This article was first published in The eXile on October 4, 2007
Robert McCrum’s biography of P.G. Wodehouse was published in 2004. At the time, I ignored it. I know the formula for these bios. You won’t catch me sanctioning the work of some insidious culture-sucking creep who’s picking over the bones of PGW, the peerless writer, I said to the bookstore clerk, who edged away. But you know how it is. Time passes, resolve weakens.
You find yourself back in the bookstore and everything there looks more or less rotten anyway.
So I finally read it, and it follows the formula, all right. It’s so toxic in its formula-following, I felt the public ought to be warned. If you come across this maddening tome, now in paperback, drop it like a hot brick. If you’ve already read it, you must counteract its brain-softening effects by immediately re-reading it in the following way: as an accidental self-portrait of the bio’s author, one that should be entitled What’s Wrong With McCrum?
McCrum doesn’t have that name for nothing, you know. He’s living up to its potential. You might doubt that anyone could have such a name in real life, not even this pernicious literary editor of The Observer who writes novels and smirks in his book jacket photo. But just take a look at the equally fantastical names attached to the blurbs for his book, things like Terry Teachout and Mary Welp. Clearly in certain lit-crit circles it helps to have an impossible handle like that; they recognize McCrum as one of their own and shower his work with praise. Incoherent praise, mainly. In one typically burbling rave, the noxious Christopher Hitchens writes, “His biography has a tendency to let in daylight upon the magic.”
What we have here represented on the book cover is a united front of one type of human loathesomeness that Wodehouse himself did his best to mock out of existence: the insufferable literary git. In his fiction, Wodehouse named his git exemplars Raymond Parsloe and Rodney Spelvin, Percy Gorringe and Honoria Glossop. He portrayed them as the enemies of all that is good: they routinely snub the honest and humorous, bully the benevolent, and kowtow to the false gods of yawn-inducing high culture. They write psychological novels called Grey Mildew and existential poems called “Darkling: A Threnody.”
And now one of their real-life counterparts has got P.G. Wodehouse in his clutches.
Just to clarify, for those of you still living in darkness, never having read Laughing Gas or Uncle Dynamite or “Bingo and the Peke Crisis,” this much-esteemed Wodehouse was the man who gave us the Jeeves and Wooster chronicles, the Blandings Castle saga, the Mulliner tales, the Ukridge stories, the great stuff on Hollywood and golf and boxing and so on, God knows how many dozen volumes that he cranked out with incredible steadiness from the 1910s to the 70s. On top of that, he was a big deal in Anglo-American musical-comedy theater of the 1920s and 30s. Considered the Grand Old Man of 20th c. lyricists, Wodehouse was an early partner of composer Jerome Kern, as well as Ira Gershwin’s personal mentor and hero. If you care about such things, that’s very big stuff. One stellar career in an impossibly competitive field is amazing; Wodehouse had two going simultaneously in two impossible fields, popular literature and theater.
But even as he racked up these triumphs, Wodehouse acknowledged that his life made for bad biography-fodder:
As a writer of light fiction, I have always…been handicapped by the fact that my disposition was cheerful, my heart intact, and my life unsoured. Handicapped, I say, because the public likes to feel that a writer of farcical stories is piquantly miserable in his private life, and that, if he turns out anything amusing, he does it simply in order to obtain relief from the almost insupportable weight of an existence which he has long since realized to be a washout.
Characteristically, McCrum quotes this passage as proof of Wodehouse’s neuroticism. That’s mainly how McCrum turns Wodehouse’s demonstrable happiness into evidence of underlying misery: just by claiming that it is. Describing Wodehouse at the fizzy peak of his career in the 1920s as he whizzed around from New York to London to the South of France and back again in a whirl of stage hits, bestselling novels, posh hotels, shopping sprees, and fine dining with pals, McCrum intones, “If Wodehouse’s output during these golden years had not been so exhilarating, it might be hard to escape the conclusion that there was something rather joyless about his incessant cycle of work and restless travel…” It is hard to escape the conclusion that exhilarating success is somehow joyless, if your name’s McCrum. Reverse logic is his dish. Wodehouse’s amiable contentment will be proof of his discontent; his success will represent failure. The way he smiled all the time will show just how keen his agony was.
