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Books / November 12, 2011

I’ve been tipped off recently that the hounds of Hell are after P.G. Wodehouse again. And we can’t have that sort of thing going on.

The occasion for fresh attacks on the great writer is the publication of P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters in the UK. (Not available in the US yet.) It gave an opportunity to UK journalist-creeps to write book reviews in which they dredged up the old scandal about Wodehouse, the only old scandal, involving the time he was interned by the Nazis and wound up giving some cluelessly chipper radio broadcasts which got him condemned as a collaborator.

This encourages a bunch of review-reading morons to blather online about refusing to read Wodehouse anymore—that’ll teach him not to collaborate with Nazis in the afterlife! Or else they forgive Wodehouse his moral lapse, and will condescend to re-read Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit and Young Men in Spats and Mulliner Nights and all his other great novels and short stories.

Fuck all y’all! You aren’t good enough for Wodehouse! Go suck on some T.S. Eliot, that’s all you deserve!

Anyway, the capper is that Wodehouse’s vile biographer, Robert McCrum, has taken this opportunity to weigh in as Wodehouse’s defender.

That’s a laugh! McCrum knocked himself out finding ways to present Wodehouse as a sad, cliched neurotic, even though technically not a Nazi-collaborator, in his “definitive” 2004 biography. And all McCrum wants to do is sell a few more copies:

The publication of PG Wodehouse‘s letters and Sophie Ratcliffe’s brilliant account of their author’s peculiar genius in last Saturday’s Guardian has re-awoken, for the umpteenth time, the Cerberus of Wodehouse’s war. This rough beast is getting quite long in the tooth, but he can still manage to give Wodehouse fans, of whom I am one, quite a nasty flesh wound.

For a complete account of the tragedy of Wodehouse’s internment and subsequent disgrace, the interested reader should consult the fourth part of my 2004 biography, Wodehouse: A Life.

God, it’s sickening. That these people—these people—aren’t prevented by law from saying or writing a word about Wodehouse! Obviously they can’t be prevented by shame, the shame of being exactly the kind of heartless high-literary Brit scum Wodehouse never stopped skewering, because such as them has got no shame. Just look at McCrum’s “defense” of Wodehouse:

Does it matter that Richard Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer, or that TS ELiot can easily be convicted of anti-semitism? Do we change our views about Virginia Woolf when we discover that she was a terrible snob who wrote some fairly nauseating things about the British working man? And, finally, does it disable PG Wodehouse’s claims to greatness that he had no grasp of the moral depravity of the Nazis, and allowed himself to become their dupe?

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that it’s the writer or artist’s work that matters. If he or she did not commit a crime, other than against posterity’s verdict on important social and cultural issues, and/or good taste, then they deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt, leaving us free to enjoy their work with a clear conscience. This is, I concede, a liberal, laissez-faire attitude and critics with a less elastic moral compass will take a different line.

With defenders like these you don’t need enemies.

Note how McCrum just lets it linger, the overall sense that Wodehouse is seriously guilty of something that McCrum himself, with his smirking “liberal, laissez-faire” attitude, is generously willing to overlook. Observe how he leaves Wodehouse hanging out in company with horrible ticks like Wagner, Eliot, and Woolf, where he doesn’t belong and never could belong. See, this is the kind of vaguely accusatory shit that sells books.

For a complete account of Robert McCrum’s sick befoulment of the wonderful P.G. Wodehouse, the interested reader should consult my 2007 eXile review of McCrum’s nauseating biography, Wodehouse: A Life: exiledonline.com/woe-is-wodehouse-and-his-biography/

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28 Comments

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  • 1. Punjabi From Karachi  |  November 12th, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Please get your old Exile.Ru url’s to work.

    Seriously.

    It’s a treasure trove of information; which if you don’t take care off (and maybe back up on two or three 1 Terabyte external hard drives) can disappear. You’ve got serious problem with your old Exile urls. They either load after ten minutes, or don’t load at all.

  • 2. Brewerstroupe  |  November 12th, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Jolly good. Top ho.
    Spiffing takedown of the crumb’s bio in the link.
    Toodle pip.

  • 3. John Drinkwater  |  November 12th, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    I’ve actually read his radio dispatches, which he originally intended to turn into a collection called The Camp Book until Lord Haw Haw and the others orchestrated their witch hunt.

    The whole thing is incredibly stupid and unfair because not only were the dispatches hilarious, but they ridiculed the Nazi – the very people he was supposed to have collaborated with. Problem was, people weren’t willing to ‘get’ the subtlety of it. They just heard Wodehouse on German radio and assumed the worst. It absolutely didn’t matter to these people what he was actually saying.

  • 4. Eurotrash  |  November 12th, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Only a pop-eyed, pimply-faced poop would even think of trying to do Wodehouse down. The man’s one of the few precious reasons the English shouldn’t be hated.

    Show me someone who feels the need to bang on about Wodehouse’s failings (nazi? racist? classist? reactionary? anti-semite etc etc) and I’ll show you a shit.

  • 5. casino implosion  |  November 13th, 2011 at 6:52 am

    If it weren’t for drugs, alcohol, the “Rastaman Vibrations” and “Natty Dread” LPs and my Jeeves Omnibus, I’d have topped myself long ago.

  • 6. vortexgods  |  November 13th, 2011 at 7:17 am

    “The whole thing is incredibly stupid and unfair because not only were the dispatches hilarious, but they ridiculed the Nazi – the very people he was supposed to have collaborated with. Problem was, people weren’t willing to ‘get’ the subtlety of it. They just heard Wodehouse on German radio and assumed the worst.”

    Reminds me of what happened to Iva Toguri, who did something similar on Japanese radio and was condemned as “Tokyo Rose” after the war.

    http://www.earthstation1.com/Tokyo_Rose.html

  • 7. Geoduck  |  November 13th, 2011 at 10:19 am

    JD- Nobody in England “heard Wodehouse on German radio”. They just heard the lies the Ministry of Propaganda spouted about the broadcasts. It wasn’t until years later, with Wodehouse in self-imposed exile in America, that even the transcripts you mention were released. At least in the end he got his knighthood and his statue in Madame Tussards.

    And yes, he’s still one of my favorite authors and always will be. Anyone who hasn’t read him, go do so!

  • 8. Lev  |  November 13th, 2011 at 11:29 am

    I do say, old sport, I’ve nothing to say really, sorry sod that I am, just thought I’d drop in a bit of the old toodly-wop-faiky-waiky-britty-witty squabble, innit?

  • 9. John Drinkwater  |  November 13th, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    “JD- Nobody in England “heard Wodehouse on German radio”. They just heard the lies the Ministry of Propaganda spouted about the broadcasts.”

    True enough, Geoduck. I forgot about that. He still did nothing wrong, in my opinion. He had been captured and was living in a concentration camp for Chrissakes, which he gives him enough street cred in my book. It’s not like he just went over there for the fun of it to write broadcasts for German radio. And the fact that he used his opportunity to skewer and undermine the Nazis in a way they apparently couldn’t detect makes it all the more brilliant.

  • 10. Jedi Mind Trick  |  November 13th, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Wodehouse is a collaborator for a few broadcasts, but old Prescott Bush does business with the Nazis and his son and grandson become presidents.

    Huh.

  • 11. Hussayn Khariq  |  November 13th, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    What’s so great about Wodehouse really? He basically just wrote the same fluffy romantic comedy novel over and over again.

  • 12. TrueKilcockian  |  November 14th, 2011 at 1:13 am

    Did Jeeves ever get to F Wooster up the AH or at least suck Bertie’s D?

  • 13. Dave  |  November 14th, 2011 at 5:32 am

    He could turn out some crap for sure, especially during his later years. Some of his later stuff was so boilerplate you wonder if it was farmed out to ghostwriters
    but when he was on song he was pure genius. Just beautifully constructed and funny as fuck.

    You’ve just got to be lucky in what you pick up first. Anything from the 60’s on or pre-1920 is a gamble. Yeah – the plots aren’t always great (with
    exceptions) but you’re not reading it to get your mind expanded or opinions changed.

  • 14. Trevor  |  November 14th, 2011 at 6:33 am

    Damn Brits are doing to Wodehouse exactly what American liberals do to Michael Moore – denouncing him for being better than them. In this case, Wodehouse is a better writer than all those modernist wankers and he showed genuine courage by openly mocking the Nazis while still being their prisoner. If McCrum or these idiots had been scooped up in ’41, they really would have collaborated – mingy little strivers that they are.

  • 15. John Drinkwater  |  November 14th, 2011 at 8:22 am

    “What’s so great about Wodehouse really? He basically just wrote the same fluffy romantic comedy novel over and over again.”

    If you think that’s all there was to it, then I feel sorry for you. You’re really missing out. The romantic comedy routine was just a cover for the real humor and criticism. And classics like Psmith, Journalist involved no romance at all.

  • 16. Phoenix Woman  |  November 14th, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Wodehouse had a wonderful ear for accents and dialogue. He is one of the few British writers of the mid-20th century who could write American characters, even nonwhite ones, without being *unintentionally* funny.

  • 17. Jaime  |  November 14th, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    It seems to me that the folks who take a flying jump at PGW for lacking class consciousness in his (his words) “musical comedies without music” and actually bring up his ‘collaboration’ with the Nazis as a brush to tar him with are usually the same a-holes who weep over Ezra Pound’s ‘persecution’. Yeah, the guy was bug-fuck crazy, but “Franklin Delano Jooz-evelt”? That’s a poet’s eloquence? Fuck that noise…

  • 18. Geoduck  |  November 14th, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    16: It probably helped that Wodehouse was in exile on Long Island at the time..

  • 19. Vendetta  |  November 14th, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Trevor don’t be comparing Wodehouse to Michael Moore.

  • 20. Eurotrash  |  November 14th, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    So Pound and Eliot had a thing about the Jews. Say, could any of you intrepid researchers find some examples of Wodehouse’s doubtlessly blatant antisemitism? I’m extremely concerned I may have been enjoying the works of a man who might not have liked the Jews.

  • 21. helplesscase  |  November 14th, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Anglo-American moral thinking ,1945-present: one long reductio ad Hitlerum.

  • 22. John Drinkwater  |  November 14th, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    @Jaime

    And anyway, it’s a myth that Wodehouse lacked class-consciousness. He wasn’t a Marxist, but he certainly wasn’t any sort of conservative, according to many including Alex Cockburn and Richard Usborne. Usborne wrote of the character who most spoke for Wodehouse directly, Uncle Fred or Lord Ickenham, “Uncle Fred was a fine vehicle for putting in a plug for a classless society.”

    And here’s one of Uncle Fred’s speeches from Cocktail Time. Does this sound like a writer lacks class consciousness?

    ‘I’m a lord, yes, no argument
    about that, but you don’t have
    to keep rubbing it in all the
    time. It’s no good kidding our-
    selves. We know what lords are.
    Anachronistic parasites on the
    body of the State is the kindest
    thing you can say of them.
    “Well, a sensitive man
    doesn’t like to be reminded
    every half second that he is one
    of the untouchables, liable at
    any moment to be strung up on
    a lamp-post, or to have his blood
    flowing in streams down Park
    Lane.’

    There are literally hundreds of examples of Wodehouse attacking the class society.

  • 23. Eurotrash  |  November 15th, 2011 at 11:44 am

    He’s not really laughing at the upper classes there, Drinkwater, altho God knows he laughs at them often enough. He’s gently mocking the revolutionary screeds of the martyred proletariat.

