Friday, March 02, 2012

Recalling P. G. Wodehouse

Recently, I have upset some of my friends by failing to share their admiration for the BBC TV series, Downton Abbey, a country-house saga. My sense is that this portrayal of life in the Edwardian era and beyond is insufficiently critical of the regime of inequality that governed English life in those days, now so remote. Curiously, some of these fans are supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement (as, up to a point, am I), but they seem unaware of the inconsistency (dare I call it cognitive dissonance?) of the two adhesions, with the current US situation condemned, the early British one admired. Well, we are not responsible for the past, I suppose, especially that of another country. One of the things I liked about living in Britain (where I was a grad student in the 1960s), was the luxury of not having to comment on contemporary UK politics. After all, it is t h e i r country.

To get now to the point of this note, I want to confess an inconsistency of my own. When I was a teenager in the years after World War II I became an avid reader of the Jeeves novels of P.G. Wodehouse. Nowadays, most people know these confections from their translation into a TV series, but the originals were characterized by a spritely wit and deft narrative hand. The central theme, of course, is how the valet Jeeves, though nominally subordinate to his mentally challenged master Bertie Wooster, nonetheless managed consistently to outwit and control him.

Tackling these books in the distinctly different setting of postwar Los Angeles was indeed a challenge, but I managed to imagine the locales, many of them country houses, pretty well. Looking back I’m sure that devouring these books represented a kind of engram, activated only later when I moved in the 1960s to live in London. About the same time I read (in the Italian original) Carlo Goldoni’s 1751 comedy La Locandiera, about a servant girl, a female counterpart to Jeeves, who manages always to get the better of her masters. I don't recall connecting the two, Wodehouse and Goldoni.

P. G. Wodehouse was born in 1881 and lived until 1975, so that his writing career lasted over seventy years. He saw many political changes and upheavals, but the main canvas remained that of pre-1914 English upper-class society, reflecting his birth, education, and youthful efforts at writing. Less well known is the fact that Wodehouse was also a playwright and lyricist who was part author and writer of 15 plays and of 250 lyrics for some 30 musical comedies, many of them produced in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. He worked with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes (1934), wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in Kern's Show Boat (1927), created lyrics to Sigmund Romberg's music for the Gershwin – Romberg musical Rosalie (1928), and collaborated with Rudolf Friml on a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1928). He is represented in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

During World War II his reputation went under a cloud, because he was accused (without much substance to the charge) of being a collaborator with the Nazis after they had first imprisoned and then released him to live in France. Despite the fact that he never aspired to write “fine literature” he gained the admiration of a good many fellow writers, including the late Christopher Hitchens, who commented that "there is not, and never will be, anything to touch him.”



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