Robert McCrum's biography of P.G. Wodehouse was published in 2004. At the time, I ignored it. I know the formula for these bios. You won't catch me sanctioning the work of some insidious culture-sucking creep who's picking over the bones of PGW, the peerless writer, I said to the bookstore clerk, who edged away. But you know how it is. Time passes, resolve weakens. You find yourself back in the bookstore and everything there looks more or less rotten anyway.
So I finally read it, and it follows the formula, all right. It's so toxic in its formula-following, I felt the public ought to be warned. If you come across this maddening tome, now in paperback, drop it like a hot brick. If you've already read it, you must counteract its brain-softening effects by immediately re-reading it in the following way: as an accidental self-portrait of the bio's author, one that should be entitled What's Wrong With McCrum?
McCrum doesn't have that name for nothing, you know. He's living up to its potential. You might doubt that anyone could have such a name in real life, not even this pernicious literary editor of The Observer who writes novels and smirks in his book jacket photo. But just take a look at the equally fantastical names attached to the blurbs for his book, things like Terry Teachout and Mary Welp. Clearly in certain lit-crit circles it helps to have an impossible handle like that; they recognize McCrum as one of their own and shower his work with praise. Incoherent praise, mainly. In one typically burbling rave, the noxious Christopher Hitchens writes, "His biography has a tendency to let in daylight upon the magic."
Wodehouse: Funnier than he looks
What we have here represented on the book cover is a united front of one type of human loathesomeness that Wodehouse himself did his best to mock out of existence: the insufferable literary git. In his fiction, Wodehouse named his git exemplars Raymond Parsloe and Rodney Spelvin, Percy Gorringe and Honoria Glossop. He portrayed them as the enemies of all that is good: they routinely snub the honest and humorous, bully the benevolent, and kowtow to the false gods of yawn-inducing high culture. They write psychological novels called Grey Mildew and existential poems called "Darkling: A Threnody."
And now one of their real-life counterparts has got P.G. Wodehouse in his clutches.
Just to clarify, for those of you still living in darkness, never having read Laughing Gas or Uncle Dynamite or "Bingo and the Peke Crisis," this much-esteemed Wodehouse was the man who gave us the Jeeves and Wooster chronicles, the Blandings Castle saga, the Mulliner tales, the Ukridge stories, the great stuff on Hollywood and golf and boxing and so on, God knows how many dozen volumes that he cranked out with incredible steadiness from the 1910s to the 70s. On top of that, he was a big deal in Anglo-American musical-comedy theater of the 1920s and 30s. Considered the Grand Old Man of 20th c. lyricists, Wodehouse was an early partner of composer Jerome Kern, as well as Ira Gershwin's personal mentor and hero. If you care about such things, that's very big stuff. One stellar career in an impossibly competitive field is amazing; Wodehouse had two going simultaneously in two impossible fields, popular literature and theater.
But even as he racked up these triumphs, Wodehouse acknowledged that his life made for bad biography-fodder:
As a writer of light fiction, I have always...been handicapped by the fact that my disposition was cheerful, my heart intact, and my life unsoured. Handicapped, I say, because the public likes to feel that a writer of farcical stories is piquantly miserable in his private life, and that, if he turns out anything amusing, he does it simply in order to obtain relief from the almost insupportable weight of an existence which he has long since realized to be a washout.