The young man with a scenic cravat…

The Sexes, by Dorothy Parker

I always expected Dorothy Parker’s writing to have a sort of arid intelligence. I knew there would be clever lines, but I thought they’d come with an overpracticed quality and a rather brittle cruelty.

Parker then was a writer I’d decided not to read. What changed my mind was the current Penguin Modern Classics pocket editions. I saw the range in Waterstones on a three for two offer and there were five that I really wanted. The deal meant that a sixth one was free. I saw the Parker and thought I’d give it a try. If nothing else I thought it might have historical interest.

I haven’t heard any explanation of the logic behind the Penguin Modern Classics pocket editions but my guess is that the idea is to tempt readers into trying writers they might not otherwise take a risk on. If that is the point then for me it succeeded. Parker’s a delight and I’m a convert. I wouldn’t have read her but for these pocket editions. The way I figure it I owe the team at Penguin a drink (probably a cocktail in the circumstances).

The Sexes is a collection of five Dorothy Parker stories. The first and title story is exactly the sort of thing you might expect of Parker. Here’s how it opens:

The young man with the scenic cravat glanced nervously down the sofa at the girl in the fringed dress. Sher was examining her handkerchief; it might have been the first one of its kind she had seen, so deep was her interest in its material, form, and possibilities. The young man cleared his throat, without necessity or success, producing a small, syncopated noise.

What follows is the smallest of incidents. It’s an argument between a young couple. There’s no great metaphoric weight to it. It’s just brilliantly observed. Literature as cameo portraiture. Here’s what follows that opening:

‘Want a cigarette?’ he said.
‘No, thank you,’ she said. ‘Thank you ever so much just the same.’
‘Sorry I’ve only got these kind,’ he said. ‘You got any of your own?’
‘I really don’t know,’ she said. ‘I probably have, thank you.’
‘Because if you haven’t,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t take me a minute to go up to the corner and get you some.’
‘Oh, thank you, but I wouldn’t have you go to all that trouble for anything,’ she said. ‘It’s awfully sweet of you to think of it. Thank you ever so much.’
‘Will you for God’s sake stop thanking me?’ he said.
‘Really,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know I was saying anything out of the way. I’m awfully sorry if I hurt your feelings. I know what it feels like to get your feelings hurt. I’m sure I didn’t realise it was an insult to say “thank you” to a person. I’m not exactly in the habit of having people swear at me because I say “thank you” to them.’

It goes from there. Him trying to mollify her and work out what he did. Her making him work for his apology. Like I said, it’s nothing world changing but it’s very neatly done.

The next story is The Lovely Leave. It’s well chosen because it’s an immediate change in tone. It’s a wartime story of a woman whose husband is coming home on a 24 hour leave. She wants it to be perfect. Last time he was home she was so conscious of how brief his visit was that she got too anxious and messed everything up. They ended up rowing. When he left they were barely speaking.

This time she’s determined that their time together, however short, will be lovely. She buys a new dress that she can’t really afford; makes all kinds of preparations. When he arrives though they almost immediately start to quarrel. He even tells her how much he always liked that dress on her…

There’s something very adult about The Lovely Leave. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the woman. She cares so much that she can’t stop herself from being angry at how little time they’re given and she can’t understand either why he doesn’t seem to feel the same way. As the story progresses though Parker shows that both of them merit sympathy. It’s not as simple as it seems. When is it ever?

Their problem isn’t unique to wartime. Anyone who has ever planned a special evening only to have their partner come back tired and preoccupied and barely noticing all the work that’s been done has been there. So too has anyone who’s ever come back home just wanting to unwind and turn off for a little while only to discover that their partner has made all sorts of elaborate plans. Parker here is exploring the mismatch between love and everyday life that can sometimes be so painful. It’s domestic fiction, but in the main we all live domestic lives.

From there the collection goes on to The Little Hours which is the only story I didn’t like. It’s a nightime monologue by someone who can’t sleep and involves a great deal of quotation and namedropping. It’s clever but for me it’s not more than that. In truth it’s what I expected from Parker but the good news is that it’s only one story of five and no doubt there are others who like it far more.

The remaining two stories return to what I saw as Parker’s strengths. Glory in the Daytime is about a little mouse of a woman in love with the theatre who gets a chance to meet one of her idols at the house of a more sophisticated friend. The woman’s husband is a sour man and when she shares her excitement at meeting a celebrity he sits there and snips away the joy from her, undramatically but effectively.

‘It – it isn’t so awfully nice,’ she said, ‘to spoil somebody’s pleasure in something. I was so thrilled about this. You don’t see what it is to me, to meet Lily Wynton. To meet somebody like that, and see what they’re like, and hear what they say, and maybe get to know them. People like that mean – Well they mean something different to me. They’re not like this. They’re not like me. Who do I ever see? Who do I ever hear? All my whole life, I’ve wanted to know – I’ve almost prayed that some day I could meet – Well. All right Jim.
She went out, and on to her bedroom.

