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"A Life in Letters" by P.G. Wodehouse

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P.G. WODEHOUSE: A LIFE IN LETTERS

Edited by: Sophie Ratcliffe.

Publisher: W.W. Norton, 602 pages, $35.

Review: Wodehouse’s voluminous correspondence stayed chatty and light.

Book review: 'P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters," edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

  • Article by: FRED SETTERBERG Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 26, 2013 - 3:36 PM

 

Surely you weren’t expecting searing pages of dark secrets and tortured confession from the creator of Gussie Fink-Nottle, newt enthusiast, and the porcine Empress of Blandings Castle?

In the fictional world of Bertie Wooster, the letter often serves as a plot device, “an intrusive presence” likely to upend the screwball haven of bachelor flat, gentlemen’s club or country house.

For P.G. Wodehouse, the fabricator of this comic Eden, the letter provided another outlet for the author’s staggering productivity. Wodehouse dispatched hundreds of missives to friends, family and business associates, while writing more than 70 novels, 200 short stories, lyrics, scripts and plays. The figure that emerges from this hefty correspondence is eager, affectionate, modest, disarmingly ambitious and emotionally reticent. “Wodehouse’s letters,” notes Sophie Ratcliffe, who edited this volume and wrote the excellent biographical sketches framing each section, “are usually clad in the epistolary equivalent of Bertie’s heliotrope pajamas, carefully buttoned up to disguise true feeling.”

Instead, we watch Wodehouse shuttling between England, France and the United States. (“Something dead and depressing about London,” admits Wodehouse, though Hollywood is the “most loathsome place on the map.”) We hear advice and concern lavished on his beloved stepdaughter, Leonora — or as he playfully elaborated, “My darling angel Snorkles.” Scrupulous updates confirm the disposition of household dogs, cats, parrots and canary. And always, the reliable tick of literary labors dispatched.

“I have been working like a navvy for about two weeks, in which time I must have written very nearly forty thousand words of my novel.” Another typical post: “I shall have five plays running in New York in the Autumn, possibly six.” Little wonder he ranked among the world’s best-paid authors, earning $104,000 for “loafing” on the MGM payroll while more productively writing “a novel and nine short stories … brushing up my golf, getting an attractive suntan and perfecting my Australian crawl.”

Wodehouse rummages through the details of stage collaborations with Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. He drinks with “Hollywood royalty” Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and dines with H.G. Wells (who “sat looking like a crushed rabbit”).

Occasionally, Wodehouse’s fictive style emerges from the daily rounds to drolly amuse: “Golly, I don’t know what they mean by saying the country is dull. It’s one long round of excitement. Yesterday I was bitten by a dog!”

More often, events unwind with less panache than one might expect from a comic genius: “How’s everything? Darned cold, what? So ’m I.”

Beyond cavils over the taxman, literary agents and the near-ruinous public response to his naive radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany — “criminally foolish,” he later concluded — the collected correspondence confirms the main thrust of his life: “I just want to be left alone with my novel.”

 

Fred Setterberg is the author of “Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel.”

© 2014 Star Tribune