In His Own Words
By Barry Day and Tony Ring
Overlook. 300 pp. Paperback, $19.95
(Forthcoming in April)
Some admirable people simply don't "get" P.G. Wodehouse. I concede this as incontrovertible fact, just one of those de gustibus things, yet somehow can't quite fathom the lapse in good judgment. After all, consider the evidence. Wodehouse was deeply admired by M.R. James, Arthur Conan Doyle and A.E. Housman, the exacting authors of, respectively, the last century's most haunting ghostly tales, mystery stories and lyric poems. Kipling -- who would certainly know -- told a friend that "Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend" was "one of the most perfect short stories ever written." George Orwell composed one of his best essays in praise of Wodehouse, and W.H. Auden compared the Anglo-American writer to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and not entirely to the Russians' advantage. Eudora Welty kept his books by her bedside. And once even that fractious Soviet realist Vladimir Brussilov drunkenly confessed, "No novelists anywhere any good except me. P.G. Wodehouse and Tolstoy not bad. Not good, but not bad." That "not bad" is high praise, considering the source. Even more generously, the normally waspish Evelyn Waugh always spoke of Wodehouse, in hushed tones, as his "revered master."
Those who don't "get" the author of Leave It to Psmith and 90 or so other titles imagine that his books are merely silly-ass comedies roughly equivalent to, say, Barbara Cartland romances or the shopgirl tearjerkers of Rosie M. Banks (author of Only a Factory Girl and Mervyn Keene, Clubman). Yes, Bertie Wooster is a complete idiot, as are all the members of the Drones Club, and yes, the deliciously saccharine Madeline Bassett does refer to the stars as "God's daisy chain." But these are Wodehouse's stock company, and you come to know them -- and Lord Emsworth and Ukridge and Florence Craye and Aunt Agatha and Gussie Fink-Nottle and the Efficient Baxter, as well as a couple of dozen Mulliners -- and love them all.
"Plum" -- as Wodehouse is affectionately known (after the slurring of his first name Pelham) -- once called his books musical comedies without the music, yet one might also regard them as pastoral romances, Daphnis and Chloe in Edwardian England. At Blandings Castle and Market Snodbury the sun is always shining, and the lovers gambol as innocently as any shepherd and milkmaid in Theocritus or Virgil. At least, that is, until the intrigues, plots and counterplots grow so elaborate that the narrative threads can finally be untangled or tied up -- as the case requires -- only by the most gigantic brain this side of Spinoza's, that belonging to the inimitable Jeeves.
Wodehouse (1881-1975) reliably purveyed his particular brand of comfort reading for more than 70 years, an endlessly satisfying series of puppet dramas packed with misunderstanding, petty crime, the course of true love failing to run smooth, mistaken identity, cunning servants and all the other standard elements of farce since Plautus. Are there any better purely comic novels in English than Leave It to Psmith, The Code of the Woosters, Right Ho, Jeeves, Uncle Fred in the Springtime and The Mating Season? Still, Wodehouse's true brilliance doesn't lie in his razor-sharp plotting: The man's deepest genius lies in the making of perfect sentences, and then brightening them further with dazzlingly original similes: "He drank coffee with the air of a man who regretted that it was not hemlock."
Which brings us to P.G. Wodehouse in His Own Words, a collection of quotations from the Master's letters, essays and fiction loosely connected by witty, fact-filled commentary -- by Barry Day and Tony Ring -- to form a concise, brief biography. There are chapters on Wodehouse's family and background, his happy schooldays at Dulwich College, the early years working in a London bank, his contributions to Broadway plays and musicals, the brief sojourn in Hollywood, his arrest by the Nazis in France and the unfortunate broadcasts during his subsequent internment, and finally the last decades in America, living out on Long Island and working on his books until the very last. Finally, in 1975 -- and none too soon -- the author of Young Men in Spats became Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Less than two months later, he was dead at age 93.
Day and Ring, though serious scholars of Wodehouse, have produced their own perfect comfort book, at once soothing, funny and touching. Their florilegium belongs on the same shelf with Wodehouse Nuggets and The Wodehouse Companion (both conceived by Richard Usborne) -- except that you will want to keep it by your bedside or carry it around in your pocket. At the very least, Wodehouse in His Own Words will send you scurrying out for Plum's novels and short-story collections (many of which are now published in handsome hardback editions by Overlook). Start with any of the works already mentioned or pick up an anthology like The Most of P.G. Wodehouse. Read "Honeysuckle Cottage" or "Strychnine in the Soup" or "The Custody of the Pumpkin" or "Uncle Fred Flits By," then go on to one of the novels.
But let us conclude, and none too soon, the tedious Dirda portion of today's review, and sample a selection of bon mots from Wodehouse in His Own Words:
"The least thing upsets him on the links. He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows."
"My uncle George discovered that alcohol was a food well in advance of modern medical thought."
"He resembled . . . in his general demeanour one of those unfortunate gentlemen in railway station waiting-rooms who, having injudiciously consented at four-thirty to hold a baby for a strange woman, look at the clock and see that it is now six-fifteen and no relief in sight."
"All chartered accountants have hearts as big as hotels. You think they're engrossed in auditing the half-yearly balance sheet of Miggs, Montagu and Murgatroyd, general importers, and all the time they're writing notes to blondes saying 'Tomorrow, one-thirty, same place.' "
"Uncle Tom always looked a bit like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow."
"The rich contralto of female novelist calling to its young had broken the stillness of the summer afternoon."
"She came leaping towards me, like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest room."
"The Rev. Henry looked as disturbed as if he had suddenly detected Pelagianism in a member of his Sunday-School class."
There are lot more zingers like these in Wodehouse in His Own Words. Buy it or any of the Master's books and, to paraphrase one of his own remarks, prepare to enter a better world without all the bother and expense of dying. *
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.