BOOKS MARCH 14, 2005
Wodehouse: A Life
By Robert McCrum
(W.W. Norton, 530 pp., $27.95)
Deliberately unserious writers are very rare in literature; even most children's books are dark with agenda. Sheer play is much rarer than great seriousness, for nonsense demands from most of us an unlearning of adult lessons, a return to childhood--which anyway, being a return, lacks childhood's innocent originality. P.G. Wodehouse, who was always described by those who knew him best as an arrested schoolboy, must be the gentlest, most playful comedian in the English novel. (Even Beerbohm had his barbs.) His innocence is rare; but even rarer is the combination in his books of muscleless play and serious, intensely controlled literary talent.
Bertie Wooster, in Joy in the Morning (1947), one of the funniest of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, consoles his friend Boko Fittleworth, who has just been roundly abused by his fiance: "You can't go by what a girl says, when she's giving you the devil for making a chump of yourself. It's like Shakespeare. Sounds well, but doesn't mean anything." It is a marvelous crack, and consistent with Bertie's expensively educated idiocy; but it is also interestingly self-descriptive. For it is Wodehouse's own prose that is like a Shakespeare without sense. It doesn't mean anything, but it sounds superb.
The Shakespearean atmosphere flows not just from the Arden-like suspension of worldly rules, and the habit the novels have of falling into the happy closure of marriages (Love's Labours Lost was Wodehouse's favorite play); it has above all to do with Wodehouse's verbal abundance, the joyful sense that language naturally exceeds reality as grass exceeds a verge, and that the referent can be almost condescendingly described and re-described, and thus comically smothered in re-description. Shakespeare is full of this, not only in the comedies. In King Lear, Kent viciously abuses Oswald the steward, partly for the fun of rolling around a variety of playful insults ("an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave"), ending with "Thou whoreson Z, thou unnecessary letter."
Unnecessary letter, indeed: all the fun in Wodehouse has to do with unnecessary letters, with the non-necessity of language. Take, for instance, Wodehouse's many words for the head: the onion, the brain ("the brain seemed to be tottering on its throne"), the coconut ("I was still massaging the coconut"), the lemon ("I shook the lemon"), the bean ("No situation is beyond Jeeves. ... In fact I believe something is fermenting now inside that spacious bean"), the lozenge ("He kept on oscillating the lozenge"). Or the several verbs devoted to exits and entries: Jeeves never enters the room, he shimmers or floats or filters into a room. Sometimes he leaves a room by "oiling off"; someone else is described as having "biffed off." A young woman might be a "pancake," a "blister," or "an attractive young prune." A hat might be a "lid," and a face a "map" ("a dazed expression on the map"). A beard is a "fungus" ("he was still fumbling at the fungus"). Bertie's morning tea, faithfully brought to his bedside by Jeeves, is numerously re-described, perhaps most musically as "the vital oolong." We may also find such words as "bobbish," "snurge," "bunce," and "dekko." (One sees Wodehouse's influence on a contemporary comic writer such as Martin Amis, who delights in the creation of alternative languages--"sock" for pad or apartment, "rug" for hair; a haircut in Money is a "rug rethink." All this is essentially Wodehousian.)
At times the language is quite capable of floating away from its tethers and becoming a fantastic music, made up of Edwardian slang, Wodehouse's own neologisms, and the clichs of popular fiction. An antique colloquialism such as "apple sauce" (nonsense, balderdash) gets a Wodehousian lift from being paired, absurdly, with "unbalanced": "To Tuppy's theory that some insinuating bird had stolen the girl's heart from him at Cannes I had given, as I have indicated, little credence, considering it the mere unbalanced apple sauce of a bereaved man." Or one of my favorites, the menacing fascist Sir Roderick Spode having been finally vanquished: "Well, Spode, qua menace, is a spent egg," says Bertie Wooster. Such pairings are so funny because they take a phrase like "apple sauce" out of its dead metaphoricity and remind us of its ridiculous facticity: there's apple sauce (or egg) in that sentence! But at the same time Wodehouse insists on using the apple sauce or the egg as if it were still colloquial dead metaphor, with a clubman's dumb panache. So the prose is expert at looking two ways at once: unwinkingly at its characters (this is the kind of mad stuff Bertie would say) and winkingly at us (just enjoy the kind of mad stuff Bertie says).
