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.