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Book Review October 4, 2007
 
Woe Is Wodehouse And His Biography
Robert McCrum and what’s wrong with literary biographies By Eileen Jones Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 4
 

Characteristically, McCrum quotes this passage as proof of Wodehouse's neuroticism. That's mainly how McCrum turns Wodehouse's demonstrable happiness into evidence of underlying misery: just by claiming that it is. Describing Wodehouse at the fizzy peak of his career in the 1920s as he whizzed around from New York to London to the South of France and back again in a whirl of stage hits, bestselling novels, posh hotels, shopping sprees, and fine dining with pals, McCrum intones, "If Wodehouse's output during these golden years had not been so exhilarating, it might be hard to escape the conclusion that there was something rather joyless about his incessant cycle of work and restless travel..." It is hard to escape the conclusion that exhilarating success is somehow joyless, if your name's McCrum. Reverse logic is his dish. Wodehouse's amiable contentment will be proof of his discontent; his success will represent failure. The way he smiled all the time will show just how keen his agony was.

It was the only way to make Wodehouse: A Life fit the formula of the respectable hardcover biography, the kind you always see at the front of the bookstore. They are often called things like “A Life,” which should serve as a warning. When confronted with a biography, you more or less expect to be reading about A Life and don't need the clarification, but there appears to be some rule against interesting titles. An old British author is pretty sure to have A Life that can fill out one of these stodgy bios. Because, see, all that boring cultural merit and reverence must be shot through somehow with scandal and heartbreak. Even readers of respectable biographies have needs. They must have something to electrify 500 pages of small print, something that'll give the minutia about boarding school and first publications and late middle-aged sciatica a little zing. The formula requires that all the achievements be tied to some central psychodrama dating back to childhood, which can be laid out by the biographer in lofty tones of understanding and sympathy for the poor old sod. Ideally, the subject's nursery room angst will have resulted in closeted sexual deviancy that lends every grey literary triumph a lurid flush of horror, and who's a better prospect for that than an old British author?

Meet Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, the biographer's dilemma. Always inclined to be content with his lot, which was pretty good to start with, Wodehouse was solidly upper-middle-class, healthy, even-tempered, popular, good at sports, and above all, brilliant at what he wanted to do with his life, which was write. He was hugely successful early, and kept it up for a 60-year run. He also had the rare good fortune, for a comedic writer, of being a consistent favorite of critics and literary bigshots like Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. He made friends easily: he had a few close cronies he kept all his life, plus oceans of entertaining acquaintances. He married youngish, seemed to like his wife, adored his step-daughter, doted on the family dogs, traveled extensively. Any way you slice it, he had a great life, just like he always said.

You can see the problem. What's a McCrum to do with material like that?

Fortunately for him, Wodehouse also had typical British parents of a certain generation and class who could be counted on to put their sons into boarding schools at an early age while they went off to do their bit for Empire. This serves the biographical formula nicely, providing the life-scarring neglect at a formative age that is regarded as necessary to launch literary genius. In fact, Wodehouse's first school was one that catered to the needs of "families of colonial civil servants,” showing that if the boy Wodehouse was cruelly cast off by his parents, at least he had a lot of company. But in this early deprivation of a mother's love McCrum finds the key to every hilarious thing Wodehouse ever wrote in order to hide his presumably aching heart:


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