A world in which language, by being so abundant, has gone beyond necessity, has itself been released from necessity into irresponsibility, into a kind of delirious freedom. The delicious release felt by all readers of Wodehouse is a verbal release, into and out of language (or at least out of language as we ordinarily know it). The words rustle like free money: how nice it is to have more than we know what to do with. And Wodehouse's fiction was, of course, supremely commercial: the comic series (Ukridge, Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings) were essentially franchises, each novel promising its merry successor, and each in turn casting a fond eye on its predecessor. The writer who had such linguistic riches also had a need to spend them: he wrote at least ninety books in his lifetime.
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born, in 1881, into the minor branch of a grand family tree. Wodehouses had been knights and landowners in Norfolk as far back as the fifteenth century. But Wodehouse's father was merely an imperial civil servant, a magistrate in Hong Kong, and there seems to have been enough money to send the young Wodehouse to private school but not enough to send him to Oxford or Cambridge. The baby fell into the chilly domestic routines of late empire. (Kipling and Orwell had not dissimilar upbringings.) Left at the age of two with a nanny in Bath, he did not see his parents for another three years. Robert McCrum reckons that Wodehouse saw his mother and father "for barely six months between the ages of three and fifteen." His father was warm but distant; his mother cold, a stranger. McCrum intelligently analyzes this extraordinary deprivation, seeing it as the key to Wodehouse's lifelong combination of detachment and innocence. As a boy he learned to be on his own, to take succor from books and from walking. In adult life, he would be a fanatically hard worker, a writer who seemed to long only to get back to the desk, one whose ideal was a relentless pattern of writing and exercise.
Boarding school was his great refuge. Unlike, say, Orwell, who hated his school days, Wodehouse melted into Dulwich College, an ancient foundation in what was then a rustic suburb of south London. He was a fine footballer, cricketer, and boxer, and an excellent classicist, able to "write Latin and Greek as rapidly as he wrote English." Orwell, in a famous essay, would accuse Wodehouse of being fixated on his old school, and it does seem that Wodehouse never grew out of his gray short trousers. He maintained an unhealthy interest, well into middle age, in the fortunes of his old school teams, taking the train from central London to cheer them on from the sidelines of the school playing fields (and often walking the many miles back to town). McCrum quotes him writing to an old friend in 1946: "Isn't it odd, when one ought to be worrying about the state of the world and one's troubles generally, that the only thing I can think of nowadays is that Dulwich looks like winning all its school matches and surpassing the 1909 record."
McCrum rightly dwells on what we might now describe as a near-autism in Wodehouse. Biography seems to explain both the fantasy of the work (set in a world largely removed from contemporary reality) and the great disaster of the life, the broadcasts Wodehouse would give from Berlin during World War II. The closed community of the boarding school provided the warm imprisonment that family had never offered. The escape of comedy, and particularly of light fiction, seems to have been deeply necessary to Wodehouse. It deflected reality; it was a garden in a menacing city.
Wodehouse was always boyish, hairless, and oddly sexless. He and his wife maintained separate bedrooms; he did not father children. From his early teens onward he consumed large amounts of popular fiction and entertainment. The highlight of his month, McCrum reports, was "the arrival at the West Dulwich station bookstall of the latest edition of the Strand, with the new Conan Doyle serial." He loved Gilbert and Sullivan: Patience made him "absolutely drunk with ecstasy, I thought it the finest thing that could possibly be done." Years later he would admit that he would rather have written Oklahoma! than Hamlet.
Still, the biographical explanation leaves open a more literary question: why did an intelligent and sensitive teenager, precociously talented at writing, want to emulate popular entertainers such as G.A. Henty and H. Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle, and not major writers such as Conrad or James or George Eliot? In what spirit did he read serious writers? The serious pursuit of the unserious is one of the strangest elements of Wodehouse's life, and McCrum is not especially helpful in this regard. We hardly ever hear of Wodehouse reading anything except trash. As a young man, chained to his desk, writing squibs and light verse, he would read, for relaxation, "anything that came along," writes his biographer, without telling us what that was. Later we learn that in 1921 he read a first novel called What Next? about a clever butler by a writer called Denis Mackail, who later became a friend. In 1940, he took Shakespeare's Collected Works and a volume of Tennyson to the German internment camp. As an old man he might read Dick Francis or Rex Stout or Ngaio Marsh. And that is it.
