- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004


By Robert McCrum

Norton & Co., $27.95

530 pages


In all of modern English and American literature there have been only two writers who have been given the sobriquet “the Master.” One was Henry James, author of exquisitely wrought works that are today largely (and unfairly) read only in university literature courses. The other “master” was P. G. Wodehouse, a comedic writer who crafted roughly 80 novels and approximately 300 short stories, all of which are in print today and are beloved by readers in every strata of society.

For one thing, Wodehouse was a master stylist, making the English language fairly fly through its paces, with his narratives zipping around unsuspected hairpin turns, barreling down the straightaways, and performing astonishing loop-the-loops like a high-performance roller-coaster. (He described one of the characters in his golfing stories in terms immediately recognizable to any golfer: “The least thing upset him on the links. He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows.”) He was also a comedic genius, a writer of very funny stories and novels that tickle readers across many cultures.

Wodehouse’s novel “The Code of the Woosters” and his short story “Uncle Fred Flits By” are masterpieces of light English prose, evoking the slang, dress, and values of Edwardian England — or a daffy version of that milieu filtered through the author’s imagination for the utmost comic effect. What sort of writer could create a world peopled by such characters as the loveably inept boulevardier Bertie Wooster and his resourceful valet, Jeeves? Or the amiable storyteller Mr. Mulliner, or the much-put-upon master of Blandings Castle, Lord Emsworth?

In “Wodehouse: A Life,” author Robert McCrum — English novelist and literary editor of the London Observer — provides a well-turned answer, along the way sketching an intriguing portrait of “the Master.” Mr. McCrum seems to have read, digested, and thoroughly understood everything Wodehouse wrote — and that’s a tremendous amount — as well as everything that has been written about him, synthesizing a massive body of research to write a masterful biography that is a pleasure to read.

The portrait that emerges from Mr. McCrum’s labors is that of a man who arose to greatness from an upper-class, late-Victorian English upbringing in which his parents were not only cold and distant, but for the most part entirely absent. His father worked in banking, and his work required that he and his wife spend most of their time in Hong Kong and elsewhere, leaving the upbringing of their four sons to a small number of relatives in England. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was the third-born of the four boys, and young “Plum” (as he was called) coped with this parental distance by participating in sports, writing, and in general keeping the stereotypical “stiff upper lip” that was expected of men and boys of his era.

At an early age he set his sights on becoming a writer; and through diligent labors that Horatio Alger would have envied, he became one of the most prolific, well-paid, and best-loved writers of the 20th century — so much so that in 1939, the English man of letters Hilaire Belloc called Plum “the best writer of English now alive.” (“I wonder why he said that,” huffed a jealous literary rival, Hugh Walpole, to Wodehouse himself. “I wonder,” replied the Master politely to the nowforgotten Walpole.) Journalist Alexander Cockburn went so far as to call the Bertie-and-Jeeves cycle of novels and short stories “the central achievement of English fiction in the twentieth century.”

In his own assessments of Plum’s fiction, Mr. McCrum shows that there is much to such claims about Wodehouse’s fiction. He summarizes the key novels and stories and highlights their strong qualities with just enough detail to be informative, but not enough to crush the stories and novels beneath an obtuse, joy-killing analysis. After all, how much analysis can be applied to a writer who could compose such character desciptions as, “He was a tubbly little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say, ‘when.’” Mr. McCrum notes that 1939, when Belloc made his grand claim as to Wodehouse’s importance, marked roughly the pinnacle of Wodehouse’s achievement.

What kind of man was the writer himself? Mr. McCrum describes him as a study in contrasts. Wodehouse was ambitious and hard-working, desiring great wealth to escape a fear of destitution, yet he was generous in giving to friends in need. He was shy and preferred to avoid people in order to write, yet he appeared to all as an easy-going, affable man. And for a writer of such funny stories and novels, Plum was an entirely unremarkable conversationalist, the result of his innate reserve and modesty. In fact, people who met him were often puzzled and disappointed that the creator of such lively fiction could be so boring. Asked how he prepared himself in arriving at new story ideas, Wodehouse drily replied, “Oh, I just sit at the typewriter and curse a bit.”

Mr. McCrum notes that while Wodehouse was mild-mannered, he was not entirely the innocent often portrayed by other biographers. For one thing, he was shrewd in his finances, and took legal measures to avoid paying more in taxes than necessary by living specific spans of time in the United States every year for the first half of his life. Unfortunately, he also entrusted his finances to a series of incompetent agents, who embroiled Wodehouse in a number of uncomfortable dealings with the revenue services of both Britain and the United States for non-payment of taxes.

At the height of Plum’s fame as a writer there occurred the episode which any biographer must address, and Mr. McCrum handles it with fairness: the problem of his famous — or infamous — 1941 “broadcast talks” from Berlin. In 1940, Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, were living in France at the time it was overrun by the German Wehrmacht. Within a short time, the 59-year-old humorist was taken into custody and imprisoned in a series of internment camps with other English noncombatants for roughly a year.

In 1941 Wodehouse was released because of his age, though his movements were restricted by the German authorities. In time he was transferred to a luxury hotel in Berlin, where he allowed himself to be talked into recording five radio broadcasts to the then-neutral United States, to assure his American readers of his well-being. He described his camp experiences in a light-hearted way, unaware that his words were also reaching English listeners, who were enduring nightly bombing-raids by the German air force and not inclined to see the humor in Wodehouse’s words.

In Britain Wodehouse was denounced by several prominent political figures and fellow writers as a high-living, tax-dodging traitor who had exchanged loyalty to his country for release from prison — a false charge, but one that poisoned the air among the war-weary British populace. The damage was done.

At war’s end, Wodehouse chose not to return to England. He emigrated to the United States and became a citizen in 1955, spending the rest of his life living quietly at home with Ethel in New York City and Remsenburg, Long Island. He wrote roughly a novel a year for the final 30 years of his life. “Just writing one book after another, that’s my life,” he said on one occasion. He died in 1975 at age 93, working to the end on one last novel.

In a radio broadcast in 1961, novelist Evelyn Waugh predicted that Wodehouse’s fiction will endure: “He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” These works continue to lift new generations of readers out of boredom, taking them on one wild ride after another, leaving them breathless, laughing, and ready for more at the end. Thanks to the work of Mr. McCrum, the reasons for their appeal, as well as the details of Wodehouse’s life itself, are clearer than ever before.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” and a forthcoming critical biography of Virginian novelist/screenwriter Earl Hamner.

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