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

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The Independent Culture
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.