Tag Archives: Wodehouse

Reading Joseph Mitchell, Wodehouse, and Pedro de Castaneda

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Joe Gould’s Secret, Joseph Mitchell

I don’t know if people were simply more gullible in the New York City of the nineteen-forties and fifties or if my easy cynicism has finally paid off in actual enlightenment, but I guessed Joe Gould’s “secret” long before the author himself discovered it. Gould seems to have been an intolerable person – a willful eccentric, a drunkard, suspicious and needy, suffering from delusions of grandeur. The last (perhaps) of the old Village bohemians, he claimed to be writing an Oral History of the age more than nine-million words long. He also claimed to be able to translate Longfellow poems into the language of seagulls. Gould’s charms, if you grant that he had any, quickly wear off. But something a little magical happens about two-thirds of the way through this book. I began to like Mitchell and to want to hear more from him – and I began to sympathize just a bit with Joe Gould in ways I hadn’t particularly intended to.

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Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse had a bit of the holy fool about him. He was an innocent, liable, like Bertie Wooster, to find himself in the most compromising situations but without accruing any personal blame. The radio talks he gave from behind German lines, for example, got him accused of collaboration during the war, though an investigation later cleared him. Likewise, in Thank You, Jeeves (the very first Bertie and Jeeves novel, published in 1935), the casual racism of the era raises hackles for today’s reader. The “N” word is thrown out several times and Bertie spends almost half the book in blackface. But Wodehouse’s essential naiveté is such that imputations of malice are quickly discounted. In fact, I wonder if this isn’t one of his very best novels. The standard Wodehouse formula is at work – there are engagements and threats of engagement, difficult relatives, combustible cottages, and an accumulation of crossed purposes that only Jeeves can untangle – but the pacing and plotting and repartee are particularly good. So too are the interactions between Bertie and his “gentleman’s gentleman,” spiced with the friction occasioned by Bertie’s intolerable banjo playing, which causes Jeeves to actually leave his service in the first chapter. Fear not, however. In the end all is well and there are kippers for breakfast, whole schools of them.

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Narrative of the Coronado Expedition, Pedro de Castaneda de Najera

“I have always noticed, and it is a fact, that often when we have something valuable in our possession and handle it freely, we do not esteem or appreciate it in all its worth, as we would if we could realize how much we would miss it if we were to lose it. Thus we gradually belittle its value, but once we have lost it and miss its benefits, we feel it in our heart and are forever moody, thinking of ways and means to retrieve it. This, it seems to me, happened to all or most of those who went on that expedition, which Francisco Vasquez Coronado led in search of the Seven Cities, in the year of our Savior, Jesus Christ, 1540.”

The Coronado expedition was like a story out of legend, a half-medieval army marching into an unknown wilderness to chase rumors of The Seven Cities of Gold. But it was not a legend, and they found nothing of the sort. In fact, the record of their contacts with the peoples of the American southwest is filled with deceit, coercion, and violence. The Spanish – or at least their leaders – never tried to understand the world they stumbled into. They only understood gold. Quoted above, Castaneda, who was a member of the army, appears to have been more thoughtful. His memoir, written twenty years later, is haunted by wonder and longing for the strange lands he saw (his descriptions of buffalo herds and the Great Plains are among the earliest by any European), but also by regret.

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Three Paragraphs of Humor

I had a friend in college who would shut himself in his bedroom every afternoon and force himself to laugh at nothing in particular for exactly five minutes. It was one of the “Daily Habits of Joy and Excellence” that he’d recommended to himself and posted on the wall of his apartment: laugh for five minutes each day. Listening to him from the other room, you got a strange feeling. To think that you lived in a world where people would shut themselves in their rooms and laugh alone. How funny, or sad.

My son, age nine, is a collector of jokes. That his father isn’t a collector of jokes is one of the great disappointments of his childhood. He only likes funny books these days. His favorites include Garfield comics and Tom Sawyer. He recently wanted something new to read so I handed him my copy of Code of the Woosters, warning that it may be premature. He gave it up after only two pages, bogged down by Bertie’s euphemisms for cocktails (“morning revivers,” “tissue-restorers”) and the implausibility of anyone being named Gussie Fink-Nottle.

Humor, I think, is something we aspire to more often than achieve. But successful humor frequently comes from failure, from incompetence, from a sense of our inadequacy to the task of living – and life’s inadequacy to the task of being lived. Think of Cervantes, of Rabelais, and of Laurence Sterne. Among great American humorists I count Melville, Thomas Berger, and Peter De Vries. A fool on the stage means the play’s a tragedy, but it’s the jester who keeps us company when we’re wandering the barren heath.

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