Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Text messaging is a cumbersome process that lends itself to a radically reductive economy of phrasing. Can it have literary merit? I can’t see it so far. But, check out this Washington Post article.

There’s precedent. In the early 20th Century, telegraphy was the new technology. Like 21st century text messaging, it also gave incentive to keep messages as short as possible. (Companies charged by the word I think.) Evelyn Waugh used this aspect of telegraphy in "Scoop" for some really funny scenes, and also as a device to propel the plot. It’s a great book. By the way, you can still send a telegram by Western Union, for $14.99.

But the best ever literary treatment of telegraphy may appear in "Right Ho, Jeeves," by P.G. Wodehouse. Here’s an excerpt, with apologies for its length:

The first of the telegram arrived shortly after noon, and Jeeves brought it in with the before-luncheon snifter. It was from my Aunt Dahlia, operating from Market Snodsbury, a small town of sorts a mile or two along the main road as you leave her country seat.

It ran as follows: "Come at once. Travers."

And when I say it puzzled me like the dickens, I am understating it; if anything. As mysterious a communication, I considered, as was ever flashed over the wires. I studied it in a profound reverie for the best part of two dry Martinis and a dividend. I read it backwards. I read it forwards. As a matter of fact, I have a sort of recollection of even smelling it. But it still baffled me.

Consider the facts, I mean. It was only a few hours since this aunt and I had parted, after being in constant association for nearly two months. And yet here she was--with my farewell kiss still lingering on her cheek, so to speak--pleading for another reunion. Bertram Wooster is not accustomed to this gluttonous appetite for his society. Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that after two months of my company, what the normal person feels is that that will about do for the present. Indeed, I have known people who couldn't stick it out for more than a few days.

Before sitting down to the well-cooked, therefore, I sent this reply:

"Perplexed. Explain. Bertie."

To this I received an answer during the after-luncheon sleep:

"What on earth is there to be perplexed about, ass? Come at once. Travers."

Three cigarettes and a couple of turns about the room, and I had my response ready:

"How do you mean come at once? Regards. Bertie."

I append the comeback:

"I mean come at once, you maddening half-wit. What did you think I meant? Come at once or expect an aunt's curse first post tomorrow. Love. Travers."

I then dispatched the following message, wishing to get everything quite clear:

"When you say ‘Come’ do you mean ‘Come to Brinkley Court’? And when you say ‘At once’ do you mean ‘At once’? Fogged. At a loss. All the best. Bertie."

I sent this one off on my way to the Drones, where I spent a restful afternoon throwing cards into a top-hat with some of the better element. Returning in the evening hush, I found the answer waiting for me:

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It doesn't matter whether you understand or not. You just come at once, as I tell you, and for heaven's sake stop this back-chat. Do you think I am made of money that I can afford to send you telegrams every ten minutes. Stop being a fathead and come immediately. Love. Travers."

It was at this point that I felt the need of getting a second opinion. I pressed the bell. "Jeeves," I said, "a V-shaped rumminess has manifested itself from the direction of Worcestershire. Read these," I said, handing him the papers in the case. He scanned them.

"What do you make of it, Jeeves?"

"I think Mrs. Travers wishes you to come at once, sir."


Your post makes me remember that I left my almost finished copy of "Right Ho, Jeeves" in a hotel in Shanghai a couple of months ago. I hope the person who found it enjoys it as much as I did,

By Blogger Chad The Elder, at 2:41 PM  

The first time I ever read Right Ho, Jeeves, I was on an airplane coming back from some stressful job interview somewhere. When I hit the chapter where Gussie makes the drunken speech to the boys' school, I was in tears from laughing so hard. Got some very strange looks that flight.

By Blogger John, at 1:15 PM  

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