Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Memento mori: P.G. Wodehouse, 1975


Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE (1881-1975)
Novelist, lyricist, screenwriter

A son of the British Empire, born near its zenith, Wodehouse was the son of a British magistrate in Hong Kong. When he was old enough, his mother sailed back to England with the boy, put him in boarding school, and sailed home.

Plum- as his grand first name came to be abbreviated (“I was named for a godfather, and not a thing to show for it but a small silver mug which I lost in 1897,” he wrote, sixty years later)- was an odd mixture of shy introvert and uncanny cheerfulness. In his whole life (he lived to 93 and his biography runs over 500 pages), there are only a couple of recorded instances of his expressing unhappiness over anything.

His schoolmasters didn’t know what make of Wodehouse. One assessment fretted, “He has the most distorted ideas about wit and humour; he draws over his books and examination papers in the most distressing way and writes foolish rhymes in other people's books. Notwithstanding he has a genuine interest in literature and can often talk with enthusiasm and good sense about it.”

He graduated school in 1899 and went to work as a bank clerk. Bored, he started writing stories based on his school days and remained a keen Dulwich old boy all his life.

In 1902 Wodehouse published his first novel. He went to America and sold several stories to magazines for astonishing sums. In London, he wrote for Punch, and got a standing gig at the Aldwych Theatre, writing ripped-from-the headlines-lyrics to update songs in the theater’s long-running revues. He was constantly sailing between London and New York, and by 1918 he had five shows running on Broadway and thought there might be another in the works.

He also managed to meet and marry a twice-widowed former chorus girl, Ethel Wayman, who was everything he wasn't: gregarious, decisive, and- above all- practical (The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who played a major role in pulling the couple out of their World War II troubles, called her a “mixture of Mistress Quickly and Florence Nightingale with a touch of Lady Macbeth thrown in.” For the next sixty years, theirs was a love match in which she managed things and let Plum be Plum.

He was lured to Hollywood in 1930 and, on a one-year contract, made amazing money (Ethel negotiate the deal and got him $2,000 a week) on screenplays and lyrics the studios didn’t use (he wrote the book for Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, only to see it replaced).

“The actual work is negligible. ... So far, I have had eight collaborators. The system is that A. gets the original idea, B. comes in to work with him on it, C. makes a scenario, D. does preliminary dialogue, and then they send for me to insert Class and what-not. Then E. and F., scenario writers, alter the plot and off we go again,” he explained.

Bored, he wrote a novel and nine short stories during his year by the pool. After a 1931 interview in which he reeled off examples of waste and louche living in Tinseltown- not to mention his astonishing otherworldliness- his star dimmed and his contract was not renewed. Despite his rep as a naif, he got his own back at Hollywood studios, producers and moguls with a strong of acid-etched characters over the decades to come.

He was having tax problems as well. Both the UK and America tried taxing him as a resident, and even a money-spinner as gifted as Wodehouse couldn’t make it that fast. He moved to France, and there launched into his golden age as a writer.

Woodhouse had a cast of stock characters who evolved over time in his short stories: Rupert Psmith (“The p is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”); Lord Emsworth, a country grandee whose sole interest was the well-being of his prized pig, the Empress of Blandings; The Oldest Member, a blowhard golf raconteur; Mr. Mulliner, a blowhard who didn’t play golf; Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a “bungling, amoral opportunist”, and Uncle Fred, an eccentric dervish in the lives of his friends and family.

But it was his development of the immortal Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (his father won a packet on a horse named Wilberforce at the Grand National the day before Bertie’s birth and insisted) that raised Wodehouse’s stature to the legendary as a comic writer. The novelist Brad Leithauser wrote of Plum’s creation in a 2014 New Yorker article:

In addition to their appearance in thirty-five short stories, there are ten full-length Bertie and Jeeves novels. They’re timeless. We’re caught up in an inexhaustible cycle: Bertie “lands in the soup” (which often means that this rich, insouciant bachelor feels he’s being railroaded into marriage) and unflappable, impeccable Jeeves, he whose brain is so massive that it bulges the back of his head, who “moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly-fish,” ultimately rescues his feckless master, all without tearing, or even rumpling, the social fabric. Here and there, some usually unwelcome global-news item irrupts into the narrative, but mostly the outside world fails to impinge. The Great Depression, World Wars, political and social upheavals—these scarcely penetrate the walls of the Drones Club, where the idle Bertie consorts among friends with nicknames like Pongo and Oofy and Catsmeat. There’s a striking consistency of tone and outlook, a reassuring unchangingness, running from the first of the novels (“Thank You, Jeeves,” from 1934) to the last (“Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen,” from 1974). It’s a gag that never spoils.

