The Old Unreliable

A Kindly Contemplation of P.G. Wodehouse

By and large, those who read P.G. Wodehouse read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse. They also reread a lot Wodehouse; repetition plays a key role in both the author’s style and his content. Of course, from time to time there do spring up in the oeuvre fresh currents, new coinages, tropes, and gags, but his principal achievement is the creation of an original literary idiom and fictional cosmos, inextricably intertwined, like a braid, by recurrent patterns. If Wodehouse recycles ideas, he does so as a great fountain recycles water — in sparkling, constantly changing liquid formations that are always the same but different, restlessly moving yet somehow at rest. He deploys an eclectic but limited repertoire of characters, settings, and conflicts in a multitude of variations within his looking-glass world — a world hard to penetrate on a casual first reading. One needs to retrace the lines a few times, to saunter several evenings through the hedge maze of a Wodehouse plot, eavesdropping on the other guests of the country house, incanting their silly shibboleths, before their nonsense starts makes sense — before, as Bertie Wooster would put it, the scales fall from your eyes.

I learned the tunes by ear: Jeeves audiobooks played on family car trips each summer. Before I spoke Wodehousian, before I knew the Junior Ganymede from the Drones Club, Totleigh Towers from Brinkley Court, Tuppy from Guppy, Sippy from Stiffy, I imbibed the purely musical quality of the language, unaware that all the while I was tilling my subconscious for a full flowering adoration of the writer. At the time, I was a feckless, irresponsible youth half-trying to become a skate punk — hard work on the rough roads of rural Wisconsin where the most impressive trick one could pull was remaining upright while trundling over the weathered pavement. In fact, the task proved so hard that I gave it up to try my hand at petty larceny. After fatally underestimating the dedication of K-Mart’s loss prevention officials, I found I hadn’t the gifts or the application for that calling, either.

In the wake of this disgrace, my parents demanded that I finally “catch fire” to something — take something seriously and work steadily at it. I was baffled. Having already glanced queasily over the kids menu of accepted outlets (music lessons, the arts, sports, crime) I assumed that the only thing left for me was a real career, the law, the army, the clergy or something equally gruesome. My only abiding interest had been comedy. Over my childhood I had worn out albums of Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Eddie Murphy, and Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields films taped off local TV on Sunday mornings. I had discovered British comedy, late night reruns of Monty Python, Blackadder, and Fawlty Towers for which I waited until the wee hours like an impatient lover. It was only upon recognizing in the gamboling dialogue of these shows echoes of a familiar authorial voice — the same voice which played about the family car like the balmy air through its opened windows — that I decided to actually crack a volume of Wodehouse and conduct a paternity test.

The enterprise had the added advantage of presenting to my vigilant parents a semblance of constructive effort. Studying comedy on screen or stereo was too much like play; reading a classic author, albeit a comic one, at least resembled some manner of work. Unlike the spoken word or the sight gag, comic literature, unconstrained by time, allowed me to parse the antic prose, to linger over amusing turns of phrase. This close, sober analysis eventually stirred up a number of irksome questions: What makes something funny? Why do we laugh? Why do we want to laugh? What good is laughter? What good is comedy? To answer these questions, I wanted a solid definition of comedy from which to proceed.

My research in this direction turned up definitions of two types: the overly simple and the overly complex. Most discouraging were the cynical warnings that the Medusa gaze of critical inquiry would turn the supple life of comedy to stone. Imagine, then, my delight in finding a definition that not only satisfied but also inspired me ’ what’s more, it came from none other than the First Cause of the investigation himself, P.G. Wodehouse.

Asked to define comedy, Wodehouse replied in unusual earnest, that it was “the kindly contemplation of the incongruous.” I already had a dim sense of two qualities native to the comedy I preferred: the absurd and the humane. Wodehouse’s “incongruous” covered the former — the irrational, anarchic impulse against stifling boredom — and his “kindly” suggested the latter — a pathos counterpoising the bleak impersonality of pure chaos. However, my fumbling hold on this relationship lacked the special insight of his integral term “contemplation,” — the supreme importance of freedom.

