Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Wodehouse: Carry On, Jeeves

Read this because James Wood recommended it in the P.G. canon. Good grief! It is true how he invents his own language, parlor-room slang on the fly from a bottomless store. Some antiques: "what the deuce," "bird" (male and female), "bally," "--what?" (interjectively); new ones, for me: "rummy" (queer, fishy), "cove" (for guy), "blighter" (for a cove thought ill of), "pipped" (for furious), "to stick" (for to stand), a "toucher" (???), "sozzled" and "under the surface" (for drunk). That language, often suffixed affectionately ("chappie" for chap), makes Bertram Wooster ("Bertie") sound effete. But it also textures the novel as an invention from Carroll or Joyce or maybe closer, Burgess in A Clockwork Orange. That speech indicates that this is a world with a logic that is complete in itself but not our own. Above and beyond, that is, its comic wallop.

Carry On, Jeeves (1925) did not introduce Jeeves, except to me. Jeeves is like a fairy godfather or personal djinn: "'Sir?' said Jeeves, kind of manifesting himself. One of the rummy things about Jeeves is that, unless you watch like a hawk, you very seldom see him come into a room. He's like one of those weird birds in India who dissolve themselves into thin air and nip through space in a sort of disembodied way and assemble the parts again just where they want them. I've got a cousin who's what they call a Theosophist, and he says he's often nearly worked the thing himself, but couldn't quite bring it off, probably owing to having fed in his boyhood on the flesh of animals slain in anger and pie." Curious that conjunctive "and" there at the end: takes a moment to parse, with a laugh of a sting in its tail. The odd thing is, by setting up his cousin as Jeeves's foil, he makes the metaphor even more plausible, more real. Trouble is he is the perpetual deus ex machina. A source of satire, but soon a tiresome one. Figaro is a prototype: now as first then, the butt of the butler irony is the lord. Jeeves, like Figaro, is the author of the narrative of which he is a part, and so Bertie's appreciation of him is in fact an appreciation of his maker. Jeeves is inscrutable, even in the last bit from his p.o.v., where his motive is merely stated as: "I had no desire to sever a connection so pleasant in every respect as his and mine had been..." Unless it is the pleasure of the stableboy, in the way that wealthy Steinbrenners keep racehorses: "Employers are like horses. They require managing. Some gentlemen's personal gentlemen have the knack of managing them, some have not. I, I am happy to say, have no cause for complaint." Jeeves's last statement betrays a wry pride.

With Jeeves, as with a genie, we have no sense of his private life, except the odd maxim of a former employer, or this or that overheard from another butler. We also have no idea why, for instance, he remains attached to Wooster when that old top's friend whosit would pay him twice over his salary for his services. Or why, given his resourcefulness, he chooses to stay a butler at all. Jeeves's mystery is what makes him a good character. It is what we do not know about him, not what we know or come to expect of him.

A cameo only, but Wodehouse's description of her is the ne plus ultra of her type, even if the sequitur is not quite the match for the first statement: "Muriel Singer was one of those very quiet, appealing girls who have a way of looking at you with their big eyes as if they thought you were the greatest thing on earth and wondered that you hadn't got on to it yet yourself. She sat there in a sort of shrinking way, looking at me as if she were saying to herself, 'Oh, I do hope this great strong man isn't going to hurt me.' She gave a fellow a protective kind of feeling, made him want to stroke her hand and say, 'There, there, little one!' or words to that effect. She made me feel that there was nothing I wouldn't do for her...I felt with her I was in this thing to the limit." Such is the inevitable Forer effect of good prose that this makes me transpose my own last girlfriend for Wodehouse's character. And with the last persuasive remark Wodehouse reveals the dramatic import of his portrait, for he must help his friend Corky (for Corcoran) to marry her. With his own belle Florence Craye he winkingly dwells time and again on the beauty of her profile, as if it were something he knew we, too, could appreciate with the connoisseurship of a gentleman. More description: "And so the merry party began. It as one of those jolly, happy, bread-crumbling parties where you cough twice before you speak, then decide not to say it after all."

