Wodehouse and Beckett: Their Secret Kinship Revealed

Wodehouse: A Life, by Robert McCrum. W.W. Norton and Company, 530 pages, $27.95.

Oh, to be P.G. Wodehouse! There aren’t many authors whose life one actually covets-not really. To come up with a Dorothy Parker witticism might seem like fun for a millisecond, but you’d also be the one to take that multi-bladed brain home at night and try and find a comfy spot for it on the pillow. From a distance, the life of Hemingway takes on a certain action-packed glamour, but up close it soon palls, and even the most ardent fan would opt out before the morning drinking and shotgun-loading stage. But Wodehouse! “A breeze from start to finish” was how he described his life, much of it spent pipe in hand, flanked by a small squadron of Pekes, nurturing internal-contentment levels that verged on the Buddhist. “Plum lives on the moon” was how his wife Ethel put it. Arriving in Hollywood in 1930-an event capable of causing even the most robust moon to wax and wane-Wodehouse soon settled into Hockneyesque bliss: “I can still picture him,” recalled his stepdaughter Leonora, “floating motionless and happy in the pool, looking at his toes, or at the deep blue California sky, while presumably working out the next bit of writing complexity.” Aren’t writers who go to Hollywood supposed to end up face- down in the pool?

The dangers of such a life to the potential biographer are obvious enough: This “breeze” of a life might just blow right past, leaving the gorilla paws of biographical inquiry clenching and unclenching in thin air. One searches in vain through Wodehouse’s private correspondence for any reference to intimacy, or love, reports Robert McCrum in his new biography; a “deafening silence” surrounds his (largely nonexistent) sex life, and his romantic entanglements appear “tantalizingly opaque.” Mr. McCrum is, however, possessed of the patience of a man stalking deer, and the portrait that emerges, slowly but indelibly, is easily the best to date.

The product of the sort of mid-ranking colonial household that caused an entire generation of English upper lips to stiffen and draw shut, Wodehouse saw his parents for barely six months between the ages of 3 and 15. He was raised instead by a small flotilla of nannies, grandparents and aunts. (Aunts outnumber parents in his fiction, at a rough estimate, by 10 to 1.) At age 12, he was sent to a boarding school, Dulwich College, which would remain Wodehouse’s abiding template for heaven on earth: a girl-free idyll of muffins, cricket, cocoa and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle serials, into which Wodehouse fitted exactly and where he excelled at sports-particularly cricket, rugby and boxing. As surprising as it is to find so many contact sports in the biography of any English writer (most of whom are to be found quivering in the showers, towel clamped chastely around their midriff), it makes perfect sense for Wodehouse, whose work is as enlivened as it is horrified by the prospect of human contact, the burly scrum of our affairs with our fellow beings.

The Jazz Age finds Wodehouse holidaying on Long Island with the Fitzgeralds and sweeping up Broadway with Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, but for all his affability, Wodehouse remained something of a bolter, socially. As he confided to a friend: “It’s surprising how few people in the world one actually wants to see.” Another friend, Denis Mackail, referred to what he called “the Wodehouse Glide”-the progenitor of the small subset of verbs (“glide,” “shimmer,” “hove,” “materialize”) that announce the arrival and departure of Wodehouse’s best known creation, Jeeves. “I might hear him saying Goodnight, from the middle of the traffic I might catch a glimpse of his rain-coat swinging across the road,” said Mackail. “But the general effect was that he had just switched himself off.” No writer has been as funny on the subject of withdrawal-or as adept at watermarking the plush interior of consciousness from which we are winkled only under extreme duress. The great joke about Bertie is that a man who finds himself so drawn to the thick of the action should be so magnificently incurious about his surroundings. How often the books pit solipsist against solipsist, to see who dawns on who first: Distracted by their respective idées fixes, they run in ever tighter circles, their conversation sputtering and finally short-circuiting in mutual dumbfoundment.

The only other equal he had in this regard was Samuel Beckett, admittedly not the writer who springs unbidden to mind when Wodehouse is under discussion, but a writer equally haunted by boredom and energized by the clickety-clack rhythm of derailed trains of thought. When Wodehouse woke up one morning, aged 78, he was heard to exclaim, “What? Again!” Remove the exclamation mark and you have pure Beckett. Like Beckett, too, was the startling fixity-bordering on abstraction-with which Wodehouse organized and reorganized the elements of his fiction. Or, as Mr. McCrum puts it, “no other 20th-century English writer of consequence evolves in his mature work as little as Wodehouse.” He wrote over 100 novels in under 90 years, with minimum variation along the way, producing ink rather more in the manner of a squid than a writer. Mr. McCrum performs his critical duties as best he can-noting that Bertie Wooster grows slightly more scheming sometime in the 1920’s, and the girls slightly less doll-like-but otherwise, is quite happy to pay tribute to the eternal verities of the Wodehouse world, a sun-dappled Eden untouched by literary fashion, or sex, or war, which had the benefit of anachronism even when Wodehouse started out. (By the 1920’s, butlers were already old hat, and Edwardian England a distant memory, which is why Jeeves keeps such a tight lip on the First World War: “some slight friction in the Balkans” is how he glancingly reports it to Bertie.)

Having missed him the first time around, geopolitics came back for another pass at Wodehouse in 1940, when, marooned in France during the German occupation, he found himself taken prisoner, interned and then shuttled to Berlin, where he made a series of disastrous broadcasts, on Nazi radio, reassuring his readers that he was O.K. and that internment suited him fine (“it keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up on your reading”). The broadcasts led to accusations of treason, from which Wodehouse’s career took a long time to recover. Mr. McCrum tops and tails his book with the incident. “[T]he second world war finished Wodehouse,” he writes; it was “the defining moment of Wodehouse’s life,” although it’s arguable whether it was anything of the sort, since it illustrated only a pre-existing tendency on Wodehouse’s part-rampant naïveté-which it also did nothing to change. To his dying day, Wodehouse never did see what all the fuss was about; his shows of contrition were entirely reactionary, like a child’s.

You can easily forgive Mr. McCrum his one Big Incident, however, for Wodehouse’s life was otherwise free of false dramatics. When Ethel confronted him about his sole extramarital affair, Wodehouse responded, “Who told you?”-an answer so free of bluster that you somehow just know that that marriage was destined to last. Wodehouse, it seems, was one of those quiet souls, happiest when left to till a private furrow, as alarmed by the blandishments of success as by the shame of failure. My favorite story has Wodehouse doing the rounds of Magdalen College with Hugh Walpole, just weeks after the writer Hilaire Belloc called Wodehouse the “best writer of English now alive.”

“He said to me,” Wodehouse remembered, “‘Did you see what Belloc said about you?’ I said I had. ‘I wonder why he said that.’ ‘I wonder’, I said. Long silence. ‘I can’t imagine why he said that,’ said Hugh. I said I couldn’t either. Another long silence. ‘It seems such an extraordinary thing to say!’ ‘Most extraordinary!’ Long silence again. ‘Ah, well,’ said Hugh, having apparently found the solution, ‘the old man’s getting very old.'”

Tom Shone is the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press).