Thursday, July 08, 2010

Cutting class with Geoffrey Household, Paul Fussell, and Bernard DeVoto

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Is it possible to get a more reliable book recommendation than a staff pick at your local bookstore that’s in the NYRB Classics series? The right-wingers may tell you that gold is the only lasting store of value, but I’m putting my money on that combo.

Halfway through Geoffrey Household’s brief thriller Rogue Male (1939), it hasn’t steered me wrong. The book wastes no time with set-up, plunging us right into a very bad situation, as an unnamed English big game hunter tries to elude capture by Nazi-like thugs; from there, it shifts between spy story, adventure novel, and survival story, calling to mind Graham Greene’s entertainments and Conrad’s honor-drenched tales.

But what I want to share tonight is an odd little digression that appears right after a ship’s cook has responded to a query from the bruised and battered hunter by calling him sir. The hunter thinks,
That “sir” was curious and comforting. In spite of my shabby foreign clothing and filthy shoes, the cook had placed me at a glance in Class X He would undoubtedly describe me as a gent, and Mr Vaner would feel he ought to see me.

I say Class X because there is no definition of it. To talk of an upper or ruling class is nonsense. The upper class, if the term has any meaning at all, means landed gentry who probably do belong to Class X but form only a small proportion of it. The ruling class are, I presume, politicians and servants of the State--terms which are self-contradictory.

I wish there were some explanation of Class X. We are politically a democracy--or should I say that we are an oligarchy with its ranks ever open to talent?--and the least class-conscious of nations in a Marxian sense. The only class-conscious people are those who would like to belong to Class X and don’t: the suburban old-school-tie brigade and their wives, especially their wives. Yet we have a profound division of classes which defies analysis since it is in a continual state of flux.

Who belongs to Class X? I don’t know till I talk to him and then I know at once. It is not, I think, a question of accent, but rather of the gentle voice. It is certainly not a question of clothes. It may be a question of bearing. I am not talking, of course, of provincial society in which the division between gentry and non-gentry is purely and simply a question of education.

I should like some socialist pundit to explain to me why it is that in England a man can be a member of the proletariat by every definition of the proletariat (that is, by the nature of his employment and his poverty) and yet obviously belong to Class X, and why another can be a bulging capitalist or cabinet minister or both and never get nearer to Class X than being directed to the Saloon Bar if he enters the Public.

I worry with this analysis in the hope of hitting on some new method of effacing my identity. When I speak a foreign language I can disguise my class, background, and nationality without effort, but when I speak English to an Englishman I am at once spotted as a member of X. I want to avoid that, and if the class could be defined I might know how.
There seems to be a bit of protesting too much in this account, and I wonder how the narrator’s (and presumably Household’s) notion of England as not particularly class-conscious might have been altered by the great postwar attempts at redistribution and class leveling. But at the same time, much of what he says rings true, and reminds me of something Paul Fussell wrote in his book on the subject, Class: A Guide through the American Status System (1992):
Actually, you reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up. A tendency to get very anxious suggests that you are middle-class and nervous about slipping down a run or two. On the other hand, upper-class people love the topic to come up: the more attention paid to the matter the better off they seem to be. Proletarians generally don’t mind discussion of the subject because they know they can do little to alter their class identity. Thus the whole class matter is likely to seem like a joke to them--the upper classes fatuous in their empty aristocratic pretentiousness, the middles loathsome in their anxious gentility.
I, on the other hand, prefer whenever possible--when not, for example, discussing political or socioeconomic policies or dissecting the subtle shades of privilege found in A Dance to the Music of Time--to reduce class to a simple test, found in Bernard DeVoto's lovely little book The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (1951). DeVoto writes:
There are only two cocktails. The bar manuals and the women's pages of the daily press, I know, print scores of messes to which they give that honorable and glorious name. They are not cocktails, they are slops. They are fit to be drunk only in the barbarian marches and mostly are drunk there, by the barbarians.
Whiskey and martinis, in other words, mark us as belonging; all other drinks and drinkers are beyond the pale. It is a hard rule, worthy of the Old Testament God at his most pestilential and least forgiving, but that is how one holds the line under withering fire; that is how one beats back the forces that attempt to undermine civilization's gains. Had the Romans but known of gin and vermouth, Rome's glory might still stand today.

And now it's time for the incomparably lovely sound of shaking ice . . .


  1. Rogue Male is very special. My own introduction to the book came via the writings of Roger Deakin. It was his favourite novel.

  2. red len6:55 AM

    Special indeed. It's Buchan and Hannay without id but added angst.