Along with the appreciation of individual freedom in comedy came also an appreciation of the individual case. Together they threw the indissoluble question “What’s so funny?” right back in its own face; I realized that each freshet of pure mirth, each truly comic instance answers that question for itself, in itself, by the very fact of its being.

Wodehouse allows us room to contemplate, room to play. Playfulness abounds in any Wodehouse story: the plot, the characters, the conflicts, and most fundamentally the language, the verbal play, all seem to spring from an almost prelapsarian sense of freedom, a spontaneous enterprise unmotivated by duty or anxiety. This sense of play, of idle curiosity, in Wodehouse is bound up with the social class of his most famous characters: Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth, Sir Galahad Threepwood, and Psmith are clearly members of leisured society. Even characters of a more obscure pedigree (Ukridge or Mr. Mulliner, for instance) are still idlers at heart, members of the same class either by temperament or practice. However, these denizens of civilized society are neither too keen on civility nor society. Despite their noble lineage, classical education, and polished patter, they resist meddling efforts to civilize them as strenuously as the lowborn Huck Finn does those of the Widow Douglas. In plots full of controlling aunts, termagant wives, officious policemen, tedious headmasters, clergymen, and magistrates, these idlers, seek an escape from societal institutions: family, marriage, government, school, church.

The close association of Wodehouse and the idle class has led many over the years to assume an ideological sympathy with the conservative powers that be. When questioned on the subject, the author was always dismissive, claiming a lack of interest in matters that were beyond him. Some critics have equated this apolitical posture with outright amorality, but unlike, say, Henry James or Jane Austen, who are both preoccupied with the real sociology of class, Wodehouse uses class mainly to facilitate his farcical plots. A character needs leisure to participate in a Wodehouse scenario. After all, one cannot properly attend to stealing back an uncle’s prized cow-creamer, doting nervously on a favorite pig, or betting on which local curate will give the longest sermon if one has to be at work in the morning. That Wodehouse can set these stories among the upper classes while escaping any larger political significance owes mainly to his creation of an essentially ahistorical world.

At any rate, the lingering notion of Wodehouse himself as a member of the idle class is entirely false. By all reports he was a tireless, industrious writer with an almost compulsive work ethic. As prolific as his characters are loquacious, Wodehouse completed in his lifetime more than seventy novels, three hundred short stories, five hundred articles, sixteen plays, and lyrics for twenty-three musical comedies. This prodigious output is part and parcel with the character of the work produced. Instead of creating isolated, perfect, self-sustaining masterpieces, Wodehouse practiced what art critic Manny Farber might praise as “termite art” which “ ... feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” Termite artists “seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything.”

Wodehouse was fond of milking so-called High Art for laughs. This may be due in part to a hidden resentment at being regarded as “English literature’s performing flea” — playwright Sean O’Casey’s slighting description that summarized the prevailing critical view of Wodehouse. Like any good-humored artist, Wodehouse was quick to laugh at his critics, but one senses a proud defiance behind his response to the snooty dismissals. In addition to titling his autobiography Performing Flea, Wodehouse used to claim with suave diablerie that he would rather have written Oklahoma! than Hamlet. Whatever the precise mixture of truth, exaggeration, pride, and humility in this breezy attitude, it served to give Wodehouse the reputation of a gleeful philistine.

A voracious and omnivorous reader with an appreciation for the high and the low (he confessed an admiration for Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself), Wodehouse saw his own work in a singular light: “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right down deep into life and not giving a damn.” Some have taken the willful ignorance of reality in his fiction to imply a willful ignorance of reality in his life altogether; this and other charges of social irresponsibility, reactionary politics, and bad faith made against Wodehouse all stem from one notorious incident in his public life: the German radio broadcasts of 1941.

For those unfamiliar with the story, in May of 1940 invading German forces captured Wodehouse in Le Touquet, France, where he had been living for several years. After a brief period of house arrest, he was separated from his wife and sent to a series of internment camps. Although the hardships he faced were nothing compared to those suffered by captured soldiers, let alone the horror reserved for Jewish internees, Wodehouse and his fellow inmates were prey to malnourishment, disease, and the elements. Still, his diary during this ordeal preserves his usual cheerful air as he records jaunty observations on camp life and makes notes for future books. In fact, Wodehouse was allowed a typewriter with which he finished one of the greatest Jeeves novels, Joy in the Morning, and composed a new book, Money in the Bank, in its entirety. However, this tale of plucky endurance is cut short by the folly of the broadcasts.

