It seems to me that Hollywood film producers keep rehashing the same subjects and plots, which is why I rarely watch mainstream American-made films these days. I am thoroughly bored with sequels, prequels and other “quels” in films, and the same-old-same-old stuff. The same goes for novels. I prefer a fresh voice, an intriguing premise, a new idea and something that switches my imagination on, not off. So when I was deciding which Scotiabank Giller Prize author to read next, I went for Patrick deWitt and his oddly-titled novel Undermajordomo Minor. The novel is a quirky take on a classic setting and plot. So did it make my imagination take flight or did it bore me to tears? Well, I liked it, immediately (“You like me, right now, you like me!”, to quote Sally Field) despite my common sense telling me that the plot, the setting, and even the characters are nothing new. You can tick off the list of familiar elements:
- ✅Doofus of a young servant comes of age
- ✅Young Lover meets Fair Maiden whom he defends to the death (his own death, amongst others)
- ✅Creepy old castle with weird servants (“Yeth, Mathter”, says Igor, adding more cobwebs and creaks for effect…)
- ✅Mad Baron who has moments of such lucidity and style he makes “Count Dracula” look like a country bumpkin
- ✅Nameless European country with vaguely Germanic names and running battles with cannon and swords – could be late 19th century?
- ✅A decrepit village below the castle, complete with requisite hovels, a square, a fountain and a station with requisite beggar.
- ✅A quest, a fight to the death, miraculous survival and going home to show up the locals (“Oh, Master Frodo, we are going back to the Shire – as heroes!”, says Samwise Gamgee, wiping the blood, sweat and tears from his eyes.)
Familiar elements and similar books
There are many indicators that this novel is about a folkloric quest. Also, it is similar to many novels and films that feature servants, butlers and majordomos in castles filled with possessed, degenerate people. There is the ultimate literary novel about a head butler in a grand country house, The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1987). Other famous fictional butlers include “Reginald Jeeves”, created by P.G. Wodehouse for his series of humorous books and short stories that were first published in 1915. Strictly speaking Jeeves is a valet – responsible for one person, his master “Bertie Wooster” – not a butler or majordomo, responsible for a team of servants. However, the word “Jeeves” has become a synonym for a butlerish type of person who has a “feudal desire to oblige” and be of service.
Also worth mentioning are “Nestor”, the butler of “Captain Haddock” at “Marlinspike Hall” in the Tintin books by Hergé, and “Agador Spartacus”, portrayed by Hank Azaria in the 1996 film The Birdcage.
And yet, it’s unconventional and fresh
So, what makes this novel so successful and well-received?
Really interesting characters
Firstly, the character of “Lucien ‘Lucy’ Minor” – where the title comes from – is fascinating. He is a deluded, egotistic, lying, cowardly, klutzy teenager. He is also unsettlingly direct and plain-spoken. Everyone around him talks in riddles. Lucy just says whatever pops into his head – even it that’s a blatant fabrication.
The other characters are also engaging – the very mad “Baron von Aux” for instance. His name “von” means “of” in German, and “aux” means “(at) the” in French, so he is Baron of The. Meaning, he is a Baron of nothing, no particular title – a crumbling castle, a mysterious wife, creepy fellow members of the nobility…and no money whatsoever. But he is also “the most alluring sort of gentleman imaginable”. The ancient majordomo to whom Lucy is “under” is called “Olderglough”, pronounced “older-gluff”. “Gluff” is Scots for a sudden fright, a scare, or a blast of air. Olderglough is indeed scary, and, while courteous, he is also secretive and unpredictable. Lucy meets the beautiful “Klara” who is betrothed to a brutish soldier. Her name means “clear”, however, she is anything but, which causes Lucy to contemplate wicked things about the local “Very Large Hole” near the village.
These are the kinds of characters that will produce of a lot of Fan Fiction – they are just too good to be left alone with not even a mention of a…sequel. Darn, yes, I said it, a sequel. This book deserves a sequel and I’ll be the first to read it.
