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The Washington Post 11 January 2005

The Whole Jolly Lot

Bob Thompson

If you're trying to evoke the alternative universe that is the prose of P.G. Wodehouse, there is perhaps no better place to start than the passage in which Bertie Wooster's schoolmate, the former teetotaler Gussie Fink-Nottle, awards prizes to the eager scholars at Market Snodsbury Grammar School. It is, thinks Wodehouse biographer Robert McCrum, "one of the funniest 30 pages ever written."

How to describe them?

Well, the effects build slowly, so you'd really have to start from the beginning.

After you'd introduced the main characters -- that would be the eternally feckless Bertie and his infinitely resourceful manservant, Jeeves -- you'd need to explain how the former's shocking taste in formal wear creates a disastrous rift between them. You'd have to convey some impression of the thickening Wodehousian plot, perhaps mentioning the pastoral scene in which young Tuppy Glossop tries to lay homicidal hands on the Wooster person. You'd be obliged to narrate the bungled proposal of marriage by the aforementioned Fink-Nottle -- whom Bertie's aunt persists in calling "Spink-Bottle" -- in which he can't stop talking about his real true love, the palmated newt.

You'd have to . . .

But stop right there. It's no use blathering on about the Wodehouse prose. Far better to simply press a copy of "Right Ho, Jeeves" into the hands of the person you're attempting to convert.

"There are very few compelling reasons to be glad that one was born in the twentieth century," New Yorker critic Anthony Lane has written, "and most of them are curative: heart transplants, the polio vaccine, the look on Grace Kelly's face. Then, there is Wodehouse."

Born in 1881, in Guildford, England, the creator of Jeeves and Bertie turned out almost a hundred books before expiring on Long Island in 1975. Most are still in print.

To read the recently published "Wodehouse: A Life" and to chat over coffee and eggs Benedict with the biographer, McCrum, is to be reminded just how alternative the universe Wodehouse created really is. Set in gentlemen's clubs and on country estates, populated by innocents like Bertie and their ferocious female relatives, it doesn't even much resemble the genuine England of the Edwardian era, let alone the present day. Which leads one to wonder: Sure, a lot of people think he's funny -- but how does this antique blighter hold up so well in 2005?

One answer is the timeless characters he created. Nearly a century after they began to spring full-grown from Wodehouse's pen, Bertie, Jeeves, Aunt Agatha, Psmith and Lord Emsworth -- not to mention Augustus Pink-Snottle, or whatever the newt-fancier's name is -- appear to have at least a sporting chance of living forever.

Yet there's another essential aspect of Wodehouse that may help explain his continuing appeal. The man did his best to pretend that the 20th century never happened.

"He refuses -- he absolutely refuses -- to face reality," McCrum says. "Reality is bad."

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (pronunciation, WOOD-house; nickname, "Plum") lived his adult life in the century that invented large-scale trench warfare, the Final Solution and weapons of mass destruction. Combine these innovations with the eternal annoyances of the human condition -- famine, pestilence, death and man's inhumanity to man -- and you need scarce wonder at the perennially lucrative market for escapist fiction.

The most surprising thing about Wodehouse, however, is that he largely succeeded -- with one traumatic exception -- in withdrawing from the real world.

As young Plum was about to graduate from boarding school, his father informed him that there was no money to send him up to Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, Wodehouse Sr. had arranged for his son to join a bank. Not good. He had literary ambitions. By sleeplessly churning out stories and articles on the side, he established himself as a writer and was able to quit his job.

Flash-forward to August 1914. By this time, at 32, Wodehouse had begun moving back and forth across the Atlantic, writing fiction and theatrical lyrics. When World War I broke out, beginning the unprecedented slaughter that would traumatize Europe, he was in New York. "Unmoved by this excitement, and working as hard as ever," McCrum writes, "Wodehouse stayed on in America."

He rarely mentioned the war. He got married to a "noisy and demonstrative" widow named Ethel Wayman who took over the management of his life. He wrote "Something Fresh," in which the Earl of Emsworth made his first appearance. Wodehouse describes the master of Blandings Castle -- whose sunny temperament has often been compared to his own -- as follows:

"Other people worried about all sorts of things -- strikes, wars, suffragettes, diminishing birth-rates, the growing materialism of the age, and a score of similar subjects. Worrying, indeed, seemed to be the twentieth century's specialty. Lord Emsworth never worried."

During the war, Wodehouse also invented Bertie and Jeeves.

The two are a perfect fit, like Holmes and Watson. Bertie believes that he's a man of the world, but he's really a childlike figure who constantly finds himself in the soup (or "waist high in the gumbo and about to sink without a trace," as he once put it). It is Jeeves's job to glide noiselessly to his employer's side and apply his oversize brain to the task of fishing him out.

Had Bertie Wooster been a real Englishman of the time, as George Orwell once observed, he'd likely have died in the trenches around 1915. As for Jeeves, he was a real Englishman: Wodehouse borrowed the name from a Warwickshire cricketer he'd seen play as a young man. The real Jeeves was killed on the Somme, but McCrum found no evidence that Wodehouse ever noticed this.

