Sunday, February 01, 2009

Wodehouse speaks

In the course of my day job, I've recently gotten to work on two new audio collections from the British Library, The Spoken Word: British Writers and The Spoken Word: American Writers. Culled from the archives of the BBC and the Library, the sets offer clips of authors being interviewed or reading from their works or occasional pieces, and for literature fans, they really are a treasure--for example, hearing Arthur Conan Doyle, in the only known recording of his voice, discussing his spiritualist beliefs is itself almost like a visitation.

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?

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.
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:
COOKE: Are you ever inclined to make a big jump into completely contemporary material?

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.
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.

And now the rest of my Sunday beckons. Who better to spend it with than Jeeves?


  1. Levi, you call that work? Sounds like a great way to spend a day. I'm a huge Wodehouse fan, too -- especially his golf stories. He really understands the twisted mentality of golfers, and can paint a picture of a golfer's style with a single nickname: The Man with the Hoe. Thanks for the post about the audio series.

  2. This blog entry has made me happier than you can know! I loved every word. God, don't you wish you could have just sat out on that patio you see in photographs with PGW and his wife and had cocktails on a warm summer night?

  3. Thanks for a great post. It made me realize that there are so many facets of The Master.

    I have a post on Wodehouse too in my blog where I speak of his being the greatest stress buster I have come across.