In which I’m left wondering about the similarities (and differences) between Wodehouse and Woody Allen.
You know those ‘Art of Fiction’ interviews in the Paris Review, where they talk at length with a writer? I stumbled upon one with PG Wodehouse recently, conducted when The Master was ninety-one and a half, and still working seven days a week. I perked up at two revelations. One, when asked if he ever thought of writing anything more serious, Wodehouse replied, “No. I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything but the sort of thing I do write. I couldn’t write a serious book.” Maybe this is what made him so good at what he did, this implicit understanding of (and coming to terms with) his strengths – very unlike the usual writer. None of that straining-to-be-epic business. Nothing about wanting to stretch, given that comedy is rarely taken half as seriously as drama despite being at least twice as hard to write. As I kept reading, I kept getting reminded of Woody Allen – probably because I adore both Allen and Wodehouse; probably because I keep revisiting their work (as I write this, Alice is in my DVD player) and they’re always on the top of my mind; probably because I needed a topic for this week’s column, and the old subconscious was playing fairy godmother.
But then Allen, in so many ways, is like Wodehouse. Another dazzling comic, with a matchless way with words. (“I don’t know much about classical music. For years I thought the Goldberg Variations were something Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg tried on their wedding night.”) Another prolific writer to whom age is just a number. (He will be 80 this December. His latest film, Irrational Man, was released on July 17 this year. On August 17, he began shooting his next film, which was supposed to feature Bruce Willis – what fun! – until the actor bowed out due to a scheduling conflict.) Another artist whose middling efforts (say, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) are still worthwhile. And another creator whose view of the world is, in a sense, rather myopic. Marion Meade illuminates this last aspect rather well in her bio The Unruly Life of Woody Allen, where she describes “Woody Allen country” in a manner that brings to mind what Blandings Castle would be like if transported to New York City… “where there is no squalor or deprivation, no immigrants, virtually no blacks or Latinos in view except those wearing uniforms, and little crime that doesn’t involve property. The typical criminal is a snatcher of gold chains.”
The difference, of course, is that Allen is a more conflicted artist. I’m not talking about his personal life – though I’ll admit that no other artist (not even Polanski) has made me consider that whole “do we judge a creator simply by what he creates, or also by the kind of man he is?” question the way Allen has. But even in his films, we see this unwillingness (inability?) to settle into a comfort zone, the way Wodehouse did. Sometimes, he’ll make a farce. Sometimes, it’ll be a magical-realist fable. Sometimes, we’ll get Crimes and Misdemeanors, a stunning drama that packs into 100 minutes almost as much existential hand-wringing as Dostoevsky does in 500 pages.
But even amidst the moral murk of Crimes and Misdemeanors, there’s the sad-sack documentary filmmaker (played by Allen) quipping (after having a love letter sent back to him), “It’s probably just as well. I plagiarized most of it from James Joyce. You probably wondered why all the references to Dublin.” To fans, the phrasing of this line (along with the context) is as distinctive as Wodehouse’s – a sudden snort of laughter pierces the air. There’s a comforting familiarity in the rhythms. As with Wodehouse, you could probably reach for one work – any work – and sense all the things that makes Allen Allen. The Kugelmass Episode, a short story Allen published in 1977, is about a professor of humanities who, thanks to a mad scientist’s invention, embarks on an affair with Madame Bovary. It’s all here – the exalted literary references; the farcical setups; the Jewishness; the high concepts we would later see in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris; even the psychoanalyst. But this isn’t a failing. Wodehouse orbited the world he knew best; Allen orbits his.
The other thing in the Wodehouse interview that made me sit up: his estimation of his work matches ours. (I’m assuming you’re a fan, but then who isn’t?) “I’ve just finished another novel,” he says. “I’ve got a wonderful title for it, Bachelors Anonymous. Don’t you think that’s good? Yes, everybody likes that title. Peter Schwed, my editor at Simon and Schuster, nearly always alters my titles, but he raved over that one. I think the book is so much better than my usual stuff that I don’t know how I can top it.” Later, the interviewer asks, “Of all the books you’ve written, do you have any favorites?” Wodehouse replies, “Oh, I’m very fond of a book called Quick Service and another called Sam in the Suburbs, a very old one. But I really like them all. There are very few exceptions.”
This is rather unusual in a creator, this utter lack of angst about how this or that could have been different, or how he couldn’t bear to revisit his older work because he only sees the mistakes, or (as in the case of Allen) how his “earlier, funnier movies” may have been better. When Allen faced the biggest blot on his reputation— after choosing to pursue a relationship with his partner’s adopted daughter – he came out with a bile-filled drama named Husbands and Wives. Wodehouse, though, seemed to exist in a summery idyll pretty much like the one that cloaked the corner of the world Lord Emsworth inhabited, what Christopher Hitchens once called “a lost and dreamy world of English innocence.” A few years after facing his biggest crisis – the fall from grace after making a series of wartime radio broadcasts for the Nazis – Wodehouse wrote The Mating Season, stuffed to the gills with romantic entanglements and mistaken identities and “a tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist.” It’s as if Jeeves had been let loose on the Germans and the War had never happened.
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