Saturday, July 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #209: Over Seventy by P.G. Wodehouse

They say that old people start to repeat themselves, as if they've run out of all of the new words and ideas they ever had and need to start over from the beginning and run through them again.

I don't know if that's true for everyone, but old writers definitely find that they can recycle their old gags and characters and stories and put them in front of the public again. And, except for obsessives, hardly anyone will even notice when they do so, making it the most efficient kind of recycling.

But I am an obsessive, so I started to feel that a lot of the stories in Over Seventy were strangely familiar. Luckily for you, I'm not enough of an obsessive to track those stories down one by one to their origins, since that would be intensely boring for both of us. But I think I know where some of them came from, and maybe suppositions and theories will be more amusing.

Over Seventy is a book by P.G. Wodehouse, originally published under that title in the UK in 1957 as a revised version of America, I Like You, which came out in the US the year before. In the text, Wodehouse presents the whole book as a reply to a letter from a J.P. Winkler, who has a radio show and newspaper column titled Over Seventy and whose job seems to be pestering old famous people to give him free material for those outlets. It's structured, very vaguely and interrupted more often than not by digressions, as an autobiography, responding to the long list of pestering questions from Winkler.

And the last book I read by Wodehouse before this was Louder and Funnier, a collection of essays for Vanity Fair published in 1932. I have the distinct impression that Wodehouse mined that book -- and others of his earlier non-fictional work, like Bring on the Girls with Guy Bolton -- rather than writing entirely new material for the let-assume-he's-real Winkler.

For 99% of Over Seventy readers, that self-plagarism won't be a problem: how many people have just recently read Louder and Funnier in the past couple of months? (OK, both of you: avoid Over Seventy for a few years, until the memories fade.)

The Wodehouse of Over Seventy is settled in Remsenburg on Long Island -- it can cause some mental dislocation for Wodehouse fans to realize he spent the last thirty years of his life in somewhere so American, and much of the preceding fifty years in the New York area as well -- and his life then was as boring as it was for most of his life. He had a few dogs, mostly Pekinese, and otherwise mainly spent his time writing. That's why Over Seventy is primarily digressions: Wodehouse knows very well that the actual outlines of his life will not hold an audience, but his thoughts and amusing anecdotes will.

As with all Wodehouse non-fiction, this isn't where to begin reading him. Wodehouse was a uniquely wonderful novelist, and that's the core of his enduring appeal. But the non-fiction can be quite funny as well, which is good when you realize you're read all of his best novels at least once.

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