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Wodehouse: A Life (2004)

de Robert McCrum

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407846,207 (4.09)20
"P. G. Wodehouse is a comic writer of genius best known for Bertie Wooster and his omniscient manservant Jeeves: the pig-loving peer Lord Emsworth - and a regiment of aunts and butlers. But although Wodehouse and his work have become indissolubly part of the English language and literature, the writer himself is enigmatic. His life, notorious for one historic blunder during the Second World War, remains remarkably unexplored." "Based on research throughout Britain, Europe and the United States, Wodehouse: A Life goes deep beneath the surface of Wodehouse's extraordinary career, and reveals as never before the complexity of a writer who liked to maintain, against all the evidence, that his life was a 'breeze from start to finish'. In a portrait of a quintessential English writer and his times, Robert McCrum describes Wodehouse's beginnings in Edwardian London, his golden years on Broadway in Jazz Age America, and his adventures in thirties Hollywood. Wodehouse: A Life is a journey through some of the twentieth century's most turbulent decades, and it culminates in Wodehouse's controversial wartime experience: his internment in Nazi Germany and the broadcasts from Berlin, a fateful decision that haunted him to his death in 1975, and still affects his reputation." "Wodehouse: A Life is the story of an Englishman who served to represent the essence of his age and country, but who, tragically, ended his life at odds with both. This biography brings to life the worlds of Wodehouse's century, while never forgetting for a moment his comic genius."--BOOK JACKET.… (més)

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An interesting read of a very English man. ( )
  Jon_Hansen | Oct 21, 2019 |
As a writer, P.G. Wodehouse was something of a Jeeves, his most famous character. He came up with outrageous solutions to outrageous problems. He even out-jeeved Jeeves by inventing the problems in the first place. Wodehouse said his novels usually began with an absurd situation. Then he just had to figure out a way to get his characters into that situation and out of it again by the last page.

Otherwise Wodehouse was more like Lord Emsworth (Clarence) of his Blandings novels, the character he most identified with according to Robert McCrum, author of the superb 2004 biography “Wodehouse.” Clarence gives every appearance of being a befuddled old man. Actually he is just preoccupied. The only thing he cares to think about is his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. On that subject he is always alert, always on top of things. Everything else just goes over his head. Wodehouse was that way. It was his writing that drew his focus. Most everything else he preferred to let his wife, agent or somebody else handle for him. When his wife gave parties, he would make a brief appearance, then suddenly disappear to return to his work.

It was this Lord Emsworth quality that led to the biggest crisis of Wodehouse's life, to which McCrumb devotes several chapters. Wodehouse was living in France when the Germans invaded early in World War II. He made no attempt to leave, although in fairness it should be noted that many other British citizens also stayed in France, assuming the Germans would be stopped just as they were in the first war.

The Nazis kept coming, however, and Wodehouse was soon their prisoner. Wodehouse being Wodehouse, he kept writing his funny stories and making light of a bad situation. When the Nazis, recognizing his propaganda value, offered him his release in exchange for doing a series of radio broadcasts, the writer viewed it as an opportunity to connect with his fans and assure them he was alright. In Great Britain especially, many saw it as betrayal, a collaboration with the enemy.

Wodehouse lived in the United States for the remainder of his long life, never returning to England because of his shame and, for many years, fear of prosecution. He was eventually knighted, but by then he was too old to travel and probably would not have returned to his home country even if he could have.

Most of the biography, if not as light as Wodehouse's novels, is at least lighter than most biographies. McCrumb describes the plots of much of his best work, and so much of his work was terrific. For about 70 years he was an important writer, not just of books but also of short stories, pieces for magazines and newspapers and even Broadway plays and Hollywood movies. For a number of years, in fact, his was one of the biggest names on Broadway, teaming with the likes of Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. His books remain in print and loved around the world. I have seen a couple of his musicals performed in recent years, and they are still entertaining.

Even though Wodehouse remained productive while a Nazi prisoner, for about five years after the war he found it difficult coming up with anything funny. Eventually he put his embarrassment behind him. Wodehouse fans would be kind to do likewise. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Oct 1, 2018 |
Long, but fast moving book with a lot of information about Wodehouse, his collaborators, his inadvertent collaboration, and his life. I learned things, but missed some of the stories I'd read elsewhere. For example, someone said that Wodehouse used to throw his letters out of his window and that they always got to their destination. I was left, once again, with the sense that Wodehouse did not understand the concept of evil. Still, an awful lot of research and writing went into the creation of this biography.