It would be interesting to have discovered--if such a record exists--whether Wodehouse ever read serious fiction as an adult, and if so, what he thought of it. McCrum, having provided the biographical explanation, rather assumes that it was natural for Wodehouse to fall into the kind of writing that he started doing professionally at the age of twenty. But of course it was highly unnatural. The swerve away from literary seriousness, for a talented young man, is what puzzles here.
Not, of course, that one would want Wodehouse to be any different than he is. Rather one of him than a thousand J.D. Scotts or Alec Waughs or Edward Upwards, or all the other now forgotten "serious" novelists of the age. But there are plenty of writers with painful and deprived backgrounds who found refuge not in escapism but in truth--especially in the tragicomic, a form of writing in which pathos and comedy sharpen each other's nibs: Italo Svevo comes to mind. Chekhov had a painful childhood and started his career, like Wodehouse, writing squibs and funny pieces for the papers.
Two of the attributes of genius came easily to Wodehouse: speed and labor. "The story of these years is work, work and more work," writes McCrum at one point; but it could be said of any moment in Wodehouse's life. From 1900 to 1908 he kept a precise record of monthly earnings, in which, thanks to McCrum, we can witness the recompense for the hundreds of stories, verses, and articles written for such publications as Tit-Bits (Leopold Bloom's lavatory reading, it will be remembered), The Globe and Traveller, Punch, the Public School Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. He could write as many as forty thousand words of comic fiction in two weeks. Sixty-four pages of Thank You, Jeeves were dispatched in just seventeen days.
By 1903, Woodhouse was earning more than £200 a year, but it was America, which he began visiting regularly in 1903, that would make him a very rich man. McCrum is a diligent and shrewd host as he steers his account through Wodehouse's early years in America and his great success with musicals. His biography satisfies those peckish for fact--it jingles with dollar signs-- without bloating its readers on detail. The information about Wodehouse's collaborations with Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins is interesting, even for a reader left frigid by musicals. Wodehouse, unlike most lyricists, was happy for the composer (usually Kern) to write a melody first and then trim his words to fit. Blockbusters such as Oh, Boy!, Oh, Kay!, and Anything Goes made him famous. By the late 1930s, he could sell a novel for serialization to The Saturday Evening Post for $40,000. There were also two rather sour sojourns in Hollywood; like every other talented writer of his era, it seems, Wodehouse maundered over disappointing scripts.
The 1930s was Wodehouse's great decade. He would never be as loved, as rich, as happy, or as good a writer again. Above all, these were the years when he wrote the most sparkling of the Jeeves and Wooster books, a series inaugurated in 1916 in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post. Right Ho, Jeeves, which appeared in 1934, contains the intricate nonsense of Gussie Fink-Nottle and his engagement to the drippy Madeline Bassett, and Gussie's drunken prize-giving address to the pupils of Market Snodsbury Grammar School. We also meet the formidable but kindly Aunt Dahlia, the great exception to Wodehouse's general rule, laid down in The Code of The Woosters: "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof." And there is Aunt Dahlia's brilliant French cook Anatole, the master of gastronomy, famed throughout the shires for such morsels as nonnettes de poulet Agnès Sorel and ris de veau á la financire. The book is very funny throughout, but it rises to something truly marvelous when Bertie discourses on the unconscious. He reflects that sleeping on a problem often produces results:
The nibs who study these matters claim, I believe, that this has got something to do with the subconscious mind, and very possibly they may be right. I wouldn't have said off-hand that I had a subconscious mind, but I suppose I must without knowing it, and no doubt it was there, sweating away diligently at the old stand, all the while the corporeal Wooster was getting his eight hours.
The prospect of Bertie grudgingly yet flippantly (how wonderful that "off- hand" is!) owning up to the possession of a subconscious has a subtlety, and an air of witty paradox, somewhat uncharacteristic of Wodehouse's humor. It suggests what his writing might have been--in another life, of course--had he been interested in human beings. Svevo would make this very paradox the engine of The Confessions of Zeno, a novel both funny and very painful (in which Zeno, having been diagnosed by his analyst as suffering from the Oedipus complex, hotly denies it, adding that "the surest proof that I never had the disease is that I've not been cured of it").
