February 2013

Josh Zajdman

nonfiction

P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

P.G. Wodehouse was more of a mixologist than a novelist. Each novel had the same base but it was the different ingredients, which delighted audiences (and sometimes critics) over the decades. Bearing this in mind, a little Wodehouse goes a long way. If you treat each of the novels as a cocktail, reading one will delight you; two will push you toward transcendence; three will push you past it, and four will make everything come up Wodehouse. Granted, everyone has different tolerances. That's what makes drinking and Jeeves novels a matter of taste. I'm a fan, and I can say that abstinence, in either regard, won't kill you. Unfortunately, whereas the novels are fleet, light entertainments, Sophie Ratcliffe's P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters is a plodding, overstuffed tome. She more than ably details the lifelong tragedy, financial strain, social ruination, and constant struggle to achieve a fame that wouldn't abate or, worse, disappear entirely, which dogged Wodehouse. Yes, there are shades of the bon vivant and raconteur still there, but only as facets of a very striated personality. It's the illumination of this personality, by contextualizing its development among biographical events, which serves as the basis of the book, but also its downfall. If you're looking for the light, frothy, and occasionally acerbic tone of the novels, you'll find it in incredibly short supply. Ratcliffe offers the reader a somewhat novel, but not too successful, approach to either biographies or collections of letters -- two genres dominating nonfiction nowadays.

Where Ratcliffe most crucially falters is the lack of editorial molding in some crucial places. It's a pretty basic chronological look at Wodehouse's life with very little sculpting or offering of perspective for the reader. It's similar to a hostess introducing people at a dinner party. You can't merely introduce and walk away. Instead, you must introduce and point out a shared interest, facilitate, smooth out rough edges. Otherwise, it's a pointless juxtaposition. Though the letters are edited and annotated with nice biographical essays serving as aperitifs at the beginning of each chapter's course, the book just feels suffocating, solely dedicated to capturing the entirety of Wodehouse's life with little discernment as to what's vital. It's as if there wasn't enough in the letters to exist with less context, but there was even less context to differ from the well-written biography of Wodehouse written by Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life, or strike out in another direction. Accordingly, the two awkwardly sit side by side, like divorcees having shared a history but no longer willing to work together.

Ratcliffe's book is certainly a comprehensive -- no, exhaustive -- look at Wodehouse. This unexpurgation is usually a bonus in matters of biography. However, in this case, it just seems like surfeit for surfeit's sake. So little of it is illuminating. It's not as if controversial material is left in; it's just an unceasing slideshow with the same narration ("and then, and then, and then.") She didn't need to offer so much to the reader; a more concise and selected grouping of letters would have been of greater value. Instead, we have the largest grouping of letters, and swaths of them are, frankly, uninteresting and repetitious. There are countless letters that begin with apologies: "Awfully sorry I haven't written for long. I've been dashed busy. I've done a couple of short stories since I got here and also practically completed scenario of a new novel," "Sorry for delay in writing," " I am afraid I have left your letter a long time unanswered," and on.

For me, Wodehouse's dependence on other people for material, or the flat out admission of repeating plots is even more perplexing. In a letter to his stepdaughter Leonora Wodehouse (with whom he seemed more in love in a strangely asexual, Peter Pan-y way, than he did with her mother Ethel), Wodehouse writes of the reassembly of his already extant work.

I am at present molding the Archie stories into a book. The publisher very wisely says that short stories don't sell, so I am hacking the things about, putting the first half of one story at the beginning of the book and putting the finish of it about a hundred pages later, and the result looks very good.

In that same letter, Wodehouse writes of Ethel, who always seems to be ailing.

Mummie came out of the nursing home rather tired, as it was one of those places where they wake you up for breakfast at seven-thirty. She has been resting a lot since coming out, and seems much better now. ... The house is very still and quiet without our Snorky (Leonora)... I have to go for my walks by myself.

One pities Wodehouse for large sections of the letters, but reluctantly as he seems intent on eliciting whatever sort of pity or sympathy he can get. "I am undergoing one of my periodical fits of depression about my work. I don't seem to have the vim I used to have. But it's probably due to the hot summer and the fact that I have just been working rather hard on a musical comedy that didn't interest me."

It's this melancholic, taxed, uninterested, pity-seeking Wodehouse that dominates these pages. Toward the end of the book, Wodehouse details his interment in Occupied France and the struggle to regain his reputation that dominated the remaining years of his life. This should have been a fascinating, unsettling read. Instead, the long period of World War II was covered extensively but it became boring. Wodehouse was voluminous and Ratcliffe seemed to trim very little.

The book ends with a letter written shortly before Wodehouse's death in 1975. "And talking of Royal Highnesses I got a most charming letter from the Queen Mother." The man who signed that letter, and so many others, with Plum had recently been knighted. Today, Wodehouse is being championed among academics while the world waits for a Royal baby. Letters are the properties of museums and archives, while emails buzz back and forth. The times have most certainly changed. As frustrating as I found the volume, I still wonder what he would make of them. But he'd probably ask you and me for a hint.

P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters by P.G. Wodehouse, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393088991
640 pages