Absurdism, Books

On P. G. Wodehouse

In P. G. Wodehouse’s comic world language is king. He delights with a verbal abundance of fantastical specificity. Take some of his fluid, hyperbolic similes:

She looked like a tomato struggling for self expression.
He withered like an electric fan.
He wilted like a salted snail.
She looked like an aunt who had just bitten into a bad oyster.
He vanished abruptly, like an eel going into mud.
He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.

This is the language of exaggeration that establishes a spacious distance between subject and likeness. The verbal dexterity, cadence, rhythm, tone and temperature are words in search of the perfect sentence. With orotund metaphors and flawless diction language vaults over reality. The ludicrously artificial mock-heroic non-necessity of this language stalks the absurd. Wodehouse had a pitch-perfect ear for the music of an English sentence. This is style as ludic release: not just plummy-accented but plum silly.

  • Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.
  • If you can visualise a bulldog which has just been kicked in the ribs and had its dinner sneaked by the cat, you will have Hildebrand Glossop as he now stood before me.
  • Jeeves’ cough was like an old sheep clearing its throat on a distant mountain top.
  • He looked like a man who, stooping to pluck a nosegay of wild flowers on a railway line, is struck in the small of the back by the Cornish Express.
  • He gulped like a fish that had been hauled out of a pond on a bent pin and isn’t at all sure it is equal to the pressure of events.
  • He sprung round with a sort of guilty bound, like an adagio dancer surprised while watering the cat’s milk.
  • He had a throaty growl rather like a snarl of the Rocky Mountain timber wolf.

Language has become unmoored from reality. These are words released to a delirious freedom endowing patently absurd situations with conviction.

  • There came a sound like that of a Mr G. K. Chesterton falling on to a sheet of tin.
  • Aunt calling to aunt, like mastodons* bellowing across the primeval swamp.
  • He resembled a minor prophet who had been hit behind the ear with a stuffed eel-skin.
  • He groaned slightly and winced, like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch.
  • She had a beaky nose, tight thin lips, and her eye could have been used for splitting logs in the teak forests of Borneo.
  • And as he, too, seemed disinclined for chit-chat, we stood for some moments like a couple of Trappist monks who have run into each other at the dog races.
  • She came leaping toward me like Lady Macbeth coming to get first hand news from the guest room.

Wodehouse was a prolific author. He died aged ninety three, in 1975, having published over seventy novels, a hundred short stories and thirty plays and librettos. Doing little else in life he spent hour after hour in his study with typewriter and pipe dedicating his life to the English language; some of his cast of characters have joined the literary immortals. One of his biographers, Frances Donaldson, said of Wodehouse that he was an excessively shy man who loathed clubs and giving speeches in public, was socially incompetent and unamusing in company. Wodehouse’s letters indicate the range of his reading: Balzac, Fielding, Smollet, Faulkerner, Dickens, Keats, Byron, Shakespeare. His letters and diaries show what a perfectionist he was and how hard he worked at writing. He said in 1961 “I haven’t got any violent feelings about anything. I just love writing”. Wodehouse toiled away making language dance to his bidding. He wrote everyday accumulating manuscript after manuscript with painstaking revisions. In the 1930s he said ‘I have become a writing machine’.

In addition to his mode of baroque similes Wodehouse favoured a wandering epithet. Here are some attributes eccentrically transplanted from person to object:

He waved a concerned cigar.
I balanced a thoughtful lump of sugar on the teaspoon.
I pronged a moody forkful of eggs and b.
I lit a rather pleased cigar.
I resumed my seat, and ate a moody slice of cold bacon.

