Whilst one might be sceptical about the praisesome quote on the front being derived from the Observer newspaper, and the author of this biography being the literary editor of that same newspaper, it has to be said that this is a very good biography.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only discovered Wodehouse in the last few years, perhaps put off by the setting of the majority of his stories – as with Jane Austen’s work, I rather suspected that Wodehouse’s fans were partly taken by the setting, a setting which (as with Austen) I fear never truly existed. But I was very wrong indeed – it’s the tightness of the plots, the sharpness of the dialogue and the sheer before-its-timeness of Wodehouse that makes it so loved; he seems to have written pretty much every sitcom scenario decades before the sitcom was invented – mistaken identities, people being drunk at inappropriate times, lovers who are too timid to say anything about it, people under financial pressure being in the thrall of capricious bosses or relatives, innocent remarks being misunderstood, minor events spiralling out of control, and so on. The man wrote them all, and with a lightness of touch as to make them seem effortless.
But as McCrum’s book makes clear, it wasn’t effortless – or, at least, not initially – and one of the key factors behind Wodehouse’s success appears to have been how prolific he was (having discovered the greatness of his work, I find myself daunted by the sheer number of books he wrote, though let’s face it, this is one of the better things to be daunted by in life).McCrum explains the circumstances in which Wodehouse wrote his many works, and the ups and downs of his life, though the man himself appears to have been as generally unflappable as one of his most famous creations, and to have weathered his personal storms with the same degree of calm.
One of the biggest elements of the biography – and of Wodehouse’s life – is that of the broadcasts which Wodehouse made whilst interned during World War II. McCrum seems convinced that this was a combination of naïveté and poor judgment on Wodehouse’s part, the act of a man determined to make the best of, and if possible find humour in, even the worst of situations. It wasn’t seen this way at the time, though, and McCrum spends a large amount of time both detailing the events themselves and the public reaction, fairly clearly from an apologist stance; this wasn’t a failing as far as I could see, and he makes a good case, but if anything he dwells on this subject so much and provides so much evidence that I felt he may have been ‘defending too much’, as it were, and it certainly went beyond the stage where I needed any more convincing. However, I’m sure there are many people whose feelings towards Wodehouse are quite different from mine, and the sheer weight of evidence presented in this book may well be enough to change a few minds, which is no doubt what McCrum was aiming for.
Overall, a very readable, and interesting, portrait of a man whose effect on humour and comedy – and of course literature generally – should not be underestimated. Most definitely recommended.