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Wodehouse: A Life Hardcover – November 30, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his authoritative biography of P.G. Wodehouse (1881–1975), British author McCrum (My Year Off), literary editor of the Observer, rightly identifies the crisis over the great, if naïve, English humorist's 1941 radio broadcasts from Germany (which led to accusations of his being a "Nazi stooge") as "the defining moment of Wodehouse's life." While the broadcasts and their aftermath get the most scrutiny, McCrum ably surveys a 75-year writing career that began in 1900 and ended only with Wodehouse's death at 93. He succinctly covers all the major topics—Wodehouse's creation of the immortal Jeeves and Wooster; his triumphs as a lyricist for the musical theater; his frustrating stints as a scriptwriter in Hollywood; his tax troubles; his love of animals; his post-WWII U.S. exile; his long and successful, if apparently sexless, marriage. McCrum is franker on this latter subject than previous biographers and also dispels a myth or two. While Wodehouse largely left his financial affairs to his wife, Ethel, "in important literary business Wodehouse was always clinically decisive." When his new literary agent, Paul Reynolds Jr., wasn't successful, he fired him. Earlier studies have tended to be partisan or personal and stronger on some aspects of Wodehouse's varied life than others. For balance and readability, this popular biography, like Jeeves, stands alone. 16 pages of illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

"His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit" was Evelyn Waugh's assessment of P. G. Wodehouse, and, by all accounts, Wodehouse was the most undersexed and sweet-tempered of men, a stranger to the drunkenness and philandering that often enliven the biographies of English men of letters. McCrum tells the story judiciously, though he dithers around certain mysteries, such as the entanglements of Wodehouse's wife with various louche men. The dramatic center of the book is, quite properly, the broadcasts Wodehouse made on Nazi radio during the Second World War. McCrum shows how Wodehouse was bamboozled into making those broadcasts, and why he never quite understood the "global howl" they provoked. In his view, after all, he was showing British sang-froid in the face of dire circs. Total war and the creator of Blandings Castle were simply not cut out for each other.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 530 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; New Ed edition (November 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393051595
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393051599
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #205,998 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Asnip on November 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The consensus about P. G. Wodehouse held by everyone who knew him was that he was very pleasant, sweet and good-natured, but also rather boring. He was never witty. His conversation centered around writing and sport.

Mr. McCrum has pulled off a tour-de-force and written a biography that is captivating. He has obviously done his research and he doesn't gloss over the unseemly events of World War II. But he also shows the generous side of a man who was notorious for watching his pennies.

This is truly an excellent biography that reveals much about late Victorian and Edwardian England. Wodehouse was the great comic writer of his day, and this book shows what it took for him to achieve his apparently effortless prose.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in writing.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Should a dedicated fan of P.G. Wodehouse's writing read this book? Yes, I think so. Mr. McCrum's book is filled with information that will make reading Mr. Wodehouse's many comic offerings more rewarding. For instance, where did so many of those wonderful names come from? Many were drawn from people and places that Wodehouse knew as a youth. Why did he have such a jaundiced view of aunts and say so little about mothers? His own family history contained strained relationships with dictatorial aunts and a distant mother who ignored him. Where did the inspiration for Blandings Castle come from? It turns out to be based on actual experiences in an English country home. Simply from those perspectives, I felt that my understanding of Wodehouse plots, humor and references were vastly increased.

In addition, I knew that P.G. Wodehouse was very prolific, but I never quite understood how he did it. I was fascinated to see how disciplined he was to keep doing his daily quota of words. As someone who likes to write as well, this was a positive inspiration to keep to that discipline myself. I was also pleased to find out more about how he developed his plots and characters and did his rewriting. If you combine this book with Sunset at Blandings, you can get a quite helpful perspective on the details of his craft.

Next, I am always running into veiled and ambiguous references to P.G. Wodehouse having done some broadcasts for German radio during World War II while living in Germany. It was never clear to me what that was all about. Now, this book gives me enough information to have views on the subject. I hadn't realized that Wodehouse had been interned by German forces in prison environments for over a year before the broadcasts.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By FSheridan on December 30, 2011
Format: Paperback
I have read a number biographies of P.G. Wodehouse (those by David Jasen, Frances Donaldson, and Joseph Connolly, among others) and am a big fan of his work. This book adds NOTHING of value to existing biographies and has a smarmy tone that was, to me at least, quite off-putting. (I have also seen McCrum in person speaking about Wodehouse, and he's even worse in the flesh.)

If you are interested in knowing more about Wodehouse's life, read the excellent "P.G. Wodehouse, A Life in Letters" edited by Oxford don Sophie Ratcliffe and/or the David Jasen biography, "P.G. Wodehouse: A Portrait of a Master."

My advice is to give this one the miss-in-baulk, or, if you really feel you must read it (because it has gained the, in my opinion unearned, reputation of being the "definitive" biography) take it out of the library - don't waste your money on it.

I would have given it 0 stars if Amazon would allow it.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By pillfeast on May 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover
First of all, if you're not on a first name basis with at least Lord Emsworth, Bertie Wooster, and Jeeves (his first name's Reggie by the way) then don't even contemplate buying this book. You've got a lot of reading to do, but don't worry, you'll be laughing out loud most of the time.

Put simply, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse's literary achievements entitle him to a biography like this, but once you get a few hundred pages in you realize that he really didn't do anything but write his books. You do find out quite a bit about his early life and there's a lot of detail about his unfortunate misstep during World War II, but even this material is dull as dishwater and it makes you long for the restorative cocktail at Blandings Castle or a turn pitching bread at the Drones. That longing to escape is exactly what Plum must have felt too, explaining why he wrote 96 books.

In short, buy this book if you really have to know all about Wodehouse's life, there's probably no better biography out there. But don't be too surprised if you wind up wishing you'd re-read `Heavy Weather' or `Very Good Jeeves.'
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Brian Taves on January 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Robert McCrum's book, first of all, is a commissioned biography. It represents the best efforts, and inevitably failings, of such endeavors. McCrum is a literate, thorough researcher, and has produced a respectable volume ready to stand aside the best other Wodehouse biographies. Most importantly, McCrum has intelligently meshed both the retelling of a life and literary analysis, including analysis of many of the Wodehouse books, demonstrating his familiarity with the canon. However, there are significant and unavoidable drawbacks to an effort such as McCrum's, which represents an assignment, rather than the labor of a true Wodehouse scholar. McCrum only stands alongside, not supplanting, the many existing Wodehouse biographies, going all the way back to David Jasen's pioneering first effort. Such specialized books as Lee Davis's Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern, Iain Sprott's Wodehouse at War, Kristin Thompson's analysis of the Bertie Wooster/Jeeves saga (and, humbly, my own forthcoming book on Wodehouse and Hollywood), all remain necessary specialized adjuncts to all the more general biographies. For American readers, McCrum rather overplays the significance of the Berlin broadcasts to Wodehouse's legacy, and only narrowly avoids a tendency to lapse into an Anglocentric perspective in the book that is evident in his promotional interviews. McCrum does make a number of surprising factual errors, surely a result of coming to the subject "cold," rather than as an expert, but more annoying is his determination to interpret levels of meaning into Wodehouse's personal life rather than simply accepting him as the product of a generation who kept private matters private. Nonetheless, despite these shortcomings, the McCrum book is solid, scholarly, and well repays its price and the time necessary to read the 400 + pages, for he does enlighten both the life, and the writing, of P.G. Wodehouse.
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