Rare insight into life of Wodehouse

Sunday, September 5, 2010

TWO or three years ago, during a rare insight into personal crisis, a friend gave me a bottle of Valium. I appreciated the thought, but the bottle remained unopened, for I had found a greater sedative, as addictive, perhaps, but with the benign side-effect of making me laugh: the best works of PG Wodehouse. I was already familiar with his work, but there are times when only a rereading will do. As Robert McCrum acknowledges near the end of his biography, there are "those for whom his work is a blessed escape from seriousness and difficulty".

There was one slight difference in my reaction to the work this time round, though: I found myself becoming seriously worried about the love-lives of his characters; not so much as to whether Bertie Wooster would escape the chains of matrimony, but whether things would go well with his friends, or whether, in the Blandings stories, romance would work out between the various sundered couples trying to undermine the fierce disapproval of Lady Constance Keeble.

Reading Wodehouse as a romantic author may be, for many, almost the definition of a category error, so I was pleased to see McCrum pointing out that while "there is scarcely a sentimental line among the millions that he wrote . . . the quest for human connection is the whirring flywheel that keeps the intricate clockwork of his plots ticking, and makes his world go round". (He shies away from the word "love", but it's suggested by the words "makes his world go round".)

Writers don't often or necessarily have interesting lives, and Wodehouse's was, for the most part, less crammed with incident than most, but for one exception: his internment by the Nazis in 1940, and the subsequent debacle caused by his wartime broadcasts from Berlin, in which, while reassuring his concerned American fans of his good health, he made light of his experience of incarceration and was accused of collaboration. Nearly 70 years on, and with Wodehouse's reputation secure, this may not seem such a big deal, but at the time he was being seriously accused of treachery and, indeed, he never set foot in the country of his birth again. This is the pivot on which his career wobbled terribly, and McCrum is right to begin his biography with Wodehouse's account of his arrest by the Germans. When the subject of a biography offers so little upon which interpretations can hang (indeed, the most perplexingly interesting thing about Wodehouse is his apparent lack of complications) then the best one can do when trying to encapsulate a character is to concentrate on the big event.

The impression left by previous biographers is that Wodehouse was a genial void, but here we begin to get an idea of something stirring beneath the placid surface. Not that McCrum goes overboard or is impertinent. Clues as to Wodehouse's personality are few and far between in his work, unless we accept that Lord Emsworth, the affable peer who wishes for nothing more than to be left alone to contemplate the majesty of the Empress of Blandings, is a self-portrait of a kind (and indeed you could, if you wished, take Emsworth's obsession with his pig as the objective correlative to Wodehouse's obsession with his own unflagging productivity). But as McCrum puts it, "rare hints of autobiography in his fiction do not unlock any secret chambers but they do open an anteroom of suggestion".

Wodehouse would probably have been alarmed to think that any discussion of his life and work might be considered thought-provoking, but there is much here to provoke thought, even if these are projections on the studiously blank canvas of Wodehouse's emotional life. He was not always as mild-mannered as he might have wished to suggest: when AA Milne, formerly a friend, denounced him in 1941 for, as McCrum puts it, "shirking all civic obligations, even the responsibilities of fatherhood", this was a cue for Wodehouse to start putting slighting references to him in his work.

Anyway, here is the definitive biography, in a nice new edition, as beautifully modulated in tone towards its enigmatic subject as you could wish for.The Guardian