The German propaganda machine, seeking to delay the U.S. entry into the war, decided to use Wodehouse as a human shield. In a show of “goodwill,” they offered him the chance to make a few humorous reports to his American audience over the radio. Though an Englishman by birth, Wodehouse considered himself an American; eager to maintain contact with his adopted country and his largest readership and oblivious to the plight of his beleaguered homeland (and blind to the sordid nature of any kind of deal with the Nazis), he swallowed the bait whole. The content of these broadcasts was as blithely inoffensive as anything he ever wrote; the overall tone is well represented in his thoughts upon being interred: “Wodehouse, old sport, I said to myself, this begins to look like a sticky day.” Rather, it was their context that proved so invidious. With the Luftwaffe carpet-bombing London on a nightly basis and the Nazi’s black ulterior motive bleeding through even his lightest word, Wodehouse came across as a wanton opportunist and a callous traitor.

I will not attempt here a comprehensive defense of Wodehouse’s wartime conduct. For one thing, I have long been beat to punch by my betters (George Orwell, for example, and Evelyn Waugh). For another, the old dear does make it hard for even his most ardent admirer to exonerate him of all wrongdoing. Certainly he failed in several respects, not least of which was hiding behind his charming professional persona of Woosterish naïveté. Suffice it to say that Wodehouse was not alone in blinding himself to the outrageous evil of the Nazi regime; most of Europe and much of this country were party to the same offense. But despite collective efforts to mitigate his disgrace, the stain persists, and critics are not content to blame the man instead of the writer. They seek in his work hidden indications of the cold nature, the selfish irresponsibility that they think the broadcasts reveal.

In the April 19th, 2004 issue of the New Yorker, Anthony Lane, film critic and Wodehouse enthusiast, wrote an article on the author entitled “Beyond a Joke: The Perils of Loving P.G. Wodhouse.” A weird mix of appreciation and condemnation, the piece centers on Lane’s great-uncle Eric Vachell, a lonely man who took shelter from life’s perils and his own inner demons in an obsessively sterile private world, a good deal of which he built around the books of P.G. Wodehouse. Over time, Lane came to see a connection between his uncle’s retreat from reality and the essential nature of their favorite author: “The Wodehouse whom my great uncle revered and handed down to me, is the leading Cold Fish of English fiction: the round-the-clock anti-sentimentalist, who may have bathed in tales of sunshine but who touched them with an undeniable chill. He laughs hardest at those who have been put through the wringer, and he achieves some of his most startling effects with a casual indifference to feeling.” Hard words from an adoring fan. Lane goes on to suggest that Wodehouse is like an addictive drug one must be careful not to abuse: “Immerse yourself in Wodehouse for a while and you start to subscribe, whether you like it or not, to his sneaky inversion of accepted social values — to a world tipped upside down like a snow globe, in which gold, cocktails, spats, and horse racing rise to the surface of one’s concerns, while love, marriage, political causes, and world affairs sink dismally to the bottom.”

It’s mistaken to characterize Wodehouse’s detached style as “cold.” Better to call it cool — a delightful coolness that can soothe, refresh, and quicken. (For the troubled sleeper, there is no better bedside book than a Jeeves novel.) Beyond that, having immersed myself in Wodehouse for fifteen years, I still don’t care a fig for gold, spats, or horse racing (though I am fond of a timely cocktail). Finally, Lane’s message, (which can be reduced to “seek for balance in all things”); may be good advice to any number of sheltered neurotics who have never cracked a fortune cookie, but as commentary on Wodehouse’s achievement it’s appallingly slight.

