Lest I begin to seem like a shill for my employer, I'll leave it at that for now--if you want more detail, you can check out this overview from the Guardian. I'm really writing today as a P. G. Wodehouse devotee, for his interview, with which I started my Sunday morning in fine fashion, is my favorite thus far. Simply hearing his voice is a pleasure: it is mild and refined, though without that Edwardian preciousness that is inescapable in the accents of, say, E. M. Forster and Somerset Maugham; the interviewer, the BBC's longtime American correspondent Alistair Cooke, described it at the time in an article for the Guardian as "secure and genial," "tuned entirely in C major." Throughout the interview, Wodehouse's tone carries exactly the hint of amusement that a fan would expect, as if, even as he answers questions, some other part of his mind is perpetually working on a joke--and enjoying doing so.
The interview, conducted in August of 1963 when Wodehouse lived on Long Island, is for the most part easy and conversational, though there's one very brief moment that anyone familiar with Wodehouse's history can't help but hear as awkward: when Cooke asks whether Wodehouse misses living in England. The question was bound to be sensitive, for at that point--and for the rest of his life--Wodehouse viewed himself as an exile from England, persona non grata because of the comic broadcasts he made from a German prison camp during World War II.
Though time has to some extent softened the initially (and understandably) harsh judgement of the broadcasts, with Robert McCrum arguing fairly convincingly in his recent Wodehouse biography that the transgression was the result of Wodehouse's utter, child-like naivete rather than any desire to curry favor with his captors, at the time they were still a definite sore spot for many English, and a source of confusion, frustration, and shame for Wodehouse himself.
After a pause, Wodehouse responds politely, though with an unquestionably hesitancy and even a bit of fumbling for words:
Well, not really, I, I, you see I never ha-have lived in England very much, I was in France . . . for so many years, and then I was over here.To Cooke's credit, his response to Wodehouse's answer suggests that the question was likely unplanned and unthinking: seeming to realize the touchiness of the subject, he pauses, then moves on to more benign topics.
As for those benign topics, the interview is chock-full of them, from questions of translation to uses of slang to the re-emergence of butlers. A wonderful (or perhaps terrifying image) is conjured up when Cooke asks whether Bertie Wooster was modeled on anyone specific and Wodehouse replies:
I wouldn't say any definite individual, but that type was very prevalent in the days when I was in and about London, ah, 1911, 12 and 13.Good god, a whole society of Bertie Woosters--and only one inimitable Jeeves!
A question about whether the communist countries of Europe buy the books in translation leads to an amusing exchange:
COOKE: Do the communist countries buy them?My favorite bit of the interview, however, has to do with the frozen-in-amber quality of the blithe, early Edwardian world that Wodehouse created and peopled so brilliantly:
WODEHOUSE: Ah, they've started again now; I was banned in Hungary. Do you remember a few years ago now, a great number of English authors were banned in Hungary? I was one of them. I suppose they thought my stuff was too little about the proletariat and too much about the earls and dukes and so on.
COOKE: But couldn't the, uh, couldn't, for instance, a communist country pretend to, uh, the readers, that this was an accurate depiction or a devastating picture of the decadence of the upper classes?
WODEHOUSE: [Talking over end of question, chuckling] Yes, I suppose they could. Yes.
COOKE: Are you ever inclined to make a big jump into completely contemporary material?Astronauts in Wodehouse! Actually, I could almost imagine an astronaut penetrating the hallowed precincts of Blandings Castle . . . but of course, he wouldn't be an astronaut at all, but rather a nephew or a suitor who, through some utterly absurd but flawlessly logical turn of events, found himself wearing a space suit as a disguise. Perhaps he'd even get some astronaut ice cream in his fake moustache.
WODEHOUSE: Well I'm not sure that I can manage it. This one's coming out next year, there's nothing to date it at all, it could all have happened yesterday.
COOKE: But, I mean, you're not moved by things like astronauts or urban renewal?
WODEHOUSE: [Laughing] Oh, no. No. No, I feel much happier with the sort of atmosphere I'm accustomed to.
And now the rest of my Sunday beckons. Who better to spend it with than Jeeves?