P. G. Wodehouse Essay - Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) (Vol. 5)

Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) (Vol. 5)

Wodehouse, P(elham) G(renville) 1881–1975

Wodehouse was an English-born American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist. One of this century's most beloved writers, Wodehouse, with his unchanging world of upper-class characters—Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Psmith—came to be taken as much for granted as the Royal Family. His elaborate plots, filled with the comic absurdities of farce and set in an England that almost, but never really, existed, are worked out with affectionate satire in "feather-light" prose that is casual, sophisticated, mock-pompous, and completely inimitable. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; obituary, Vols. 57-60.)

Useless to describe the plot of a P. G. Wodehouse novel: [in "Jeeves and the Tie that Binds"] they are all made to stand on their heads as often as a Slinky toy coming down the staircase….

Except for the discovery that Jeeves's first name is Reggie—"It had never occurred to me before that he had a first name," says Bertie—nothing has changed in this novel which marks Wodehouse's 90th birthday. As always, it is a mistake to send Bertie out to deal with a woman whose "eye could have been used for splitting logs in the teak forests of Borneo" or a man described as "a twenty-minute egg." "Where one goes wrong when looking for the ideal girl," says Bertie's pal, "is in making one's selection before walking the full length of the counter." Wit? The world's wisdom writ in little space. One of the master's better novels, I would say if I could, but I can't because, in the warder of the brain (as Jeeves would say of memory), they are all equally good. Buy it against the certain agues of winter. (p. 116)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1971.

[Two of Wodehouse's old] novels, one of 1913 (The Little Nugget) and the other (Sam the Sudden) of 1925 [are] characteristic examples of his use of the New World to unbalance the Old, and both of them [are] first rate stories…. We are reminded of this anyway every time he brings back the old characters…. [Alas], they are not the men they were, more like manoeuvrable puppets.

You need only open Sam the Sudden, which is understandably one of Mr Wodehouse's own favourites, to see how much richer the human material once was. Here [the main characters] make a thick, meaty background to the story of Sam himself and Kay Derrick, who may suffer from some of the usual difficulties of heroes and heroines (such as undue good looks) but are not nearly so two-dimensional as those who came since. The same goes for the earlier The Little Nugget, with its schoolmasters and American crooks and its slightly more unconventional heroine; the two hard-bitten Drassilis women seem particularly well-observed, as well as that transatlantic Bunter, the Nugget himself. In those days there was a romantic thread in Mr Wodehouse's work, linking it to the stories of such writers as Dennis Mackail, which doubtless aggravated the highbrows but now proves to have been a source of variety, and even of strength. It kept his range much wider than it subsequently became.

"Sage Habits," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), January 26, 1973, p. 84.

The novels of P. G. Wodehouse's eighties (writes A Fan, nostalgically), were on the whole remarkable for two things. There was the odd unexpected innovation—a new category of character or a sudden intrusion from the modern world—coupled with a certain weakening in the structure: loose threads or unsatisfactory endings. Together they kept the reader on his toes; one had to watch out. This is not the case, however, with … Bachelors Anonymous, which is slight but efficiently organized along well-worn lines. Dialogue and comment are as well phrased as ever, but the characters, though their names are mainly new, are all from stock and the situations hardly original. That is no reason for not recommending the book to new readers, who will surely start laughing as their fathers and grandfathers did before them. But there is not much here to intrigue the habitué, aside from a brief return to one of Mr Wodehouse's most cherished settings, the south-east London suburb of Valley Fields. (p. 1338)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), November 2, 1973.

[The stories in The Golf Omnibus] are not merely golf stories, but are examples of sprightly fiction about the unbelievable addictions suffered by followers of the Ancient and Royal Game. Collected together like old treasured scorecards, these stories are unbeatable in their wit and elegance. Wodehouse, who has written over 75 books and gave butlering immortality through his creation of Jeeves, is writing for golfers primarily; but those who may laugh the most at his stories are ones who, like The Oldest Member, sit on the high veranda and watch the rest of us torture ourselves in the valley below. Sometimes, we shoot a 110 and there is no shot worth remembering. If that happens, there is nothing to do but follow the sound advice of Sam Snead, another ageless miracle like Wodehouse: lay off golf for three weeks, and then quit altogether.

Colman McCarthy, "Welcome to the Club," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 31, 1974, p. 2.

