P. G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers

When Monet painted Nymphéas in 1915, he wasn

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.

In 1930 Wodehouse was 49 years old

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 very 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.

Corot knew just how much of his trademark red (in the girl’s hair ribbon) was needed for a color accent in his picture. Wodehouse, in younger days, knew just when and how often to use his trademark gags for maximum effect.

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 couldn’t tell 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.”

Wodehouse in 1975, a few days before his death

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 she 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 re-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.”

The elderly Wodehosue

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.

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://emsworth.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/p-g-wodehouse-hung-on-too-long/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

24 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. He couldn’t quit writing, he paid over 90% of his earnings to the US federal government. By way of the iniquitous taxation of the time.

  2. Anglocat: Thank you for your comment! I like very much your observation about the merging of the world of Bertie and Jeeves with that of Emsworth!

  3. While I mostly agree with Emsworth about “Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen,” especially its unsatisfactory political moments which just seem puerile, “Sunset at Blandings,” even though it’s an unfinished first draft shows him in better form. I can’t help but think that his decision to make his fictional London more like that of the 70s fails because it (1) breaks the feeling of timelessness that characterizes the Bertie and Jeeves stories, and indeed all of his work, and (2) Wodehouse didn’t get the 70s, and so those jokes don’t land. Sunset, being set at Blandings—“as near paradise as dammit,” as Gally might say, recaptures the Classic mood effortlessly.

    One thing I did like about Aunts/Cat-Nappers (the US edition sports a seemingly middle aged Bertie and senescent Jeeves on the jacket, again shattering the timeless quality) is how the world of Jeeves and that of Blandings are drawing together, and characters now flit back and forth. Imagine a meeting of the minds (Jeeves and Gally), and the Wooster-Emsworth banter!

  4. Those that can’t do criticize.

    Read Douglas Adam’s introduction to “Sunset at Blandings” for a proper appreciation of the master.

    (Bloody jerk).

  5. Don’t you have anything better to do than make vile personal insults?

  6. Don’t you have anything better to do than to criticize one of the saintliest and most delightful writers that ever walked the face of this earth? Save the acid tongued baths for that harridan of a wife of yours.

  7. I have _Catnappers_ as read by Frederick Davidson on audiobook, and have the speaker under my pillow so I can sleep o’ nights. Which means that I have listened to it more times than most, in these past few months—I tend to stick with one book, as it’s relaxing and reassuring.

    Anyhow, I’d agree there are a few rough spots in _Catnappers_ and even that it’s not his best, but it’s still better than most people could ever write. I’d certainly not write a post to say he’d lost his touch.

    Some of the things relating to communism are jokes that seem to have slipped by this poster—Orlo is an overdone blowhard, just like Spode and his Fascist Blackshorts. Saying that Wodehouse stands revealed as anti-communist is stretching too far.

  8. Emsworth seriously you’ve never heard any of his books via audiobook man it’s a whole new treat I envy you I have not read all his novels but have read all the wooster novels several times 5-8 and quite a few others Ukridge psmith Muliner adventures of sally among others but to hear Johnathan Cecil read bertie wooster is a treat that you should try there are others who do a good job but Cecil is the essence of Bertie I still read a novel now and then but listen to the audiobooks almost nonstop every time I do a new wodehouse I read it but then try to find it on audiobook

  9. Personally, I can read anything by Wodehouse with enjoyment regardless of when it was written. He was prolific at a consistently high quality. But it is perfectly natural for us readers to prefer some work over others – or to pose the kind of provocative questions that Emsworth asks here. Emsworth is clearly a fan. All this righteous indignation is well meant I know, but hardly the Wodehouse spirit.

  10. well this is something what I would just like to say that in Joy in the morning Bertie abbreviates three words in the first chapter alone you already quoted out of the q Jeeves prior to that he speaks of aunt Agatha’s second H and when he leaves for the bookery he assembles the hat gloves and neatly rolled U I believe that at the beginning of a later chapter when off to break the scullery window he says this shortage of C for chirpiness and since it was an initial when he says lady F crey I suppose it does not count now these are the only ones I remember and if one where to look closer they could find more

    as far as comparing himself to others in very good jeeves he directly compares himself to Lucius pim read it again and you will see

    to sum up I don’t believe he hung on to long in my opinion Much obliged jeeves is one of the top 5 books he ever wrote and he was pushing 90 at the time the catnappers was clearly not the best book he wrote but again certainly not the worst of the Wooster and jeeves bunch and who’s to say if he lived another five years and wrote another it would not have been a masterpiece to use your baseball theme luis aparicio hit a low .233 batting average and scored only 55 runs at age 33 yet three years later hit .313 and scored 86 runs and won yet another gold glove for his virtuosity as a slick fielding shortstop PG Wodehouse would have torn you a new one if he where alive he took great pleasure in rebutting critics

    to criticize a living master is absurd to criticize a late one is blasphemy!!!!!

