IT WOULD HAVE AMUSED P.G. WodehoROBERTSON DAVIES' new novel, The Rebel Angels, will be published early next year.use that we are celebrating the centenary of his birth so soon after his death; the funeral baked meats, he might suggest, do coldly furnish forth the centennial table.
So far as many of his addicted admirers are concerned, he is still alive and well and living in that strange world of his own invention, peopled with numbskull aristocrats, their valets, butlers and dragon-like aunts, gangsters, Americans of exacerbated irascibility, and jolly girls who love golf and football and need to be rescued from the wet intellectuals whom they so unaccountably admire. But dead Wodehouse most certainly is, having taken leave of this world on St. Valentine's Day, 1975, at the age of 93, the pen still in his hand. He was 19 at the turn of the century; there are unkind critics who say he never changed or noticed anything much after that.
They are wrong, of course, but not wholly wrong. Through a writing career of more than 70 years, Wodehouse maintained an exuberant vitality of the sort we like to associate with youth. However leaden and dismal our own youth may have been, few of us will deny that we had qualities then which have gone now, and a writer who can rekindle those flames for us can count on an immense following. How did he do it?
Critics have sought to answer that question, but they set to work burdened either by hero-worship (which tempts them into disastrous attempts to write like The Master) or they are zealots determined to defend him against people who can take him or leave him alone. David A. Jasen, whose valuable book is now revised and republished, escapes both perils, and so does Benny Green, the most important recent critic of Wodehouse, though Green seems to labor under a sense of indignation that now and then makes him sound like Miss Fanny Squeers--"I am screaming out loud all the time I write." He is careless, which a writer about Wodehouse cannot afford to be; he should not write of "gilded napery," and he ought to find out what other people mean by "archetype" and "epithet." He seeks to be inclusive and perhaps definitive, and to do that with a man who wrote, in his time, a hundred volumes of prose, 18 plays, and all or part of 33 musical comedies, is to bite off a very big chaw; we cannot wonder that Green's jaws sometimes become tired. But what he does, for which we must be grateful, is to stress Wodehouse's work for the stage, his gifts as a writer of light verse, and his background in classics. This is getting down to the realities of Wodehouse, and so far as I know Green is the only critic who has had the perception to do so. Wodehouse was first and foremost a consummate stylist, and his wit and invention, though remarkable, are secondary in any critical consideration to that one overmastering quality.
What are the characteristics of this remarkable style? First, economy, for though it appears opulent and gentle in pace, there is not a word too many, and the stories move at remarkable speed. Next, it is a flattering style, for in spite of the author's apparent anti-intellectual bias, he treats his readers to gleanings from a remarkable variety of classical writers, philosophers and poets, and does it so skillfully that we are left with a feeling of being cleverer and better-read than we thought we were. He is at his most subtle, perhaps, in what we may call the Buried Quotation, which he uses either as part of the speech of one of his characters (as often as not that pantry-Rochefoucauld, Reginald Jeeves) or in his own voice as author. His plots are ingenious and finely- wrought, and the fact that they are improbable is not important, for the Wodehouse world is not bound by common laws. Lastly, he has a faultless ear for cadence and nuance, and employs a very large vocabulary in such a way that the reader becomes convinced it is his own.
Like Ben Jonson, Wodehouse has a relish for jargon, and the specialized lingoes of thieves, stockbrokers and kindred underworld types. He can drop a cant term into a sentence which is otherwise of Addisonesque purity, and produce a comic effect no other writer can approach. Understandably this fineness of taste and ear has brought him legions of admirers, some of whom have expressed themselves intemperately. It was silly of Hilaire Belloc to hail Wodehouse as the leader of the literary world of his day. It was sillier still of A. J. P. Taylor to rank him with Congreve. But when Evelyn Waugh referred to him as The Master, he spoke truly, for Waugh learned much from Wodehouse, and went on to write important novels in a style wholly his own, but in which the Wodehouse influence is observable.
The overstated praise was as stupid as the attacks made on Wodehouse during the Second World War, when he was accused unjustly of being a traitor and producing enemy propaganda. Iain Sproat gives all the details in his valuable book, having at last wormed the relevant papers out of the British Home Office. But while the case was at its height, all sorts of people whom one might have hoped would know better hooted at Wodehouse as a trivial, unmeritable man, with no more wits than Bertie Wooster himself, but greedy and venal. A.A. Milne was one of these, and later Wodehouse gently took his former friend to the cleaners under the name of Rodney Spelvin, in "Rodney Has a Relapse"; Rodney writes of a Loveable Child named Timothy Bobbin, who goes hoppity, hoppity, loves his puppy, but never quite says his prayers, for Wodehouse spurned blasphemy as he spurned pornography. Indeed, Wodehouse had a rough side to his nature; some of his caricatures of Louis B. Mayer, for instance, make us wonder how he escaped actions for libel. Perhaps the stupidest thing said about Wodehouse was Sean O'Casey's description of him as "literature's performing flea." Wodehouse, who did not fight disappointed blind men, countered mildly by saying that the performing fleas he had seen were splendid troupers and thorough, skilled professionals.
Revealing words, for Wodehouse, as Benny Green reminds us, was and remained a man of the theater all his life.
There is no literary work that makes such demands on the technical skill and professionalism of a writer as that of the musical stage. So many people must be satisfied, and the writer's is always the least powerful voice in the army of talents that go into the show. Musicians want words for tunes they have composed independently; directors want new lyrics, and funnier lyrics, and they want them at once; comedians clamor for "sure laughs." (Oh where is the Sure Laugh to be found?) The lyricist produces something of which he is proud, and it is thrown out because the show is running too long. Apart from such external vexations, the lyrics themselves must be fresh, neatly rhymed, witty yet capable of being absorbed and repeated by any blockhead who hears them once. A man who becomes the foremost musical show lyricist of his time, as Wodehouse did, is a man in a million.
Once in a quadrillion he is a man who can write a novel which brings to the reader a sense of the exhilaration and refreshment he would get from a first-rate musical show. If Shaw's plays are Italian Opera without music (as Granville- Barker said they were) Wodehouse's novels are musical comedies without music. This astonishing man persuaded the Great Army of the Tin-Eared that language is capable of nuance, and that vocabulary is a shaper of circumstance.
But the best book to celebrate the Wodehouse centenary is that compiled by James H. Heineman and Donald R. Bensen, of which the preface says, modestly, that it is meant to please both the scholar and the fan. It will achieve that end superbly. The essays on aspects of The Master's works are first-rate, and though I cannot check the bibliographies, they are fascinating and revelatory. The translations are especially interesting, and when next I am in Italy I shall reread Jill the Reckless as Jill, ragazza bizarra, setting aside the Froken Jill ved teatret that I bought in Norway, and postponing a perusal of Mulliner-Shi-Go-Shokai until I am nearer Japan. The price is high, but the book is worth twice the money to real Wodehouse buffs. This is a worthy act of homage.
Homage to a genius, surely? Yes, if we are prepared to overlook serious defects. There is no content in a Wodehouse novel beyond the story and the brilliantly professional way in which it is told. The book exists in a realm oblivious of almost everything in the external world. There is a background of literary reference, but no hint of any body of opinion, no conviction, and no criticism of anything except in the most facetious terms, a determined, crowd-pleasing anti-intellectualism, and no passion. Morality never appears except as a generalized, middle-class decency.
Was the style, then, the man himself, as Buffon says? Here we have musical comedy, cleverly lit so that the characters cast no shadows. The miracle is that in such self-imposed shackles, Wodehouse should have been able to do so much. He danced in chains. But oh, how he danced!