6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 21

Talking of books


Benny Green

So keen was I to read David Jasen's book about P. G. Wodehouse* that I actually went into a bookshop and bought a copy; greater love than that no reviewer can have. My reasons will be clear enough to anyone who has ever been ensnared in the silken meshes of a Wodehouse plot, or who has been compromised into sniggering in some public place by a particularly felicitous piece of phrase-making. When a man is as good at his job as Wodehouse was at writing comic novels, the mind ends up wondering about the man behind the moonshine, and no writer appears to have been more reticent about his life, especially in its early stages, than Wodehouse. I say appears to have been, because I believe there are more facts scattered about the grounds of Emsworth Castle and the Drones Club than some people think. A new biography of Wodehouse is a pleasing prospect made even more pleasing by the fact that there exists no old one. Richard Usborne's Wodehouse at Work, although it never aspired to biography, at least told us a little about its subject. Homage to P. G. Wodehouse, a symposium published a year or two ago and edited with Fink-Nottleish eccentricity by Thelma Cazalet-Keir, included among the piffling self-advertising of some of the contributors a few pearls by some of the others, particularly Compton Mackenzie on Wodehouse's wartime tribulations. But the gaps in our knowledge remain so vast that I dashed like a whippet to buy David Jasen's book, whose shortcomings I can only convey by asking whether anybody would like to buy a secondhand book?

It is indeed a crushing irony that so consummate a master of English prose as Wodehouse should have been apotheosised by a writer like Mr Jasen, whose paragraphs give the impression that someone has gummed up the keys of his typewriter with an inferior brand of chewing gum. When he wants to tell us that hard work suited Wodehouse, Jasen writes that "ceaseless toil no doubt accorded well with his natural proclivities". When he desires to convey his enthusiasm for great leading ladies he says that a certain show was to "star the effervescent Gertrude Lawrene, who was currently taking New York by storm". However, the ceaseless toil of trudging through Mr Jasen's saga, well though it accords with my own natural proclivities, makes it impossible for me to take anything by storm, even one in a teacup. The best that an be said is what people always say about vgry bad but very well-intentioned books of this kind; that whoever does come to write title definitive life of Wodehouse will find Jasen's documentation indispensable.

Some reviewers have suggested that because Wodehouse spent most of his waking hours working, it follows that no v,,orthwl-iile biography of him is possible. They may be right. Others point out that as Wo.dehouse's books are not about anything, theti it follows that no worthwhile biography of hal is worth compiling. They may be certifiable: It has been a pleasant diversion watching the more solemn literary critics dismissing Wodehouse as a purveyor of persiflage, 4nd performing the deed in prose whose texture achieves an alarming resemblance to soggy cardboard. So far the most perceptive, ,the most informative, the most readable chronicler of Wodehouse's working life remains Wodehouse himself. His Performing Flea and Br:ing on the Girls tell a considerable amount, and Over Seventy adds a little. One other key work is Psmith in the City, which is based on its author's false start as a bank clerk. It is a book crammed with loosely disguised revelations,

and yet Jasen blandly dismisses it with ". of particular interest because the story was ba:Sed on his two years with the bank", without telling us what the particular interest was.'

Even worse, Jasen is an American who -has evidently taken no trouble to learn the Most elementary facts about Wodehousean England. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride wlien in the train home after purchasing the boOk I worked my way through the captions to the photographs and came across one of , the Dulwich College cricket eleven for which Wodehouse turned out around 1900. It reads "The first cricket team at Dulwich". I supPose what the author means is "The Dulwich first eleven", but nobody has told him, not even his British publishers, which I find sad but not really very surprising. There was a moment in Wodehouse's life when the cricket-playing Englishman turned into the golf-playing American, and I would guess that it occurred some time around the writing of Piccadilly (1917) when for the very last time Wodehouse mentions cricket in his text. So complete was the metamorphosis that at the end of his life, in an unpublished interview, Wodehouse confided that baseball was a much better game than cricket. A comical and staggering volte-face, and one which no biographer worth his-salt 'would have ignored. Do not, however,: try looking for it in Jasen's book.

I know from personal experience that when a writer has the temerity to suggest that a-few of Wodehouse's themes have their roots in reality, people begin screaming with rage, even in the face of facts which Wodehouse hiruself has documented. Wodehouse certainly created a make-believe land of his own, and I of all people would never belittle the astonis,kling achievement. But the roots were then. I suggest that there is more red meat in a single essay in last month's edition of "Blackwood's" than in Mr Jasen's entire magnum opus. The Blackwood's essay is called The Real Dremes Club by a Mr Murphy, and is to a large extent the real McCoy. In the meantime Wodehquse awaits his Boswell.