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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 3 of 4
 

So Wodehouse, the perfect Englishman, developed a preference for keeping the lid on things. He also acquired the habit, which stayed with him the rest of his life, of looking on the bright side of life, and of accepting philosophically whatever fate (which features throughout his work) should hand out. With the wisdom and the vocabulary of hindsight we should say that, when he observed, 'I can't remember ever having been unhappy in those days,' he was in denial, a state of mind he sustained throughout his life.

After that, the book writes itself.

McCrum is a thoroughly modern kind of jackass. He loves "the wisdom and the vocabulary of hindsight" which gives us tired Psych 101 terms like "denial," and can make the most remarkable person in the world seem like a collection of boringly-described symptoms. Remember that ham actor who shows up at the end of Psycho to explain away Norman Bates? There you have your Contemporary Biographer. Pompous, dull, but longing to be fascinating, in love with a reductive model of human psychology that went out forty years ago, he concludes his long fatheaded explanation by crowing, "It was the MOTHERRRR who did it!"

And so the chief fascination of the book is a perverse one: witnessing this contemporary jerk trying to describe and explain a fairly noble non-contemporary man he doesn't understand. McCrum doesn't sweat it, though. Oblivious to the impact of having his main claims about repression and denial rub right up against the evidence that contradicts those claims, he quotes from letters showing Wodehouse to be an absolute gusher of affection and fervently expressed concern for those close to him. Here's Wodehouse writing to his stepdaughter Leonora when she was about to have her first child: "'This is just a line to tell you how much I love you and how much I am thinking of you. I am praying that you won't have too bad a time, because you're very precious to me....I can't bear the thought of you being in pain...'." Or how about this letter to a bereaved friend who'd just lost his wife: "'I wish to God I could be with you. I feel so utterly helpless all these miles away...'.”

I get the feeling this McCrum doesn't have a lot of experience with true repression. You may trust me on this, repression doesn't speak the language quoted above. If my own father ever said or wrote any such thing to me on any occasion, I'd pass out from the shock. But McCrum merely observes, "Wodehouse detested the intrusion of pain and suffering in his life,” somehow managing to suggest that those who are well adjusted don't mind it a bit. Everything is packaged as proof that Wodehouse is profoundly messed-up, and that's the source of his genius, because in bios that's always the source of genius. Meanwhile, as we slog through McCrum's opus, every thoroughly researched fact and quote he provides begin to add up to something else, a kind of life-equation we fear might actually be true:

Talent + a work ethic that would kill an ox + a sunny temperament free of the tendency to fuck up your own life with a lot of bogus self-dramatizing crap = a fair shot at the kind of success that gets you the whole world. (And you'd deserve it.)

McCrum's got one undeniable ace in the hole, though: Wodehouse did mess up pretty badly once. In 1940, placidly residing in the south of France, the Wodehouse menagerie neglected to get out ahead of the invading Nazi army. Wodehouse found himself, at 59, an internee at a series of Nazi camps, along with all the other ensnared male residents under the age of sixty. His reaction was typical of him: he kept writing. He finished Money in the Bank and outlined his new Blandings Castle novel, Full Moon. He entertained his fellow internees with short stories about camp life that he planned to publish one day in a volume to be entitled Wodehouse in Wonderland. For nine months, with no idea what his own fate would be-trucked from camp to camp-wasting away on a diet of watery cabbage soup and the occasional potato-worrying about what had become of his wife and parrot and Pekingese dog Wonder after their forced separation-cut off from any news of the rest of the world-Wodehouse kept writing. Fellow internees cracked up and attempted suicide but, after helping haul them away from the window ledge, Wodehouse kept writing. Perhaps you're not a writer, or don't know any writers, so you might not quite understand the significance of this fact. Writing, for most writers, is hard. Even at the best of times you'll make any excuse to stop writing. A sore throat, a mildly annoying e-mail, a broken dishwasher, almost anything can provide the rationale for why you can't write anymore that day. Internment in a Nazi camp would be sufficient excuse for most writers to take a break for, say, the rest of their lives. But not Wodehouse. He was a writing Titan.


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