Turns out there are notes giving sources for what McCrum says in the book; some notes even have additional comments. But the main text gives no clue of that they exist, carefully hidden, at the back of the book, where a quote from the main text is followed by the note itself. While it gives the book a cleaner look, it also feels as if the editor didn't get a chance to clean up the details or add numbers to the end notes. There are also references in the book that didn't make sense to me: Mention of the confusion arising from two people with the same name only made sense when I discovered in the end notes that there was a second person. Or explaining that Ethel Merman became famous because of Anything Goes is followed by a discussion of the evolution of the play along with its different names, until we finally learn that it becomes Anything Goes. ( )
  raizel | Aug 12, 2013 |
Having read five or six Wodehouse biographies already, I wasn't exactly falling over myself to rush out and get a copy of McCrum on the day it appeared. All the same, to have waited seven years to read it probably looks a bit slack for someone like me who claims to be a lifelong Wodehouse fan. I wasn't expecting a great deal from the book: the many articles McCrum placed in the Observer and elsewhere to drum up interest in Wodehouse in the period before publication made it pretty clear that he didn't have any startling new revelations to offer. There's a lot of song-and-dance about the Berlin broadcasts, and McCrum has evidently tracked down a couple more witnesses from this period, but he seems to have no significant new information. McCrum's conclusion is essentially that of everyone else who has written about the matter with benefit of hindsight: Wodehouse was naïve and foolish, entirely failing to see how his actions would be perceived in wartime Britain.

Though there's little in McCrum that will be new to anyone already interested in Wodehouse, this is a useful book in the way it brings everything together in one place. The last full-scale biography was by Barry Phelps, in 1992: quite some work has been done since then to track down evidence of Wodehouse's early career, his stage work and his tax difficulties. Much of this has only been published in specialist journals or obscure privately-printed monographs, difficult and expensive to track down. If you're only going to read one biography of Wodehouse, then this is certainly the one to go for.

There are slight differences of emphasis from earlier biographies, as you would expect. For a start, it's not a very literary biography. He's not particularly interested in the sources of Wodehouse's language, and only marginally in his characters and settings. We get very little about the early school stories. There's a lot more about when and how books were sold than about how they were written. On the stage work, he makes the what, who and when fairly clear, but it's difficult to get any sense of Wodehouse's talent as a lyricist and librettist. Benny Green is much better on these aspects. McCrum's not quite as sceptical of Wodehouse's own account of himself as Phelps is, even if he does look at him rather more critically than early biographers like Donaldson or Jasen did. However, he clearly disapproves of Ethel, and treats her much more roughly than other biographers have. Possibly this is simply because he has tracked down a few more of the Wodehouses' former domestics: cooks and housekeepers are in a position to see the lady of the house at her worst...

McCrum repeats himself a bit, and occasionally falls into the classic biographer's trap of foresight ("little did he know that forty years later..."), but on the whole his style is very agreeable. The text is supported by clear source notes (although he perhaps doesn't acknowledge Phelps as often as he should) and there's a useful, if sketchy, bibliography. The photographs are basically the same selection as in all the other biographies, but it would be unrealistic to expect interesting new photos to come to light at this late stage. (Tantalisingly, McCrum mentions in his Afterword having seen the original uncropped version of Thuermer's picture of Wodehouse at Tost in 1940, but the version that appears in the book is cropped, as it appeared in the American press at the time.) ( )
  thorold | Sep 4, 2011 |
I recently finished Robert McCrum's Wodehouse: A Life. If you aren't afraid that knowing a whole lot more about Wodehouse personally might take away some of the inimitable lightness you get from reading his stories, I highly recommend it. McCrum has researched essentially everything that is known about Wodehouse's life, including some (perhaps many) illuminating details not previously reported by anyone. For example, McCrum found and interviewed (still living, retired in the south of Spain) a then-young German journalist (and pre-war Wodehouse fan) who in 1942 dissuaded an interned Wodehouse from trying to hire a German attorney to commence a legal action in England against English newspapers for libel over their attacks on him for the broadcasts he made on German radio in 1941. If all that sounds as implausible as one of Wodehouse's stories, well, that's just why you might enjoy the real story of his life.

