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  • Lee Elliott

P.G.Wodehouse in Siberia

Where is the Siberia of the mind? I don’t mean the geographic Siberia, but the one that appears in Russian literature as a cold and bleak emptiness representing every kind of human despair or sometimes just simple angst. The place of the exile from normal everyday humanity. But the Siberia of the mind can manifest itself in any life, hopefully as something fleeting and transitory.


By Andrei Baskevich - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81798792


Imagine if you will, a resident in internal medicine. He rises at 5 am, and after a breakfast of cold cereal, drives to the hospital. Imagine a red dawn on the way. The resident thinks, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning,” and wonders what dire events have occurred during the night. The arrival at the hospital and the visits to patients and their charts. Nothing new, but lab results are delayed. Expletives deleted. The rounds with the attendings and the presentation of new admits. The sardonic testing for obscure knowledge by the sardonic attending physicians.


The day moves on. More admissions. Some very sick people go to the ICU, which happens to be our resident’s bailiwick for the month. Many electrolyte, blood glucose and renal problems to be addressed by our resident and his team. Tricky business with lives at stake. Then, in the early evening, all those not on call go home – ah, blessed refuge! Our on-call in the hospital resident is one very lonely creature, for every bad thing that can happen will be on his shoulders for the next 18 hours. And since he’s not been a doctor for very long, his confidence may not be quite up to the mark.


A long evening haunting the ICU, obsessively studying lab results, adjusting IVs and ventilator settings. The lonely dinner, consisting on a good day of fried Spam and canned vegetables. That was the old days – maybe things have improved…the evening moves on. More delicate maneuvers in the ICU. An IV to be started when even the highly skilled nurses have a bad day and can’t find a vein on an 80 -year -old gentleman, who tolerates the procedure with stoic grace. A central line to be placed in a lady in the ICU who is not doing as well as hoped. At last, around 1 am, this wretch, our hypothetical resident, seeks a bit of quiet in the on -call room. Only a fool, of course, would expect to sleep.


This is a small chamber just down the hall from the ICU. He enters and finds: a narrow metal cot bed with a thin mattress, a rickety side-table with a lamp, lit with a forty -watt bulb, and a battered old Naugahyde arm chair. The room is cold but there is a thin cotton blanket for comfort. If the light is turned off, there is still brilliant illumination around the edges of the door frame.


Truly, the on-call room is a Siberia of the mind.


There are many others, certainly, but this Siberia will remain with the resident forever. The dreary long night, always with the fear that some horrific crisis will arise, some challenge that as a fledgling doctor he may fail to meet. A waking nightmare as he crawls under the flimsy blanket in his scrubs. He can’t sleep because experience has taught him that as soon as you drift off, you will hear an urgent call from the ICU – or a Code Blue will ring through the hallway. This is a well-read resident and he knows that accommodation in Solzhenitsyn’s Siberia was much more uncomfortable; he comforts himself with this thought.


He has an backpack on the chair – it contains a toiletry kit, a sweater for the frigid on-call room, a Merck Manual, a handy guide to EKG interpretation, and a package of M&Ms. Most importantly, it contains a novel by P.G. Wodehouse.


Beloved Plum – he can melt the most frozen soul. Never was there a funnier man – a comic genius without malice, capable of gladdening the darkest hours with his uncomplicated hilarity. That’s what you want in your private Siberia.


Our resident pulls out the thin paperback – “The Code of the Woosters” – one of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. This may be the funniest of all.


Midway through the book, our hero, Bertie Wooster, has been cornered in his bedchamber by the psychopathic Roderick Spode, a nut case Nazi type who enjoys threatening those of slender build like Bertie. Like all the Wodehouse stories, the plot is a bit convoluted, but the gist is that Bertie has the goods on Spode, thanks to his valet, Jeeves, getting hold of some blackmail material. The story continues with Bertie saying:


“One minute, Spode,” I said quietly, “Just one minute. Before you start getting above yourself, it may interest you to learn that I know all about Eulalie.”


This has the desired effect and Spode recoils, as Bertie describes it, “You could see that it had got right in amongst him and churned him up like an egg whisk.”


Seeing his enemy at bay, Bertie reminisces:


“The whole situation recalled irresistibly to my mind something that had happened to me once up at Oxford, when the heart was young. It was during Eights Week, and I was sauntering on the river bank with a girl named something that has slipped my mind, when there was a sound of barking and a large, hefty dog came galloping up, full of beans and buck and obviously intent on mayhem. And I was just commending my soul to God and feeling that this was where the old flannel trousers got about thirty bobs’ worth of value bitten out of them, when the girl, waiting until she saw the whites of its eyes, with extraordinary presence of mind suddenly opened a colored Japanese umbrella in the animal’s face. Upon which, it did three back somersaults and retired into private life.” (The Code of the Woosters, Vintage Books, 1975)


The resident smiles at the silliness and reads on, and reflects; as long as humanity retains its sense of humor, there is hope.


P.G. wrote many books and all are much loved. They bring laughter into the long night, even at 3 am. As much as we may revere Dostoevsky, when you are actually in Siberia, carry your P.G. Wodehouse.


If you’ve not read Wodehouse, I suggest you begin with the first of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, Leave it to Jeeves, in print, or listen to amazing Wodehouse Audible books with Jonathon Cecil as narrator. Jonathon Cecil is one of the greatest narrators to ever live. Go for it and escape your own private Siberia.

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