Wartime for Wodehouse | The New Yorker


In June, 1941, Wodehouse was released. Civilian men were normally released at the age of sixty. Wodehouse was four months shy. It remains unclear why he was released early, but many well-placed American friends and journalists had lobbied on his behalf. In Berlin, he was reunited with his wife. Within days, he was asked by the German Foreign Office if he would record some radio broadcasts for American audiences. He had already written and published a lightly comic account of his time in camp for The Saturday Evening Post.

Very few English people heard the broadcasts when they first aired. But many English people heard that they happened. A week after Wodehouse was released, the journalist William Connor, writing under the pseudonym Cassandra, suggested in the Daily Mirror that Wodehouse’s early release had been part of an unsavory deal. The English reading public mostly defended Wodehouse: it wasn’t fair to speculate. A few weeks later, Connor delivered a BBC broadcast, following the nine-o’clock news. It called Wodehouse a traitor to England, and again claimed that he had engaged in a quid pro quo for his early release. There were angry letters to the BBC, calling the broadcast slanderous. But the idea was now up for debate.

I have taught the Wodehouse broadcasts for several years now, in a graduate writing seminar on comedy and calamity. The distance of time makes it difficult for students to imagine how the innocuous and honest Wodehouse voice of the broadcasts could get him into so much trouble. He describes having ten minutes to pack a suitcase while a German soldier stands behind him telling him to hurry up; his wife thinks he should pack a pound of butter; he declines, saying he prefers his Shakespeare “unbuttered.” He also forgets his passport. His privilege and his political cluelessness are included in the joke: “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.”

“Yeah, I tried cutting my own hair.”
Cartoon by Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby

Wodehouse didn’t do the broadcasts in exchange for being released. But he did do them—he apparently received two hundred and fifty marks for his work. British forces had suffered through Dunkirk; London had been firebombed. The United States was not yet in the war, and we now know that the German Foreign Office saw the release of Wodehouse, who was beloved in America, as propaganda designed to keep the U.S. out of the war. The proposal for the broadcasts was part of a German plan. Wodehouse was a fool but not, by most definitions, a traitor. When he learned that the broadcasts horrified much of the English public, he recorded no more. He wrote to a friend that “it was a loony thing to do.”

Connor’s address on the BBC began, “I have come to tell you tonight of the story of a rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale—that of his own country.” Later, he described Wodehouse falling to his knees as Joseph Goebbels asks him to bow to the Führer. Wodehouse and his wife had trouble getting out of Germany, but eventually moved back to France, then, after the war, to New York. The scandal of the broadcasts didn’t diminish. Some British libraries banned his books. In 1946, when the new Attorney General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, was asked in the House of Commons whether Wodehouse would be tried for treason, he answered that the question would be addressed if and when the writer returned to England.

“I have no hesitation in saying that he has not the slightest realisation of what he is doing,” a good friend of Wodehouse’s wrote to the Daily Telegraph. “He is an easy-going and kindly man, cut off from public opinion here and with no one to advise him.” George Orwell, in his essay “In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse,” from 1945, concluded, of Wodehouse’s broadcasts, that “the main idea in making them was to keep in touch with his public and—the comedian’s ruling passion—to get a laugh.”

When an M.I.5 officer and former barrister, Major Edward Cussen, interviewed Wodehouse, he said that he had wanted to reach out to his American public, who had written to him and sent him parcels while he was interned. Wodehouse said that there was also “a less creditable motive. I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions but I think I can say that what chiefly led me to make the talks was gratitude.” Later, Wodehouse wrote to the editor of The Saturday Evening Post that he didn’t understand why the broadcasts were seen to be callous: “Mine simply flippant cheerful attitude of all British prisoners. It was a point of honor with us not to whine.” Wodehouse failed to understand how even a children’s bedtime story broadcast on Nazi radio could be a form of propaganda.

And yet, across time, Wodehouse’s naïveté seems the less extraordinary of his qualities. There are lots of political fools. Wodehouse had a rarer trait, too: a capacity for remaining interested and curious, even in a setting of deprivation. His resilient happiness, to me, remains heroic, and more essentially who he was. In his second broadcast, he writes of going to sleep on the floor of his cramped cell: “My last waking thought, I remember, was that, while this was a hell of a thing to have happened to a respectable old gentleman in his declining years, it was all pretty darned interesting and that I could hardly wait to see what the morrow would bring forth.”

Wodehouse’s novels focus almost exclusively on the madcap troubles of the perilously leisured. Many take place in country houses, and often turn on such events as the hope of extracting an allowance increase from a difficult uncle. Wodehouse’s camp notebook, by contrast, shows an eye for occupation, and especially for occupational contentment. “Met cook and congratulated him on today’s soup,” he writes. “He was grateful, because his professional pride had been wounded by grumblers saying there wasn’t enough. He said he could have made it more by adding water, which would have spoiled it.”

Wodehouse had to write. He was introverted, and, with the exception of schoolboy camaraderie, preferred to be at home, working. One thinks—if one has been reading a lot of Wodehouse—of those ducks elegantly moving across the water, as their duck feet paddle furiously, unseen below the surface. (I think that image may even come from a Wodehouse novel, but which one?) Even when Wodehouse was imprisoned a second time, for a couple of months, in 1944, he worked on a novel. He generally wrote one or two novels a year but published nothing in the U.K. between 1941 and 1945. It was the years of not being able to work—as opposed to internment—that must have been the real hell.

In 1938, Wodehouse published the third of the Jeeves-and-Wooster novels, “The Code of the Woosters.” It came out serially in The Saturday Evening Post, and was the last of the books issued before his internment. “The Code of the Woosters” is perhaps the most madcap of them all. There are several confused engagements, a plot to steal a police helmet, a lover of newts studying how to make bold speeches, a mustachioed Fascist named Roderick Spode. Wooster relies on Jeeves to navigate the landscape, which at every moment threatens him with social embarrassment, at the least, and maybe with an engagement to a pretty woman he doesn’t much like, at the most. It’s low stakes at its highest; an epic form for the supremely minor.

Rivka Galchen

2020-05-25 06:00:00

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