Jeeves’s epithets and similes, on he other hand, are under strict and proper control. He may be the servant but he is the master of correct usage, unlike his master. Jeeves deploys grammar at its most formal and never utters an unintended word. The vivid and racy Bertie Wooster however, and his ghastly indolent chums, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps, Augustus Fink-Nottle, Pongo Twistleton, Boko Fittleworth, Nobby Hopwood Stilton Cheesewright, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, Freddie Widgeon, Ooty Prosser et al., deploy a preposterous vigorous low slang from pre Great War days. What Ho! Bally, Leg it!, Pip Pip! Tinkerty-Tonk, Dash it! Toodle-oo, Rummy, Snorter, Biff, Corking, Right ho! Hotsy-Tostsy, Hooched. Bertie utters dismal shrieks, dismembered clichés and mangles Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Kipling, Longfellow, Wordsworth with misremembered quotes from which he has to be rescued by Jeeves. This is a world of high diction, soaring farce and low vernacular. Robert McCrum informs us that the OED has included no fewer than twenty three Wodehouse-argot words for drunk including: awash, boiled, fried, lattered, illuminated, oiled, ossified, pie-eyed, polluted, primed, scrooched, stinko, squiffy, tanked and vooched. This is absurd and intoxicating language that manages to be both ludicrous and credible.

In his fiction there might be a shaft of summer lightning, but never a roll of thunder. Whether it is Jeeves and Wooster at Totleigh Towers, or Clarence, Connie and Freddie at Blandings Castle, or Mike and Psmith in the city or on the cricket fields of Middlesex, Wodehouse’s comic world is a cosmos of frivolity. His characters inhabit a never-never land of good nature, sunniness of spirit, far-fetched frolics and a refusal to look at the dark side. In this unique world of moonshine the passing of time is ignored, no one ever dies, no one falls ill (apart from the occasional hangover), money is a joke and no one gets any older. Between Jeeves and Wooster’s first appearance in 1915 and their last in 1974 not a day seems to have passed. And over a writing career spanning the first seventy five years of the twentieth century there is not a mention in the collected works of a first or second world war, mass unemployment, the Bolshevik uprising, Stalin’s purges, the Holocaust or Vietnam. Every Wodehouse story ends on a C-major chord. He left social awareness, political acuteness and economic theory to lesser talents. He developed a world-wide following from his depiction of a wonderland of sweet-natured warmth, gentle mockery, delicate bonhomie and an English eccentric world of élan. Wodehouse’s is a world that cannot be dated because it never existed. His is an argot in arcadia. W.H. Auden said of him he was “our greatest expert on English Eden”.

The boudoir of the Empress was situated in a little meadow dappled with buttercups and daisies round two sides of which there flowed in a silver semi-circle the stream which fed the lake. Lord Emsworth, as his custom was, had pottered off there directly after breakfast and now at half past twelve he was still standing in company with his pig-man, Pirbright, draped bonelessly over the rail of the sty his mild eyes beaming with the light of a holy devotion. Between the Empress of Blandings and these two human beings who ministered to her comfort there was a sharp contest in physique. Lord Emsworth was tall and thin and scraggy, Pirbright tall and thin and scraggier, the Empress, on the other hand, could have passed in a dim light for a captive balloon, fully inflated and about to make its trial trip. The modern craze for slimming had found no votary in her, she liked her meals large and regular and had never done a reducing exercise in her life. Watching her now as she tucked into a sort of hash of bran, acorns, potatoes, linseed and swill, the Ninth Earl of Emsworth felt his heart leap up in much the same way as the poet Wordsworth used to do when he beheld a rainbow in the sky. “What a picture, Pirbright,” he said, reverently.

