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RUSSIAN SPIRIT

The final section of my researches involves quotations relating to what I would essentially call the ‘Russian Spirit’ – with the meaning of this expression adopted by Alexander Pushkin in Ruslan and Ludmila, when he wrote: ‘The Russian spirit… Russia’s scent’. Moreover, the words ‘Russian spirit’ appears twice in Wodehouse’s text, as I mentioned earlier in the article, in the Russian Culture part. I now move on to the manifestations of the Russian spirit that were described by Wodehouse himself.

Before doing so, however, I must make some reference not to the Russian Spirit itself, but to the basis of this spirit. I mean the land of Russia: its territory, its climate, its rivers, its cities, and everything else that Wodehouse tells us as a geographer. We certainly can’t call his information exhaustive, but it is quite sufficient for a country which neither Plum nor his characters ever visited.

From Wodehouse we learn that there are at least three cities in Russia: Moscow, the main city with the political centre in the Kremlin, with an Artbashiekeff (‘Chester Forgets Himself’, from The Heart of a Goof) that might turn out to be a Moscow suburb; Leningrad, formerly Petrograd; and Nijni Novgorod. There are at least two rivers: the Volga and the Don the famous Russian steppes seem to be situated near the River Don (The Swoop, Part 2, ch7). And somewhere in Russia you will find Siberia.

The climate in Russia is inclement, at least in winter (Frozen Assets, ch9) and in Moscow, where it enables Winter Sports to take place (Summer Lighting, ch2). However, if you are not a sportsman but one of Napoleon’s generals, you would say something worth about the Moscow weather (Jill the Reckless, ch2). In Siberia, despite what we might hear from other sources, some claim the climate is not so terrible compared, say, to the weather in the late English summer (The Swoop, Part 2, ch5). On the whole, the atmosphere there doesn’t evoke such a crushed gloom, as do the park and gardens of Blandings Castle on occasion (Something Fresh, ch2).

Having briefly depicted the geographical and climatic peculiarities of Russia, Wodehouse passes to ethnographical research. To his credit, he avoided that trite set of images: matrioshka; balalaika; and beers in Moscow streets. He wrote instead about samovars, not only that of Vladimir Brusiloff but also in the drawing-rooms, where the English intelligentsia had parties (‘Jane Gets off the Fairway’, from The Heart of a Goof). And icons help to provide the atmosphere in some of these drawing-rooms (‘The Purification of Rodney Spelvin’, from The Heart of a Goof). Once Wodehouse mentioned Russian boots, and drew his readers’ attention to the habit of Russian men of concealing almost their entire faces behind a dense zareba of hair. But he did realise that under that disguise there was a picturesque swarthiness, which could be enhanced by a touch of the Raven Gipsy No. 3 grease paint (The Swoop, Part 2, ch6).

There is another stereotypical image wich Wodehouse was not able to avoid: vodka. But before I concentrate on the role that vodka plays in forming the Russian national character, I’d like to take a short digression into the general area of Russian cuisine. Wodehouse devoted a lot of his pages to matters culinary. We probably shouldn’t consider an egg for Vladimir Brusiloff’s breakfast as a national Russian dish, even when mixed with a brace of bombs. But Wodehouse does tell us about two real pearls of the Russian cuisine: Russian Salad and Charlotte Russe (‘Best Seller’, from Mulliner Nights), and as for beverages, it must be said that – in addition to vodka – the only specific spirits or liquor Plum mentioned that he thought might be Russian, is Artbashiekeff, which I mentioned above. In fact, it is no more a drink than a Moscow suburb, but those readers who – like Felicia Blakeney’s good husband-to-be – don’t know what it really is, will find the secret disclosed in Norman Murphy’s Wodehouse Handbook. Norman suggests this is PGW’s version of Artzybashev, who was not so much a Great Russian as a Rude Russian; his 1907 novel Satin caused a sensation with its frank discussion of sex.

Now let us turn to Russian vodka. As we have already learned, its absence causes that abysmal soul-sadness which so frequently afflicts Russian peasant after a heavy day’s work (Jill the Reckless, ch8), while by contrast a decanter and a half of the neat spirit would encourage a Russian general (in the days of his youth) to sing at a bump-supper at Moscow University (The Swoop, Part 2, ch2).

Nobody knows what song was presented by the future general. We may imagine, however, that it was like hearing the Siberian wolfhound in full cry after a Siberian wolf (Cocktail Time, ch9). If the English butler (a former steward on a transatlantic liner) could sing in such a way in the company of an English aristocrat, so much easier would the future Russian general find it. It is also quite possible that the general’s song was similar to the ‘Volga Boat Song’, because, as Wodehouse showed us with his examples of Russian literary chef d’oeuvres, no Russian, even from higher social layers, would lose a chance to get filled with the sad and gloomy Russian spirit.

