Iwas at a Quadrant dinner the other night more or less dedicated to celebrating the great BA Santamaria. I loved Santa but felt at pains to say that he was not really the main intellectual influence on me. So I started trying to work out which writer really has most influenced my life’s outlook.
After mature reflection, the answer was obvious — PG Wodehouse. I had been reminded to think of Wodehouse again because this year is the centenary of the publication of his first, sublime Blandings novel, Something Fresh.
Still, am I condemning myself to be judged a mere callow prattler, a foolish flaneur, a veritable flibbertigibbet, by admitting that my whole world view was shaped by an author of light comedy?
It’s not really necessary to tell you that Wodehouse — creator of Jeeves and Wooster, Emsworth and Blandings, Psmith and Gussie Fink-Nottle — was regarded by Hilaire Belloc as the greatest prose stylist of the 20th century, and judged in similar, if less absolute, terms by George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, Tony Blair and countless others.
I got the Wodehouse bug very young. In primary school I read his novel Mike. It was the first novel of 400-odd pages I had read. In its later sequences, it transitions from schoolboy heroism to comic genius in the figure of Psmith.
Immersion in Wodehouse certainly influences your prose style, but more than anything it encourages a certain temperament of modestly anarchic irreverence.
Wodehouse wrote 100-odd books and I think I own and have read almost all of them, the favourites over and over, though not recently (the one exception being a stint in hospital a few years back, when Wodehouse was once more my boon companion).
Let me give you just a couple of examples of the Wodehouse style: “It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.” Or consider: “Freddie’s views on babies are well defined. He resents their cold stare and the supercilious and upstage way in which they dribble out of the corner of their mouths on seeing him.”
Wodehouse famously made an elaborate comic universe out of certain types of Edwardian England — Blandings Castle and its eccentric inhabitants; Bertie Wooster, the idle young man, and his valet, Jeeves, at times transported to New York; and much else. The Englishness was exaggerated, satirised, celebrated, lampooned. It was such brilliant light comedy, and so successful, that it influenced profoundly the attitude even of the English towards their own Englishness.
Wodehouse had a superb classical education at school but family financial misfortune prevented his going to Oxford. This was a great blessing. He wrote therefore from the best, most artistically helpful, of all motives — to make money. He was an early enthusiast for America. And so he had at his disposal classical language, the intricacies of Edwardian slang, and then American slang.
One of his countless comic techniques was to subvert a classical sentence with a slang ending, as in explaining (irony alert) how suffering had made him a great writer: “If he turns out any- thing amusing, he does it simply in order to obtain relief from the almost insupportable weight of an existence which he has long since realised to be a wash-out.”
The “wash-out” perfectly subverts the understated pomposity of the preceding sentence.
Wodehouse joyously mocked all artistic pretensions from the point of view of the innocent fellow afflicted by his betters. Consider: “She was a pretty enough girl in a droopy, blonde, saucer-eyed way, but not the sort of breathtaker that takes the breath. No, what caused this disintegration in a usually fairly fluent prattler with the sex was her whole mental attitude … her conversation, to my mind, was of a nature calculated to excite the liveliest suspicions.”
Wodehouse transcends analysis. No one has ever used words more cleverly, for more fun, and words are the foundation of civilisation, if not of humanity. If for any period you lived in Wodehouse’s pages, you are marked forever by that good fortune.