In Eden paradise cannot be regained, as it has never been lost. A world where sin and evil cannot be discerned is a problematic place. To make the world God divided light from dark: and it is crucial to be able to distinguish one from the other. The problem with Eden is that there has been no fall of man, no tasting of forbidden fruit, no temptation by the serpent, no knowledge gained and no eroticism experienced. The feeble-brained sexless characters in a Wodehouse story seem incapable of carnal desire and erotic love. A key characteristic of Wodehouse’s world is emotional restraint. Bertie may always be falling in love but he never has, or even wants to have, sex. George Orwell wrote in an essay in 1946 “how closely Wodehouse sticks to conventional morality can be seen from the fact that nowhere in his books is there anything in the manner of a sex joke”. These characters have disembodied conceptions of love where no one is fully needed, where there is no mutuality of obligation, where people cannot become immersed, cannot attend to each other. To have no proper sexuality is to have no ability to oppose, to take sides, to confront. Distinctions and separations are important in life: they permit acts of criticism to be made. If we don’t distinguish we don’t notice, and if we don’t notice we don’t have a critical sense. On one view Wodehouse is a playful comedian of rare innocence, on another he is an arrested juvenile with a pathological prudery in sexual matters. English comic fiction normally avoids this problem by throwing their innocents into a pit of voracious lions (see Fielding, Waugh, Spark, Swift). That is not Wodehouse’s way. His exaggeration of language and understatement of emotion is a very English dialectic. Wodehouse, with his dreamy world of stunted innocence, is the laureate of repression. In this sense Wodehouse’s fiction did not grow to maturity and discover the sense of deep seriousness in play.

It is no surprise then that engagements form the basis of many of his plots. Engagements contracted and avoided and prevented and escaped and defeated and cheated and undone. One of the greatest disasters in Wodehouse-world is the unsuitable engagement. It is just that they all turn out to be unsuitable.

Aunt Agatha: ‘Bertie, it is imperative that you marry’
Bertie: ‘But dash, it all’

Someone has calculated that between 1915 and 1974 Bertie gets engaged no less than twenty two times to fourteen different women. (He is yet to be married.) Aunt Agatha again: ‘The girls you have been engaged to and escaped from would reach, if placed end to end, from Piccadilly to Hyde Park Corner.’ Bertie was engaged to droopy, saucer-eyed Madeleine Bassett no less than four times (being saved from a fifth only after that that time she persuaded him to puncture a hot water bottle with a darning needle on the end of a stick). His engagement to Pauline Stoker came to an end only after her affections transferred to Chuffy Chuffwell. Florence Craye who was so ‘steeped to the gills in serious purpose’ that she read books with titles like Types of Ethical Theory was also engaged to Bertie four times. To Honoria Glossop who had ‘a laugh like a squadron of calvary charging over a tin bridge’ it was only twice, but then she was ‘a ghastly dynamic exhibit who reads Nietzsche’. To Bobbie Whickham it was a modest two times and Stiffy Bing a careless one. It is a miracle that Bertie ever got engaged at all given language always seemed to desert him at the crucial moment. ‘Reflect what proposing means. It means that a decent, self-respecting chap has got to listen to himself saying things which, if spoken on the silver screen, would cause him to dash to the box-office and demand his money back’. And once done it must be undone: ‘We had once been engaged to be married, and not so dashed long ago either. And though it all came all right in the end, the thing being broken off and saved from the scaffold at the eleventh hour, it had been an extraordinary narrow squeak.’ It is one of the mysteries of these stories why anyone would even want to marry the unworldly, diffident, preposterous Bertie.

You may remember the time Mr. Mulliner’s nephew Archibold (the sock collector) attracts a fiancé by his celebrated imitation of a hen laying an egg. Well quite.

At the beginning of Wodehouse’s great 1938 novel The Code of The Woosters the reason most of the characters assemble at Totleigh-in-the-Wolds, Totleigh, Glos. is because of engagements. Sir Watkyn Bassett lives there. Roderick Spode is visiting because Sir Watkyn is engaged to his aunt Mrs Wintergreen and deep down he wants to be engaged himself to Sir Watkyn’s daughter Madeleine. Gussie Fink-Nottle is there because he is engaged to Sir Watkyn’s daughter Madeleine. Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are there (in part) make sure Fink-Nottle and Madeleine’s engagement does not hit the buffers because Madeleine thinks Bertie is so in love with her that if it does then she will announce her engagement immediately to him instead (a fate Bertie wishes at all costs to avoid). Sir Watkyn’s niece Stephanie (Stiffy) Byng is there because she is engaged to the local curate Harold (Stinker) Pinker. From this entanglement of betrothals the various vicissitudes and derring-dos are launched. In Wodehouse’s world an engagement is less a precursor than a predicament: the word plighted is given both meanings.

