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Jeeves in Exile

JEEVES MEETS THE JEWISH QUESTION IN JONATHAN AMES’S TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY TAKE ON THE VALET AND VENEREAL DISEASE, KEEPING HIS COMPOSURE BUT LOSING HIS LUSTER.
DISCUSSED
Imaginary Imprisonment, Human Flight, The Co-Dependent Relationship of B. Wooster and His Life-Saving Valet, Jeeves as Godot, Eluding the Fugged, “This Whole Business of Jacking Up the Soul,” V. S. Pritchett, Raymond Chandler, Jonathan Ames’s Wake-Up Call, Jeeves Redux, Elvis Costello

Jeeves in Exile

Howard Hampton
13 Snaps

The beauty of the thing was, you see, that nothing could possibly go wrong.

—Bertram Wooster

The fact of the antimatter is that we are all prisoners of something—sex or faith, mania or depression, conscience or the lack thereof. The Man in the Iron Mask, c’est moi, the saying goes down here at Motleigh Towers, Slough-of-Despond-on-the-Wold. What is to be done, vis-à-vis amelioration? Slather on a chest-feverish handful of Bolshevik’s VapoRub? Join a glee club, a pyramid scheme, a wandering freak show? (“Elephant-Men and -Women wanted. No professional experience necessary.”) Play the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” on auto-repeat until achieving inert oneness with Ray Davies’s couch-bound satori? Or more ambitiously, take a matchbook correspondence course to start yourself on the way to an exciting new career in a fast-growing, high-paying field like visionary repairman or wastrel-management? To paraphrase the painter Gauguin (as opposed to the pretender in Gauguin vs. Godzilla, 1972): Life being what it is, one dreams of escape. (Revenge was the word he used, but sometimes escape is the best revenge.)

“Jeeves,” announces the eternally youngish, “mentally negligible,” and kaleidoscopically ridiculous Bertie Wooster to his incomparably astute and invariably lifesaving valet, very near the conclusion of P. G. Wodehouse’s interlocking chain of barminess entitled “The Spot of Art,” “flight is the only resource.” Flee like a bird is Bertram’s when-in-doubt policy, writ large in the codex of the Wooster DNA, whether said hightail is from the sulfurous wrath of nephew-crushing aunts, the clutches of insidiously industrious, character-building fiancées, the talons of eagle-eyed booby-hatch operators, a gainful career (make that any sort of employment at all), or “the awful majesty of the Law.” Jeeves serves as his perfect, virtually omniscient flight-planner and facilitator, in addition to the cerebral one’s impeccable credentials as a gentleman’s gentleman, hangover reliever, sermon handicapper, and all-round caretaker/giver: the kind of guardian seraph who could have sprung Sisyphus from the underworld and then gotten them both booked on a restorative round-the-world sea cruise. (No stoic stone-roller, racked Job, or damsel in distress ever needed their bacon saved on a more continuous basis than Bertie.) Over the course of half a century, in Wodehouse’s beatifically timeless series of short stories and novels from Carry On, Jeeves in 1925 to Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen in 1974, the valet distinguished himself as a veritable Houdini of the “narrow squeak,” a virtuoso of proxy music with enough on the eightball to give Spinoza a run for his marbles, the soul of enlightened self-preservation (both of the Wooster s. and his own keenly wide-ranging interests). A wizard when it comes to extricating his employer from the most hopeless situations and dire calamities, Jeeves alone stands between B. and the eternal Void. That abyss consisting in the maim, er, main, of blind forces of havoc, avarice, and blissful stupidity to which the resident high-societal types of the bygone English manor (to say nothing of the English metrop) gravitate, like lemmings to the white cliffs of Dover. And there is also the disposition of “the psychology of the individual,” as Jeeves is wont to delicately phrase it, to be considered: its heedless pursuit of the untenable and the ill-advised (“I would not recommend it, sir”), the natural tendency toward folly and entropy and all those other futile activities that always end in “Why?”

