BOOK REVIEW / Plum: more potato than Plato?: 'P G Wodehouse: Man and Myth' - Barry Phelps: Constable, 16.95 pounds

P G WODEHOUSE wrote the best English comic novels of the century, liked golf and money, was interned by the Germans during the Second World War and was shamefully treated by what, for lack of a better word, one may as well call the 'establishment'. All this is known. Barry Phelps would like to make one further point: that Wodehouse was not the gentle, unworldly innocent of popular belief, but a 'complex, subtle, paradoxical and phenomenally intelligent intellectual'.

It looks as though Mr Phelps does not know when his leg is being pulled. No one could have been the bumbling idiot of Wodehouse's own self-portrait and yet have written so much, so elegantly and with such a keen eye to his public. Clearly he developed a protective irony to guard his privacy, and this makes him a clever old stick: it does not, however, make him an 'intellectual', even a 'phenomenally intelligent' one. And what if it did? Would we admire Cole Porter more if he had been an authority on old Assyrian texts?

Wodehouse is the hardest author to write about because, as Evelyn Waugh remarked, 'to criticism him is like taking a spade to a souffle'. Early in his book Barry Phelps quotes, with apparent approval, an American academic who discerns in one Wodehouse sentence 'a pun, a mangled cliche, a simile, a double irony and two synthesized images'. Already the shovel has smashed through the frothing eggs.

The familiar story unfurls: the aunts, Dulwich, Broadway, success, the writer's life, the dogs and so on. It is not helped by the author's weakness for puns or the bizarre nature of his quest, to cast Wodehouse as the Wittgenstein of the country house. Within this fairly severe limitation, however, Barry Phelps is reliable and thorough. He has discovered and authenticated some new stories, including one about Wodehouse's court case against the Inland Revenue in 1934 (he and the tax man ended up having lunch together and left the restaurant arm-in-arm).

On the question of the wartime broadcasts he has profited from Iain Sproat's Wodehouse At War and works up a good head of indignation against Wodehouse's persecutors, particularly Duff Cooper. It is worth noting, however, that the defence of Wodehouse's harmless but ill-advised broadcasts from Nazi Germany does rely on the 'unworldly' card: no 'phenomenally intelligent intellectual' judgement was at work there.

Phelps gives a good account of Wodehouse's golf, in which his delight was merely to hit the ball as far as possible, regardless of accuracy. He once hit it 343 yards at Woking, which is big even by John Daly standards. It is Phelps's belief that an attack of mumps deprived Wodehouse of his fertility and his desire and that this accounts for the pure nature of the sexual goings-on in the books.

Phelps (a former journalist and man about the City) deals well with Wodehouse's tax-mitigating activities and with his cunning generosity to others. And though he makes no attempt to analyse the books themselves, the strange and unnecessary nature of the central enterprise - the recasting of Plum as Plato - is redeemed by his great affection for his subject. He has certainly established himself as a great Wodehouse buff. But whether four hours is better spent with him than with Jeeves is another matter.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins