Friday, July 28, 2006

Sieg heil, Jeeves!

"131. We all act through life, and each of us selects the special audience he wishes to impress. When this audience is not looking at us we are never really happy, however many other people are applauding."

PGW Notebooks, Wodehouse Archive, cited in Robert McCrum, "Wodehouse - A life", Penguin Books (2004), p. 80.

What with work spewing from my ears, it's taken me a month to get through this and reassess what I thought I already knew about Wodehouse. The chums kind enough to comment on that previous post both quickly leapt to Plum's defence – that no, he was never a Nazi.

Yet that's not quite what my concerns were getting at.

McCrum's book is largely taken up with the consequences of five broadcasts Wodehouse made in the summer of 1941 on German radio, which have variously been described as naive, criminally treasonous, revolutionary and anti-British, or even just plain dim.

The reason for the emphasis on this one particular episode may just be that Wodehouse is not otherwise the most exciting subject. Literary biography tends to explain how an author’s best works can all be put down to plagiarism – copied down from real people, real incidents and the works of other authors.

Wodehouse, though, made his name by secluding himself in a fantasy world entirely divorced from the real. Blandings Castle could be based on any number of places he actually went to (McCrum names several), and he hits the big-time as a writer only when he stops basing it all on his schooldays and job in a bank. (Still, McCrum is keen to point out the plethora of aunts in his youth.)

He also defiantly refused to change with the times, to update his characters or worldview beyond an occasional wry reference to things he’d aglanced in the news.

As a result the biography struggles to make sense of the Wodehousian creative process. When he wasn't writing fiction he was talking about it. The biography is littered with snippets of fret about plotting, character and cash. The long hours of grind at a typewriter struck a chord with this particular hack, but I can see it might not ignite joy in fans of Wodehouse's giddily witty prose.

We are told time and again how the writing came first, like an obsessive affliction. He worked at an astounding rate right from the get-go – the only way he could be so prolific.

While his wife, Ethel, threw indulgent parties, Wodehouse would be squirreled away in his study at the type-writer secluded in his fantasy world as much as his characters are.

As the Dr knows only too well, juggling writing commitments (and the insatiable need to write) with real life can be difficult. But a selfless devotion to the craft (I've never felt comfortable with scribbling stories as "art") can be selfish. There's something ungallant about his correspondence as a POW, enquiring after possible book deals and articles but never as to the welfare of Ethel. This lack of concern led his adopted daughter Leonora, struggling to keep track on the far side of the fighting, to assume that her parents were still in touch.

But this selfishness does not make him a collaborator. McCrum’s real strength is to track the myriad accounts and reactions to Wodehouse with the available, provable facts.

Wodehouse did not buy his early release (some months before, aged 60, he'd have been let out anyway) in exchange for speaking propaganda. He was already out by then. He was not a stooge of the SS, who only took advantage after he’d made the recordings. Nor was he venting anti-British feelings so much as letting his American readers know he was okay.

"The events of June 1941 hardly convict Wodehouse of anything worse than gross stupidity."

Ibid, p 304.

Yet this acquittal from charges of treason is really nothing new. George Orwell’s spirited 1945 defence of Wodehouse (which Psychonomy sent me the link to, though it was having read it already that got me thinking on these lines – honest) says something suspiciously similar.
"It is important to realise that the events of 1941 do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity."

George Orwell, “In Defence of PG Wodehouse” (1945).

Orwell’s argument is that Wodehouse “had no conception of Nazism and all it meant,” and that we can only understand what happened by appreciating Wodehouse’s mentality.

"One of the most remarkable things about Wodehouse is his lack of development," Orwell goes on. And again, "His moral outlook has remained that of a public-school boy."

But this doesn’t get Wodehouse off the hook. Rather, it reminds me of Skimpole, the parasite in Bleak House whose persistent claims to being "like a child" are expected to excuse his behaviour - selling introductions to crooked lawyers or deserting his wife and children. Note that his childish ignorance of all adult affairs never stops him getting what he wants or walk away from anything he doesn't.

I guess I'm bothered with the argument that Wodehouse didn't know any better because really he should have done.

Orwell argues this was not unusual either. In not damning the Nazis unequivocally, Wodehouse – always living in the past anyway – had missed out on a relatively new idea. Over to Georgie:
"In left-wing circles, indeed in ‘enlightened’ circles of any kind, to broadcast on the Nazi radio, to have any truck with the Nazis whatever, would have seemed just as shocking an action before the war as during it. But that is a habit of mind that had been developed during nearly a decade of ideological struggle against Fascism.

The bulk of the British people, one ought to remember, remained anæsthetic to that struggle until late into 1940. Abyssinia, Spain, China, Austria, Czechoslovakia -– the long series of crimes and aggressions had simply slid past their consciousness or were dimly noted as quarrels occurring among foreigners and ‘not our business’. One can gauge the general ignorance from the fact that the ordinary Englishman thought of ‘Fascism’ as an exclusively Italian thing and was bewildered when the same word was applied to Germany.