The Code of the Woosters, perhaps an even funnier book than its predecessor, appeared in 1938, and by the summer of 1940 Wodehouse had completed all but the last five chapters of Joy in the Morning, when the Germans interrupted his daily routine by arriving at his door in Le Touquet, the French seaside town where he and his wife lived. (That book was completed in Nazi Germany, astoundingly, and published after the war, in 1947.) The Code of the Woosters sends Bertie and Jeeves to Totleigh Towers, in Totleigh-in-the-Wold, the home of the fearful Sir Watkyn Bassett. Also in residence are Gussie Fink-Nottle (again), the Reverend H.P. (Stinker) Pinker, Sir Roderick Spode, and the heartless young woman Stiffy Byng, a "pancake" whose steely behavior elicits from Bertie the following biblical allusion and fabulous general denunciation of all females: "You pull off the rawest stuff without a pang. You pride yourselves on it. Look at Jael, the wife of Heber. ... Dug spikes into the guest's coconut while he was asleep, and then went swanking around the place like a Girl Guide. No wonder they say, 'Oh woman, woman!'"
It is the novel in which we learn that Sir Roderick Spode, the leader of the Saviours of Britain, "a Fascist organization better known as the Black Shorts" (modeled on the fascist Sir Oswald Mosley), has a dirty secret. Jeeves, through his butlering connections, discovers that Sir Roderick is the proprietor of Eulalie Soeurs, a manufacturer of women's underwear. All Bertie will have to do to bring Spode down will be to say, "Spode, I know all about Eulalie." The single word will shrivel him. At the critical moment Bertie begins his sentence- -and cannot complete it, having forgotten the crucial word: "Spode, I know all about. ..." In the end, Spode is indeed brought low, because Bertie does finally remember "Eulalie." And then "Spode, qua menace, is a spent egg." (The sentence bears repeating.)
These novels are franchises, self-syndications, in which the writer returns to surefire techniques and gags, having tested them out on his devoted audience. These novels are franchises, self-syndications, in which the writer returns to surefire techniques and gags, having tested them out on his devoted audience. The first and most important strategy is reliably unreliable narration. Bertie Wooster narrates these books, and we can rely on him to know less than we do. A working definition of the difference between the safety of light humor and the more perilous nature of the tragicomic might revolve around the difference between reliably unreliable narration and unreliably unreliable narration. Svevo's Zeno and Nabokov's Humbert are unreliably unreliable narrators: we are not entirely sure when they are failing to know themselves, not entirely sure when they are deceiving themselves. Their narration is a shifting sand. Bertie is reliably unreliable because we know that he is not very bright and we can see when he is being not very bright, but Bertie does not know it himself; indeed he thinks himself frightfully bright--and Wodehouse gaily flags these little dikes, these shallow abysses.
We are in on the joke every time; the authorial contract is with the reader, and there is no fine aporetic print. Thus one of the funniest running jokes is that Bertie imagines himself to be the equal of Jeeves, when everyone else around knows this to be untrue. Right Ho, Jeeves opens with Bertie and Jeeves squabbling about a white mess jacket that Bertie acquired in Cannes. Jeeves considers it unsuitable for English life.
"I am convinced that you will eventually learn to love this mess jacket, Jeeves."
"I fear not, sir."
Bertie insists that he will wear it, and confides thus to the reader: "another of those unfortunate clashes of will between two strong men ... Bertram, unless he remembered his fighting ancestors and stood up for his rights, was about to be put upon."
But we know that Jeeves will get his way, as he always does. The Code of the Woosters opens similarly, with the pair arguing about a cruise around the world. Jeeves is keen to go on it, and Bertie is dead against: "I suppose that when two men of iron will live in close association with one another, there are bound to be occasional clashes." The novel ends with the revelation that Jeeves has already bought the tickets, so sure is he of final victory over his master. The iron will is made of rubber, and we know this in advance. This is the cozy pleasure of the recognition of return.
Wodehouse is marvelous at exploiting the comedy in the master-servant relationship, especially the table-turning of servant usurping master, a device already vividly present in Don Quixote, in which Sancho Panza emerges as far wiser than his muddle-headed, if inspired, master. Even Bertie, for all his misplaced self-conceit, reveres Jeeves's intelligence, and makes much of his oversize brain--"that spacious bean"--and the fact that he eats fish to augment his IQ ("it's the phosphorus, you know"). All the Jeeves and Wooster novels abound in mangled allusions--classical, biblical, and literary. Wooster always messes them--he is drawing on the gentleman's battered private-school kitty-- and Jeeves cleans them; there is no bottom to Jeeves's knowledge.
