Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitchens on Wodehouse and Wilde

Since I don't think of myself as sentimental about such things, I surprise myself at how upsetting it is to read the many many remembrances of Christopher Hitchens that appeared this morning after last night's death, from Salman Rushdie's simple tweet "Goodbye, my beloved friend" to a wonderful piece on the New Yorker blog from Christopher Buckley. Those who thought that atheism must have left a gap in his spirit never understood how fiercely he loved the English language (and cigarettes, and drinking, and women, and his friends, and argument, and eating). I loved this note from Buckley:

When we made a date for a meal over the phone, he’d say, “It will be a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” I never doubted that this rococo phraseology was an original coinage, until I chanced on it, one day, in the pages of P. G. Wodehouse, the writer Christopher perhaps esteemed above all others. Wodehouse was the Master. When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours, he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better than that,” he said, and who could not agree?

The other author that he and I seemed to spend most time discussing was Oscar Wilde. I remember Christopher’s thrill at having adduced a key connection between Wilde and Wodehouse. It struck me as a breakthrough insight; namely, that the first two lines of “The Importance of Being Earnest” contain within them the entire universe of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

Algernon plays the piano while his butler arranges flowers. Algy asks, “Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?” Lane replies, “I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.” And there you have it.


During the last hour I spent with Christopher, in the Critical Care Unit at M. D. Anderson, he struggled to read a thick volume of P. G. Wodehouse letters. He scribbled some notes on a blank page in spidery handwriting. He wrote “Pelham Grenville” and asked me, in a faint, raspy voice, “Name. What was the name?” At first I didn’t quite understand, but then, recalling P.G.’s nickname, suggested “Plum?” Christopher nodded yes, and wrote it down.

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