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Bookmarks Issue: 
15-Mar-Apr-2005
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A Life

A-WodehouseThe author of over 100 novels and short story collections, 1,600 citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, and 14 Broadway musicals, Penham Grenville Wodehouse possessed a rare and brilliant literary talent. Shuttled off to Dulwich College by indifferent parents, "Plummy" Wodehouse (1881-1975) flourished in academics as well as on the sports field, and he retained his schoolboy demeanor throughout his life. Captured by the Nazis, Wodehouse was cajoled to record a series of broadcasts, ostensibly to keep America out of the war. Ever the humorist—and probably afraid for his life—he stumbled into a bad situation that eclipsed his literary reputation for a quarter century. McCrum wipes away that taint and delivers a serious, authoritative look at one of the 20th century’s most beloved writers.
Norton. 530 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0393051595

National Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"I suppose there’s no such thing as a definitive biography, but I can’t see how this one could be bettered." Terry Teachout

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Unlike his near contemporary Oscar Wilde ... Wodehouse put his genius into his art, not his life. Thank heavens. We are the richer for it." Christopher Buckley

New Criterion 4 of 5 Stars
"[McCrum] treats Wodehouse’s wartime experiences to an intense scrutiny that further exonerates the writer from moral culpability in broadcasting innocuous, stiff-upper-lip statements ..." James Panero

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"McCrum takes Wodehouse seriously and resists the temptation to add any light touches of his own, or even to dwell on the ways in which the life occasionally resembles the stories. … He’s a discerning and reliable guide to the fiction and he also gives us a very full account of Wodehouse’s other career, as a lyricist for Broadway shows." Charles McGrath

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. McCrum is astute in assessing why Wodehouse’s stuff was so good—why, in other words, it was worth every penny of the prodigious amounts it brought in and why even today, the large majority of his nearly 100 novels are still in print." Andrew Ferguson

Critical Summary

When reviewer Christopher Buckley respectfully restrains his frenetic pen, it’s clear we’re in the presence of a master. Acclaim for Wodehouse as a prose stylist, a humorist, a writerly model of Davidian proportions is effusive. The critics extend that praise to his biographer as well. McCrum wisely and dramatically scrutinizes Wodehouse’s international embarrassment while captive to the Nazis. This retelling also allows the author to clean off history’s grime and present a sympathetic picture of a man out of touch with his times. McCrum’s lucid writing even keeps the details of a rather unbothered life from becoming tedious. In the end, writers rush, as they always have, to quote P. G. Even the reviews of Wodehouse will send a reader darting to the bookshelf to get a fix of Jeeves, Psmith, Bertie, and the like.

Wodehouse: Where to Start

Life with Jeeves The Inimitable Jeeves, Very Good, Jeeves!, and Right Ho, Jeeves (1983 reprint): The perfect place to start with Wodehouse is a Jeeves/Wooster story—and there are stellar examples in this collection.

Blandings Castle (1935): Only half of the 12 short stories in this collection are Emsworth/Blandings stories; the other six are hit or miss. However, "Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend" is included here, hailed by Rudyard Kipling as "one of the most perfect short stories ever written."