It’s not pretty when a great talent hangs on too long. Have you seen film of Willie Mays falling down trying to catch a fly ball for the Mets? Have you seen the appalling canvasses Monet painted in his dotage, when cataracts distorted his sense of color?
So what happens when great writers get old? We haven’t often seen it. Jane Austen (age 41), Jack London (age 40), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (age 44) all died before they got old. E. M. Forster gave up writing novels when he was 44 (after A Passage to India), Thomas Hardy when he was 55 (after Jude the Obscure). Dickens was still at the top of his game when he died at 58. Who knows what they might have had left in the tank if they’d reached their 90s?
But we do know about P. G. Wodehouse, because the man who was first published in 1903 at the age of 21 kept writing till the end. In fact, he was still writing a new novel (Sunset at Blandings, published after his death, unfinished) when he died in 1975 at the age of 93.
We recently made our way one last time through Wodehouse’s last complete novel, The Cat-Nappers (published in England as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen). Just as we remembered, there was little to enjoy in the work of the 92-year-old Wodehouse.
Now ordinarily there’s nothing like a Wodehouse story for what ails you. A few hours with Ukridge (1923), Very Good, Jeeves (1930), Blandings Castle (1935), Joy in the Morning (1947), or Pigs Have Wings (1952), will cure practically anything.
But The Cat-Nappers is a sobering book, enough to make a man of a certain age reevaluate euthanasia. Why couldn’t Wodehouse have quit while he was ahead? At 64, he could still deliver a hilarious masterpiece like The Mating Season (1949). At 75, when he wrote How Right You Are, Jeeves (1960), he’d slipped only a little. But at 92, Wodehouse was running on fumes. In The Cat-Nappers a man can see all too well just what old age has in store for him, like . . .
1. Repeating yourself. Part of Wodehouse’s genius, of course, was to present old wheezes in fresh new ways. Take Bertie Wooster’s habit, when in a certain buoyant mood, of judiciously abbreviating a word or two in a phrase. Wodehouse used the gag to help set the tone of How Right You Are, Jeeves in the novel’s opening sentence:
Jeeves placed the sizzling eggs and b. on the breakfast table, and Reginald (Kipper) Herring and I, licking the lips, squared our elbows and got down to it.
Or from Joy in the Morning:
“She expressed a hope that you might shortly see your way to visiting Steeple Bumpleigh.”
I shook the head.
“Out of the q., Jeeves.”
This sight gag was a unique invention. (It’s entirely for the benefit of the silent reader, lost if you’re reading out loud.) But like any trick it loses its comic effect if overused. In the Wooster-and-Jeeves novels of his prime, Wodehouse rarely used it more than once per book.
Not so in The Cat-Nappers. The gag first pops up on page 16:
I drove on, and he said “Phew” and removed a bead of persp. from the brow.
So far, so good — but then Wodehouse uses it again, more awkwardly, two pages later:
“You know her?” Orlo said. I saw that I would do well to watch my step, for it was evident that what I have heard Jeeves call the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on was beginning to feel the rush of life beneath its keel. You never know what may happen when the g.-e. m. takes over.
And then, on page 30, one finds abbreviated words twice on the same page. And more on pages 36, 46, 47 (the same word as on page 46), 56, 68, and 99! At 93 years of age, Wodehouse no longer knew when enough was enough. By the end of the book, the abbreviations long cease to amuse; they’re just an annoying writer’s tic.
2. Repeating yourself (part 2). Wodehouse fans relish Bertie Wooster’s hilarious habit of attributing lines of poetry to the wrong poet (often Shakespeare). In his prime, Wodehouse had the judicious use of this gag down cold.
But in The Cat-Nappers he had lost his feel. At page 83, Bertie is puzzled as to the origin of “The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” which comes up in a conversation with Jeeves:
“Your own?” I said.
“No, sir. A quotation.”
“Well, carry on,” I said, thinking what a lot of good things Shakespeare had said in his time.
Wodehouse forgot that he’d already used the gag 50 pages earlier:
One of the first poems I ever learned — I don’t know who wrote it, probably Shakespeare — ran
I love little pussy; her coat is so warm;
And if I don’t hurt her, she’ll do me no harm.
If Wodehouse thought it would be funny to posit Shakespeare as the author of “I love little pussy,” one can only conclude that he was, as Jacques put it in As You Like It, entering “second childishness.”
3. Childishness. And painful as it is to write, there’s reason to think that the nonegenarian Wodehouse had, indeed, entered into his second childhood when he sat down at his typewriter to write The Cat-Nappers. In its opening paragraphs, Bertie is explaining to Jeeves that he has spots on his chest, and he cites Ogden Nash for the proposition that he should scratch them:
“Well, here’s what the poet Nash wrote. ‘I’m greatly attached to Barbara Frietchie. I’ll bet she scratched when he was itchy.’”