And there is much that is enlightening and revealing about Wodehouse's early life. For example (and as you may already know), Psmith in the City is heavily built on Wodehouse's own experiences (much exaggerated of course) when he was sent to work at the London branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. It was an unusual bank in the City in that it's young staffers were in training to be sent out to more responsible positions at branches in Asia. (Wodehouse didn't want to do that, and broke away to try -- and succeed at -- full time writing before it was time for him to go out East.)

A couple of caveats:

Turns out that Wodehouse in real life was an intensely private person, so there is much that can never be known about what he really thought and felt at key points in his life. That, however, doesn't always stop McCrum from speculating from insufficient evidence. You can enjoy the facts presented without always accepting McCrum's inferences, of course.

In a similar vein, McCrum aspires to psychobiography, and here too the lack of sufficient evidence doesn't always stop him. These passages stand out easily, though, and again you don't always have to accept his speculations.

The 100 page section on the period of Wodehouse's internment by the Germans reads almost like a thriller. I found myself turning the pages to find out what strange twist of fate came next.

For me, the bio has deepened my appreciation for Wodehouse's immense literary achievement. Wodehouse the man was more complex than I had thought (I should have expected that), and I can see that some of his literary virtues (never taking anything too seriously) are related to some of his real life vices (the refusal to take anything other than his writing very seriously). ( )
4 vota pechmerle | Feb 2, 2009 |
Es mostren 1-5 de 8 (següent | mostra-les totes)
McCrum tends to stress Wodehouse's later conservatism—his aversion to the Hollywood Communists in the Screenwriters Guild, for example, and his long battle with the tax authorities in England and America. Some of the more Marxist Wodehousians, such as Alexander Cockburn and Francis Wheen, conversely emphasize the Spode satire, or the salient point that the upper classes in Wodehouse's world are helplessly dependent on their manservants and pig keepers. The honors here can be divided more or less equally. What Wodehouse did discover, though, was that once he had cast off the shackles of the proletarian condition and become self-employed, the long day was never done. This book depicts a man who eventually managed to live in grand and comfortable circumstances, but who never for a single moment forgot that he had an infinitely demanding and ruthless taskmaster—himself. Class be damned; but he was a worker all right. His chief skill lay in making the product of his labor look easy.
afegit per SnootyBaronet | editaThe Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens
 
Robert McCrum never knew Wodehouse, and his life of the writer is less warm and intimate (and less subjective) than the 1982 biography by Frances Donaldson, who was a family friend. For a book about a humorist, it's also not very funny. McCrum takes Wodehouse seriously and resists the temptation to add any light touches of his own, or even to dwell on the ways in which the life occasionally resembles the stories...
 
No lover of Wodehouse will want to be without this masterly appraisal of the good life of a good man.

[Note: McCrum was the literary editor of the Observer at the time this review was published!]
 
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"P. G. Wodehouse is a comic writer of genius best known for Bertie Wooster and his omniscient manservant Jeeves: the pig-loving peer Lord Emsworth - and a regiment of aunts and butlers. But although Wodehouse and his work have become indissolubly part of the English language and literature, the writer himself is enigmatic. His life, notorious for one historic blunder during the Second World War, remains remarkably unexplored." "Based on research throughout Britain, Europe and the United States, Wodehouse: A Life goes deep beneath the surface of Wodehouse's extraordinary career, and reveals as never before the complexity of a writer who liked to maintain, against all the evidence, that his life was a 'breeze from start to finish'. In a portrait of a quintessential English writer and his times, Robert McCrum describes Wodehouse's beginnings in Edwardian London, his golden years on Broadway in Jazz Age America, and his adventures in thirties Hollywood. Wodehouse: A Life is a journey through some of the twentieth century's most turbulent decades, and it culminates in Wodehouse's controversial wartime experience: his internment in Nazi Germany and the broadcasts from Berlin, a fateful decision that haunted him to his death in 1975, and still affects his reputation." "Wodehouse: A Life is the story of an Englishman who served to represent the essence of his age and country, but who, tragically, ended his life at odds with both. This biography brings to life the worlds of Wodehouse's century, while never forgetting for a moment his comic genius."--BOOK JACKET.

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