Monday, November 7, 2011

"Sometimes escapist but never small-minded"

In a review of a new collection of the letters of PG Wodehouse we are given a fascinating biographical account and a description of what makes him so attractive to those of us who enjoy his books:
.... Countless readers of Wodehouse have testified to the way his novels have their own "stimulating effect" on morale, providing not just comic, but almost medicinal effects: the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm, after his defeat in the first world war, consoled himself by reading Wodehouse to his "mystified" staff; the late Queen Mother allegedly read "The Master" on a nightly basis, to set aside the "strains of the day"; more recently, news reports tell of the imprisoned Burmese comedian Zargana finding comfort in Wodehouse during solitary confinement. "Books are my best friends", he confided. "I liked the PG Wodehouse best. Joy in the Morning – Jeeves, Wooster and the fearsome Aunt Agatha. It's difficult to understand, but I've read it three times at least. And I used it as a pillow too." ....

.... In an open letter to some admirers, he admits that his fiction was never intended to fit the criteria of "relevance": "The world I write about, always a small one – one of the smallest I ever met, as Bertie Wooster would say – is now not even small, it is nonexistent. It has gone with the wind and is one with Nineveh and Tyre. In a word, it has had it. But I have not altogether lost hope of a revival."

The beauty of this sentence is that it enacts what it says. In a superlative run of clichés – "gone with the wind", "one with Nineveh", "in a word" – Wodehouse revels in, and revives, the contained sphere of an exhausted language (a "small world" of its own) and makes it a little larger. So it is with the worlds of his fiction. Almost lyric in their perfection, sometimes escapist, but never small-minded, they offer what Adorno called "the dream of a world where things could be otherwise". Right until the end, Wodehouse wrote to preserve the world of innocence he never quite grew out of – and to resist a world he never quite grew into.... [more]
Two interesting earlier posts about Wodehouse:
PG Wodehouse: a life in letters