Orwell wrote of the Wodehouse realm’s “peculiar mental atmosphere—an atmosphere which has not, of course, remained completely unchanged, but shows little alteration since about 1925.” This was in 1945, with decades to go for the Jeeves-Wooster tandem—itself but a drop in the bucket of Wodehouse’s tireless comedic productivity (no Bertiesque slacker he)—totaling slightly more than a book for every one of his ninety-three years. From Robert McCrum’s forthcoming Wodehouse: A Life, one gets the indistinct impression of him as a dull, vaguely sad yeoman who concentrated all his imaginative powers in writing to the exclusion of nearly everything else: “I never feel that real people are interesting” were the words he lived by.

Affectionately reveling in the rich heritage of the absurd and the absurd heritage of the rich, his is almost a madcap reverse universe to Beckett’s paralytic vaudeville of cement-overcoat and straitjacket. (Beckett’s mouthpieces want to flee reality as well, but they can’t move anything but their lips.) Jeeves can be seen as a Godot who always does manage to arrive, like the cavalry or perhaps a crossless Calvary, in the nick of time. Here stands an alternate unreality where no matter how many ludicrous complications or frightful mix-ups arise, there is always a best-of-all-possible-worlds feeling in the air to stave off the dark. At the same time, but for the intervening grace of Jeeves, our narrator would be in the albatross soup up to his eyeballs: condemned to be One of Us.

So in the curiously pensive and gently fraught interval before salvation inevitably takes eccentric hold, the abstracted piddle-patter of the back-and-forth between Jeeves and Wooster offers a ritualized set of offhandedly formal, time-killing riffs:

I produced my cambric handkerchief and gave the brow a mop. Recent events had caused me to perspire in the manner popularized by the fountains at Versailles.

“Warm work, Jeeves.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Opens the pores a bit.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How quiet everything seems now.”

“Yes, sir. Silence like a poultice comes to heal the blows of sound.”

“Shakespeare?”

“No, sir. The American author Oliver Wendell Holmes. His poem, “The Organ Grinders.” An aunt of mine used to read it to me as a child.”

There is something borderline lysergic to Wodehouse’s comic effects, the floating out-of-body quality embedded in the thousand and two subtle changes rung on the deadpan “Yes, sir / No, sir / Indeed, sir” wheeze, all while slipping in convoluted exposition or just shooting the proverbial breeze. (Though come to think of it, Jeeves, how is a breeze supposed to be shot—blindfolded at sunup, or in the manner of Captain Spaulding blasting away at that elephant in his pajamas?) Wodehouse evoked an Edwardian England at permanent twilight, though as Orwell noted, that world was already well out-of-date by the time Wodehouse transposed the stock figures of pre-1914 English farce into the heavily Americanized Jazz Age of the ’20s. (His only “real sin,” Orwell noted without malice, “has been to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are.”) A wonderland of harmless grotesques, this left plenty of room-with-déjà-vu for his imbecilic yet incongruously articulate male Alice to be set upon in perpetuity by a giddy collection of free-range, upper-crust dinosaurs—defanged raptors called Glossop and Spode and Gregson, museum-quality specimens all faithfully preserved as though they had been recovered from the Aspic Tar Pits yesterday.

Ever the affable and faithful fall guy, Wooster is frequently the subject of terms like “feckless idiot,” “vapid and frivolous wastrel,” and “excrescence,” disapprobation likely as not issued from close relations or bosom chums or headstrong misses to which he finds himself through no will of his own entangled. Out for a leisurely stroll in the park with one Lord Bittlesham, he gets an earful from a soapbox orator: “Idlers! Non-producers! Look at the tall thin one with the face like a motor-mascot. Has he ever done an honest day’s work in his life? No! A prowler, a trifler, and a blood sucker! And I bet he still owes his tailor for those trousers!” This being Wodehouse, the rabble-rouser turns out to be one Bingo Little, a great pal of Bertie’s and nephew of Lord Bittlesham to boot, incognito behind a fake beard and a slouch hat. “Comrade Bingo” is posing as a communist in order to win the hand of a revolutionary sweetheart with the heavenly name of Charlotte Corday Rowbotham, whose Pa leads a small but virulent sect called Heralds of the Red Dawn. (“Wants to massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane, and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy. Well, nothing could be fairer than that, what?”) That the Wooster mind routinely absorbs such electrical jolts with a bifurcated mix of the stricken, the disbelieving, and the lucid (on second thought, make it trifurcated) is a testament to the powers of positive dissociation. He’s not the purebred silly-ass idiot he’s often made out to be so much as an alternately high/low-functioning case of undiagnosed autism, a new strain that ought to be dubbed Wooster’s Syndrome.

While Bertie’s world often appears to be an unbroken bucolic landscape, there is frequently an acute sense of fretful unease and foreboding hovering in the middle distance: “The Grammar School at Market Snodsbury had, I understood, been built somewhere in the year 1416, and, as with so many of those ancient foundations, there still seemed to brood over its Great Hall, where the afternoon’s festivities were to take place, not a little of the fug of the centuries.” That fug spells trouble, and eluding the dead weight of the past that presses so heavily on the modern mind is always imperative in these virtual fairy tales. That way lies madness, or at least the stale hells of social realism, mental improvement, and obedient endeavor. In “Jeeves and the Impending Doom,” the Wooster antennae pick up an intuition of something unbearable in the offing: “We Woosters are men of iron, but beneath my intrepid exterior at that moment there lurked a nameless dread.” Name That Dread being the great inner preoccupation of the twentieth century, the flip side of that other more-or-less fatal distraction identified in Joy in the Morning: “This whole business of jacking up the soul.” Unseen forces are always at work beneath these dazzlingly placid surfaces—conspiracies of the right-thinking that left unchecked would compel our hero to better himself, dragging his poor being kicking and screaming into the blighted land of “higher things.” (A volume of philosophical instruction entitled Types of Ethical Theory strikes a particular note of fear: a gift from an iron-minded fiancée who might as well belong to an outfit called Heralds of the Gray Dawn.)

The cautionary note of Joy in the Morning (also known as Jeeves in the Morning; several books in J/W canon have at least one alias owing to the vagaries of American reprints) is a simple yet universal one: “It was the poor blister’s pathetic desire to do his soul a bit of good that had landed him in this awful predicament.” Elevating the unilluminated consciousness is a sure ticket “down once more into the lower levels for Bertram.” (Of course Jeeves himself, while finding Nietzsche “fundamentally unsound,” derives his fine equilibrium of mind from Spinoza, Dostoeyevski, and the like: thus is he endowed with enough consciousness for the pair of them.) Edification aside, there are always passages that bring forth a rush of heady memory, as in Bertie’s account of a Yuletide children’s pageant staged by the aforementioned Bingo Little:

I take it you know that Orange number at the Palace? It goes:

Oh, won’t you something something oranges
My something oranges,
My something oranges,
Oh, won’t you something something something I forget,
Something something something I tumty tumty yet:
Oh—

Or words to that effect. It’s a dashed clever lyric, and the tune’s good, too; but the thing that made the number was the business where the girls take the oranges out of their baskets, you know, and toss them lightly to the audience. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but it always seems to tickle an audience to bits when they get things thrown at them from the stage…

But at the Palace, of course, the oranges are made of yellow wool, and the girls don’t so much chuck them as drop them limply into the first and second rows. I began to gather that the business was going to be treated rather differently tonight when a dashed great chunk of pips and mildew sailed past my ear and burst on the wall behind me. Another landed with a squelch on the neck of one of the Nibs in the third row. And then a third took me right on the tip of the nose and I kind of lost interest in the proceedings for a while.

When I had scrubbed my face and got my eye to stop watering for a moment, I saw the evening’s entertainment had begun to resemble one of Belfast’s livelier nights. The air was thick with shrieks and fruit.

A strange spiritual contentment comes over me as I contemplate that scene, with the Tough Eggs firing the unexploded grenades back at the kids “so that the audience got it both coming and going.” I know there is a ripe social metaphor or two in there somewhere, along with a good bit of purely instinctive deconstruction, and an innate feel for the tenuousness of socio-linguistic order (mere inanity a tongue-slip away from the anarchy lurking within the most innocent occasion). “I endeavor to give satisfaction, sir,” Jeeves is wont to say, and that satisfaction defines the Wodehouse practice of escapism—the deeply gratifying flight from alleged real life, the refusal of the writer’s obligation to the advancement of either society or revolution, the euphoric delight in language and the ridiculousness on behalf of “The Purity of the Turf” itself. Genius is an overindulged word to which the all-seeing/ -knowing Jeeves would himself demure, but it does do justice to the impossible ease with which Wodehouse maneuvered his gliding deus ex machina in and out of those endless tightly plotted misunderstandings and cheery larcenies.

Jeeves likewise must demi-urgently navigate his employer through the strawberry mine fields of the terrifyingly serious Florence Craye, the frightfully hearty Honoria Glossop, her dour pop Sir Roderick Glossop (“who’s a loony-doctor and nothing but a loony-doctor, however much you may call him a nerve specialist”), the prodigiously soppy Madeleine Bassett, the cretinous Rodrick Spode (leader of the Black Shorts and would-be Dictator of England, later Lord Sidcup), the nearsighted newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (pronounced of course “Fungi-Phipps”), Reverend Stinker Pinker, the brutally imposing Aunt Agatha (“the one who kills rats with her teeth and devours her young”), police constable Stilton Cheesewright, and walk-ons such as the irascible old lady (“Would that be Miss Sipperly of the Paddock, Beckly-on-the-Moor in Yorkshire, sir?”) who believes “if every young man in England went about hitting policemen in the stomach, it would be a better country to live in.” His is the stiff-upper genius of sympathy and symbiosis, the orchestration of harmonic convergence—a great stickler in matters of fashion, but otherwise inclined toward making fluid situations out of stone, an upright mole who divines whatever openings the ground has to offer.

The novelist and critic V. S. Pritchett, who himself passed through the idyllic Dulwich College milieu which so informed the Wodehouse sensibility, stated: “The strength of Wodehouse lies not in his almost incomprehensibly intricate plots—Restoration comedy again—but in his prose style and there, above all, in his command of mind-splitting metaphor. To describe a girl as ‘the sand in civilisation’s spinach’ enlarges and decorates the imagination.” Well, those plots are fairly mind-splitting and imagination-decorating in and of themselves, since the escape from one frying pan often demands Bertie—necessity being the mother of blackmail—take a brisk fire walk through the burning coals of burglary and not-so-grand theft. (The objet d’art likely as not being a particularly gruesome cow creamer, though if you have to ask what a cow creamer is, you really don’t want to know.) But the music of comedy is the raison d’être here, a perpetually mischievous dance of words akin to the otherworldly outpourings of Art Tatum’s piano as he tickled the chordal stuffing out of “Tea for Two” or “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” constructing a transcendent little heaven for Wooster, Jeeves, and their coconspirators.

*

By an odd stroke of luck, Raymond Chandler also went to Dulwich shortly after Wodehouse. Published in 1939, a year after Wodehouse’s definitive The Code of the Woosters, The Big Sleep coincidentally found Philip Marlowe’s chivalrous code getting him mixed up with a wealthy, headstrong old man and a batch of wayward daughters. “A Classical education helps you from being fooled by pretentiousness,” Chandler would later say, and that attitude is also discernible behind much of the deflating banter and skewed references constantly popping up in the Jeeves-Wooster cross-talk. Another part of that education may be surmised from the sort of cricket-match analysis offered by Gilkes, the school’s renowned Master: “Fine innings, Wodehouse, but remember we all die in the end.” In 1899, this Gilkes wrote a report about a teenaged Wodehouse which points to the seeds of the Wooster-Jeeves dualism already present in the young Pelham Grenville:

He is a most impractical boy… often forgetful, he finds difficulty in the most simple things and asks absurd questions, whereas he can understand the most difficult things. He has the most distorted ideas about wit and humour; he draws over his books in a most distressing way, and writes foolish rhymes in other people’s books. One is obliged to like him in spite of his vagaries.

With vagaries like those, you might have expected him to precede Chandler to Hollywood—he arguably laid much of the groundwork for ’30s screwball comedy with Thank You, Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934). But though he sojourned briefly there and got a movie-industry novel out of it called Laughing Gas, except for a couple Fox B-movies in the ’30s (which borrowed the Jeeves name and jettisoned the rest in favor of substandard comic-mystery plots involving spies and gangsters), J. and Wooster were shunned by the moguls and shakers. (Select echoes of dead-panic Wodehouse farce can be detected in My Man Godfrey, the boisterous Ale and Quail Club of The Palm Beach Story, and the valet-fathead byplay in Sullivan’s Travels; much later, Arthur would prove an amusing but overcalculated rip-off of the master.) In any event, the Jeeves-Wooster universe occupies an awkward place among the pop-lit archetypes and mythologies. It has never fully escaped the page and penetrated a broader awareness in the manner of Marlowe and his million solitary-dick knockoffs, but instead lingers surreptitiously on the moss-eaten grounds of a decaying estate. They receive a BBC touch-up every decade or so (Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry did the meticulously timed J-&-W routines proud in the 1990s, but after a good first season the shows sank into the slapdash and erratic, making an especially unpardonable mess of The Code of the Woosters among other crimes against posterity). Meantime, the current Collector’s Wodehouse series of reprints from Overlook Press has grown to a couple dozen spiffy little volumes (“reset and printed on Scottish cream-wove”—the ultra-fastidious Jeeves would surely give that the nod): asylums of inspired foolery against the idiocies and ravening mediocrity of these times, when and wherever “these times” may occur.

But before leaving Jeeves to his imaginary past, like a favorite uncle occasionally visited at some golden-years retirement village—where he still beats Merlin at chess and aces out Gandalf in the shuffleboard tournament—there’s unexpected news on the home front. The Brain of Brains makes a surprise reappearance in Jonathan Ames’s deftly bemusing new quasi-sort-of-metafiction Wake Up, Sir! An accomplished novelist (The Extra Man) and drolly neurotic raconteur (My Less Than Secret Life and What’s Not to Love?) in his own right, Ames has conceived Wake Up, Sir! as an homage à clef to Wodehouse (its narrator draws liberally on Ames’s résumé) that adroitly reanimates Jeeves in the twenty-first century. (Better strike that term, imply any Valet of Re-Animator scenario à la the Lovecraft-Wodehouse parody Scream for Jeeves of some years back.) This light-footed book transplants the dependable one to New Jersey and the employ of Alan Blair, who is a Jewish, slightly more intellectual and considerably more disheveled/ depressive Wooster. (He’s a Bertie Inaction figure: alcoholic accessories sold separately.) He is in seclusion, staying with his doting aunt and not-so-doting uncle, when she announces over pastrami at the Kosher Nosh that she has spoken to his therapist about his drinking, and sends his unsteady mind reeling:

The dreaded Montesonti—the nerve specialist at Cedars Grove rehab in Long Island where I’d had an unfortunate residence! He had told me I was a maniac, in the classic sense of the word, which appealed to my ego a little, but he had wanted to destroy my relationship with my Muse by prescribing lithium. “I will not go on lithium!” I had protested. “It’s only a salt,” he argued. “I don’t like salt,” I had riposted… And then I miraculously escaped his clutches when my insurance ran out.