The other great driver of Wodehouse’s serpentine plots is petty larceny. During this novel there is the theft of a policeman’s helmet, the attempted luring away from his employment of a chef called Anatole, the absent-minded taking of an umbrella, the devious and immoral purchase of an eighteenth century silver cow creamer and no less than two blackmail plots to steal it back, and the actual theft of it. These crime scenes are more misunderstandings and high jinks sent to test Bertie’s customary sexless sang-froid. By the middle of the novel Bertie pleads with Jeeves to advise him how to escape the following dilemma. Given Sir Watkyn Bassett has deviously prevented Uncle Tom from buying the eighteenth century silver cow creamer, Aunt Dahlia (who is morally outraged) blackmails Bertie into promising to steal it back (on the threat of denying him access to her sumptuous cook Anatole forever more). Almost simultaneously Stiffy Byng also blackmails Bertie into stealing the cow creamer so her fiancé Stinker can wrestle Bertie to the ground afterwards and present the cow creamer back to Sir Watkyn and impress upon him Stinker’s suitability as a husband for Stiffy (with the threat of revealing something that will break Madeleine and Gussie’s engagement and launch the awful consequences). Roderick Spode (correctly) suspects Bertie of wanting to steal the cow creamer and threatens to beat him to a jelly, and Sir Watkyn who is also a Justice of the Peace will send Bertie to prison, if he does so. You will have to read the novel to find out why it is believed, at this point in the action, that the only way out of this impasse is for Bertie to steal a leather-bound notebook from Stiffy’s stocking top. He refuses to do so because of the erotic overtones: “Gussie, are you suggesting that I prod Stiffy’s legs?”

The Code of the Woosters was written in Le Tourquet, France in 1938 where Wodehouse was living to minimise his tax bills. Although his aesthetic was detached from history the character of Roderick Spode is the great exception. Spode is an Oswald Mosely-esque amateur dictator and fascist politician wannabe. He is described as one of those Dictators who were fairly common at one time in the metropolis. He is a skilful orator and the head and founder the Saviours of Britain, a farcical fascist organisation. Wodehouse makes him an object of derision. Spode is slang for toilet bowl, the policies of his party are British-made bicycles and umbrellas for all citizens, and in his spare time Spode is a designer of ladies knickers, a jewellery expert and owner of Eulalie Soeurs (a female underwear consortium). Bertie describes him as super-colossal, nine feet tall, having a face that was square and powerful, a grip like a bite of a horse and the sort of eye that could open an oyster at sixty paces. He looked like a Dictator on the point of starting a purge. Swathed in plaid ulster Spode had a moustache like the faint discoloured smear left by a squashed black beetle on the side of a kitchen sink, and the way he eats asparagus alters the whole conception of Man as Nature’s last word. It was as if nature imagined it made a gorilla but changed its mind at the last minute. I said to myself, ‘What ho! A Dictator!’. Spode is the Mosley of Market Harborough: he may have been able to inflame the populace with flowery words but he is no match for Wodehouse’s comic language that easily laughs him off stage in his ridiculousness. Bertie and Gussie are appalled at his choice of clothing for the organisation: black shorts.

By the way, when you say ‘shorts’, you mean ‘shirts’ of course
No, but the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents where black shorts.
Footer bags you mean?
Yes
How perfectly fowl
Yes
Bare knees?
Bare knees
Golly!
Yes

It is also highly sinister that this Adolf-come-lately is in love with the squashily soppy, baby-talking Madeleine Bassett. Spode is described as looking over Madeleine like a knight watching over her. The only reason he is not engaged to her is that he looks on himself as a Man of Destiny and feels that marriage would interfere with his mission. Bertie at one point takes him on:

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?

