Courtsey of Mrs Maine, we have this link to an ingenious review in The Observer by Tom Shone of Robert McCrum's new biography of P.G. Wodehouse.
Extra points to Shone for finding an opportunity to slip in a reference to Sunset Boulevard and pouncing on it.
Wodehouse [in California] soon settled into Hockneyesque bliss: "I can still picture him," recalled his stepdaughter Leonora, "floating motionless and happy in the pool, looking at his toes, or at the deep blue California sky, while presumably working out the next bit of writing complexity." Aren’t writers who go to Hollywood supposed to end up face-down in the pool?
Shone surprises himself by deciding that the writer Wodehouse had most in common with among his contemporaries was Samuel Beckett.
No writer has been as funny on the subject of withdrawal—or as adept at watermarking the plush interior of consciousness from which we are winkled only under extreme duress. The great joke about Bertie is that a man who finds himself so drawn to the thick of the action should be so magnificently incurious about his surroundings. How often the books pit solipsist against solipsist, to see who dawns on who first: Distracted by their respective idées fixes, they run in ever tighter circles, their conversation sputtering and finally short-circuiting in mutual dumbfoundment.
The only other equal he had in this regard was Samuel Beckett, admittedly not the writer who springs unbidden to mind when Wodehouse is under discussion, but a writer equally haunted by boredom and energized by the clickety-clack rhythm of derailed trains of thought.
I'd never thought of it before reading Shone's review, but now that he mentions it, yeah, I can see it. All of Wodehouse's books and stories are full of characters collapsing in existential despair, lying prostrate for a moment, and then bouncing back to their feet to continue hopelessly on in their absurd pursuits, having learned nothing from the past and expecting nothing from the future but more of the same. Defeat and despair are two of his favorite subjects:
He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life, and found a dead beetle at the bottom.
A young man with dark circles under his eyes was propping himself up against a penny-in-the-slot machine. An undertaker, passing at that moment, would have looked at this young man sharply, scenting business. So would a buzzard.
Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, "So, you're back from Moscow, eh?"
The face was drawn, the eyes haggard, the general appearance that of one who has searched for the leak in life's gaspipe with a lighted candle.
Beckett and Wodehouse drive language to the same diminishing point, relishing in reductio ad absurdum. Wodehouse was the finer poet, if poet's the word I want. Critics and academics have beaten themselves up for years trying to find a way to write about Wodehouse's work, but attempts at literary analysis of the characters and the comings and goings at the Drones Club, Blandings, and that ghastly shack Deverill Hall end up like peeling Colorforms from their backgrounds. But if they went at him in the same way they go after poets, they might be able to finally get their mitts around something.
Rugby football is more or less a sealed book to me, I never having gone in for it, but even I could see he was good. The lissomeness with which he moved hither and thither was most impressive, as was his homicidal ardor when doing what I believe is called tackling. Like the Canadian Mounted Police, he always got his man, and when he did so the air was vibrant with the excited cries of morticians in the audience making bids for the body.
There's no way to pick that passage apart except to bring to bear the same kind of exegeses on language and form that one aims at the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Wodehouse defeats biographers the way his books defeat critics. There's just no subtext. It isn't just that Wodehouse's life was lacking in dramatic incident and erotic misadventure. So was Hawthorne's and interesting new biographies of him pop up every other year. It's that Wodehouse had apparently no ego. He was the mildest, cheerfulest, and most modest of men. A monster of humility and good humor.
Wodehouse, it seems, was one of those quiet souls, happiest when left to till a private furrow, as alarmed by the blandishments of success as by the shame of failure. My favorite story has Wodehouse doing the rounds of Magdalen College with Hugh Walpole, just weeks after the writer Hilaire Belloc called Wodehouse the "best writer of English now alive."
"He said to me," Wodehouse remembered, "‘Did you see what Belloc said about you?’ I said I had. ‘I wonder why he said that.’ ‘I wonder’, I said. Long silence. ‘I can’t imagine why he said that,’ said Hugh. I said I couldn’t either. Another long silence. ‘It seems such an extraordinary thing to say!’ ‘Most extraordinary!’ Long silence again. ‘Ah, well,’ said Hugh, having apparently found the solution, ‘the old man’s getting very old.’"