Friday, 10 December 2010

PG Wodehouse: A Biography

by Frances Donaldson

Two things stand out most about this man. The first is his epic output, and the love of work that allowed it. Donaldson doesn't even bother trying to catalogue his work, talk about it in a chronological way, or approach it in any way as a unit. She is quick to point out, on a number of occasions, that it would require a much longer book, without the trifling distractions of the author's life, to make any sense of it.

Wodehouse's work ethic is the great triumph of his life. Of course, he had a natural way with the rhthym and nuance of The Great Sentence, and a good if not exceptional ear for comic dialogue, but those things were not responsible for his greatness. Greatness came, with more graft than glamour, from his plots.

Every archaic or stand-in or mill-running plot he wrote around was the result of weeks of agonising over every point. Every river-dunking had strictly apportioned motives, every failed plan was meticulously storyboarded and reshaped. If it couldn't hold itself up, if it couldn't float without the buoyancy aid of funny prose (and Wodehouse prose is the most buoyant) he would scrap it--or more likely, retinker it. If it wouldn't fit in a book, it became a musical.

Comedy is the easist place to look like an idiot; Wodehouse found that out in his war years. But in his books, he certainly took great measures to make sure he was never left looking like a fool. Every novel functioned--something he could control and predict--just in case the funny didn't stick. That's why he has an ouvre of about 100 novels, which vary in hilarity, but are remarkable consistent all the same--there isn't a single failure, not a single book that cannot entertain on the basic level. Every narrative narratives.

That's why Wodehouse was never comfortable with being highly thought of in literary circles--he was more proud of his constant functioning than of his frequent excelling. As Donaldson points out, he was incurably low-brow in tastes (not in a crude way, but in a John Stuart Mill way). And as her description of his working methods makes abundantly clear, 90% of his time was spent on the basic form a book would take. Writing it was the easy 10%, during which he felt guilty because it wasn't really work.

The second thing that stands out about Wodehouse is his inability to deal with people. There are few close relationships in his life, and while those few are sweet and deep and heartfelt, they still contain something impersonal, something distant. Even to his beloved stepdaughter he writes about his work, his dog, and later his favourite soap operas. He was never a soul-barer.

His lack of understanding about people is at the heart of his naivety, and at the heart of his alleged treason. As a prisoner of war in Germany, he didn't see the problem in broadcasting a few humorous monologues on a German worldwide radio station. He was showing how well the English in trouble were coping with their situation, stiff upper lipping and silver lining finding; and on a personal level, responding to the mass of mostly American fanmail he had recieved in his internment camp. If there was any more base motive behind his talks, it was simply his lifelong desire to write, to work, and to make people laugh, shining through four years of war-frustrated output.

The funny thing is, when you get into the unique rhythm and flavour of his life, you begin to forget about real life and normal approaches, and see things in the innocent way that he did. When I first read the passages quoted from the English press in response to him broadcasting on enemy wavelengths, being light-hearted and anything but serious, I couldn't understan the backlash. I mean, it was still funny, wasn't it? That's the main concern, isn't it?

But that's not the main concern, not in wartime, and Wodehouse realised later in life what a fool he had been. But how easy it is to forgive him, when he's left 100 novels, in each of which that unique rhythm and flavour of life is present, and the reader forgets about real life and normal appraoches, and sees things in the innocent way that he did. It's funny, isn't it?


  1. I saw a play once about P.G. Wodehouse's life, including that wartime bit (actually it might have been exclusively the wartime bit). It was pretty interesting. I prefer reading his books though, rather than about him. He's hilarious. I'm currently reading his "Thank You, Jeeves" for some much-needed laughs.


  2. What a wonderful post. My 11yo son has just discovered PG Wodehouse (and the old BBC series) and is thrilled! I love hearing him laugh aloud as he turns the pages.

  3. I read and posted on a Wodehouse story recently-I really enjoyed the relaxing style-thanks for sharing with us this post on his life-I found your blog via the literary book blog hop and am happy to be a new follower of your blog