A new novel by Wodehouse always stirs the kind of awe in me that would be evoked by the discovery that Hepplewhite was still making chairs. Wonder of wonders. This wonder ["Bachelors Anonymous"] conforms to the classic Wodehouse mythology: nice but dim young men; nice, clever young women; crusty, rich senior citizens rattling around in impossible adventures terminating in matrimony. In Wodehouse, characters are broke but not poor, marriages are closed and the impossible invariably happens. Why not? What could be more unlikely than the author himself, a 93-year-old writer turning out novels as though he were 20?

"Bachelors Anonymous" features a young playwright and pugilist named Joe Pickering, hired temporarily by movie potentate Ivor Llewellyn to protect him from getting married for the fifth time. Llewellyn's lawyer, a member of Bachelors Anonymous, lends a helping and nearly disastrous hand. For Wodehouse readers, no further explication should be necessary. (p. 27)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 4, 1974.

Those who have no enthusiasm for [Wodehouse's] work are often irritated by the exuberant hyperbole and even aggressiveness of [his] fans, who sometimes show all the least attractive characteristics of religious zealotry. I confess I find myself slightly shocked when anybody admits to not liking Wodehouse, although I can see that this is an unreasonable reaction. But I think I can be dogmatic on a few points from my own observation: that Wodehouse has been more read than any other English novelist by his fellow novelists; that nobody with any genuine feeling for the English language has failed to recognise at least an element of truth in Belloc's judgment of 1934, that Wodehouse was 'the best writer of English now alive, the head of my profession'; that the failure of academic literary criticism to take any account of Wodehouse's supreme mastery of the English language or the profound influence he has had on every worth-while English novelist in the past 50 years demonstrates in better and conciser form than anything else how the Eng. Lit. industry is divorced from the subject it claims to study; finally, that the university departments of English Literature are manned to a large extent by people with no particular love for or understanding of the English language and no appreciation of English literature beyond a few rubbishy opinions about Lawrence, Joyce and Wyndham Lewis which they push backwards and forwards at each other….

To dismiss him with a sneer as a purveyor of light entertainment … is to betray a blinding ignorance of the structure, form, language and philosophy of the English novel. What Wodehouse has done is to distil for all time a form of pure comedy in more or less abstract guise: without any social application, let alone political commitment; with no bitterness, cruelty, sex, rancour or any other impure purpose which comedy may serve. Whatever uses other writers may put it to, the essence remains what Wodehouse has distilled….

There are many people who object to the Wodehouse miseen-scène on grounds of its sociological partiality and political cretinism. The fact that he concerns himself more or less exclusively with the imaginary rich may indeed be an obstacle to enjoyment among those who disapprove of the rich. It is a question of taste…. Those who complain that there is no account of the sources of Wooster's income, no glance at the exploited urban industrial masses who sustain life at Blandings, are registering a political objection, not a literary one. He never set himself the task of writing a realistic novel and can scarcely be blamed for having failed. Nobody ever said that Wodehouse was the greatest living novelist, only the greatest living writer, to which I would add that as a writer he has had more influence on the English novel than any other writer in history, and about twenty times as much as Lawrence, Joyce and Kafka combined, even on such consciously experimental novels as B. S. Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double Entry.

Auberon Waugh, "The Best Writer," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & National Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 21, 1975, p. 240.

Wodehouse seemed uniquely to exist outside time: the latest Jeeves and Bertie Wooster tale, The Cat-Nappers, is as sprightly as the first one was in 1916. Wodehouse was both the delight of gerontologists and insurance actuaries and the despair of writers a third his age struggling in the toils of second-novel constipation. His plots in his 90s were as maniacally intricate as ever—Sir Pelham was the fastest man with a peripeteia since Euripides—the dialogue as crackling, the literary allusions as hilariously apt. Perhaps only by hindsight does there seem just the faintest tinge of autumnal wisdom in this last Jeeves story. At one point Bertie reflects about a bully described by his own daughter as "a cross between Attila the Hun and a snapping turtle" that: "I didn't like his tone, but then one often doesn't like people's tones."

Certainly not in the modern world, which I think Wodehouse made the mistake of occasionally trying to render here. There are wildly anachronistic references to peace marches, muggings, and girls who "radiant-beautywise" are "in the top ten." Since the overwhelming ambiance of the novel is that vaguely Edwardian Arcadia we particularly associate with Wodehouse, this is a mistake.

Another is that Jeeves doesn't occupy as large a role in extricating Bertie from his self-induced disasters as was once his wont…. [He] shows an uncharacteristic and unfortunate tendency to melt into the middle distance.

Bachelors Anonymous … is set entirely in the modern world, although it is a world with strong deja-vu sensations of 1930s movies….

