Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum29 October 2007
I originally picked up a copy of this book as a gift for a friend, and ended up getting one for myself as well — mostly to prevent myself from reading the gift copy. Is ‘one owner/reader from new’ still acceptable as a gift book? I’m never really sure.
Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
The English writer Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) is probably best known for Jeeves, the inimitable gentleman’s gentleman, and his rather brainless but well-intentioned master Bertie Wooster. But the team of Jeeves and Wooster was only one facet of Wodehouse’s immense literary canon. He also wrote a series of stories centred around the antics of the denizens of Blandings Castle (many of which focus on the Empress of Blandings, a corpulent prize-winning pig), another group of stories about a dashing young City gentleman named Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent, as in ‘pneumonia’ and ‘ptarmigan’), as well as many other separate novels, short stories, and song lyrics — all of which add up to an immense volume of work for any one writer.
Wodehouse had a gift for devising elaborate farcical plots that often seem so complex as to be insoluble, and his prose is pretty much unforgettable to anyone who has dipped into even one or two of his works. And yet it’s incredible to think that Wodehouse never went to university — indeed, he spent the first few years of his working life writing stories late into the night and going to a dull, uninspiring job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank by day. In person, he appears to have been singularly uninteresting, shy and asocial, and was almost incapable of taking any situation sufficiently seriously…or at least, he preferred to make light of difficulties and display a stereotypical sort of ‘stiff-upper lip’ personality to the outside world. This last trait eventually caused no end of trouble for him in an episode that is not often remembered today. Wodehouse and his wife were stranded in occupied France during World War II, and while he was a prisoner in an enemy alien internment camp he was invited to make a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin about his life as an internee. Wodehouse’s attitude on the air was genial, almost jocular, and some of his innocent remarks led some members of the press and public to denounce him as a Nazi collaborator and propagandist along the lines of Lord Haw-Haw. After the war’s end, Wodehouse discovered that he was in deep disgrace — and that his public image had been severely damaged by his association with the Nazi propaganda machine.
That backstory aside, Robert McCrum’s biography of Wodehouse is superbly done, a detailed and well-crafted account of a literary life. If I had one reservation to make about the writing style, I would draw attention to the fact that McCrum seems to want to exonerate his subject at the expense of good prose-writing. He over-emphasises Wodehouse’s relative ignorance of international politics — or if not over-emphasises it, then at least is less than subtle in his description of it. Sentences like ‘This was the conversation that would lead inexorably to his disgrace’ feel a bit forced at times. (My instinctive reaction to a sentence like that is, ‘Yes, thank you, Story, now may we continue from where you left off?’) But that is to nitpick at what is otherwise a lovely and well-researched literary biography, definitely recommended to fans of the Wodehouse canon.