Wodehouse has some of his best fun when Bertie seems determined to ascribe to Jeeves's brilliant invention very famous quotations: "I remember Jeeves saying on one occasion--I forget how the subject had arisen--he may simply have thrown the observation out, as he does sometimes, for me to take or leave--that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." At least three of the novels recycle Shakespeare's lines about letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would," "like the poor cat i'the adage." Whenever Jeeves comes out with this, Bertie is awestruck: "It beats me how you think up these things." Of course, when it comes to Shakespeare, Bertie has some strange notions: "Bacon, as you no doubt remember, wrote Shakespeare's stuff for him, and then, possibly because he owed the latter money or it may be from sheer good nature, allowed him to take the credit for it." And Joy in the Morning has a scene in which Bertie, having squabbled with Jeeves over the latter's desire to go fishing in the country, feels magnanimous and offers to buy him a book. What would he like?
"Well, sir, there has recently been published a new and authoritatively annotated edition of the works of the philosopher Spinoza. ..."
"You shall have it. ... You're sure you've got the name right? Spinoza?"
"It doesn't sound probable, but no doubt you know best. Spinoza, eh? Is he the Book Society's Choice of the Month?"
"I believe not, sir."
Evelyn Waugh wrote that a writer who has two or three brilliant similes on every page must be called a master. It is above all in simile and metaphor that Wodehouse is peerless. His similes function at various levels. Often they are great similes in the conventional literary sense, because they charge upon a new association or likeness, and capture a picture for us: the beard that is described as resembling a "fungus," for instance. Or: "She entered now with a slow and dragging step like a Volga boatman." Or: "The spine, and I do not attempt to conceal the fact, had become soluble in the last degree." Or: "The acrid smell of burnt poetry." Or: "He spun round with a sort of guilty bound, like an adagio dancer surprised while watering the cat's milk." Or: "She looked like an aunt who has just bitten into a bad oyster."
But the more usual Wodehousian simile is an exaggeration, a kind of parody of the mock-heroic, in which some of the joke resides in the vast difference between the subject and its figurative likeness, and the very long and ornate bridge that Wodehouse must thus build to cover this gap: "the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces." Or: "looking like a bewildered halibut." Or: "like a man who, stooping to pluck a nosegay of wild flowers on a railway line, is unexpectedly struck in the small of the back by the Cornish Express." Or: "A wooden expression had crept into his features, and his eyes had taken on the look of cautious reserve which you see in those of parrots, when offered half a banana by a stranger of whose bona fides they are not convinced." Or: "A strange frozen sensation had come over me, rendering the physical and mental processes below par. It was as though both limbs and bean had been placed in a refrigerator and overlooked for several days." The brilliance, here, is the mock-specificity inserted into the long, fantastical phrases: the man is struck "in the small of the back" by the Cornish Express; the parrot is offered "half a banana" and may be suspicious of the stranger's "bona fides"; Bertie feels as if he has been put in a fridge and not merely left there but "overlooked for several days."
Such similes, like so much of Wodehouse's writing, are exercises in doubleness: they vividly "work" as similes, but their exaggerations gesture simultaneously toward their inefficacy, toward the sense one has that all simile is basically a species of exaggeration or hypothesis and therefore at some level essentially "unsuccessful." Shakespeare does not mean to get any laughs, of course, when he likens Gloucester's blinded eye to a "vile jelly," but is the leap any less of an exaggeration, any more "successful," than Wodehouse's comic leaps? Melville likens a school of whales to an Ottoman out for a walk with his harem. Many of Henry James's exquisite similes and metaphors have a decidedly camp flavor, even when James is being deadly serious- -for instance, when he calls the monkish Balzac "this Benedictine of the actual. " Think what Wodehouse might have made of "this Benedictine of the actual"! Falstaff complains that Prince Hal unleashes on him "the most unsavory similes"; metaphor is always "unsavory" in this sense, is metaphysical wit at bottom (the yoking together of unlikely elements), and Wodehouse's savory similes reveal this like none other; they turn the wit of metaphor bottoms up.