It is notable how frequently I have referred to Grand Duke Vodkakoff, the general in charge of one of the two main invading armies in The Swoop. He is a typical representative of the Russian aristocracy who won’t sing without drinking vodka (rather like a proponent of modern karaoke), and refuses to eat fried fish only with his fingers. Nevertheless, as a general of the Russian army, he prefers to speak with his opponents in a smooth, cynical, Russian way, and when he acts, it is a typical Muscovite acts, with behaviour which is at the same time swift, secret, and deadly, wholly unlike the manners of the effervescent Russian writer who, being in raptures, kisses people on both cheeks.

Russian aristocrats, Russian generals, and Russian writers together make up just a small proportion of the Russian people. The good investigator should come down to the simple folk, who are the real source of the national spirit. While Russian writers may describe the Russian peasant as being in a hopeless misery, when he can’t find pleasure in the shining sun and singing birds and decids to commit suicide at the page 380, a Wodehouse moujik – whether a peasant of the steppes or a Volga boatman – is an active person who can find his way out of any difficult and dangerous situation. Of course, Volga boatmen have to do heavy work, which is why they walk with a slow and dragging step (The Code of the Woosters, ch8) and with something of the weary moodiness (‘Excelsior’, from Nothing Serious), but they knew, unlike Bertie, that they should not stick their stomachs out.

As for the peasants, one of Plum’s favourite anecdotes which with minor variations and diverse details was told in no fewer than 11 novels and short stories (see, for example, ‘The Man Who Gave Up Smoking’, from Mr Mulliner Speaking) is the story of peasant on the steppes of Russia who is compelled, in order to ensure his own safety, to throw his children out of the back of the sleigh to the pursuing wolf pack.

A detailed study of this story shows that the complete version, reaching the peak of tragedy when the loving father has to sacrifice his infant son, appeared in three of Wodehouse’s stories. In the remainder, thankfully, there is no such sacrifice, although in a further three (such as The Mating Season, ch6) the peasant stays sufficiently tête-à-tête with a wolf that in the absence of a child the peasant’s fate still evokes strong apprehensions. In the final four sources we realise that the happy end is possible, especially if a suitably high tree had suddenly grown in the middle of the steppes (Right Ho, Jeeves, ch11).

Undoubtedly, the story of the relationship between the peasant and the wolves is quite entertaining by itself, and it becomes more interesting when we recall that sometimes Plum retold it, turning the landscape of the Russian steppes into the Indian jungles, the wolf into a tiger and the Russian peasant into a coolie (see, for example, Uncle Dynamite, ch10). However, Wodehouse was not the only writer who used this wolf–peasant story. It also features on the pages of Rex Stout’s 1946 detective novel The Silent Speaker, in which Archie Goodwin, giving himself up to his childhood reminiscences, refers to ‘an old picture, there was one in our dining-room out in Ohio, of the people in the sleigh throwing the baby out to the wolves that were chasing them’. This coincidence makes one think about the actual existence of such a picture. Perhaps both Wodehouse and Stout had seen this painting in an American gallery? And while Stout put the picture on his pages, so to speak, in its entirety, Wodehouse preferred to use the image. It is possible, however, that Stout, having read one of Wodehouse’s five versions of the story which was published before The Silent Speaker, was so inspired by its drama that he couldn’t help reproducing it in his own novel.

Wodehouse himself teases us about the story’s origin in chapter 9 of Bring on the Girls, in which he describes Guy Bolton’s fiancée, Marguerite Namara, as wearing around her neck was ‘a collar decorated with silver bells similar in design to those seen in paintings of troikas pursued through the Siberian woods by wolves’. But although Wodehouse met Namara in 1918, he did not write about it until the 1950s.

Masha Lebedeva

Masha Lebedeva infests the environs of Moscow and suffers from the delectable affliction of Wodesousitis since 1992 or so. She is a member of both the UK Wodehouse Society and The Wodehouse Society (USA). She has written essays on Wodehouse, undertaken themed tours and has even attended as many as 4 TWS Conventions so far, hobnobbing with Plum fans on both sides of the Atlantic. With the help of The Russian Wodehouse Society (TRWS), she has organized an Old Home Week in Moscow.

The excrept you read here is a part of her scholarly research on all things Russian in the Wodehouse canon, titled ‘The Russian Salad’. The series covers the following facets: Russian Culture, Russian History and Russian Spirit. Its Russian version of her work has earlier appeared on the TRWS website; the English version having been serialized in Wooster Sauce, with huge help of accomplished Wodehouseans from different parts of the world.

Her permission to reproduce her work here is gratefully acknowledged.

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