Even on the sunniest boomps-a-daisy lives the rain must sometimes fall. In May 1940 Wodehouse was discovered by the German army at his house in La Touquet. He was taken into custody as a British citizen and interred for just over a year in various camps finally ending up in Upper Silesia in a former lunatic asylum at Tost about fifty miles from Auschwitz. On his release in June 1941 Wodehouse was persuaded by the Nazi German Foreign Office to make five radio broadcasts from Berlin to the United States. He displayed a tin ear for politics while retaining unimpaired his sang-froid. As if to prove his was an aesthetic detached from history he blithely delivered five humorous radio sketches under the general title: How To Be An Internee Without Previous Training. The scripts have been transcribed, here are some extracts.

How he came to be interred:

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 on the coast of France and stay there until the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest method. You buy the villa and let the Germans do the rest.

All that happened as far as I was concerned, was that I was strolling on the lawn with my wife one morning, when she lowered her voice and said ‘Don’t look now, but there comes the German army.’ And there they were.

Wodehouse I said to myself old sport, this begins to look like a sticky day.

It was a pretty nasty shock coming our of a blue sky like that…the old maestro shook like a badly set blancmange.

Of the conditions in which he was held in the first few camps:

Cells in French prisons are built in privacy…you go in, and this door is slammed and locked behind you and you find yourself in a snug little apartment measuring about twelve feet by eight.

Here at last was my chance to buckle down and read the complete works of William Shakespeare. I am happy to say that I am now crammed with Shakespeare to the brim, so whatever else internment has done for me, I am at any rate ahead of the game.

‘Tough’ is the adjective I would use to describe the whole of those five weeks at Huy. The first novelty of intonement had worn off, and we had become acutely aware that we were in the soup.

I became an internee without a passport, thus achieving a social position somewhere in between a minor gangster and a wharf rat.

It was the first time I tried dossing on a thin mattress on a granite floor, but we Wodehouses are tough stuff…my last waking thought, I remember, was this was hell of a thing to have happened to an old gentleman in his declining years, it was pretty darned interesting and that I could hardly wait to see what the morrow would bring forth.

It was extraordinary dirty, as are most places which have recently ben occupied by Belgium soldiers. A Belgium soldier doesn’t consider home is home, unless he can write his name in the alluvial deposits on the floor.

It has been in many ways an agreeable experience.

Of travelling across Europe with other prisoners in cattle trucks:

This is one of the drawbacks to travelling when you are an internee. Your destination always is unknown.

All thorough my period of internment I noticed this tendency on the part of the Germans to start our little expeditions off which a whoosh and a rush and then sort of lose interest.

One drawback to being an internee is that, when you move form spot to spot, you have to do it in company with eight hundred other men. This precludes anything in the nature of travel de luxe.

Eight horses might manage to make themselves fairly comfortable in one of these cross-country loose-boxes, but forty men are cramped. Every time I stretched my legs, I knocked a human soul. This would not have mattered so much, but every time the human souls stretched their legs, they kicked me.

His experience of the year he spent at Tost:

And as Methuselah said to the reporter who was interviewing him for the local sheet and had asked what it felt like to live to nine hundred ‘The first five hundred years are hard, but after that it’s pie’. It was the same with us. The first seven weeks of our internment had been hard, but the pie was waiting just round the corner.

Summing up my experience as a gaol-bird, I would say that a prison is all right for a visit, but I wouldn’t live there, if you gave me the place.

Tost Lunatic Asylum…looking like something the carrion crow had brought in… [it] was no Blandings Castle. Well, it wasn’t, of course, but still it was roomy. If you had a cat and wished to swing it, you could have done so quite easily in our new surroundings.

The Sonderführer. I suppose the best way to describe him to say that he is a Führer who sonders.

I [was] given a padded cell to myself…I eventually wrote a novel.

Life in an internment camp resembles life outside, in that it is what you make it.

At Tost the old dodderers like myself lived the life of Riley.

I have never met a more cheerful crowd. I loved them like brothers.

He ends the fifth broadcast:

With this talk I bring to an end the story of my adventures as British Citizen Prisoner Number 796.

