Friday, March 2, 2018

"Strewing a little happiness..."

From an enjoyable appreciation of P.G. Wodehouse by Joseph Epstein, "Frivolous, Empty, and Perfectly Delightful":
.... For a writer who never aspired to be other than popular, in later life Wodehouse acquired accolades from many writers who easily cleared the high-brow bar, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Parker, Kingsley Amis, Eudora Welty, Lionel Trilling, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Hillaire Belloc called him “the best writer of English now alive,” a handsome tribute seconded by H.L. Mencken. “Temperate admirers of his work,” wrote the English drama critic James Agate, “are non-existent.”

Wodehouse wrote no faulty sentences, and countless ones that, for people who care about the pleasing ordering of words, give unrivalled delight. In his biography McCrum offers the following splendid example, one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, that could be adduced:
In the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.
....“I believe there are two ways of writing novels,” Wodehouse wrote. “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.” No one would accuse P.G. Wodehouse of ever flirting with realism. His fiction is uniformly preposterous. “I don’t really know anything about writing except farcical comedy,” he wrote to his friend the novelist William Townsend. “A real person in my fiction would stick out like a sore thumb.”

Nobody dies in Wodehouse novels or stories. In his fiction there are no wars, economic depression, sex below the neck, little Sturm and even less Drang, with only satisfyingly happy endings awaiting at the close. English country-house scenes were his favorite milieu. These are populated with aimless young men in spats with names like Stilton Cheesewright, Bingo Little, Tuppy Glossop, and Pongo Twistleton; troublesome young women, terrifying aunts, and eccentric servants; notable props include two-seater roadsters, cigarette holders, monocles, and lots of cocktails. ....

The work of humorists is not usually long-lived. Among Americans, two very different examples, James Thurber and S.J. Perelman, seem to have bitten the dust, at least they have for me. Yet Wodehouse remains readable and immensely enjoyable. Perhaps this is owing to his having written about a world that never really existed, so that his work, unlike Thurber and Perelman’s, isn’t finally time-bound. “I’m all for strewing a little happiness as I go by,” Wodehouse wrote to William Townsend, and he did so in ample measure. He would have been pleased to learn that for his readers the gift of that happiness has yet to stop giving.