In 75 years of writing, Wodehouse had never stooped to such a thing as borrowing someone else’s joke. His special genius was literary allusions in new and unexpected contexts — not using someone else’s comic material. And the comic rhyme Bertie was quoting was kindergarten humor, at best.
4. Forgetfulness. Another tool in Wodehouse’s bag of tricks for his Wooster-and-Jeeves novels — again, a gag he had always used with discretion — was to have Bertie, supposedly a mental lightweight, struggle to come up with a five-dollar word. He does it at page 79 of The Cat-Nappers:
I was still much perplexed by that utterance of Angelica Briscoe’s. The more I brooded on it, the more cryptic, if that’s the word, it became.
But why would Bertie have ever doubted whether “cryptic” was the word he wanted? In the preceding two pages alone, Bertie had used the words “nihilist,” “personable,” and “desultory” effectively and appropriately. Why would “cryptic” have been a puzzler? And why did Wodehouse think it would be funny for Bertie to question whether he’d used it correctly?
And once again, Wodehouse had lost his knack of sensing when a gag wouldn’t be funny anymore. Two pages later, Bertie fumbles for a word again:
“I wouldn’t have thought Porter would have shown such what-is-it.”
Jeeves helps him out:
“Would pusillaniminity be the word for which you are groping, sir?”
“Quite possibly. I know it begins with pu.” A few chapters later, Bertie gropes for another word, then brings it to mind. The word turns out to be “dumfounded.”
This pattern’s especially telling. Wodehouse has Bertie struggling for the right word so often in The Cat-Nappers as to suggest that the elderly author himself was struggling to come up with words when he wanted them.
6. Rambling. If Wodehouse’s prose has a fault, especially in his later books, it was that he sometimes dwelt too long on a point and looked at it from too many different angles. Sometimes, one feels, Wodehouse couldn’t choose between figures of speech that he liked and decided simply to use them all.
In The Cat-Nappers Wodehouse rambles and dithers like never before. When, at page 34, Bertie sees a man he had no reason to expect in the vicinity, Wodehouse wastes a page and a half of tiresome prose having Bertie speculate that the man has died and that his ghost is haunting the neighborhood. Five pages later, Wodehouse has Bertie spend another full page describing how he met a cat and scratched it behind its ears.
7. Indiscretion. Throughout his life, unlike so many other 20th-century writers, Wodehouse claimed to be apolitical. Except for a bit of mild mockery of British fascists in some of his stories from the 1920s and 1930s (see this Emsworth post), he rarely showed his political colors.
But in The Cat-Nappers Wodehouse let the mask fall, revealing himself (to Emsworth’s morbid satisfaction) as a staunch conservative. When an old school acquaintance, Orlo Porter, whom Bertie encounters leading a protest march, discloses that he is a communist, Bertie looks at him askance:
I hadn’t realized that was what he was, and it rather shocked me, because I’m not any too keen on Communists.
When Orlo complains that his fiance’s father has gotten rich by “grinding the faces of the widow and the orphan, Bertie gives his readers a pithy defense of free-market capitalism:
I could have corrected him here, pointing out that you don’t grind people’s faces by selling them pressed beef and potato chips at a lower price than they would be charged elsewhere . . . .
Nor is Bertie under illusions about the murderous thugs in Moscow:
Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.
Wodehouse surely held these bluntly expressed views well before he reached his nineties. But nothing like them appears in his earlier stories. For decades Wodehouse had carefully posed as a man of the arts who was comfortably and blissfully above the fray. In The Cat-Nappers, Bertie Wooster compares himself to Orlo Porter:
I was told he made fiery far-to-the-left speeches, while I was more the sort that is content to just exist beautifully.
No doubt in 1974 Wodehouse still wanted his readership to think of him as “existing beautifully” — the same image that had been cultivated by the aesthete Oscar Wilde, who so greatly influenced Wodehouse (see this Emsworth post). But political sentiments spill forth in The Cat-Nappers anyway, because the irritability of old age had robbed Wodehouse of the discretion that had for so long kept them in check.
The Cat-Nappers is perhaps the only work of P. G. Wodehouse that Emsworth cannot recommend. It’s not entirely without merit; there’s an amusing passage on page 88 in which a fiance of Bertie’s lectures him on improvements to his character that she will bring about once they’re married. But there’s not much more. The Cat-Nappers reminds us that if we live long enough, we too can look forward to a day when we keep saying the same things over and over, lose our art, wax indiscreet, become childish, and babble till our dazed offspring zone us out altogether.