    Here’s Archibald meeting the proletariat, in Archibald and the Masses –

    ‘Wot you doin’ there?’ he demanded.
    Archibald replied cordially enough that he had just been enjoying a medium-grilled steak and fried.
    ‘R!’ said the other. ‘And took it out of the mouth of the widow and the orphan like as not.’
    ‘Absolutely no,’ replied Archibald. ‘The waitress brought it on a tray.’
    ‘So you say.’
    ‘I give you my solemn word,’ said Archibald. ‘I wouldn’t dream of eating a steak that had been in the mouth of a widow or an orphan. I mean to say, in any case, what a beastly idea.’
    ‘And flauntin’ a collar,’ grumbled the man.
    ‘Oh, no, dash it,’ objected Archibald. ‘Would you say flaunting?’
    ‘Flaunting,’ insisted the other.
    Archibald was embarrassed.
    ‘Well, I’m awfully sorry,’ he said. ‘If I’d only known we were going to meet and you would take it like this, I wouldn’t have worn a collar. It isn’t a stiff collar,’ he added, more hopefully. ‘Just flannel, soft, gent’s one. But, if you like, I’ll take it off.’
    ‘Wear it while you can,’ advised the dishevelled man. ‘Te day’s coming when collars’ll run in streams down Park Lane.’
    This puzzled Archibald.
    ‘You don’t mean collars, do you? Blood, surely?’
    ‘Blood, too. Blood AND collars.’
    ‘We’ll be able to play boats,’ suggested Archibald brightly.
    ‘YOU won’t,’ said the man. ‘And why? Because you’ll be inside one of them collars and outside all that blood. Rivers of blood there’ll be. Great flowing, bubbling rivers of spouting blood…’
    ‘I say, old lad,’ begged Archibald, who was a little squeamish, ‘not quite so soon after dinner, if you don’t mind.’
    ‘Eh?’
    ‘I say I’ve just finished dinner, and…’
    ‘Dinner! And took it out of the mouth of the widow and the…’
    ‘No, no. We went into all that before.’

  • 24. John Drinkwater  |  November 15th, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Yeah, there’s a lot of those scenes where he mocks leftist revolutionaries. But does he really make them sound all that ridiculous? In some ways, they come across as the only authentic voices in a world otherwise full of bozos like Bertie and Archibald. And when Uncle Fred calls the House of Lords an anachronistic parasite, I get the feeling Wodehouse means it, even if he also means to poke fun at the left.

    And what do you make of Psmith? A guy who consciously parodies himself by simultaneously mocking both his patrician manners and use of communist slang?

    Just because Wodehouse wasn’t a leftist, doesn’t mean he wasn’t class-conscious, nor does it mean he was apolitical. It’s reasonable to conclude that he was against the class system, opposed to the extreme right (e.g. his takedown of Spode/Moseley), but also opposed to the far left.

    Here’s Wodehouse writing about an encounter with H.G. Wells:

    “What do you think happened when we met? We shook hands and his first remark, apropos of nothing, was ‘My father was a professional cricketer.’ A conversation-stopper if ever there was one. What a weird country England is, with its class distinctions and that ingrained snobbery you can’t seem to escape from. I suppose you notice it more because I’ve spent so much of my time in America. “Can you imagine an American who had achieved the position Wells has, worrying because he started in life on the wrong side of the tracks? But nothing will ever make Wells forget that his father was a professional cricketer and his mother the housekeeper at Up Park.”

    Wodehouse’s main target, however, was always literary pretentiousness.

  • 25. my talkative ringpiece  |  November 20th, 2011 at 10:00 am

    And today’s Wodehouse, the VIZ Comic, isn’t even available in the US. I had a huge collection at one time and it was sure my refuge in dark times.

  • 26. Alf  |  November 24th, 2011 at 4:26 am

    If u ask me, Wodehouse is right up there with Ames and Brecher. Those three helped me though my years in Russia. Every book shop in Moscow had Wodehouse, very often only Wodehouse, in its foreign language corner, so I managed to build up an almost complete collection. You can read and re-read Wodehouse ad infinitum, never boring, always entertaining – dashed powerful writing. Same as Whore-R-Stories, Death Porn and War Nerd.

  • 27. Fred X. Quimby  |  November 26th, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Really, all Robert McCrum did was a make a bad attempt to define ad hominem.

    Regardless, as an Yankee, I cannot fault any man imprisoned in Upper Silesia at the age of 59 for saying anything, humorous or otherwise, that may have expedited his release. Seriously, have you ever been to Upper Silesia? The food is terrible AND they give you small portions!

    Look at Alf’s comment right here… If we’re going to minutely examine the moral fabric of a man’s life then shouldn’t we also consider the joy and happiness he has brought to others?

    Methinks Plum’s words were much more of balm to receptive ears than a lethal weapon of the German conquest. I have yet to see “Killed by a humorous simile” during WWII to be mentioned anywhere outside of a Monty Python skit.

  • 28. honoriaplum  |  August 21st, 2012 at 6:02 am

    Wonderful piece. My hero!

    Wodehouse was an egalitarian. He saw ridiculousness everywhere and poked fun equally.


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