Thursday, July 16, 2015

`A World for Us to Live In and Delight In'

Writers are a petty and vindictive bunch, ever sensitive to slights real and imagined. Personal loyalty and literary judgment must always be weighed against sales and reputation. That one of the greatest comic voices in the language should rise to the defense of another stands as an astonishing minor miracle. On this date, July 16, in 1961, Evelyn Waugh published “An Act of Homage and Reparation to P. G. Wodehouse” in the London Sunday Times. One day earlier, Waugh had broadcast the talk over the BBC Home Service.  The piece is collected in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (Little, Brown and Co., 1983).

In 1940, as the Nazis moved across northern France, Wodehouse (1881-1975) was caught behind enemy lines at Le Touquet, where he had lived since 1934. The writer was interned for almost a year and then moved by his captors to Berlin, where he was persuaded to make five improbably light-hearted radio broadcasts collectively titled “How to be an Internee without Previous Training.” The talks amounted to amusing anecdotes about life in an internment camp. Not once did Wodehouse acknowledge that Germany and his homeland were at war. The British public was not amused and the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster was denounced by some as a traitor. George Orwell, among others, defended him.

Wodehouse was not Ezra Pound. He seems to have been a rare human being without hate or even rancor. He was guilty not of treason or collaborating with the enemy but of naïveté. Like most writers, he was politically ignorant. Unlike most writers, he never claimed to harbor a political thought. Wodehouse was created with one purpose in life – to amuse us. The broadcasts damaged but didn’t destroy his reputation among the true critics, his devoted readers. Waugh’s “Homage and Reparation” was written on the occasion of Wodehouse’s eightieth birthday. Referring to the wave of anti-Wodehouse sentiment during and immediately after the war, Waugh writes of his defenders:

“A great volume of protests came from the universities and from fellow writers. But they were not entirely unanimous, and it is significant of that shabby time that most of those few who supported the attack did so not on grounds of patriotism but of class.”

With the calumny out of the way, Waugh moves on to the more important task of celebrating Wodehouse’s books, some of the most pleasure-giving ever written. Here is a sampler of his praise:

“The first thing to remark about Mr Wodehouse’s art is its universality, unique in this century. Except for political claptrap few forms of writing are as ephemeral as comedy. Three full generations [now five or six] have delighted in Mr Wodehouse.”

“What is the secret of his immortality? One essential, of course, is his technical excellence achieved by sheer hard work. He is the antithesis, for example, of Ronald Firbank, whose haphazard, hit-or-miss innuendoes sparkle and flutter in and out of critical attention. Mr Wodehouse is an heroically diligent planner and reviser.”

“Most of us who rejoice in his work do so primarily for the exquisite felicity of the language. That, it seems, is a minor consideration to the author. Either it comes to him unsought, an inexplicable gift like Nijinsky’s famous levitations, or it is a matter on which he is so confident in his own judgment that he does not trouble to mention any hesitations he may experience. From his letters he seems to write, as the Norwegians read, for plot.”

“For Mr. Wodehouse there has been no fall of Man; no `aboriginal calamity.’ His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. They are still in Eden. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled . . . He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”


Subbuteo said...

I have to say that I find his Eden-like innocence, his naiveté, an obstacle to enjoying him. His world ( a little like Trollope's) is just too rosy and hermetically self-contained, away from the real world. I once worked for a monk headmaster (English) who revelled in turning the world into quaint Wodehousian aphorisms. Never found them satisfactory as they pretended the world's edges weren't there when, of course, they are (Wodehouse found a few edges in Berlin perhaps and in the criticisms that greeted him on his return to England).Essentially, Wodehouse is fantasy and this spoils the humour.

Dick Cornflour said...

I could be wrong, but I think you might want to change "sleights" to "slights."
Although that's in the first sentence, I can assure you that I read the whole thing.
In fact, reading your blog has become a welcome part of my morning routine. Thanks again.

Jeff Gee said...

At first Waugh's "From his letters he seems to write, as the Norwegians read, for plot" struck me as a delightful (albeit bizarre) non sequitur, but Google supplies the context: "At the same time [Wodehouse's] translations are enormously popular among the Norwegians [...t]hey read him for his plots."

I have to admit I liked it better (and it seemed more in character) as an utterly gratuitous swipe at the Scandinavians.