It is the running joke that Jeeves differs with Bertie, and becomes emotional about, only the trivial matters of dress: the big pink tie, or a matter of hats. Bertie depends on Jeeves so much that after defiantly picking the Broadway Special instead of the White House Wonder at the haberdasher's, "after a rather painful scene," he concludes: "So that's how things were on this particular morning, and I was feeling pretty manly and independent." At the end of that episode of course Bertie succumbs, in gratitude to Jeeves for disposing of an unbidden guest.

Jeeves survives fresh in our imagination by the incredulity of others. There is always someone new to impress, after Bertie is convinced of his indispensability, and Wodehouse conveys their (as our) astonishment in ever new ways through perennially new language: Jeeves reads his most secret mind and "Bicky rocked like a jelly in a high wind." Later "Bicky had stopped rocking himself and was staring at Jeeves in an awed sort of way." Wodehouse is a master, like Henry James, at delivering well-timed compliments to his characters. Throughout all this the book reminds me of that American aristocrat or pretender, Gatsby, in the scene where he reveals the sense in which he could be called an Oxford man.

The drama is often that Jeeves succeeds too well, as when Miss Singer marries the uncle whose approbation she was only supposed to gain in order to marry Corky. Or when he persuades Bicky's uncle, a Duke, that Bicky is "doing well in business, and all that sort of thing," but in fact so well that the Duke cancels the remittance that persuasion was designed to secure. Jeeves overshoots. In these cases we are always amused by the difference in outrage and dispassion between Bertie and Jeeves. "I never expected anything like this!" cries Bertie. "I confess I scarcely anticipated the contingency myself, sir," replies Jeeves.

But the core principle of these snippets, the imagination at work, the formula, is: a friend of Wooster's is at risk of losing his life of ease, and Jeeves, the prop of Wooster's mollycoddled happiness, arrives in time with a con or fraud, which works well enough at first but erupts after a short enough while (we must not try the reader's patience), but not so irrevocably that it cannot be saved, or reversed, at just the moment of crisis. That plan then repeats itself ad nauseam. It is as it were a metaphor for the propping-up of a collapsing aristocratic way of life. Wodehouse's thrusts in this line are at best glancing: "I'd always thought of Jeeves as a kind of natural phenomenon; but, by Jove! of course, when you come to think of it, there must be quite a lot of fellows who have to press their own clothes themselves, and haven't got anybody to bring them tea in the morning, and so on. It was rather a solemn thought, don't you know. I mean to say, ever since then I've been able to appreciate the frightful privations the poor have to stick." That is typical: an overstatement which is also an understatement. Since so few of the privations faced by Bertie's friends are privations, little is ever at stake or ever solemn: but in an understated way, the short narratives almost always bring someone to this verge.

The other irony is that Jeeves gets Bertie & Friends into as much trouble as he gets them out of: by and large. Jeeves always has a resourceful idea, but what it will come to is less certain. Jeeves and Bertie in another guise are the stock comic duo, straight man (Jeeves never cracks a smile, his face always like that of a "meditative fish") and clownish goof (Bertie--well, a transcript follows:
[Rocky:]"She's got a fixed idea that the trip to New York would kill her; so, though it's been her ambition all her life to come here, she stays where she is."
[Bertie:]"Rather like the chappie whose heart was 'in the Highlands a-chasing of the deer', Jeeves?"
[Jeeves:]"The cases are in some respects parallel, sir."
Say no more.)

Reminds one of Waugh in his comic mode (i.e. Handful of Dust, Vile Bodies, Sword of Honour, not Brideshead Revisited), which though comic is nonetheless darker than anything here. Wodehouse becomes monotonous: one hundred pages through I had to swap him for a different monotony in O'Brien.

Orwell in "In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse": "Wodehouse's real sin has been to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are." And locates Bertie as an aristocrat of the Edwardian age. "It is nonsense to talk of 'Fascist tendencies' in his books"--all this in reference to the German broadcasts of 1941. Wodehouse "became the corpus vile in a [British] propaganda experiment." As a novelist he was a harmless, wealthy, parasite.

Wodehouse had said, for instance: "Just as I'm about to feel belligerent in some country I meet a decent sort of chap. We go out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings" and "In the days before the war I had always been modestly proud of being an Englishman, but now that I have been some months resident in this bin or repository of Englishmen I am not so sure." An internment camp. Ouch.


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