Darlings, I simply must tell you about the book I’ve just read – it really was too marvellous for words. It’s a book of short stories by Dorothy Parker, titled, simply, “Collected Stories.” I’ve only just finished it; couldn’t have been more fascinating. Everybody and everything in it was simply divine, except for the restaurant at Thirty-Eight East, which was the world’s worst. The food there was absolutely poisonous, and there was not one living soul that you’d be seen dead with.
My goodness, have I really not read any Dorothy Parker before this? I cannot say yes or no with certainty, since this particular little book, bought second-hand, has been sitting in my book shelves for about 20 years, and my memory is such these days, that it seems possible I may have read it 20 years ago and forgotten every last word.
Either way, what a treat it was to read, or re-read, this book, as the case may be.
Dorothy Parker was born in the late 1800s, and in the second decade of the 20th Century she worked as an editorial assistant at Vogue magazine, and then as a staff writer at Vanity Fair, a magazine which had already published her poems. She is best known for poetry, theatre criticism and short stories, and developed a reputation for her sharp wit. She wrote for the New Yorker and was one of the founders of the Algonquin Round Table. Later in her career she moved to Hollywood and had a successful career as a screenwriter.
My interest in Parker was kindled, or re-kindled, recently, after watching a film made in 1994, called Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh (whatever happened to her? – Ed), who is perfectly cast as the acerbic Mrs Parker. As you can probably guess from this casting choice (who has ever seen Jennifer Jason Leigh play a happy person?), Dorothy Parker was not exactly an easy-going or chilled out personality. Her sharp tongue created enemies – she was eventually fired from her role at Vanity Fair after her criticisms upset some powerful people. Much later on, her increasing civil rights activism through the 1930s and 40s resulted in her being listed as a Communist by the FBI, and subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood, putting an end to her screenwriting career.
An excerpt at the start of the book, which was first published in 1930, says that it contains all of her short stories “except a few which she did not wish to retain among her collected prose.” The stories within are largely observations of society, with a rather black humour to them. Parker gives us deft portrayals of interactions between people that reveal much about the author’s opinion of the authenticity of relationships between the genders, as well as class differences in 1920s New York.
For example, the story from which I stole part of a line for the title of this post, is called Horsie. The story focusses on a hapless Nurse, Miss Wilmarth, hired by a wealthy couple, to look after the new mother and her baby.
Her presence was an onus. There was that thing of dining with her every evening. It was a chore for him, certainly, and one that did not ease with repetition, but there was no choice. Everyone had always heard of trained nurses’ bristling insistence that they not be treated as servants; Miss Wilmarth could not be asked to dine with the maids. He would not have dinner out; be away from Camilla?
In this particular story the third person perspective shifts, sometimes allowing us to view private moments in Miss Wilmarth’s own thoughts, but mostly we see Miss Wilmarth from the perspective of the young father, Gerald Cruger, who, to his private anguish, has to face Miss Wilmarth, or Horsie, as he privately refers to her, due to her looks, each night at the dinner table, while his lovely wife Camilla languishes all white and languid on her apricot satin chaise-lounge upstairs, still too frail to come down to eat.
He tried, too, so far as it was possible to his beautiful manners, to keep his eyes from her face. Not that it was unpleasant – a kind face, certainly. But, as he told Camilla, once he looked he stayed fascinated, awaiting the toss and the whinny.
Private conversations between Gerald and his wife show the cruelty in their attitude towards their hired Nurse:
…”Doesn’t our Horsie ever rate a night off?”
“Where would she want to go?” Camilla said. Her low, lazy words had always the trick of seeming a little weary of their subject.
“Well,” Gerald said, “she might take herself a moonlight canter around the park.”
Over and over, Parker reveals the cruel and selfish side of human nature, especially of those in the powerful position in a relationship, whether that is a masters of servants, or an older man having an affair with a younger woman. She hones in particularly on social conventions like small talk, which, she seems to say, is designed simply to make social interactions smoother for the person who is higher in the heirachy.
On his way home from his office, he found grim entertainment in rehearsing his table talk, and plotting desperate innovations to it.
….Lesson 1, a Dinner with a Miss Wilmarth, a Trained Nurse. Good evening Miss Wilmarth. Well! And how were the patients all day? That’s good, that’s fine. Well! The baby gained two ounces, did she? That’s fine. Yes, that’s right, she will be before we know it….