Literary critic Harold Bloom has observed that “nonsense literature frees us from ordinary nonsense.” While he doesn’t engage specific targets, Wodehouse’s nonsense performs this corrective function, not a “sneaky inversion” but a subtle subversion, a gentle disarming, of the human fears and passions that threaten constantly to dehumanize us. In particular, he demonstrates the elasticity of language, its ironic potential, which is our most potent weapon against those who would use language to enslave. Even the shameful German broadcasts bear this out, revealing how Wodehouse’s refined disobedience slides like sand through the tight sieve of Nazi censorship. Although something far more blunt than Wodehouse’s glancing rapier was called for at the time, everything about the three-part radio series “How to Be an Internee and Like It” reveals how his personality is fundamentally incongruous with and inimical to a tyrannical ideology. I can’t remember where in the winding, interconnected termite chambers of Wodehouse one would find the maxim, “Those who throw coconuts at top-hats are fundamentally sound in their views,” but it seems to fit the case here rather prettily; though Wodehouse may not have been an outspoken critic of injustice or a thoughtful observer of the human condition, he was a dead eye with the coconuts.

To evidence Wodehouse’s "sneaky inversion of accepted social values" Lane adduces a brief exchange between Bertie Wooster and his sartorially circumspect valet Jeeves:

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks onself ‘Do trousers matter?’”

“The mood will pass, sir.”

This passage is a fine example of how Wodehouse reworked a gag, embellishing, expanding, and seasoning the joke. But if reading Wodehouse actually made us care more about spats, trousers, and ties than about the real stuff of our lives, these passages would lose their comic savor. Jeeves would seem merely to be stating the obvious as opposed to delivering a deliciously absurd punchline. Lane’s misreading is no more apparent than in the closing section of his article where, like a revivalist preacher, he urges us to avoid “too much comedy” and the temptation to flee from life into the selfish irresponsibility that claimed Wodehouse and Uncle Eric. Referencing Wodehouse’s comments on his unique method of writing novels, Lane ends his piece with this pithy injunction: “We must give a damn.” This tendentious call to duty could not be further from Wodehouse’s humane invitation to play. Moreover, it is hardly the sneaky reinversion of social values that Lane imagines, for if we look back at Wodehouse’s actual remarks we see that they imply that he does give a damn. It is the other, more serious, realistic school of writing that requires "going right down deep into life and not giving a damn." He is speaking here of giving a damn in writing, not in life in general.

Lane’s problem resides in his habit of slippery conflation. He not only conflates his uncle with Wodehouse, he also mixes up Wodehouse the writer with Wodehouse the man. Furthermore, he seems susceptible to a similar tendency in himself, the real subject of his article: “What Wodehousean has not woken up, on a Monday morning, and said to himself, ‘I prefer being Bertie Wooster to being me?’” Well ... I haven’t. Not only does Bertie never get laid, but he doesn’t even get his own jokes. And that is the joke.

In his review of Robert McCrum’s biography of Wodehouse (in The New Republic, March 14th 2004), James Wood examines the central technique of the Jeeves novels. “The first and most important strategy is reliably unreliable narration. Bertie Wooster narrates these books, and we can rely on him to know less than we do…Bertie is reliably unreliable because we know that he is not very bright and we can see when he is being not very bright, but Bertie does not know it himself; indeed he thinks himself frightfully bright — and Wodehouse gaily flags these little dikes, these shallow abysses. We are in on the joke every time; the authorial contract is with the reader, and there is no fine aporetic print.”

Wood asserts that Wodehouse’s true literary achievement consists in the "absolute absence" of moral seriousness. Though Wood offers a most brilliant appreciation of the author’s literary technique, in the final analysis he finds Wodehouse disconcertingly vacuous: “That the work can march so easily, morally speaking on an empty stomach; that it can achieve so many traditional literary things without ever daring the scandal of meaning; that it can be bottomless — ungrounded, unmoored by reality — but threaten no abysses whatsoever, is completely fascinating, because it seems so fatly happy with what, for most of us, would be hardship and starvation — a cosmos of eternal and relentless frivolity.” Both Wood and Lane marvel at Wodehouse’s riches, but despair at his lack of true worth. Just like one of gallants in his books who possess all the manners and connections of the upper class but is always short on dough, Wodehouse seems to these two critics to have all the markings of a great writer, but is cash-poor in the moral value common to that special breed.

