It is 35 years since P.G. Wodehouse died, and his reputation is as secure as ever. There was a time, however, about 70 years ago, when some really rather powerful people in my country—among them Quintin Hogg, a future Lord Chancellor—thought Wodehouse should hang. Not for his writing, you understand, but for his “treason.”
In 1934, Wodehouse had moved to Le Touquet, in France, to escape the attention of the tax authorities in Britain and the United States. He remained there after the outbreak of war—apparently unwilling to have his dog face quarantine in England—and in 1940 was arrested and interned by the Germans. He subsequently made five radio broadcasts from Berlin to his American fans. There were howls of fury on the home front. He was denounced by the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, and Southport Public Library removed 90 of his books from their shelves.
Wodehouse was later stoutly defended by George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, and MI5 decided that he had been guilty of nothing more serious than naïvety. But things looked bleak at the end of the war, and Wodehouse did not return to England but moved to the United States, where he remained until his death in 1975. He became an American citizen in 1955.
Perhaps there is some subliminal guilt here about Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse—he was knighted six weeks before he died—because he is held in what to me seems like ridiculously high esteem. The word “genius” is sometimes used. There is even, it has been said, something Shakespearean about his work.
You can lose your footing in polite society if you let it be known that you don’t think much of Wodehouse. Not to love Wodehouse—“Plum”—is a sure sign that you are a ruffian and almost certainly damned. I just don’t get it. I first tried Wodehouse about 50 years ago, at school, and was driven back by the whimsy and possibly also by the funny names, which are not always funny. “Gussie Fink-Nottle” isn’t. Nor are “Tuppy Glossop,” “Percy Frobisher Pilbeam,” or “Pongo Twistleton.”
There is obviously something missing in me: the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster gene. Just about everyone I like likes Wodehouse. Friends don’t understand when I confess that I am not amused. I have had frosty looks. Even in America it might be unwise to express indifference to Wodehouse. I would hesitate to do so, for example, in the presence of Roger Kimball, who regards Wodehouse’s work as “sublime.” “No writer has given me more merriment and delight,” Mr. Kimball has written. Plum is also very popular in India and, or so I have heard, in Japan, where no doubt he makes people grin.
Look, I am not saying that Wodehouse was not sometimes funny. Clearly he was. This is funny:
“Oh, Bertie, you know your Shelley.”
But funny is all it is. The only point of his jokes was to make people laugh. There was no malice in the man. There was in Evelyn Waugh, but Waugh not only defended Wodehouse, he worshipped him, deferred to him. He was so extravagant in his praise that you sometimes wonder whether he was making a cruel joke against Wodehouse. But no, he meant it when he declared, “One has to regard a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page.” It seems to have bewildered Plum, and it certainly bewilders me. Waugh is the master, the genius. Wodehouse was undoubtedly a fine craftsman, but he was too busy writing books—96 in all—to be a genius.
In a fit of journalistic integrity I bought Right Ho, Jeeves before writing this column, but even though I read quite a bit of it, I was unable to find any brilliant and entirely original similes in its pages. At one point an angry Aunt Dahlia looks “like a tomato struggling for self-expression” (not bad); at another she shies “like a startled mustang” (not good). That sort of stuff goes down agreeably enough, but brilliant and entirely original it is not.
What, then, do his fans like, similewise? Here is an example you find turning up time and again: “He was white and shaken, like a dry martini.” No, he wasn’t. If he was white and shaken, he was like a vanilla milkshake, but that would have been regarded as pedestrian and would have driven readers away. They’d have been off, as they say in Australia, like a bride’s nightie.
But here’s something that makes me feel a little sad, even guilty. I used to love Damon Runyon, who as a creator of unreal worlds has much in common with P.G. Wodehouse. Mind you, I started reading Runyon about the time I first picked up Wodehouse, and think it might be unwise to try him again. Guys and Dolls might not seem as fresh today as it did 50 years ago. I’ll stick with Evelyn Waugh, master of comedy and tragedy. And Carl Hiaasen. .
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