Improbably graduated from Eton and Oxford, Bertie's intellectual wattage was as low as North Korea’s on a clear night, as he himself admitted:

As a rule, you see, I'm not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James's letter about Cousin Mabel's peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle ('Please read this carefully and send it on Jane') the clan has a tendency to ignore me. It's one of the advantages I get from being a bachelor - and, according to my nearest and dearest, practically a half-witted bachelor at that.

Success rained on Wodehouse in torrents. In the midst of the Depression, he was the highest-paid author in the world. In the sunny days of summer, 1939, Oxford even gave him an honorary doctorate. But, as Wodehouse wrote of a hapless character, ‘around the corner, Fate was busy slipping the lead into the glove.”  

Returning to France, Dr. Wodehouse never set foot in England again.

Dimly aware there was a war on, Wodehouse kept to his writing until Ethel finally persuaded him the Germans were at the door and a decamp to Portugal might be a good idea.

They left by car; it broke down; they returned home to get another, and then it was too late. Wodehouse was interned and spent eleven months in jail ("There is a flat dullness about the countryside,” he recalled, in one of his controversial radio scripts, “which has led many a visitor to say 'If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?'").

Wangling a typewriter from his captors, he cranked out another novel; in June 1941 the Germans moved him to a Berlin hotel and sold him on the idea of some lighthearted radio broadcasts; with Ethel stuck in France he had no one to stop him.

He gave six in June, July, and August 1941, with titles like “How to Be An Internee Without Previous Training.” They were broadcast in America on CBS, in a deal arranged by the network's man in Berlin, William L. Shirer.

The public reaction in Britain, under incessant German bombing, was swift and unforgiving. In The New York Times, Charles McGrath noted Plum’s bizarre, conflicted personality in wartime:

Christopher Hitchens once pointed out, it’s impossible to believe that the creator of Sir Roderick Spode (the Oswald Mosley-like character about whom Wodehouse wrote, “It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment”) harbored any sympathy for Nazism. Yet the evidence in the letters suggests that his political naïveté bordered on moral obtuseness. While the war was going on, Wodehouse made a deal with a German film company, for example, to develop his novel “Heavy Weather” into a movie. And in the letters he wrote from the Adlon Hotel — Berlin’s most luxurious — after his release from camp, he treats the war mostly as a personal inconvenience, with seemingly no awareness of Hitler’s genocide or of the thousands of lives being spent on both sides.
Wodehouse was so little troubled, in fact, that he wrote four novels during the war, including “Joy in the Morning,” one of his best and blithest. The strongest impression his letters leave is of the delight he took in his own creativity. He is always firing off a message to Townsend [a childhood friend] or to Snorky [Ethel's daughter, Leonora] or to his agent announcing the completion of yet another new novel or show or batch of stories, every one of them a “corker.” Wodehouse had very few moments of self-doubt, and went through low periods only when he was between projects or when the ideas weren’t coming fast enough.
Wodehouse tried to contact the Foreign Office for permission to go home and explain himself; the Germans said they’d so like it if he stayed a while longer. Ethel pawned her jewelry to buy passage to Berlin, and they bided their time until 1943, when the Germans let them return to France.

They were boarded in Paris. After the new British ambassador, Duff Cooper, arrived in liberated France and discovered the Wodehouses staying in his hotel, he complained to the French, who moved Plum and Ethel to another.

In the UK, a clamor arose to bring him home for trial as a war criminal, even though MI5 and MI6 investigations had cleared him of everything but being astonishingly dimwitted when it came to the real world.

Something had to be done, so, a la Captain Reynaud in Casablanca, the French simply arrested both of them on general principles. The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, then an MI6 intelligence officer, tracked them down, got Ethel released, and negotiated Plum’s transfer to a hospital- he was then 63- on grounds he was “unwell.”

After three months, Wodehouse was released (with another novel nearly in hand), but the French left his status in limbo until June 1946, when he was told he was free to go wherever would have him.

Amidst it all, Ethel’s daughter, Leonora- whom Wodehouse adored and adopted- died. It was one of the moments when Plum was unhappy on the record: It just sets the seal on all the ghastliness of life these days.”