Wodehouse’s fictional world is a comfortable, knowable universe that makes little reference to the disagreeable facts and problems of reality. When imposing chunks of cosmic chaos do cross its blissfully unaware, headlong orbit, the heady atmosphere reduces them to bothersome pebbles which at most may lodge in the shoe of a character strolling the placid grounds of a country estate. However, this should occasion neither disapprobation nor bewilderment in his readers; their laughter is neither excessive nor ultimately hollow. The key to a proper understanding of Wodehouse lies in his own definition of comedy: “the kindly contemplation of the incongruous.”

In the same way that we laugh at what the reliably unreliable Bertie omits or distorts accidentally, we laugh at what Wodehouse omits and distorts on purpose. His style, his whole world, is reliably unreliable. Wodehouse’s comic and literary approach is one of apophasis. He mentions by not mentioning the pain, the grief, the evil, the stern facts of life whose lack makes us feel the comedy all the more deeply. The only exception, the only chink through which the two worlds communicate on the page, comes in Joy in Morning, where we catch a rare glimpse of melancholy in the relentlessly cheerful Wodehouse.

The novel is a slight anomaly in the Jeeves books in that Bertie Wooster, who usually narrates with a strict regard for chronology uses a framing device. The novel begins at the story’s end, the inevitably happy ending of a Wodehouse comedy. Gentleman and gentleman’s personal gentleman are tooling merrily homeward after another narrow escape from one of the usual trifling calamities:

“After the thing was all over, when peril had ceased to loom and happy endings had been distributed in heaping handfuls and we were driving home with our hats on the side of our heads, having shaken the dust of Steeple Bumpleigh from our tyres, I confessed to Jeeves that there had been moments during the recent proceedings when Betram Wooster, though no weakling, had come very near to despair ...

“There’s an expression on the tip of my tongue which seems to me to sum the whole thing up. Or, rather, when I say an expression, I mean a saying. A wheeze. A gag. What, I believe, is called a saw. Something about Joy doing something”

“Joy cometh in the morning, sir?”

“That’s the baby. Not one of your things, is it?”

“No, sir.”

From this falling action, Wooster the memoirist flashes back to relate the rising action, fetching up in due course at the novel’s end, which is to say, at its beginning. In the closing passage, he begins to repeat the novel’s opening passage, as if drawn irresistibly to tell the whole mad, merry story all over again. But then the writer (Wooster/Wodehouse), having forgot himself, dutifully brings the lark to a close.

“It was as we were about half-way between Steeple-Bumpleigh and the old metrop, that I mentioned that there was an expression on the tip of my tongue which seemed to me to sum up the nub of the recent proceedings. Or, rather, when I say an expression, I mean a saying, a wheeze. A gag. What I believe is called a saw. Something about Joy. But we went into all that before, didn’t we?”

By opening with a blatantly happy ending, the story calls attention to its own construction: this is a happy ending; happy endings are fiction; this is fiction. Likewise, the circular structure and the direct appeal of the last sentence form an affecting farewell, a gently sorrowful wink from author to reader acknowledging their mutual regret at leaving their collaboratively created idyll. This self-reflexive admission in turn admits the reality of unhappy endings, of death, and so admits a modicum of decay into the imperishable kingdom.

The passage is all the more poignant when one considers that this was the novel Wodehouse wrote while the Nazi specter stole up on him, while, as Wodehouse himself might have it, “Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing glove.” Contemplating, not ignoring, the very real, the very incongruous image of Wodehouse scribbling happily away in the shadow of Hitler gives me greater comfort, greater mirth as I wake from troubled dreams into a more troubled reality and doze with the author’s lips to my ear:

“Jeeves,” I said, “have you ever pondered on Life?”

“From time to time, sir, in my leisure moments.”

“Grim, isn’t it, what?”

“Grim, sir?”

“I mean to say, the difference between things as they look and things as they are.”

“The trousers perhaps a half-inch higher, sir. A very slight adjustment of the braces will effect the necessary alteration. You were saying, sir?”