There’s something in common between PG Wodehouse and the early Beatles. Both are unique and both are fun. Listen to Beatles hits like Please Please Me, Help and A Hard Day’s Night – you are struck by the sheer energy and exuberance, the boys sound like no one else on earth. And the lyrics and music are catchy and uncomplicated. Wodehouse also is in a class by himself. I haven’t read a funnier, more entertaining writer.
No, I am not saying this because today is his birthday. He was born on this day in 1881.
The fact is, there cannot be, there will never be, another Wodehouse. His prose is absolutely unique. Open any Wodehouse short story or novel – and it’s like the opening bars of an early Beatles song: exuberant and like nothing else on earth.
The Beatles changed. The adorable moptops who shot to fame in 1962 with Love Me Do followed by Please Please Me morphed into long-haired cultural icons who experimented with all kinds of music by the time they released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.
Wodehouse, on the other hand, was “constant as the northern star” — an allusion he himself might have used in one of his short stories or novels, for he never changed his style: he was always funny and full of literary allusions. It was a remarkable feat, considering what a long writing career he had. He entertained generations of readers, writing comic stories and novels for more than 60 years. His invention never flagged.
Writing career: 1902-1975
Born in 1881, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse – Plum, in short – had his first novel, The Pothunters, published in 1902. It was about schoolboys.
By 1908, however, he had started writing about his comic creation, Psmith (“the p is silent as in pshrimp”, to quote Psmith). By 1915, he was writing about Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves, as well as about Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle.
He wrote about them till the end of his life. Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, his last novel about Wooster and Jeeves, was published in October 1974, just four months before he died after a heart attack in Southampton Hospital on Long Island, New York, on February 14, 1975, at the age of 93. He left behind an unfinished novel, Sunset at Blandings.
What I like best about Wodehouse is his playfulness, especially when it comes to words. He can be so funny and outlandish in his descriptions. Here are a few examples:
“I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.” (The Inimitable Jeeves)
“There was an infinite sadness in Monty Bodkin’s gaze. He looked like a male Mona Lisa.” (Heavy Weather)
“It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused A. B. Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn’t.” (Ring for Jeeves)
Wodehouse on Wodehouse
Wodehouse knows how to hook the reader. It was the result of hard work.
“Before I start a book I’ve usually got four hundred pages of notes,” he said in an interview published in the Paris Review in 1975, the year he died.
Asked how many words he wrote on a good day, he said: “I used to write about two thousand words. Now I suppose I do about one thousand.”
Robert McCrum in his biography, Wodehouse: A Life, wrote: “The man lived to work. It’s one of the delightful ironies of his career that the creator of perhaps the idlest enduring character (Bertie Wooster) in English literature was himself a demon for labour.”
That capacity for hard work is another thing Wodehouse had in common with the early Beatles.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, has a chapter called the 10,000-Hour Rule, which begins with a quote from John Lennon: “In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours.” That’s how long they had to play each night. “We got better and got more confidence,” said Lennon.
Yes, it takes a lot of hard work to be any good, says Gladwell. He quotes the neurologist Daniel Levitin who wrote 10,000 hours of practice is required to be a world-class expert in anything. Composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, all need that much practice, he wrote.
Plot and character
Wodehouse certainly worked hard and long. “If I’ve got a plot for a novel worked out and I can really get going on it, I work all the time. I work in the morning, and then I probably go for a walk or something, and then I have another go at the novel. I find that from four to seven is a particularly good time for working. I never work after dinner. It’s the plots that I find so hard to work out. It takes such a long time to work one out,” he said in the interview with the Paris Review.
The interviewer Gerald Clarke asked him: “If you were asked to give advice to somebody who wanted to write humorous fiction, what would you tell him?”
Wodehouse replied: “I’d give him practical advice, and that is always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel – if it’s a novel of action – depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, “What are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play.”
Wodehouse could think in terms of plays and movies, having worked on Broadway and in Hollywood, too.
The interviewer then asked him: “What do you think makes a story funny?”
Wodehouse replied: “I think character mostly. You know instinctively what’s funny and what isn’t if you’re a humorous writer. I don’t think a man can deliberately sit down to write a funny story unless he has got a sort of slant on life that leads to funny stories. If you take life fairly easily, then you take a humorous view of things. It’s probably because you were born that way. Lord Emsworth and his pig – I know they’re funny.”
Yes, Emsworth and his pig, like Wooster and Jeeves, are timeless and funny. They have entertained generations of readers.
“Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale,” said Evelyn Waugh. “He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”