For the last few days, I’ve been diving into books that I’ve been gifted over the Christmas holiday. From my family, I received a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s Carry On, Jeeves (part of the famous Jeeves series), which I recently discovered and found great amusement in reading. Having received a bookstore gift card from one of the kids that I teach in Sunday school, I bought the first volume of a book that I’d seen on the shelves in Minneapolis, but had yet to take a risk on buying: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
The two books couldn’t be more opposite, and while I originally intended to make this post about both books, the experiences of each are enough to warrant separate pieces on each one.
The first, a classic series of short stories involving a wealthy man-child who is always being rescued in various ways by his seemingly flawless and omnipotent valet, is part of a classic series, and has made a major impact on popular culture (Jeeves eventually became the stock stereotype of a butler, even though Jeeves, as someone who serves one person, is actually a valet). Wooster is basically saved from terrible choices, whether in clothing, engagements, or flits of whimsy, by the wisdom and common sense of Jeeves, who has either taken matters into his own hands before Wooster even knows about it, or who finds a way to inconspicuously tend to the situation before it gets out of control. Bertie Wooster is not the sharpest person, but he is smart enough to ask for help when help is needed, and also wise enough to hire someone who can counter his shortcomings. Of his valet, Wooster says at one point:
” “NOW, touching this business of old Jeeves – my man, you know – how do we stand? Lots of people think I’m much too dependent on him. My Aunt Agatha, in fact, has even gone so far as to call him my keeper. Well, what I say is: Why not? The man’s a genius.”
Most of the time, Jeeves responds to Wooster in a very intentional way. He is not one to waste words, as the below dialogue shows:
“I mean to say, I know perfectly well that I’ve got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess. And when a girl comes along who has about twice the regular allowance, she too often makes a bee line for me with the love light in her eyes. I don’t know how to account for it, but it is so.”
“It may be Nature’s provision for maintaining the balance of the species, sir.”…
“At breakfast this morning, when I was eating a sausage, she told me I shouldn’t, as modern medical science held that a four-inch sausage contained as many germs as a dead rat. The maternal touch, you understand; fussing over my health…. What’s to be done, Jeeves?”
“We must think, sir.”
“You think. I haven’t the machinery.”
“I will most certainly devote my very best attention to the matter, sir, and will endeavour to give satisfaction.”
Another one of my winter reads, St. Porphyrios’ Wounded by Love, has extensive discussions about humility, serving, and the need to refrain from being outraged and coercive towards others when they do not do as we wish. St. Porphyrios says that
“…with our distress we achieve nothing at all. Nor do we achieve anything by trying to persuade them to change their ways. That’s not right either. […] It is a kind of self-project of our own when we insist on other people becoming good. In reality, we wish to become good, but because we are unable to, we demand it of others and insist on this. […] You mustn’t pressurize the other person. His time will come, as long as you pray for him. With silence, tolerance and above all by prayer we benefit others in a mystical way.”
Jeeves has a lot of silence and tolerance in his daily work. It’s not to say that Jeeves is a morally perfect valet, much less a saint; he is known to (without asking) throw out many of his employer’s less-than-appropriate fashion choices, and twist the situation to bail Wooster out of his predicament. But he is nonetheless patient, willing to listen, and highly thoughtful, while highly devoted to serving his master. Wooster is perpetually getting into trouble, and his reputation amongst the community of valets and butlers is well-known. However, he owns his imperfection, and knows that he cannot thrive alone. Jeeves recognizes this too; in one of the other Jeeves collections, he destroys the file about Wooster at the London butler/valet club. Even though the file is the largest one the club has, and might prevent others from experiencing what Jeeves has endured, his patience and forgiveness carry forward. In a most brilliant manner, Jeeves deals with the struggles of Wooster with a great deal of tactfulness and civility.
In the next post, I’ll shift to discussing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and talk about the process of being authentic, discussing struggle, and dealing with the effects of doing so in a public and creative fashion.