In the summer of 1940, Wodehouse was well on his way toward completing the third great Jeeves and Wooster novel of these years, Joy in the Morning, when he was interrupted. The Germans had arrived. Partly for tax reasons, he and his wife had been living for several years in Le Touquet. Typically, he seems to have been largely oblivious of the German threat. He was writing to friends as late as 1939 that nothing seemed less likely than world war. But in May, he and his wife tried to leave Le Touquet for England, and failed. The Germans rolled into town, requisitioned his cars and bicycle, and billeted themselves next door. He would later describe the experience thus:
The first time you see a German soldier in your garden, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. But this feeling of embarrassment soon passes. A week later you find that you are only jumping five feet. And in the end familiarity so breeds indifference that you are able to sustain without a tremor the spectacle of men in steel helmets riding round your lawn and even the discovery that two or three of them have dropped in and are taking a bath in your bathroom.
Wodehouse being Wodehouse, he went back to work. Routine re-asserted itself until July 21, when all foreign men under sixty were rounded up and sent off to an internment camp. From Le Touquet he was transported to Lige, and finally to Tost, a grim converted lunatic asylum in Upper Silesia, "the atmosphere like Dotheboys Hall after escape of Smike," as he wrote. He would be interned until June 1941.
The next hundred pages of McCrum's book are gripping. The biographer is at his best here, scrupulous with detail, fair but firm about the foolish errors that Wodehouse would commit. In the camp, despite all the usual hardships--the cold, sickness, the meager food--Wodehouse and his fellow Englishmen maintained the toughly cheerful atmosphere of the boys' boarding school: "without women ... we relapse into boyhood--all our emotions are boyish," he wrote. He was allowed a typewriter and he completed a novel, Money in the Bank, which relates the adventures of George, sixth Viscount Uffenham, who is forced to masquerade as a butler named Cakebread. Privately, Wodehouse confided his fears to a notebook, but publicly he kept a stiff upper lip. "Am quite happy here and have thought out new novel," he wrote to his literary agent.
But the Germans were becoming aware of the celebrity of "British Civilian Prisoner no. 796." The Foreign Ministry, eager to keep the Americans out of the war, realized that releasing Wodehouse, whose incarceration was big news in both Britain and America, would do their cause no harm. And perhaps Herr Wodehouse would like to make a few radio broadcasts to the United States, to thank his readers for their support? He was allowed out and taken to Berlin. There he was quartered at the luxurious Hotel Adlon, one of the ganglions of the larger Nazi body. It was a setup, and Wodehouse fell into it--up to the thorax, as Bertie Wooster would put it. The first radio talk was called "How to be an Internee," and proceeded thus:
There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading. You also get a lot of sleep. The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal.
And it continued:
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.
These last lines would come to haunt Wodehouse.
McCrum takes at face value Wodehouse's later insistence that his only motives in broadcasting (there were five talks in all) were to thank his American readers for their letters and, in Wodehouse's own words, "to show how a little group of British people were keeping up their spirits in difficult conditions." He nicely observes that "Jeevesian in his professional life, it was his fate to be Woosterish in Berlin. His character was exceptional: unusually good-natured, remarkably lacking in cynicism and in many ways always eager to please." Malcolm Muggeridge, who would meet Wodehouse a few years later in Paris, wrote that he was "ill-fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict. He just does not react to human beings in that sort of way, and never seems to hate anyone. ... Such a temperament unfits him to be a good citizen in the mid-twentieth century." Orwell largely concurred. It is also likely, in fairness, that Wodehouse knew very little of the tribulations then being meted upon the British.
Yet, as McCrum writes, in "one of the darkest months of the war, when the British were up against it, Wodehouse came across as cowardly, disloyal and selfish." Churchill never forgave him. The government, in a viciously eccentric gesture, employed a tabloid journalist to write a denunciation, which was read out on the BBC:
I have come to tell you tonight of the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale--that of his own country. It is a somber story of honor pawned to the Nazis for the price of a soft bed in a luxury hotel. It is the record of P. G. Wodehouse ending forty years of money-making fun with the worst joke he ever made in his life.
McCrum convicts Wodehouse of nothing more than "gross stupidity," and offers as evidence of the novelist's childlike navet his determination, in 1943, to get a German lawyer to travel to Britain to sue the tabloid newspapers for libel. Wodehouse seemed unaware, until his German interlocutor reminded him, of the impossibility of this Woosterish fantasy.