Caught in this social heirachy, Miss Wilmarth is not exempt from the same self-conscious attempts to make light conversation. Gerald reflects gloomily on how she awkwardly goes through the same routine every night, arriving late to the table for dinner:
“Well, Mary,” she would cry to the waitress, “you know what they say – better late than never!’
But no smile would mellow Mary’s lips, no light her eyes. Mary, in converse with the cook, habitually referred to Miss Wilmarth as “that one.”….
Remembering the look on Miss Wilmarth’s face each time this attempt at jocularity fails, Gerald can’t name the expression on her face, but we learn that it increases her equine resemblance to such a point that he thought of proffering her an apple.
There is very little by way of action to this story, or most of the stories. The liveliness in them is largely in the complexities of people’s interactions – or monologues – and what is revealed about them. On reading up a little bit about Parker for the purpose of this post I notice that her writing is often referred to as sparse. Indeed, in the Foreword to the book, Franklin P Adams writes
Short stories they are, but only technically. Each is a novel, and in the unbridled hands of some of the wordier novelists – and I could name you plenty – would have become a novel of at least 500,000 words.
Take, for example, this succinct opening, which immediately sets the scene for The Waltz, which, like many of the most amusing stories in the collection, is written as one long monologue:
‘Why thank you so much. I’d adore to.’
I don’t want to dance with him. I don’t want to dance with anybody. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be him. He’d be well down among the last ten. I’ve seen the way he dances; it looks like something you do on Saint Walpurgis Night.
This witty monologue has the narrator exaggerating her despair at being drawn into a waltz with a man who is apparently a clumsy dancer with a lack of skill and a large amount of enthusiasm.
I’m so glad I brought it to his attention that this is a waltz they’re playing. Heaven knows what might have happened, if he had thought it was something fast; we’d have blown the sides right out of the building.
The narrator’s internal dialogue, delivered as she’s being twirled around the room, consists in amusing hyperbole about just how bad the whole experience is, but is contrasted wittily against her conversation with her dance partner, in which she consistently says the socially acceptable thing:
‘You see that little step of yours – well, it’s perfectly lovely, but it’s just a tiny bit tricky to follow at first. Oh, did you work it up yourself? You really did? Well, aren’t you amazing. Oh, now I think I’ve got it. Oh, I think it’s lovely. I was watching you do it when you were dancing before. It’s awfully effective when you look at it.’
It’s awfully effective when you look at it. I bet I’m awfully effective when you look at me.
Parker’s expertise in writing is apparent also in her talent for description. We all know that description is an area where a writer must exert a high level of skill, and sparsity, otherwise it can teeter dangerously on the edge of becoming heavy and dull. Parker’s descriptions are mostly of people, but are lively even when she is detailing the attire that a character is wearing.
By the time we reach the paragraph in Horsie describing, in detail, Miss Wilmarth’s attire, we are aware of the subtext. The unfortunate Nurse has dressed for dinner, because Gerald, her employer, has invited some male friends to eat dinner, and she will dine with them. Even to a reader in 2016, it is clear that, as an employee dining with her boss and his friends, the very fact that she has dressed up for dinner is a social faux pas; on top of that, I don’t need to know what the fashions of the day were, to understand from the physical description Parker provides, that Miss Wilmarth looks unfashionable, ungainly and awkward. I will not quote the whole description here, but I think this sentence may be the most enjoyable description I’ve ever come across:
It revealed that Miss Wilmarth had clothed her ankles in roughened gray silk and her feet in black, casket-shaped slippers, upon which little bows quivered as if in lonely terror at the expanse before them.
Of course, part of the beauty of that description is that the terror no doubt reflects that of Miss Wilmarth, on the rare occasion of sitting down to dinner with three men. Poor Miss Wilmarth. My heart goes out to those lonely slippers.
Reading Dorothy Parker reminded me that American literature has a tradition of very fine humorists and satirists – after all, David Sedaris did not just appear out of a vacuum. In fact I was reminded very clearly of a book of short stories I have somewhere by Steve Martin (the Hollywood actor). I recall one of the funniest stories in it was a monologue that relied for its humour on conveying an obviously skewed perspective from an obviously neurotic narrator – I believe Mr Martin must have learned a trick or two from Mrs Parker.