Life was good and getting better. Never mind the Depression and the rise of fascism: The '20s and '30s were a Wodehouse golden age. He was writing furiously and selling in the millions. Broadway had beckoned and he was concocting musical comedies with the likes of Jerome Kern. McCrum cites one Wodehouse lyric that neatly sums up his attitude toward life:

Jam all your troubles in a great big box

And sit on the lid and grin.

When Robert McCrum was 42, a well-connected London man of letters, newly married, something happened to him that would never, ever happen to a P.G. Wodehouse character. He had a stroke and nearly died.

This was nine years ago, long before he signed on to do "Wodehouse: A Life." He wrote a memoir of his experience, called "My Year Off." Looking at the opening chapter recently, he was surprised to find that he'd made reference to his future biographical subject.

"P.G. Wodehouse, one of my favorite writers, once said that 'There are two ways of writing,' " he had written. One of these is " 'a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.' "

Strokes, he'd gone on to inform his readers apologetically, did not lend themselves to the musical comedy approach.

McCrum is a tall, dark-haired man with a still noticeable limp and a face that gets craggier when he grins. He can't type with his left hand, so he writes out first drafts longhand, just as Wodehouse did. Before the stroke, he'd been editor in chief at Faber & Faber, working with such writers as Lorrie Moore, Garrison Keillor and Kazuo Ishiguro. Now he is the literary editor of London's Observer, where in 1999 he wrote an article lauding Wodehouse and lamenting the lack of "a properly researched biography of the great man."

A week later, he had an offer to write one.

The Wodehouse childhood, McCrum found, offered the key to his subject's put-your-troubles-in-a-box credo. Plum's mother and father were "at best remote, at worst utterly foreign." Living for the most part in the Far East, they parked their four sons with an English nanny who kept them "under a kind of house arrest." Later came boarding schools and aunts.

"Imagine," the biographer says. "He saw his mother really for the first time when he was 15. The first time he met her, as a boy, he thought she was just another aunt. So what his childhood taught him was that reality was a very painful place, and that the way to avoid reality was to go somewhere else, into a fantasy world."

Childhood also taught him "to dread instability and to crave the continuity of a boring life." This presents obvious problems for a biographer -- which is why McCrum was so grateful for World War II.

Wodehouse was living in France, for tax reasons, when the war broke out. Somehow -- he was deep in his writing; he hated to change his routine; he was worried about his beloved Pekingese -- he neglected to get out of the way of the German army, winding up in a series of internment camps.

"Am quite happy here and have thought out a new novel," he wrote to his literary agent from one. Happy, perhaps -- but oblivious to the realities of war. When a friendly camp commander asked him if he'd like to do some radio broadcasts to his American readers (this was before the United States entered the war), he foolishly agreed.

The broadcasts were light, humorous and politically tone-deaf. They put him so deep in the gumbo that he never fully emerged.

More than half a century later, McCrum says, when he would tell people that he was working on a Wodehouse biography, they would routinely respond, "Wasn't he a fascist or a collaborator?" He was not, as George Orwell eloquently argued at the war's end and as McCrum makes elaborately clear in the chapters he devotes to the subject. Clueless, for sure, like Bertie Wooster, but no traitor: If he'd had Jeeves or even his wife to consult, this sad, disturbing episode would never have occurred.

McCrum thinks it would make a marvelous film.

There'd be shots of Wodehouse interned in Upper Silesia, beavering away on the typewriter he'd been lent, producing classic Wodehousian comedy with no hint of the desperate struggle underway in the outside world. There'd be scenes at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, where high-ranking Nazis liked to meet for drinks and where the Germans installed their captive after he'd agreed to record the broadcasts.

Then we'd see Wodehouse, post-broadcast, seated on a twilit balcony at the country house of a German friend. He'd be replaying a recording of what he'd said, attempting to pinpoint just where he'd gone wrong.

He never quite figured it out -- but for once, he faced reality squarely. "I haven't a twinge of self-pity," he wrote a friend. "I made an ass of myself, and must pay the penalty."

After the war, he permanently settled in America. By the time the British forgave him sufficiently to dub him Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, he was too old to travel home for the ceremony.

McCrum says he has been reading Proust of late, "trying to get Wodehouse out of my head." He liked his subject, but found that he did not love him -- precisely what most people felt about this genial but oddly distant man when he was alive.

On the page -- well, that's another matter.

Asked what Wodehouse he'll go back to first, McCrum mentions "Uncle Fred Flits By," which he calls "a joyful story." But he also loves the Fink-Nottle prize-giving passage, which he remembers his father reading aloud.

How young Gussie, who has never so much as sniffed at a glass of whiskey before, arrives onstage at Market Snodsbury, braced with an elephant-size portion of the right stuff, is a tale far too complex to relate here.

Why he chooses to address the assembled students by saying "Wattle, Wattle, Wattle" -- repeating this invocation no fewer than 16 times -- is likewise beyond easy explication. Then there's his unexpected disquisition on adenoids, and his brogue-laced parable of the optimistic and pessimistic Irishmen, and . . .

No, it really can't be done, this evoking of Wodehouse. If you're in need of a good vacation from reality, you're better off reading him yourself.

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