The World of Mr. Mulliner contains 42 stories, some going back to the 1920s, about the garrulous Mr. Mulliner who regales his fellow barflies at the Angler's Rest with whoppers about his various relatives, all of whom are talented at getting into Woosterian scrapes. They prove that tall tales about people are more interesting than fables about fish, but Wodehouse was correct in recommending a medium adult dosage of "not more than two or three stories, taken at breakfast or before retiring."

Richard Freedman, "Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is not a name that translates easily into Chinese," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 30, 1975, p. 1.

Filling winter's bare, ruined choirs with joyful cuckoos, P. G. Wodehouse's Aunts Aren't Gentlemen is vintage fluff. (p. lvii)

In P. G. Wodehouse's novels, the best-laid plans, even those of good aunts, go wildly astray. According to John Locke extravagant behavior was best explained by the association of ideas. Ideas "not at all of kin," Locke wrote, come by chance or custom or education "to be so united in men's minds" that it becomes hard to separate them. They always keep company, and one no sooner appears in the understanding but its associate wanders after it, "and if there are more than two which are thus united, the whole gang, always inseparable, show themselves together." Quite right—thus Bertie Wooster is not the only wise man from Gotham living in a cottage and breathing the peppermint air of Maiden Eggesford. The whole gang is there livening up the rural grave. (p. lviii)

Even with the help of a score of Ariadnes, and Daedalus pitched in for good measure, Theseus himself could not lay bare the delightful windings of Mr. Wodehouse's labyrinthine plot. Suffice it to say that a minotaur does not lurk in the center, for Mr. Wodehouse knows the importance of no tragic relief. Life is too important to be taken seriously. In his Defence of Politics Bernard Crick argues that boredom with established truths is the great enemy of free men. Would that Mr. Crick had gone further, for boredom is the enemy of life itself. When the world is too much with us and we suffer from deadly apple-disease of seriousness, there is no better tonic than one of P. G. Wodehouse's eighty-four novels. His laughter falls brightly from the air; boredom vanishes like the ghost of Christmas past, and established truths become warmly alluring. In this literary-critical world which often seems ponderous enough to bore the behind off an elephant, we ought to thank whatever powers that be for P. G. Wodehouse and his sights that make us less forlorn. (p. lix)

Sam Pickering, Jr., "The Wisdom of Foolishness," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Spring, 1975, pp. lvii-lix.

"The Cat-nappers" is Wodehouse's 97th novel. Released first in England some months ago, it is the last to appear during his lifetime. (Other books, drawn from his papers, are expected in the future.) Appropriately enough "The Cap-nappers" features those favorites of the Wodehouse stock company, Jeeves the butler ("Would pusillanimous be the word for which you are groping, sir?") and Bertie Wooster ("Quite possibly. I know it begins with pu.") The ingredients are quite familiar: a theft, a sundered heart, an aunt, "a hearty good morning to you, aged relative," and numerous concatenations. People cross paths and call each other things like "wee sleekit timorous cowering beastie" and "elderly little gawd-help-us," but, as always, everything rights itself in the end, with no real harm done to anyone.

Wodehouse has, of course, rotated the same crops hundreds of times: the setting—Edwardian England—rarely varies ("I hardly think it would be an improvement if I were to write a novel laid in Yugoslavia or the Crimea"); the chief characters are typically the young idle rich, who wear morning coats and spatterdashes (spats), who, if they're not at the Drones Club, are spending long weekends with various formidable aunts and loopy uncles at posh country estates such as Totleigh Towers or Matcham Scratchings, trying to disentangle themselves from, or entangle themselves with, assorted young women named Honoria Glossop or Corky Pirbright. Almost everybody is slightly ridiculous but never contemptible, as Orwell once pointed out, and the real world—whatever that is—rarely intrudes.

Many writers avoid the numerous stock devices of plot and language; Wodehouse embraces them with relish. His bag of tricks is considerable. Clichés, slang and off-center classical allusions come together in various self-defeating combinations….

His books abound in inflated euphemisms …, slightly batty orotund phrases …, and genial insults….

Perhaps more than anything else Wodehouse is a master of a kind of nonsense prose, non-sequiturish phrases and absurd concords and wonderfully silly repetitions…. Finally, probably no one has written so well about pigs. (p. 23)

[The] books consist mostly of dialogue and are carefully plotted around inconsequential doings—truly the novel as musical comedy. (p. 24)

Robert M. Strozier, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 27, 1975.