It was the only way to make Wodehouse: A Life fit the formula of the respectable hardcover biography, the kind you always see at the front of the bookstore. They are often called things like “A Life,” which should serve as a warning. When confronted with a biography, you more or less expect to be reading about A Life and don’t need the clarification, but there appears to be some rule against interesting titles. An old British author is pretty sure to have A Life that can fill out one of these stodgy bios. Because, see, all that boring cultural merit and reverence must be shot through somehow with scandal and heartbreak. Even readers of respectable biographies have needs. They must have something to electrify 500 pages of small print, something that’ll give the minutia about boarding school and first publications and late middle-aged sciatica a little zing. The formula requires that all the achievements be tied to some central psychodrama dating back to childhood, which can be laid out by the biographer in lofty tones of understanding and sympathy for the poor old sod. Ideally, the subject’s nursery room angst will have resulted in closeted sexual deviancy that lends every grey literary triumph a lurid flush of horror, and who’s a better prospect for that than an old British author?
Meet Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, the biographer’s dilemma. Always inclined to be content with his lot, which was pretty good to start with, Wodehouse was solidly upper-middle-class, healthy, even-tempered, popular, good at sports, and above all, brilliant at what he wanted to do with his life, which was write. He was hugely successful early, and kept it up for a 60-year run. He also had the rare good fortune, for a comedic writer, of being a consistent favorite of critics and literary bigshots like Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. He made friends easily: he had a few close cronies he kept all his life, plus oceans of entertaining acquaintances. He married youngish, seemed to like his wife, adored his step-daughter, doted on the family dogs, traveled extensively. Any way you slice it, he had a great life, just like he always said.
You can see the problem. What’s a McCrum to do with material like that?
Fortunately for him, Wodehouse also had typical British parents of a certain generation and class who could be counted on to put their sons into boarding schools at an early age while they went off to do their bit for Empire. This serves the biographical formula nicely, providing the life-scarring neglect at a formative age that is regarded as necessary to launch literary genius. In fact, Wodehouse’s first school was one that catered to the needs of “families of colonial civil servants,” showing that if the boy Wodehouse was cruelly cast off by his parents, at least he had a lot of company. But in this early deprivation of a mother’s love McCrum finds the key to every hilarious thing Wodehouse ever wrote in order to hide his presumably aching heart:
So Wodehouse, the perfect Englishman, developed a preference for keeping the lid on things. He also acquired the habit, which stayed with him the rest of his life, of looking on the bright side of life, and of accepting philosophically whatever fate (which features throughout his work) should hand out. With the wisdom and the vocabulary of hindsight we should say that, when he observed, ‘I can’t remember ever having been unhappy in those days,’ he was in denial, a state of mind he sustained throughout his life.
After that, the book writes itself.
McCrum is a thoroughly modern kind of jackass. He loves “the wisdom and the vocabulary of hindsight” which gives us tired Psych 101 terms like “denial,” and can make the most remarkable person in the world seem like a collection of boringly-described symptoms. Remember that ham actor who shows up at the end of Psycho to explain away Norman Bates? There you have your Contemporary Biographer. Pompous, dull, but longing to be fascinating, in love with a reductive model of human psychology that went out forty years ago, he concludes his long fatheaded explanation by crowing, “It was the MOTHERRRR who did it!”
And so the chief fascination of the book is a perverse one: witnessing this contemporary jerk trying to describe and explain a fairly noble non-contemporary man he doesn’t understand. McCrum doesn’t sweat it, though. Oblivious to the impact of having his main claims about repression and denial rub right up against the evidence that contradicts those claims, he quotes from letters showing Wodehouse to be an absolute gusher of affection and fervently expressed concern for those close to him. Here’s Wodehouse writing to his stepdaughter Leonora when she was about to have her first child: “‘This is just a line to tell you how much I love you and how much I am thinking of you. I am praying that you won’t have too bad a time, because you’re very precious to me….I can’t bear the thought of you being in pain…’.” Or how about this letter to a bereaved friend who’d just lost his wife: “‘I wish to God I could be with you. I feel so utterly helpless all these miles away…’.”
I get the feeling this McCrum doesn’t have a lot of experience with true repression. You may trust me on this, repression doesn’t speak the language quoted above. If my own father ever said or wrote any such thing to me on any occasion, I’d pass out from the shock. But McCrum merely observes, “Wodehouse detested the intrusion of pain and suffering in his life,” somehow managing to suggest that those who are well adjusted don’t mind it a bit. Everything is packaged as proof that Wodehouse is profoundly messed-up, and that’s the source of his genius, because in bios that’s always the source of genius. Meanwhile, as we slog through McCrum’s opus, every thoroughly researched fact and quote he provides begin to add up to something else, a kind of life-equation we fear might actually be true:
Talent + a work ethic that would kill an ox + a sunny temperament free of the tendency to fuck up your own life with a lot of bogus self-dramatizing crap = a fair shot at the kind of success that gets you the whole world. (And you’d deserve it.)