She tells her nephew the quack prescribes “tough love”: it’s either back to rehab or the highway for the struggling writer (caught as it were between a block and a Thunderbird case). So he and Jeeves hit the road in a 1989 Chevrolet Caprice, olive green for improbable measure: technically headed for one of those artist retreats called Rose Colony to work on his stalled novel, but more picaresquely an excuse to sight-see and ruminate while contracting a broken nose, blackened eyes, and a very communicable dose of crabs (though not all three simultaneously—that would truly take the venereal biscuit and probably some kind of world record to boot). Throughout, Blair vacillates pleasantly between eager desperation and idle suicidal thoughts; here, too, Jeeves serves as the voice of sanity and good sense that tethers him to his existence, such as it is.

However, it’s not entirely clear if the Jeeves in Wake Up, Sir! is meant to be real or is simply a shorthand Arthur-meets-Harvey figment of Alan’s imagination. Not a problem really, for this merely emphasizes the spectral quality always latent in the icon, who after all was less a character than a shimmering mirage above the emerald desert of English social life. (The blues as one imagines Wodehouse would have transposed them: “I asked for water, Jeeves, and she gave me gasoline.” “I am distressed to hear that, sir.”) It’s by no means essential for J. to interact with the various nebulous types Blair encounters, for his physical presence is never as important as his aura—a flying-saucerful of intelligence swooping in and out to sort the disastrous from the merely inconvenient, and restore a sense of proportionality, as per the poet McNamara. It suffices for him to serve as a sounding board and taciturn voice of reason, biffing along silently and possibly invisibly with the narrator but nonetheless perceived as watching over him in a reassuring manner.

This may strike some as having a kind of saving-him-from-himself relation to perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life, but the difference is that the angel/chump pact there is predicated on returning the chump to a normal, dutiful family life, whereas the Wooster-Jeevesian program for a wonderful one was to be free of all such encumbrances. In Alan Blair, possibly named for the shaky PM and noted Wodehouse admirer Tony or even Eric (who changed his name to George Orwell), Ames is searching for a third way: flight but with an option for productivity and a meaningful existence thrown in.

The most salient point about the novel is while it incorporates all the considerations Wodehouse completely omitted or heavily soft-pedaled—sex above all else, death, self-destruction, violence, pubic infestation, and similar indelicacies—the basic sweet-natured innocence of the Wodehouse worldview has been preserved. Bertie would not have been as given to wistful longings re Jerzy Kosinski’s head-in-plastic-bag suicide technique, and though the Chapter Eight subheading “I eat my dinner and read some Dashiell Hammett” is right up the Wooster alley, the following “I join the fray and hold forth on professional wrestling, while momentarily contemplating the Homosexual Question and the Jewish Question” goes well beyond his sedentary, emphatically blinkered outlook. But the effect is nonetheless the same: the rummy absurdities are what count, whether in the squeaky-clean asexuality of Wodehouse or the lightly Krafft-Ebing-flavored musings of Ames, and the particulars of the rumminess don’t matter nearly so much as we like to pretend. Whether the unadmitted (and unconsummated) marriage of Jeeves and Wooster or the semi-straight nose-fetishism of Blair (whose mental edition of Psychopathia Sexualis would have to include a centerfold of one nasally well-hung Ava Innocenzo: “she made Shylock look like a Barbie doll”), what matters in farce isn’t sexual orientation. It’s the disorientation that counts, and in that regard Wake Up, Sir! is an honorable attempt to reframe an old addled sensibility within a new addled milieu. Incongruous juxtaposition is the common thread between these two incarnations of Jeeves; the cultural specifics are just props for Bertie/Alan to pratfall over, and Jeeves to clean up afterwards.

