodehouse got himself into during World War II. Captured by German troops in France, where he was living at the time, Wodehouse compromised himself by making radio broadcasts from Berlin that some back in England viewed as tantamount to treason.

McCrum looks unblinkingly at the blithe, almost boyish self-centeredness that led Wodehouse to think he could live in his own world and treat the reality around him as if it were a joke - even if the reality happened to be invading German soldiers. When confronted with the massive evil of war, McCrum writes, Wodehouse's response was "irredeemably frivolous."

It was poor judgment, not a traitorous heart, that led to Wodehouse's World War II disgrace, McCrum emphasizes.

Wodehouse's broadcasts in the summer of 1941 were typical Wodehouse: a stiff-upper-lip, flippant account of his 49 weeks in a German civil internment camp, with not the slightest whiff of subversive sentiment.

Wodehouse later insisted that his motive for making the broadcasts was "no more culpable than that of a hundred English prisoners of war who came to the German radio and sent messages home saying that they were in the pink."

What Wodehouse didn't understand - would never understand - was the outrage an England at war felt over hearing one of its most famous and beloved authors on the enemy's airwaves. Wodehouse failed to realize, McCrum writes, that he should have had nothing at all to do with Nazi radio, no matter what the subject.

A government investigation eventually cleared Wodehouse of wrongdoing, but it was impossible for him to live in England after the war, so he relocated permanently to the United States, which had long been his second home anyway.

As Wodehouse aged, the anger of his countrymen over his indiscretion abated, and in 1975, just before his death, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him.

Though he judges Wodehouse sternly in the matter of his behavior during World War II, McCrum is a kind biographer. The Wodehouse he presents to the reader is a reticent man uncomfortable with intimacy, but in many ways an innocent, with "an exceptional good nature and a profound humanity."

If the book has a fault, it may be that McCrum gives us more information on Wodehouse's work as a librettist and playwright than most readers would care to know. However much Wodehouse may have contributed to the development of the musical stage comedy (and it clearly was a lot), we care about him because of his books.

That, however, is just a quibble. Taken as a whole, McCrum's work sparkles.

Applying just the right phrase here, just the right detail there, McCrum has rendered a richly colored portrait of comedy's master stylist in masterful style.

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