There is a case--a limited one, certainly--to be made for the subtle subversiveness of these broadcasts. The creator of Sir Roderick Spode and the Black Shorts knew something about how to mock authority, and fascist authority. Read now, in our luxurious security, the broadcasts have a slyly mocking tinge, even a Swiftian irony: "There is a good deal to be said for internment. ... You also get a lot of sleep." It is not merely "Woosterish" to laugh at the prospect of some Nazi functionary, pen in hand, okaying these deadpan barbs: who has the last laugh here? Like so much of Wodehouse's prose, the irony vaults over the language and reaches out, contractually, to the reader, who is being taught how to decode such irony, how to invert it, how to read the picture's white and somewhat fearful negative. "'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." (This is Monty Python avant la lettre.) This is hardly devastating satire. But surely Wodehouse knows what he is doing; knows how to belittle the invaders; knows that soldiers do not want to look "pretty." His near-autistic detachment, while morally culpable, is what gives the comedy its unreal ironical edge.
The dialectic of English comedy is exaggeration and its opposite, understatement, each horse pulling its own wheel, and the one element driving on the other. These broadcasts are good examples of such procedures. It is no accident that Waugh, whose own comedy works similarly, was one of Wodehouse's first and best defenders after the war. Waugh's own wartime letters are pure, distilled drops of exaggerated reticence:
So No. 3 Cmdo were very anxious to be chums with Lord Glasgow so they offered to blow up an old tree stump for him and he was very grateful and he said dont spoil the plantation of young trees near it because that is the apple of my eye and they said no of course not we can blow a tree down so that it falls on a sixpence and Lord Glasgow said goodness you are clever and he asked them all to luncheon for the great explosion.
"And he said goodness you are clever"; "when she lowered her voice and said 'Don't look now, but there comes the German army.'" Both tones aim at a babyish, fairy-book comedy; and not coincidentally, Waugh's own World War II fiction is among the best he ever wrote, in which satire and seriousness find a proper alliance.
But if these broadcasts did indeed encode a mocking irony, it was too gentle for the times, and horridly contaminated by its provenance. It seems that Wodehouse never grasped the quality of his sin. The moral baby who had confidently predicted just before the war that nothing seemed less likely was apparently incapable of accepting that it had indeed been fought. The language in which he conceded wrongdoing--"I made an ass of myself"--was the innocent apple sauce-argot of his books, this time turned outward to a world that had lost, for the second time in a century, its innocence. Nowhere in McCrum's biography does Wodehouse make a single reference to the genocide; but his internment camp had been located in Upper Silesia, which was not so far from Auschwitz. For Wodehouse, World War II does seem to have been an enormous game, a Dulwich rugby match against a rather thuggish, if always proper, visiting school.
The British establishment rightly punished Wodehouse; perhaps less rightly, for the rest of his life. A government report, which absolved Wodehouse of being a traitor, was deliberately never released to him, so that he was always uncertain that he could safely return to Britain. And he never did. After making his way to Paris, he sailed to America in 1947. The war had shifted the old pyramids. The kind of arcadia that Wodehouse's fiction visited and revisited was now remoter than ever, though he kept on publishing books (tellingly, none was serialized in a magazine after 1950). He and his wife lived in soft exile on Long Island. He died on the evening of February 14, 1975, sitting at his desk with his pipe and a bag of tobacco in his hands, having retired, of course, to do a spot more work.
McCrum ends his fine book with the kind of exhortation that must come naturally to a biographer who has invested years of labor in his subject. He implores us to take Wodehouse's work more seriously, to see it as all about "the quest for human connection": "Coded more tightly than an Enigma cryptogram, the theme that animates Wodehouse's work, and gives it a moral purpose, is the quest for sweetness and light in the daily transactions of humanity." But "moral purpose" is surely too much: half of his obsessed readers would wilt away if they suspected the Master of such sweaty seriousness. What makes Wodehouse "serious" in a literary sense is the singularity of his achievement; and this singularity was owed not to moral seriousness, the possession of a thousand earnest scriveners, but to the absolute absence of it. That the work can march so easily, morally speaking, on an empty stomach; that it can achieve so many traditionally literary things without ever daring the scandal of meaning; that it can be bottomless--ungrounded, unmoored by reality--but threaten no abysses whatsoever, is completely fascinating, because it seems so fatly happy with what, for most of us, would be hardship and starvation--a cosmos of eternal and relentless frivolity.