  11. I’ve just come across this thought provoking little piece, and although you may have forgotten all about it by now. I wanted to say a few things. So many things in fact, that I’ve written a long winded piece of my own. I’ve also quoted FretfulPorpentine but can’t find this person to let them know. I hope nobody minds – let me know if you do.


  12. Porpentine:
    No question that’s part of it. In the 60s and 70s Wodehouse was so far removed from first-hand knowledge of what people were doing and saying that his ear for what would be good joke material was failing him. Those jokes jar on me too.

  13. I wonder whether one of the problems with Aunts Aren’t Gentleman/The Catnappers is that its setting was more or less contemporary to when it was written, with its Sixties student demos and jokes about Billy Graham. Better, perhaps, had it been set in the classic (and, if it’s not a contradiction to say so) Wodehousian interwar era. The sixties bits really jar with me.

  14. Mularkey. I guess you needed something to be critical of. Phaugh! Tcha! In Wodehouse’s case, it was all entertaining. Right through to the end. In your case, you need an editor.

  15. Jayne, thanks for reading. No, I haven’t missed any of Wodehouse’s tongue-in-cheek! It’s his mastery of subtle humor that keeps drawing me back to his stories again and again — I’ve read all his books over and over again — the best ones perhaps 8 or 10 times by now. I do think that with more reading and rereading, you’ll come to agree that the wells of creativity were running low in the stories Wodehouse wrote during the last 10-15 years of of his life.

    It’s interesting that you know Wodehouse mainly from hearing him, rather than reading him. That must give you a special perspective. (I’ve known some people who know Wodehouse mainly from the Jeeves and Wooster TV series.) Of course Wodehouse read aloud is wonderful — I’ve enjoyed reading his stories aloud to family members over the years. As a dramatist, Wodehouse not only plotted his stories as he might a play, but wrote dialogue and narrative that would be effective read aloud. That being said, there are quite a few touches in the stories — word sight gags and such — that can only be appreciated by reading them on the printed page.

  16. I have listened to most of Wodehouse’s Jeeves books on tape, and I found them hilarious. Reading your objections, it occurs to me that perhaps some of the tongue-in-cheek is eluding you. Wodehouse uses Wooster (who is indeed childish, repetitive, and inconsistent) to poke fun at the upper class in particular, but at everybody generally. But I think he’s gentle. I don’t see a decline in his writing with age, but rather a greater familiarity with his character.

  17. Joking about Monet? Well, no! Have you actually SEEN his work from the last decade or so of his life? A lot of is in the Musée Marmottan Monet, in Paris. There may be people who delude themselves by thinking that since it’s Monet, it must be wonderful — but frankly we didn’t enjoy those works all. If it weren’t for the wonderful canvases he painted from about 1865 to 1905, nobody’d be interested in the late Monets at all (in my opinion).

  18. You must be joking about monet surely?

  19. Commission sales jobs for the radicals! Interesting historical tidbit. You know, I’d bet this was something that had come to Wodehouse’s attention during the 1930s. Thanks for reading.

  20. Ignore the doomsayers: a very well judged piece. You’re not alone in thinking PGW went off the boil a bit towards the end.

    One interesting thing in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (forgive me, I’m a Brit) is that he made Orlo Porter an insurance salesmen. I’ve recently been doing quite a bit of historical research on the Trotskyist movement in Britain in the 30s and 40s, and quite a number of activists worked in similar ‘commission only’ jobs, selling insurance, newspaper subscriptions and the like – as they’d often be blacklisted from mre regular jobs. Is this coincidence? Surely PGW wouldn’t have known about the obscurer strands of British left-wing lifestyles from his Long Island base. But the, the Heralds of the Red Dawn were a convincing portrait of the frowstier, folksier elements of he old Independent Labour Party….

    Anyway, I’m glad to have found your site and look forward to reading more!

  21. Outraged:
    Perhaps you’re right. I’ll think these things through again.

  22. Hello
    This website is completely wrong! Aunts aren’t Gentleman is a great novel! P.G. Wodehouse never lost his touch! And your article “Was P.g. Wodehouse Squeamish about Sex” was hopelessly incorrect. Were any of P. G. Wodehouse’s jokes not funny? Did any of them have anything to do with sex? No and No! There you have it: you do not need sex to make a novel good! As far as I’m concerned, you have dragged the name of one of the greatest writers of all time through the mud and muck. You should be ashamed! I’m only 11, and I know enough to see what you’ve done: slandered P. G. Wodehouse!!!
    Signed, Outraged

  23. I enjoyed some of the Bertie-Aunt Dahlia dialogue and the urbane chat between Bertie and Orlo when both had independently fallen fully-dressed into the swimming pool. But what I thought was off was Jeeves’s answer to “who was Barbara Frietchie?” First no British person ever said “war between the states” (and where did Wodehouse, who lived in New York state, get it from?). More importantly, Jeeves on form would have mentioned the verse by J G Whittier and quoted the couplet “Shoot if you will” etc. Actually Jeeves sounds as tho’ he just couldn’t be bothered explaining things to B anymore.

  24. “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.”

    That will never happen with you, of course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: