“It has been well said of Bertram Wooster that though he may sink onto rustic benches and for a while give the impression of being licked into a custard,
the old spirit will come surging back sooner or later.”

—P.G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season

Robert McCrum demurs from critical comparisons of P.G. Wodehouse with the great English writers, including Shakespeare and Dickens, arguing that “Wodehouse is a miniaturist and his work is not like theirs.  He is closer in spirit to Jane Austen, who famously worked on a ‘little bit (two inches wide)’ of ivory.”

To my mind, McCrum’s concept of Wodehouse is slightly amiss—or perhaps it is the terminology that is inaccurate.  Turning briefly from the field of English letters to that of Russian literature, we find the obvious example of Tolstoy immediately to hand.  If ever there was a “great writer,” Leo Tolstoy was it—for the reason, above all, that he anticipated Flannery O’Connor’s dictum that the novelist should take for his subject none but what is of crucial importance and applied it (as she did) to the story as well as the novel (indeed, to nearly every line he ever wrote).  McCrum, for his own part, claims this standard of cruciality for Wodehouse, when he writes that behind

the Aberdeen terriers, the cocktail shakers, the banjos, the tartan spats, the pigs and the frantic telegrams . . . you find the figure of the ‘laughing love god’.  There is hardly a sentimental line among the millions that he wrote, and his expression of this universal theme is constrained by the profound Englishness of his character, but the quest for human connection is the whirring fly-wheel that keeps the intricate clockwork of his plots ticking, and makes his world go round.

I think McCrum is spot-on about that, yet his critical summation of the huge literary importance of P.G. Wode-house is not the one with which I would have left the reader.  The greatness of Wode-house lies not in his having worked on two inches of ivory (or several more of sterling-silver cow creamer), but in his having created great art out of life’s trifles.  This is not the equivalent of perceiving tremendousness in trifles or revealing the universe in a droplet of water but the demonstration that genius, like an angel, can dance on the head of a pin, while transforming the pinhead into a thing as significantly crucial as the Throne of God, and the dance into a Grand Processional.  The truth is that greatness and universality, in the wrong hands, are the plaything of Philistinism—the inexpressibly vulgar imaginative impulse that invented the literary grail known as the Great American Novel and that has sustained the quest for this hideous gold-plate trophy for a century and a half.  If there is any such thing as the Great English Novel, it is probably something by D.H. Lawrence or, perhaps, Somerset Maugham.  Assuredly, it is not Psmith in the City, The Code of the Woosters, Meet Mr. Mulliner, or Uncle Fred in the Springtime.  This, I am guessing, is what Mr. McCrum is getting at when he refers to the “universality” of P.G. Wode-house and the readiness of generations of his readers to “celebrate the magic of an English prose caught at a singular moment between mass culture and high art.”

As typically intended, the motto “Art for art’s sake” is founded on a misunderstanding of the nature, object, meaning, and purpose of art.  It connotes a preoccupation with aesthetics to the exclusion of truth and with technique at the expense of meaning, and exalts the artist as supreme creator in place of the God Who alone is the artist’s proper object, approachable by an operation of the practical intellect.  But what if the object of art is its approach?  And what if the artist regards himself not as God, or even as an angel performing upon a pin, but instead as a honeybee poised on a flower whose ritual dance indicates to his brothers the direction of the hive and its queen?

Such, of course, is the case with music.  Unlike language, musical notation is nondenominative, nonreferential, inexplicit.  Each individual note has “meaning” only in its relationship to other notes arranged in a pattern, unlike the single word that carries its own definite meaning independently from its prose text.  In verse poetry, however, and finally in technically adept modernist prose, words bear more of the relationship to one another that notes do in a musical score.  Viewed from this perspective, much 19th-century fiction (including Tolstoy’s), while deeply “serious” in its subject matter and moral preoccupation, is careless in respect of its essentially rhetorical—as opposed to poetical—style.  Great as “The Devil” or “Hadji Murád” are, I do not believe anyone ever relished these stories either for their intricate linguistic precision or the carefulness of their architectural structure.  If J.S. Bach’s ultimate subject was the Divine, then Wodehouse’s was Laughter—and is not the Laughter of the Spheres, as an attribute of God, nearly as great a subject as God Himself?  “For him,” McCrum suggests, “lightness was all. . . . [I]t was Wodehouse’s genius to execute the lightness of his stories in a language that danced on the page like poetry, marrying the English style of the academy with the English slang of the suburbs.”  Lightness, in Wodehouse’s work, is a quality endowed with a nearly mathematical clarity, like that of music.

McCrum concedes—as do I—that this lightness owes something to evasion as well as to artistic intent.  For Wodehouse,

Seriousness was risky.  Seriousness meant raising too many painful questions, either about himself or about his society.  Seriousness was about finding answers, which were troubling things with painful consequences.  Probably he sensed that there were no answers.  Personally enigmatic and elusive, he was happy to let life remain a mystery.

However culpable such an attitude may have been in Wodehouse the man, in respect of Wodehouse the artist, it is simply irrelevant.  Would the novels and stories have been improved artistically by the authorial pursuit of “seriousness” and of “answers”?  The answer, almost certainly, is that they would not have been so improved—that surely they would have run the risk of being marred or altogether spoiled by it, as so many lesser artists have spoiled their work.  From the prosecutorial side, one may offer in evidence the case of Evelyn Waugh, another writer of genius whose novels manage to incorporate lightness with seriousness, humor with tragedy, and compound these with answers (in the sense of grounding them in fixed beliefs).  But Wodehouse was an artist—and a man—of a wholly different type from Waugh, for whom the older man was simply “the Master.”