Naturally the encounter isn’t all she hopes, but there’s a chance here for something more in her life than she has. It’s a chance her husband has no interest in. Parker doesn’t beat the reader over the head with the point but she captures the way some men can suffocate their wives without ever raising a hand against them. There’s many a disappointed man has taken vicious solace in ensuring that his wife’s life is no better than his.

Lastly comes Lolita (no relation). It’s the story of an aging southern Belle (“Seen from the end of a long, softly lighted room, Mrs. Ewing was a pretty woman”), her dowdy daughter and what happens when the most eligible man ever to visit their town takes an interest in that daughter. It’s a bitter chocolate of a tale with a distinct sting in its final sentence. It’s funny, but it’s back on what now seems like Parker’s territory of the way people can be cruel to each other in ways too small to easily complain of but which are no less damaging for that.

While writing this review I had to type out the various quotes I’ve used. As I did so it struck me how deceptively simple her prose is. The dialogue is all he said, she said – nobody asseverates here. Descriptions are flat and to the point, nobody is discalced. The language seems just there, transparent and unadorned.

Sometimes when I go to a new restaurant I order something very simple. Grilled chicken say. It’s hard to hide with something like grilled chicken. The quality of the ingredients and of the chef can’t help but show through. There’s no room for distracting the diner with sauces or unexpected flavours. The best chefs, a Daniel Boulud or Gordon Ramsay (back when he cooked instead of making tv programs) can make grilled chicken as fine a dish as ever you’ll eat. The mediocre ones just grill a chicken.

What makes Parker so good is her observation, her wit and (surprisingly to me) her compassion. She uses language in what seems a very simple way, but with tremendous precision. Here’s one final quote, chosen partly to demonstrate those skills but mostly just because I liked it:

Miss Noyes’ living room was done in the early modern period. There were a great many oblique lines and acute angles, zigzags of aluminum and horizontal stretches of mirror. The color scheme was sawdust and steel. No seat was more than twelve inches above the floor, no table was made of wood. It was, as has been said of larger places, all right for a visit.

There’s a recurring debate sparked by the growth of ereaders about what publishers contribute in an age where authors can self-publish electronically and readers can directly download their books onto their Kindles. Whenever it comes up some ebook advocates always argue that what’s happening today is the death of the publisher as gatekeeper and that this is a good thing. I’m not persuaded by those arguments for a number of reasons.

I’m mentioning this here because I think publishers are much more than gatekeepers. Publishers are also highlighters. They hold out a book from the vast mass of works out there and say hey, read this, we think it’s good. When a book gets chosen for the Penguin Modern Classics range that doesn’t mean I’ll like it, it doesn’t even mean I’ll think it’s any good, but it does mean I pay some attention to it. Penguin, and publishers like them, aren’t standing across a gate barring me from great books. They’re standing at the gate welcoming me inside.

The Penguin Modern Classics pocket editions are a great idea. With them Penguin effectively stopped me and said Max, we know you’re not keen to try Dorothy Parker, but this is only a little over 80 pages and it costs only £2.99. How about giving it a go? For £2.99 I discovered a new writer that I enjoyed and was surprised and impressed by. I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope it holds a place for publishers in one form or another for a long time yet.

As for Dorothy Parker, I plan to read more. Thank you Penguin.

The Sexes

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14 Comments

Filed under Parker, Dorothy, Short Stories, US Literature

14 responses to “The young man with a scenic cravat…

  1. Nick

    Dorothy Parker’s writing is wonderful. I bought the Portable Dorothy Parker (from viking editions) one or two years ago in a second hand bookshop (in Kenya I think) and it hasn’t left me since.
    I really laugh out loud reading her stories.
    I strongly recommend The Waltz if you can take hold of it.

  2. I’ve never read any book by her, though I know her by name. That sounds nice for the stories and the quality of her observations but I’m not sure about the style. It sounds efficient but not really original. Very Joyce Carol Oates when she’s not writing for children, like for Sexy. Or maybe my English isn’t good enough for me to catch all the subtelties.

    I’ve seen this Penguin Pocket edition in the international bookstore we have here. I agree with you: these collections are a door to new authors. Folio has a “2€” collection and I like to buy some by authors I’ve never tried. It’s a good way to “taste/test” their style. All the books I’ve picked up in Folio 2€ were great. I owe the Folio team several drinks.

  3. I recently picked-up a load of those Penguin mini classics at Waterstones too. Haven’t read them yet though.
    My friend Thom has written a review of the form on his blog here: check it out, it’s awesome: http://postmodernidiosyncrasies.com/2011/03/01/penguin-books-miniature-modern-classics/

  4. It sounds as though I have the same copy as Nick. I bought mine after seeing the film about Dorothy Parker (Mrs Parker & the Vicious Circle). One of my favourite stories…Big Blonde.