What doesn’t travel as well as Jeeves is the sense of a society, the more outdated the better: the lack of any real societal pecking order in Wake Up, Sir! mutes the comic possibilities, for there’s nothing like a good hidebound aristocracy to pave the way for the acid reflux of the repressed. Ames recalls Peter de Vries more than P. G. W. in the scamperings of his sexually obsessed hero over the landscape of temptation, but Jeeves is a touch superfluous in a wide-open do-your-own-thing climate. (He works most hilariously when he’s cornered the market in free will, and distributes it to each according to their needs.) It’s a pity Ames couldn’t find a way to bring him in contact with a tight but unraveled clan/organization like the Soprano family—I’ve often thought they had hidden Wodehouse possibilities, with the Bada Bing as the Drones Club in disguise, Uncle Junior and the dreaded Livia Soprano (the castrating aunt figure reincarnate) as typical hellhound relatives, and distraught Tony so obviously in need of a Jeeves to make everything all right. (Dr. Melfi is a poor substitute, trying to get him in touch with his feelings and better self, like some incestuous spawn of Roderick and Honoria Glossop.) Society is absolutely necessary to comedy, if only to provide something to take flight from. If Blair were indeed to wake up from his dream of Jeeves, he would need something to wake up to.

Fellow travelers on the road to or from despair are often good company, though. And sometimes along the way they make surprising connections. The dictatorial clown Spode in The Code of the Woosters is based on the same person as the “Mr. Oswald” Elvis Costello called out in his very first record, the 1977 single “Less Than Zero”: Oswald Mosley, the notoriously grandiloquent leader of the Union of British Fascists in England during the 1930s, who had achieved a small measure of Strom Thurmond–like political rehabilitation by Costello’s time. The wits of Costello and Wodehouse are almost polar opposites—one barbed, the other benign—but in the case of Spode/Oswald, their disgust is mutual. Bertie has no more use for the pompous ass and his “Heil, Spode”-ing followers (substituting Black Shorts for Mosley’s Blackshirts makes a nice image—shades of John Heartfield if he had worked with Monty Python) than Costello. Ironically, Wodehouse would land in hot water in 1940, when the apolitical writer was interned in Nazi-occupied France, and foolishly made a few innocuous radio broadcasts that betrayed only how insulated he was from the world outside his own imagination. This was how Orwell came to write “In Defense of P. G. Wodehouse” after the war, to exonerate him of charges of treachery: stupidity and naïveté were the worst things he could be convicted on, the crime of impersonating a Wooster.

Costello, though: here was somebody who acted like Orwell with an electric guitar and a sense of humor, going for the jugular of real life, Mr. Revenge-&-Guilt, promising No-No-No-No escape from the working week, “I’ll do anything to confuse the enemy.” Serious as cancer, exposing “emotional fascism” in the bedroom and the half-life traces of the old-fashioned goon-squad/torture-table kind that seeped in through the telly and the medicine cabinet. There was a time for me when Costello’s “Pump It Up” sort of absolutism seemed like the best thing going—culture as politics, as guerilla raids by other means. Yet the preponderance of the war-of-the-sexes stuff always did seem a little too clenched for its own or anyone else’s good: the folly of youth rehearsing for the incontinent male-menopause it looked forward to. I loved Wodehouse as much as Costello, but clearly the latter seemed like the significant artist instead of the mere entertainer. I never registered that Bertie could sum up Elvis C.’s mindset in one blithering aside: “Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m.” Perhaps I burned out on so much truculence in my shipwrecked youth, but Elvis and his stamping foot seem to have aged a bit less gracefully than Wooster and his faithful companion. Does bitterness grow stale salting the old wounds, feeding the same furies in middle age we did in back when we had better much excuses for them? Could it also be that instead of little Hitlers and Stalins, someone turned loose hordes of little Spodes, Glossops, and Fink-Nottles in the corridors of power, the citadels of culture, and the groves of academe? As Pritchett wrote apropos Wodehouse and his curious Utopian spirit: “The kingdoms of fantasy and mirth are long-lasting and not of this world; and their inhabitants make circles round our respectable angers.”

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