Ethel obtained American visas and the two arrived in their old home-away-from-home, New York.

Things had changed. The magazines that once paid top dollar for Plum’s stories were fading; the styles had changed, Broadway was moving in new, hip directions and Hollywood’s antennae, always quick to quiver at scandal, considered him toxic.

He kept on writing. After six unhappy years in the city, Ethel found a house on Long Island near one of Wodehouse's prewar musical collaborators, Guy Bolton, and bought the home they occupied for the next twenty-two years. He took American citizenship in 1955.

Happy again, Wodehouse returned to his writing. His method was unchanging. He spent two years working out the plot in a 400-page outline, then wrote the book itself. That usually took three months, though, in his later years, it stretched to six.

Woodhouse kept several projects in the air all the time, which made it possible for him to produce 96 books, 40 plays and over 200 short stories in his 72-year publishing career.

A brief synopsis of one of his novels, 1940’s Quick Service, involves these interlocked characters trapped like squirrels in a gilded bag:
  • Howard Steptoe, an ex-boxer, who resolutely resists all attempts at smartening him up by...
  • Mabel, his bitter-three-quarters, who is socially ambitious and has with her, acting as factotum...
  • Sally Fairmile, her impoverished niece, who is secretly engaged to...
  • George, Lord Holbeton, (formerly of the name of Trotter), an exquisitely turned out young man and a confirmed crooner of Trees, whose guardian is...
  • Mr James Duff, of Duff and Trotter, owners of Paramount Hams, who was, in his distant youth, engaged to...
  • Mrs Chavender, sister-in-law of Mrs Steptoe, apparently having the green stuff in sackfuls, and currently residing in Claines Hall, who has had her imperious self painted by...
  • Joss Weatherby, an artist earning his daily bread in the Art section of Duff's establishment, who goes to Claines Hall as a valet to the tough owner, to be near the Fairmile girl, who he loves, and shares the space in Servants hall with...
  • Chibnall, the worthy butler also an ex-boxer, with a proclivity for romantic novelettes, who is engaged to...
  • Vera Pym, a barmaid addicted to thrillers.

Though George Orwell came to side with his wartime “In Defense of Wodehouse” when many of his other friends abandoned him, Wodehouse continued to suffer snubs and slights from the British.

His name was floated twice for a knighthood, only to be shot down by tabloid press uproars. Sean O’Casey, a prominent Anglo-Irish playwright denounced Wodehouse as “English literature’s performing flea”; Wodehouse simply adopted the epithet as the title of his 1953 collected letters. Some argued his long exile helped his career, allowing him to write of a world, decades gone, without having to address the grim reality of postwar Britain.

It was not until 1965, when Plum turned 84, that the British government formally advised him he would not face prosecution for his broadcasts and was welcome to visit. In 1974, Prime Minister Harold Wilson settled old accounts by obtaining knighthoods for Wodehouse and another British exile, Charlie Chaplin.

Wodehouse became Sir Plum in January, 1975; a month later he entered hospital for a minor complaint, had a heart attack, and died. He was buried in the Presbyterian church yard at Remsenburg; The new-minted Lady Ethel carried on another decade, joining him at her death in 1984, at 99.

Wodehouse's writing is like a glass of the best champagne you've ever had at the most perfect party you'll ever attend. His immaculate plotting combined with his endlessly inventive use of poetic staples from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Edwardian and interwar American slang, mock pretentiousness to produce stories that, as Charles McGrath put it, “practically levitate.”

His facility with similes is legend (“She looked like Helen of Troy after a really good facial,” is but one of 1750 Wodehouse quotes cited by the OED. A sample:

-The village of Market Blandings is one of those sleepy hamlets which modern progress has failed to touch... The church is Norman, and the intelligence of the majority of the natives palaeozoic.

-‘As a sleuth you are poor. You couldn’t detect a bass-drum in a telephone-booth.’

-It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a food well in advance of modern medical thought.

-He uttered a coarse expression which I wouldn't have thought he would have known. It just shows that you can bury yourself in the country and still somehow acquire a vocabulary. No doubt one picks up things from the neighbours -- the vicar, the local doctor, the man who brings the milk, and so on.

-"I've been through hell, Bertie."
"Through where?"
"Oh, hell? And what took you there?"

-It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.

Wodehouse, of course, never wrote a beastly book. Not ever.
Related sites:

The Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction,” No. 60, Winter 1975

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