  5. I have a Folio Society volume that I purchased for Mrs. KfC who tends to treat Dorothy Parker as a “sort of” continuation of Damon Runyan — it is more of her journalism and wit than her fiction. I keep meaning to get to it since I think her life story is illustrative of the times (from the Algonquin Round Table through the black list to a troubled end) but it seems to be one of those intentions that never gets acted on. Part of my problem is that I have never developed a discipline for reading collections of short work.

  6. ‘I always expected Dorothy Parker’s writing to have a sort of arid intelligence. I knew there would be clever lines, but I thought they’d come with an overpracticed quality and a rather brittle cruelty.

    Parker then was a writer I’d decided not to read. ‘

    Exactly – same here. So thanks for encouraging me to have another go. ‘The Collected Dorothy Parker’ was on many a friend’s shelf whilst at Uni, and at the time I imagined it was put there to suggest a certain effortless and un-earned snarky sophistication in the owner. The books were rarely read; it was more a case of ‘I love Dorothy Parker’ meaning ‘I love the idea of a scathingly funny female writer and I may, at some point, actually read a bit of her’. And I had a quick look at the time and your opening lines ring true as to my recollection.

  7. I should’ve added: ‘many a female friend’s’ there……there were far more ladies doing my English course than men and Parker seemed to be one of a handful of co-opted symbols, in much the same way that students wearing Che Guevara t-shirts fancy themselves as somehow edgy.

  8. leroyhunter

    I hadn’t noticed this one in the Penguin series Max, you make it sound like I’d be crazy *not* to pick it up. They’re bloody addictive, these mini classics.

    I’ve read a couple of Parker’s stories ages ago, I can’t even remember which ones. I was never agin her but she always seemed more likely to be quoted then read. I agree with Lee about the “smart-alec signifier” quality she can have, but I always had the impression the work was better then that. And not having read her didn’t stop me dragging my wife to the Algonquin for drinks every chance I could in NY years ago.

    PS I agree 100% with your comments about publishers, as you may have noticed on the recent Guardian thread. Nobody can tell me that imprints like Penguin or the various small presses we know & love aren’t doing something worthwhile.

  9. Nick, The Waltz? Is that another short story? The Big Blonde seems the most famous. Have you read that?

    Bookaround, efficient’s not unfair. It’s the accuracy of the observation that makes her good I think. The prose is very straightforward. Of course the same could be said of Hemingway. It can be a strength with the right writer.

    Tomcat, I’ll check that out, thanks.

    Guy, read it and let me know what you think!

  10. Kevin, I still struggle to be disciplined with short story collections. Oddly enough the Meloy helped with that, and I found after spacing out the Meloys I could space these out too.

    I can see the Runyon continuation point. Despite his occasional weaknesses though I still think Runyon is the more interesting writer. That’s not to knock Parker. Runyon was something special.

    Lee, I can see that. She is a writer whose symbolism looms larger than her work in many ways. I think that’s part of what put me off her. If you do try her this is a pretty good intro. £2.99 after all isn’t much and it has the merit of being short which I always find appealing.

    Leroy, they are. I got six of them and could easily have got more. What was the Algonquin like? I always rather feared that there would be little sign of its glory days, or perhaps worse that it was still living off the lustre of that period in a rather faded way (like the Chelsea with its panoply of past writers and artists, though perhaps I’m unfairly maligning it).

  11. Nick

    The Waltz is indeed another short story.
    I haven’t read The Big Blonde yet but it seems it’s part of my portable so will do so tonight (it should lighten a little my reading mood since I’m on Blood Meridian right now).

  12. Nick

    So I’ve read the Big Blonde. I didn’t like it too much, for the simple reason I had trouble getting into it. I don’t know if it’s my fault or the author’s. Maybe I was hoping too much for something funny, while what perspire from it is sadness (although she ridicules the character, it doesn’t seem she’s applying her whole heart to the task).
    The story had a profound aura of experience, though I haven’t checked if that is true or not (ah, wikipedia, what a source, mentions a high consumption of alcohol, which is a start).
    I’ve read somewhere (maybe in the Somerset Maugham introduction of my edition) that she hated to be qualified of witty… maybe that’s why her main character hates so much always having to wear her good sport’s mask for fear of being strongly reprimanded.
    I’ve found the writing true to the task but no more.

  13. leroyhunter

    Max, the Algonquin wasn’t faded exactly – old-fashioned would be more like it, a little out of time. That said, it was pretty lively and had a nice vibe. Good cocktails as I remember.

  14. Nick,

    The ones I read aren’t all witty by any means. The Lovely Leave is very sad in places and Glory in the Daytime borders on depressing. I liked the prose, but as I said above it is very straightforward so I certainly understand your reaction.

    Leroy, I’m a sucker for a decent cocktail. Next time I’m in NY then (which probably won’t be anytime soon, but it’s not going anywhere).

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