January 16, 2018

Plum in Trouble

On this day in 1975 P. G. "Plum" Wodehouse died, aged ninety-three. Given the hundred books and the three-dozen musicals, it seems reasonable to believe the account of Wodehouse's final moments which has him collapsing after picking up the pen and papers his exasperated wife had thrown across his hospital room. But the other account is good, too: he died alone, his pipe and tobacco pouch in his lap, the manuscript of his next book on the table beside his chair. The unchallenged portrait of Wodehouse is of an amiable but removed man, one who was aware very early that he wanted to write, and who was happy to give up almost everything in order to do it. Wodehouse's most recent biographer, Robert McCrum (Wodehouse: A Life, 2004) accepts the second account of his death. McCrum also regards a much earlier event, Wodehouse's famous run-in with the Nazis, as a near-death experience which, "If it did not actually take away his life, ... wrecked it forever." Given Wodehouse's buoyant, 'carry on' personality, this seems an exaggeration, but it gives momentum to what is a controversial, life-defining and very funny story.

Though many denounced him as a collaborator and "Goebbels' stooge," it is hard to read the full account of 'Wodehouse Meets the Nazis' and not see a wide-eyed forest creature caught in a high-beam crash. When the advancing Germans first threatened to trespass on the Wodehouses' comfortable, Normandy life in the spring of 1940 they were ignored. After two last-minute attempts to flee -- first in a car with only half its gears, then on roads too jammed with others as desperate -- the Wodehouses were still at home, and the Germans were bathing in their tub. Soon Wodehouse and all his expatriate golfing buddies were forced to report daily to the glass-eyed Kommandant, but this proved to be merely "the hors d'oeuvre in Fate's banquet." By mid-summer he was interned locally, by early September he was in a converted lunatic asylum about thirty miles from Auschwitz, and by Christmas the world was reading jocular interviews with this most famous of literary captives.

So was the German propaganda machine. Once they realized that Prisoner 796 was not "Widhorse" or "Whitehouse" -- apparently this last misnomer, misheard as "Lights Out!" by the other prisoners, often led to comedy -- the Nazis had little trouble turning their famous author into a useful weapon. Seeing an opportunity to show a human face to the world, and hoping thereby to keep America out of the war, they invited Wodehouse to make a series of radio broadcasts describing his internment under conditions so pleasant and humane that he had even been able to write a novel. Wodehouse readily accepted because, as McCrum puts it, he was "inappropriately equipped" to see anything but an opportunity for humor:
    Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me 'How can I become an Internee?' Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
    (First Berlin Broadcast, June 28, 1941)
Wodehouse went into confinement just after Churchill had offered his "blood, toil, tears and sweat" as the appropriate gift of a patriot. The Blitz had just ended when the Nazis aired Wodehouse's first talk. The idea that war might be a funny" or even "quite an agreeable experience" went over in England like a squadron of Luftwaffe bombers. George Orwell and many others excused Wodehouse as a man so constitutionally humorous and so historically lost in his Jeeves-Woosterland, that he could not be held to political account, but this did not stop the government inquiries and the prolonged international outcry.

Wodehouse quickly admitted that "It was a loony thing to do," and he was forever embarrassed, and his unpublished "Apologia" shows him as perplexed as anyone about his oddly disengaged personality:
    I am not attempting to excuse myself. Nor am I complaining. The global howl that went up as a result of my indiscretion exceeded in volume and intensity anything I had experienced since the time in my boyhood when I broke the curate's umbrella and my aunts started writing to one another about it, but I felt from the first that it was entirely justified.

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