In June 1941 the war was going badly for the Allies, Panzers were thundering into the Soviet Union, the Americans had yet to enter and the outcome of the conflict looked, on balance, to be Germany’s. On any view this was not the time for a British citizen to be broadcasting gentle praise for the conditions of his internment from a Nazi radio station in Berlin. There was nothing pro-German, nothing anti-British and no praise for the German High Command. This was not a broadcast by a proto-fascist, a Lord Haw-Haw-type traitor or a quisling. There were accusations of disloyalty after the war and Malcolm Muggeridge, then a young MI6 officer, was dispatched to Paris to investigate. He concluded in a written report to London that Wodehouse was “ill-fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict…it is not that he is other-worldly, or unworldly, so much as that he is a-worldly, a born neutral.” Devoid of political savvy he may have been but Wodehouse felt so crushed and ashamed that he left for the United States and never returned to Britain again.

These five talks may not have been a failure of politics, but they were a grotesque failure of style. Wodehouse, as we have seen, was the master of a comic language that floats away from its tethers. But on occasions language should penetrate the reality that necessitates its utterance. Fifty miles from Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1941 is not a good place for comic dispatches from Eden. With his inability to differentiate between good and evil it was as if Wodehouse was unaware that anyone could be as ungentlemanly and downright beastly as the Nazis. It may be never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. But it should not be too difficult to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and a world-wide catastrophe.

* a large extinct elephant-like mammal of the Miocene to Pleistocene epochs, having teeth of a relatively primitive form and number.

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One thought on “On P. G. Wodehouse

  1. A terrific and thorough piece –thank you.
    Although I don’t agree with your concluding point: “‘Fifty miles from Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1941 is not a good place for comic dispatches from Eden. With his inability to differentiate between good and evil it was as if Wodehouse was unaware that anyone could be as ungentlemanly and downright beastly as the Nazis.”
    Of course there is no escaping the fact that the light tone of the broadcasts is jarring to us, with the benefit of hindsight about what went on at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But there’s no way Wodehouse, who was interned early in the war, could have had the faintest clue about the atrocities being committed. These were not widely known until after the war. Internees like Wodehouse would have had their communications censored and Wodehouse, sitting in one prison camp, might have supposed them to be much alike.
    Wodehouse’s tone in the broadcasts was also in keeping with a British tradition for stiff-upper-lip humour in the face of adversity. He was broadcasting about his own experience in a series of prison camps and might reasonably have been considered as writing in line with that tradition. (I’ve written about this elsewhere: https://honoriaplum.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/suffering-from-cheerfulness/ ).
    The uproar against Wodehouse had nothing to do with the tone and content of the broadcasts because the British public never heard them (although some servicemen who heard them reported enjoying them). The swell of public opinion against Wodehouse was the result of an orchestrated campaign, decided upon by a couple of individuals. The British public, notable exceptions like Orwell aside, simply accepted what they were told –and regrettably have gone on doing it despite the facts now being available.
    If Wodehouse hadn’t been singled out for propaganda purposes, the broadcasts would be long forgotten. We certainly wouldn’t be picking over them trying to justify the idea that he made some kind of stylistic blunder.
    Nor do I see anything in this episode to suggest Wodehouse had an inability to differentiate between good and evil (whatever they are). What he did have, throughout his long career, was a knack for spotting the ridiculous, and encouraging us to laugh at it. As we know, not just from history but also our own times, there is a fine line between evil and the ridiculous. We ignore the warnings of our satirists at our peril.
    One of the comments Wodehouse made after the episode was that he did not ‘hate in the plural’. His detractors pounced on this as evidence that he wasn’t sufficiently anti-Nazi. I’ve always seen this as evidence of his integrity, in what must have been incredibly difficult personal circumstances. Wodehouse simply wasn’t a hater, and couldn’t spout hatred even to save his own reputation. I like him all the better for it.
    Sorry for writing such a long response to your otherwise excellent piece.

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