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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 4 of 4
 

It was his sheer awesome writer-focus that got him into so much trouble. When the Nazis finally figured out who he was, they took him out of the camps and had him do radio broadcasts. Never politically savvy and now clueless about the desperate state of the war, Wodehouse delivered bemused comic Wodehouse in Wonderland riffs on his experiences and his own boneheadedness in getting himself into such a spot. Here's an excerpt from his first Berlin broadcast in 1941:

"Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, 'How can I become an Internee?' Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest."

The embattled British were, understandably, not in the mood, and tarred him as a collaborator. After the war and to the end of his days, spent in pleasant rural exile on Long Island, Wodehouse remained a bit bewildered by the furor, insisting he only meant to reassure his friends and fans that he was all right and carrying on the same as ever in spite of all the Germans could do. But he also took his drubbing stoically, saying, "'I made an ass of myself and must pay the penalty'.”

This strange interlude finally gives McCrum something to sink his fangs into. He frames the whole bio with this one nasty debacle of Wodehouse's long life, treating it as emblematic of Wodehouse's essential hollowness and dysfunction. It's the ultimate proof, see, of how repressed Wodehouse was, of how his colonial British childhood so stunted him he, uh, repressed everything, by working hard, and traveling a lot, and staying married, and being keen on sports, and taking long healthy walks every day, and uh...oh yeah, collaborating with the Nazis.

McCrum's not alone in throwing out this argument designed to appeal to the contemporary hatred of anybody with a modicum of self-restraint. I once ran across a grad school syllabus that proposed teaching one of Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster novels in tandem with Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. The obvious intention was to rip into Wodehouse by comparing his most famous creation, the perfect English valet Jeeves, to the uptight English butler in Ishiguro's novel, who keeps himself too busy polishing the silver to protest his aristocratic employer's conversion to fascism. You remember, no doubt, the dreary Merchant-Ivoryish film version with Anthony Hopkins martinetting around as the butler. He's a very repressed butler, see, and repressed people are forever letting Nazis get the upper hand. They won't just say, "Get the hell out of here, Nazis!" like you or I would. So when it comes time to pin the blame on somebody English for colluding with Nazis, Ishiguro suggests that in some ultimate sense it's not the Duke of Windsor or any of his privileged Tory pals who deserve our condemnation. No-it was the BUTLERRRR who did it.

I'm expecting any day now to hear that McCrum's bio is going to be made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins as the glum, empty-eyed, incipient fascist writer P.G. Wodehouse. It will be directed by Merchant or Ivory, whichever one isn't dead at the time. Don't go see it!!


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