Not answers and seriousness but variety and development are what we miss in Wodehouse, the man and the work.  Almost certainly, the lack of the one is related to the want of the other; yet the missing element is perceptible, not in any individual novel or story, but rather in the oeuvre taken as a whole.  (The same thing, to a lesser extent, may be said of Mozart or Vivaldi.)  Here, finally, is the explanation for Wodehouse’s personal disaster that resulted, as he himself described it, in his world being shot to pieces at the very stage in his life when all the pieces should have fallen together and held firmly that way for the remainder of it.

A century after Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (known familiarly as “Plum”) took account of his literary success by noting, “I have Arrived,” and 30 years after his death in 1975 at the age of 94, his ghost may find reassurance in the fact that he is still Arrived.  As his friend Waugh observed in a BBC broadcast in 1961,

For Mr Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no “aboriginal calamity”.  His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit.  They are still in Eden.  The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.  The chef Anatole prepares the ambrosia for the immortals of high Olympus.  Mr. Wodehouse’s world can never stale.  He will continue to release generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.  He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

Wodehouse the biological specimen for decades seemed ageless; as an artistic one, he still is.  Agelessness, however, can be an equivocal thing, in terms of both the artist and his art.  P.G. Wodehouse, once he had attained to his majority and his professional stride, changed hardly at all in the 70-plus years still left to him.  Born to a comfortable upper-middle-class family and descended from a distinguished (though not aristocratic) genealogical heritage, he attended Dulwich College (Raymond Chandler and C.S. Forester also were among the school’s graduates), to which he remained patriotically devoted for the rest of his life and where he acquired a lifelong passion for cricket.  In his 60’s, protesting against Orwell’s charge that he was “fixated on his old school,” Wodehouse admitted nevertheless that he was “a bad case of arrested development. . . . Mentally, I seem not to have progressed a step since I was eighteen.”  An exaggeration, of course, but a telling one.  In all respects, Wodehouse was never more, nor less, than the quintessential middle-class conservative Englishman: too much content in his world to take an interest in politics; too poised and secure in his art to seek new direction or forward momentum for it; too committed to his work to establish more than a remote presence among his fellow human beings, from whom he struck acquaintances as being mentally, as well as emotionally, detached.  The Master never moved significantly in seven decades—despite the facts that Wodehouse (with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern) has been credited with the invention of the Broadway musical and that he was a pioneer (though not a terribly important one) in the screenwriting business in the early days of Hollywood.  As for the man Wodehouse, even for an author, he led an existence that was cloistered and unadventurous, whether in England, New York, Hollywood, or on Long Island.  The results are a body of work, totaling over 100 books, that amounts to an exercise in brilliant repetition, variation on a theme, and reprise, and a life that, for all its accomplishment and superficial glamour (Wodehouse quipped that he had met everyone in his time who was important—once!), must appeal finally to the outside observer for its monotony, even if the man to whom it belonged found it pleasant, full of interest, and rewarding.

England, New York, Hollywood, Long Island . . . Missing from the roster are Le Touquet, the Civil Internment Camp at Tost, and Berlin, in all of which Wodehouse’s life was anything but cloistered and unadventurous.  In the chapters recounting Plum and Ethel Wodehouse’s capture by the Germans after the fall of France, his experience as a prisoner of war, and the couple’s years spent together in wartime Berlin, McCrum’s readers might expect to find welcome reality breaking at last upon the aboriginal Garden of Blandings—and on its creator himself.  It is a measure of the virtual impregnability of P.G. Wodehouse’s imaginative and temperamental defenses, and no reflection at all on Robert McCrum’s unsurpassable talents as a literary biographer, that such a breakthrough fails to occur, either in the life of Wodehouse or in Mr. McCrum’s Life.  In crisis, confinement, and forced exile, Wodehouse—the man and the artist alike—scarcely skipped a beat.  To use Waugh’s phrase, work never was suspended, nor was dreamy equipoise.  The books kept coming: Money in the Bank, Full Moon, Joy in the Morning, Wodehouse in Wonderland (the author’s account of his life in a POW camp!), a number of short stories . . . “Now I shall have nothing to worry about until 1944,” he rejoiced from Berlin, not long after the broadcasting over Nazi radio of his prerecorded “talks” (as he called them) whose sole intent—Wodehouse always insisted—was simply to reassure his American public that he was alive, well, and at work on new books for their amusement and delectation.  There is to be—we realize—no dramatic psychological climax to McCrum’s biography, for the very good reason that Wodehouse’s life was lacking in one.  According to Robert McCrum, Wodehouse died without ever understanding, after 30 years, how he had offended in Berlin.  The reason, he explains, was that Wodehouse was psychologically unable to comprehend the nature of his offense, from which his career never recovered.  No understanding, no tragedy.  Too bad, perhaps, for P.G. Wodehouse.  Too bad, certainly, for Mr. McCrum’s biography.

None of this is to imply that Wodehouse: A Life is a dull book.  It is, absolutely, a fascinating one: biography the way biography should be done, the life of a great writer written by a great biographer who is, as well, a master critic and the adept chronicler of the social and historical period—in this instance, several periods—to which his subject belonged.  Equally with Wodehouse’s work itself, it offers an incentive to escape into a charmed world that is indeed, as Waugh in his inspired pessimism foresaw, oppressively less irksome than our own. 


[Wodehouse: A Life, by Robert McCrum (New York: W.W. Norton) 530 pp., $27.95]