A great deal of wickedness
Secondly, Lucy – and everyone else – are very bad indeed. They are all bad, bad people – from Lucy, who discovers within himself a penchant for violence, to his friend “Memel” who is an unrepentant con man, to the Baron and his guests who have themselves an orgy worthy of the best of the Marquis de Sade. That orgy scene certainly had me sitting up and wincing. Goodness. It is quite…unforgettable… though I wish it were! It’s a lot of fun to read about insidious evil and just blatant murderousness.
Polished, spare writing
Lastly, it is actually a very entertaining, smooth read. I waltzed through it in a few hours, and what makes it so digestible (aside from its overall shortness) is DeWitt’s polished, spare writing style. He does not waste words, and what he writes is refined, and, like the character of Lucy, short and direct. Here is a typical piece of dialogue – Lucy meeting the Baroness for the first time:
“‘So, this is the infamous letter writer.’
‘Am I infamous, ma’am?’
‘In that you’ve been on my mind, yes. May I ask what prompted you to write it?’
‘I felt it justified. Are you displeased with me?’
‘Shouldn’t I be?’
‘I suppose you must.’
‘It upset me greatly, your letter.’
‘I’m sorry, ma’am.’
‘I dislike urgency of any kind.’
‘Neither am I fond of it. But all was not well here, and as your absence seemed the source of the problem, then I took my small liberty.’
‘You call it a small liberty.’
‘I do, ma’am.’
‘I spilled tea over my dress reading it.’
‘He was eating rats, ma’am.’
‘The Baron was eating rats. All was not well here.’” (pp. 216 – 217)
Ah yes, it takes flair and a bit of mischievousness for an author to just drop the reference to the rats into a formal conversation. It’s a throwaway line of the mannered kind, one of many in the book.
This kind of exchange, depicting the butler, majordomo or undermajordomo as stiff-upper-lipped, imperturbable and totally dignified, despite doing very bad things, is typical of many novels about butlers, including P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves and Bertie” novels. For example:
“BERTIE: Touch of indigestion, Jeeves?
JEEVES: No, Sir.
BERTIE: Then why is your tummy rumbling?
JEEVES: Pardon me, Sir, the noise to which you allude does not emanate from my interior but from that of that animal that has just joined us.
BERTIE: Animal? What animal?
JEEVES: A bear, Sir. If you will turn your head, you will observe that a bear is standing in your immediate rear inspecting you in a somewhat menacing manner.” (P.G. Wodehouse reimagining William Shakespeare’s famous scene in The Winter’s Tale, Act 3, Scene 3, with Bertie and Jeeves)
In this sense, Undermajordomo Minor is a kind of homage – or nod to – the best of the stories about butlers and majordomos that have gone before.
An oddity you will enjoy
However, what it reminded me of most of all was Victoria by Knut Hamsun, which was originally published in 1898. The setting is similar – a village of late nineteenth-century Europe. The plot revolves around a working class boy (like Lucy) who falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a wealthy landowner (like Klara, who is not of the nobility but is beautiful and out of reach of Lucy), with tragic results. The tone and the setting are similar – almost spartan yet with sudden moments of deep emotionalism. But Victoria is a romantic tragedy, whereas Undermajordomo Minor is often darkly funny and sometimes absurd.
It fits in the established genre of the Historical novel, with elements of fantasy and folklore, but it is most certainly an oddity. DeWitt has an unexpected voice for these times, and a vivid imagination. His 2017 novel, French Exit, was shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Literature. He is definitely an author to watch and I’m going to read all of his other novels.
About Patrick deWitt
Patrick deWitt was born in British Columbia, Canada, he has also lived in California and Washington, and now resides in Portland, Oregon. There are many interviews with him on the Internet, just go have a look. He has written:
- Ablutions: Notes for a Novel (2009, novel)
- The Sisters Brothers (2011, novel, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize)
- Undermajordomo Minor (2015)
- French Exit (2018)
- Help Yourself Help Yourself (2007, non-fiction)
- Terri (2011, screenplay)