A friend told me that she, her husband and her family were to spend time on the Mendocino coast in Northern California, where “it should be very cold and foggy, a refreshing change after D.C.!” This area was the site of her family home, near the church where she was married. The book she bought to read there? “Wodehouse!”
Upon hearing of her selection, I realized that I had not read P. G. Wodehouse of late, a terrible thing for any man to admit in public. I had read all the Wodehouse books on my shelves, but the man wrote almost a hundred. That left me with a choice either of buying another Wodehouse or re-reading one I already had.
A basic tenet of my philosophy follows C. S. Lewis’ remark that “You have not read a great book at all if you have only read it once.” I opted to re-read. I was once given a volume containing three Wodehouse novels. The last of these three was “Jeeves and the Tie That Binds.”
In most Wodehouse titles, we find overtones galore. Jeeves insists that Bertie always wears the proper tie on every occasion. And “the tie that binds” refers, of course, to marriage – both what it is and why it can make us happy. Marriage does bind, which is precisely, as G. K. Chesterton said, what all lovers really want to be: bound together.
Previous markings indicated that I had read this third novel before. The plot seemed familiar. Wodehouse novels often tell how Bertram Wooster narrowly escapes marriage to the wrong girl, say, to a Florence Craye, who is most beautiful but “imperious,” or to a Madeline Bassett, the “daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett of Totleigh Towers, Glos.” Madeline, erroneously, thought Bertie was “hopelessly in love with her.” Though of the “pin-up class,” Madeline, in a famous phrase, is described “as mushy a character as ever broke biscuit, convinced that the stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born.” Fortunately for Bertie, Madeline became engaged to his unlucky friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle. A creature like Madeline, Bertie thought, was “the last thing . one would want about the house.’
Wodehouse is a master of just the “right word.” The novel opens with Bertie at breakfast feeling quite well. Jeeves, his butler, served “toothsome eggs and bacon.” He tells Jeeves that he is “very happy today.” Jeeves is “very glad to hear it.”
Bertie looks for just the right word to describe his experience. He asks the learned Jeeves: “What’s the word I’ve heard you use from time to time – begins with `eu.'” Jeeves suggests, “Euphoria, sir?”
Bertie responds: “That’s the one. I’ve seldom had a sharper attack of euphoria. I feel full of the brim of Vitamin B. Mind you, I don’t know how long it will last. Too often it is when one feels fizziest that the storm clouds begin doing their stuff.” And of course with this foreboding note, mindful of all human experience, the plot unfolds. One wonders about me at my “fizziest.”
We do not forget that the Greek prefix “eu” bears all the happy connotations – Eucharist, eudemonia, euphoria. The novelist, we suspect, fully intended the overtone.
Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia had a famous French cook named Anatole. This fact often enticed Bertie to visit his “aged relative” for reasons other than personal devotion. On arriving at his aunt’s place in Market Snodsbury one afternoon, when not a creature was stirring, Bertie thought of greeting Anatole to preview dinner. But he heard that the chef was feeling poorly with “what he calls mal au foie, where conversation would be of greater interest to a medical man than to a layman like myself.”
At this point appeared one of those memorable sentences that makes the reading of a book worthwhile even if nothing else is detected in it, which is never the case with Wodehouse. The sentence reads: “I don’t know why it is, but when somebody starts talking to me about his liver I never can listen with real enjoyment.” All Georgetown students, no doubt, know the French translation of the English word “liver.”
But as I looked at that marvelous sentence, I said to myself: “Yes, that is really what it is all about – universities, life and reality.” We are here to listen “with real pleasure” to the things that alone can give us such pleasure.
Basically, our lives consist in the right understanding of what is to be loved. And, as Augustine implied, when we find it, know it, we should take real pleasure in it. Aristotle said much the same thing.
I am grateful to my friend for telling me of the book she bought to take to “the Mendocino coast.”
Fr. James Schall, S.J., is a professor in the government department. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … appears every other Friday with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.