Yesterday I celebrated the diversity of voices in the world of literature. Today I’d like to highlight a single voice that has, more than any other, shaped my reading preferences and my writing.
I was about thirteen, an impressionable age, when among the stacks in my small hometown library, I stumbled upon the novels of P. G. Wodehouse (pronounced “Woodhouse,” by the way). For the first time in my life I realized that a story could be brilliant, not only for what was said but also for how it was said.
Ten days ago, I read an article about Wodehouse in BBC Culture, a section of BBC.com, dedicated to giving readers “a witty and authoritative global view” of the cultural world: “The Man Who Wrote The Most Perfect Sentences Ever Written,” by Nicholas Barber (June 2, 2020). Wodehouse’s sentences are perfect, Barber says, not because of their lofty themes or sterling ideals but because of their perfection, gliding elegantly “between Shakespeare and race-track slang, between understatement and exaggeration, between gentle humour and stinging wit.”
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy said, “What Wodehouse writes is pure word music. It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures. He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day.”
Wodehouse was born in 1881 and educated at Dulwich College. He joined the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (his father’s idea), using his leisure time to write and and sell short stories at “an astonishing rate.” Two years later he left the bank to write full time. He was born to write: “I never want to see anyone,” he said once, “and I never want to go anywhere or do anything. I just want to write.” By his death at the age of ninety-three, Wodehouse had produced 71 novels, an astonishing 281 short stories, numerous articles for Punch and the Globe, 42 plays, including lyrics for at least 5 musical comedies, and 1 poem.
Wodehouse said his principal aim in life was to make people happy. “Some authors may want to expose the world’s injustices, or elevate us with their psychological insights,” said Barber. “Wodehouse, in his words, preferred to spread ‘sweetness and light….’ With every sparkling joke, every well-meaning and innocent character, every farcical tussle with angry swans and pet Pekingese, every utopian description of a stroll around the grounds of a pal’s stately home or a flutter on the choir boys’ hundred yards handicap at a summer village fete, he wanted to whisk us far away from our worries.”
Wodehouse was gifted with a naturally sunny nature, even when life was hard. Growing up, he barely saw his Victorian colonial parents. In 1940, the Nazis captured Wodehouse at his villa in France, and he spent the remainder of the war in captivity. When an AP reporter was allowed to interview him in his cell, he found him “cheerfully writing a book about American crooks.”
Yes, Wodehouse wrote perfect sentences. Here are some of my favorites:
She looked as if she’d been poured into her clothes and forgot to say “when.”
He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.
It isn’t often that aunt Dahlia lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them.
The voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number.
She looked away. Her attitude seemed to suggest that she had finished with him and would be obliged if somebody would come and sweep him up.
In a 2016 interview, Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City, said “I was clinically depressed for most of 1999 and I would turn to Wodehouse, possibly the funniest writer in the English language. It seemed to be more effective at warding off despair than the antidepressants that I was taking.”
Today we need the singular voice of Wodehouse more than ever. Fortunately we have him, in print, in audible version, and on television in the series Jeeves & Wooster, starring the brilliant actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.
When did you first discover P. G. Wodehouse? In print or on television?
Do you have a favorite Wodehouse quote? Would you share it?