Read Time:
3m 21sec

A Life. 
By Robert McCrum. Norton.
530 pp. $27.95

Comedians have a hard time getting respect, as the late Rodney Dangerfield could attest, and literary humorists usually have the same problem of being dismissed by the intelligentsia. The shining exception is P. G. Wode­­house (1881–1975), the legendary writer’s writer whose gloriously inconsequential tales of country-house high jinks in impossibly idyllic English locales left him treasured by a century-spanning range of contemporaries, from Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle to John le Carré and John Updike. A phenomenally prodigious font of fun, Wodehouse produced more than a hundred books and plays in a life that lasted well into his nineties. The lovable, moneyed moron Bertie Wooster and his magically capable butler Jeeves are only two of his delicious creations. He also contributed memorable lyrics to many Broadway shows, including Show Boat’s eccentric “Bill”: “I love him because he’s—I don’t know, / Because he’s just my Bill.”

Onto a field that contains several previous biographies ventures Robert McCrum, literary editor of the London Observer. He admits that the eager-to-please gentleman-author (Alistair Cooke found Wodehouse’s voice “tuned entirely in C major”) is an elusive character. Neglected by his parents and raised by undemonstrative relatives, then denied a college education, the young Wodehouse seems to have codified the traditional British stiff upper lip into an absolute denial of personal feelings (“One has deliberately to school oneself to think of something else quick”) and an inability to grasp world conflict (“this Belsen business”). His self-willed detachment from reality seems frustrating and disingenuous to modern sensibilities, and McCrum doesn’t hesitate to critique it with a clear eye. He calls Wodehouse’s epistolary memoir Performing Flea (1953) “a bravura demonstration of tact, evasion, and wishful thinking,” and he appraises Wodehouse’s underconceived decision to broadcast playful talks about his wartime civilian internment by the Nazis over their own radio network as “incredibly stup­id, but . . . not treacherous.”

Still, this book is a manifest and impressive labor of love. McCrum’s research has been exhaustive, and he marshals his facts articulately and forcefully. He cites apt passages from the supposedly frivolous tales to parallel difficult turns in their author’s life (“Fate lurks to sock you with the stuffed eelskin”), and though he makes no claims for the truth of these speculations, they are always thought-provoking and always plausible. As Bertie Wooster might say, that’s exerting the old cerebellum, Mr. McCrum.

Wodehouse’s massive output and unforgettable characters have gotten him compared to Dickens and Shakespeare, but McCrum prefers the spirit of Jane Austen, calling P. G. a “miniaturist” whose language “danced on the page like poetry, marrying the English style of the academy with the English slang of the suburbs.” Evelyn Waugh famously opined, “He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”

There are some surprises: Wodehouse disliked South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and the works of Graham Greene, yet he was a fan of the TV soap opera Edge of Night. His long marriage was affectionate but apparently asexual, though, unlike another glamorous Jazz Age husband, Cole Porter, he professed to dislike “homosexualism.” There is also more here about publishing contracts, payments, taxes, old school rugby and cricket scores, little Pekingese dogs, and who ate what when—though to be fair, these are details that compose a real life rather than a novel—than any but a devoted Wodehouse fan would want to learn. And that, of course, will limit this biography’s sales to thousands and thousands and thousands.

—Mark O’Donnell


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