McCrum’s got one undeniable ace in the hole, though: Wodehouse did mess up pretty badly once. In 1940, placidly residing in the south of France, the Wodehouse menagerie neglected to get out ahead of the invading Nazi army. Wodehouse found himself, at 59, an internee at a series of Nazi camps, along with all the other ensnared male residents under the age of sixty. His reaction was typical of him: he kept writing. He finished Money in the Bank and outlined his new Blandings Castle novel, Full Moon. He entertained his fellow internees with short stories about camp life that he planned to publish one day in a volume to be entitled Wodehouse in Wonderland. For nine months, with no idea what his own fate would be-trucked from camp to camp-wasting away on a diet of watery cabbage soup and the occasional potato-worrying about what had become of his wife and parrot and Pekingese dog Wonder after their forced separation-cut off from any news of the rest of the world-Wodehouse kept writing. Fellow internees cracked up and attempted suicide but, after helping haul them away from the window ledge, Wodehouse kept writing. Perhaps you’re not a writer, or don’t know any writers, so you might not quite understand the significance of this fact. Writing, for most writers, is hard. Even at the best of times you’ll make any excuse to stop writing. A sore throat, a mildly annoying e-mail, a broken dishwasher, almost anything can provide the rationale for why you can’t write anymore that day. Internment in a Nazi camp would be sufficient excuse for most writers to take a break for, say, the rest of their lives. But not Wodehouse. He was a writing Titan.
It was his sheer awesome writer-focus that got him into so much trouble. When the Nazis finally figured out who he was, they took him out of the camps and had him do radio broadcasts. Never politically savvy and now clueless about the desperate state of the war, Wodehouse delivered bemused comic Wodehouse in Wonderland riffs on his experiences and his own boneheadedness in getting himself into such a spot. Here’s an excerpt from his first Berlin broadcast in 1941:
“Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, ‘How can I become an Internee?’ Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.”
The embattled British were, understandably, not in the mood, and tarred him as a collaborator. After the war and to the end of his days, spent in pleasant rural exile on Long Island, Wodehouse remained a bit bewildered by the furor, insisting he only meant to reassure his friends and fans that he was all right and carrying on the same as ever in spite of all the Germans could do. But he also took his drubbing stoically, saying, “‘I made an ass of myself and must pay the penalty’.”
This strange interlude finally gives McCrum something to sink his fangs into. He frames the whole bio with this one nasty debacle of Wodehouse’s long life, treating it as emblematic of Wodehouse’s essential hollowness and dysfunction. It’s the ultimate proof, see, of how repressed Wodehouse was, of how his colonial British childhood so stunted him he, uh, repressed everything, by working hard, and traveling a lot, and staying married, and being keen on sports, and taking long healthy walks every day, and uh…oh yeah, collaborating with the Nazis.
McCrum’s not alone in throwing out this argument designed to appeal to the contemporary hatred of anybody with a modicum of self-restraint. I once ran across a grad school syllabus that proposed teaching one of Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels in tandem with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The obvious intention was to rip into Wodehouse by comparing his most famous creation, the perfect English valet Jeeves, to the uptight English butler in Ishiguro’s novel, who keeps himself too busy polishing the silver to protest his aristocratic employer’s conversion to fascism. You remember, no doubt, the dreary Merchant-Ivoryish film version with Anthony Hopkins martinetting around as the butler. He’s a very repressed butler, see, and repressed people are forever letting Nazis get the upper hand. They won’t just say, “Get the hell out of here, Nazis!” like you or I would. So when it comes time to pin the blame on somebody English for colluding with Nazis, Ishiguro suggests that in some ultimate sense it’s not the Duke of Windsor or any of his privileged Tory pals who deserve our condemnation. No-it was the BUTLERRRR who did it.
I’m expecting any day now to hear that McCrum’s bio is going to be made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins as the glum, empty-eyed, incipient fascist writer P.G. Wodehouse. It will be directed by Merchant or Ivory, whichever one isn’t dead at the time. Don’t go see it!!
This article was first published in The eXile on October 4, 2007
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