And there is nothing in Wodehouse's writings to suggest that he was better informed, or more interested in politics, than the general run of his readers."

Ibid.

So perhaps the vehemence directed against Wodehouse came from those who were similarly, childishly innocent until recently. There's an old adage about new converts being the most evangelical, so perhaps they saw in Wodehouse's stupid broadcasts a chance to purge their own failings. Of the witchhunts going on as he wrote at the end of the war, Orwell conceded, "at best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty."

I think that’s maybe too easy. The perceived “betrayal” came at a time when the stakes were genuinely life and death while the merry, country-house-and-butlered world Wodehouse made his fortune describing was in tatters. Orwell himself calls it a “ghost”. The care-free wit he’d made famous were of no solace to those caught up in the war, especially if their author seemed so at ease with the enemy. At best his cheery indifference to the war, comfortably off in a Nazi hotel, is horribly tactless.

That’s not to say that arty people should not express their political views – but a celebrity backing a political party often leaves you feeling they’ve got something to sell rather than something to say. And that can taint the rest of their work.

This is not to say Wodehouse was a collaborator, but to acknowledge the buttons he pressed.

Where I disagree with Orwell (and where I thought he'd have been harsher) is the lack of responsibility on Wodehouse's part. Orwell seems, for all he acknowledges Wodehouse's own tacit acceptance of class and finacial hierarchy, to share the idea that a bit of money can somehow cocoon you from the world - and worse, that this means we should treat Wodehouse more leniently.

No, you don't have to do the washing up when you can afford a maid, but that doesn't mean you can skive off all social responsibilities. You don't get to live in a bubble. A failure to engage with others is anti-social.

How much is the "stiff upper lip", which McCrum speaks of so often, a virtue, and how much a failure to engage with others?

(The phrase comes from cowardice anyway - sailors pretending to be dead to escape the harsh life of the navy. before being thrown out to sea, their "dead" bodies were sewn up in their hammocks, a stitch put through the lip to check they weren't faking.)

Emotions are a very modern preoccupation in many ways (though we tend to be sniffy of other era's sentimentalities). Wodehouse's writing, for all its comic mastery, remains somewhat detatched and cold. Bertie keeps his friends and relations at arms length. He's never in love, finds the idea of marriage appalling, and gets by just being generally affable but never committing to anything.

Wodehouse was not funny in person, and apparently did not laugh at his own jokes when writing. He cuts a lonely figure, obsessed by his work and himself, though McCrum never really explores this in depth. That may be because there aren't any - and Wodehouse himself was as much surface as his work.

His books skate around on the surface of proper behaviour. There's mention of socialists, women's rights and political groups like the black shorts, but the humour is based on not caring about the big things, and reacting with shock to the fripperies.

All actions, ultimately, are political. It was not stupidity. Wodehouse was intelligent, astute and wanted his reader to know that he was all right and there'd be another book in the bookshops soon.

He didn't care about the other stuff - the war, the suffering, the politics. None of that mattered to him, and that's why he made people so angry. That he'd up till then so delighted them is why they felt so betrayed.

4 comments:

psychonomy said...

No-one is suggesting that Wodehouse's actions - or lack thereof - and lack of thought on the issues make him an angel, or that he ought not to have behaved differently. But there's a world of difference between that and being a paid-up member of the Nazi party.

To counterargue that no-one's suggesting that Wodehouse was an enthusiastic goosestepper is disingenuous at best. That's exactly how he was painted, the taint of which plagued him up to his death and, evidently, beyond. Even now, for many, Wodehouse was a traitor. Which equates in some minds to the sort of bloke who spends their Sunday afternoons gassing Jewish babies.

Do you really imagine that those in the media or government who pilloried him had thought through the issues as closely as you have? That theirs was not the lazy, tribalistic kneejerk reaction of the good, solid 'patriot' in a time of war? "If you're not with us, you're against us". Guarding against that sort of mass-hysterical thoughtlessness is as relevant now as ever.

So I can't fault your criticism of Wodehouse's failure to recognise his moral obligations. But there's more than one kind of stupidity and it's pretty clear, to paraphrase Orwell, that those with their knives out were at least as naive as Wodehouse.

They didn't feel betrayed because he'd so delighted them. They were just looking for someone to punish.

Yes, Wodehouse should have known better. But it's important to remember that, in the event, he didn't. And that, no more, is what he should carry the can for.

0tralala said...

They were just looking for someone to punish.

Orwell also makes the point that he was an easier stooge to pick on than other targets.

Agree with everything you say (of course), and will endeavour to send you something else I'm writing for which this all counts as legwork.

Paul Rhodes said...

Hmmm...

I say Bluff!

Even if they did do that to faking sailors, it wouldn't fit the meaning of the phrase.

Paul

0tralala said...

"Bluff!"

I must admit I thought similar when we were told it while going round HMS Victory. And phrases can modify their meaning over time. And it's nicely gruesome.

So I'm sticking to it.