Roundup: Party Fiction and Personal Libraries

–The National Review has published a symposium on the subject of personal libraries in which participants explain the pleasure and burden they impose. Here’s the contribution of American literary critic Terry Teachout:

My Manhattan apartment contains a thousand-odd books, but I don’t think of them as a “library.” Unwealthy New Yorkers can’t afford homes large enough to amass libraries, and while degenerate city collectors keep books in the oven, I’ve never been reduced to that pitiful extremity. […]

Because I keep books that I find rereadable, I usually own several books per author. One shelf is devoted to M. F. K. Fisher, John P. Marquand, and Anthony Powell, while another bulges with Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm. My literary taste is moderately Anglophilic: Kingsley Amis, Somerset Maugham, Barbara Pym, and P. G. Wodehouse all take up plenty of space on the shelves, though so do Colette, Jon Hassler, François Mauriac, William Maxwell, and Dawn Powell. A few volumes are there in part for their own physical sake, including a shelf of art folios, and I also love my battered Viking Portable Fitzgerald and Hemingway, which are just the right size to be tucked into an overnight bag. But the rest were bought to read, not to ogle. […]

Other contributors, who one would expect to own several volumes of Waugh’s work, do not make separate mention of any: Joseph Epstein, David Pryce-Jones, Micah Mattix.

–The Paris Review has posted an essay by Elisa Gabbert entitled “On Classic Party Fiction” and it’s no surprise that Waugh is mentioned. But the discussion relates not to his party novel Vile Bodies but to A Handful of Dust. That section begins with a discussion of:

Making It, [Norman] Podhoretz’s memoir of his ascent to so-called fame in the fifties and sixties (he was the editor of Commentary, which earned him entry to the world of the literati) […] The passage of interest to me describes the parties: “One met most of the same people—the family—at all these parties, but there was usually enough variation in the crowd to breed other invitations to other parties.” Parties, like genes, exist to self-replicate. This partly explains why they all look the same. In Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Brenda is pleased with a party because it is “exactly what she wished it to be, an accurate replica of all the best parties she had been to in the last year; the same band, the same supper and, above all, the same guests.”

A later discussion takes up the topic of parties in nonfiction, in which Gabbert finds that

…there are no parties qua parties. Even Podhoretz only mentions them in passing, as a way to drop some names. It must be that people don’t remember real parties well enough to re-create them with any accuracy. There’s too much missing information. Fictive parties evoke this sense of impaired time by impairing the narrative, with non sequitur, snippets of nonsense conversation, and continuity errors. It’s often suddenly 2 AM. Whole hours may go by in the space of a sentence, as in A Handful of Dust: “They drank a lot.” Those four words are one paragraph, and contain so much.

–Also in the Paris Review there is an announcement of possible interest to our readers:

On April 2, The Paris Review and its supporters will meet at Cipriani 42nd Street for the Spring Revel, an annual celebration of the magazine and the enduring power of literature. That evening, Elif Batuman will present the Terry Southern Prize for Humor to Benjamin Nugent for his story “Safe Spaces.” Terry Southern, the namesake of the award, was the novelist and screenwriter behind the success of, among other things, Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove. He acted as a crucial influence in the early years of The Paris Review; “The Accident”—an excerpt from Southern’s debut novel, Flash and Filigree—appeared in the first issue. This week, Grove Atlantic will reissue Flash and Filigree with a new introduction by David L. Ulin.[…]

In the introduction, Ulin goes on to mention Southern’s friendship with novelist Henry Green, friend of Waugh from Oxford years, whom Southern interviewed for the Paris Review and concludes that:

Southern was a genius, can we just say that? He was a vivid mimic, a writer of outlandish set pieces; just think of the demonically twisted “Mrs. Joyboy” scene he wrote for the film The Loved One. He liked to start simply, in something close to believable reality. Then he would push the boundaries, until the whole world seemed to explode. […]

Even more outlandish were Southern’s changes in Waugh’s story that pushed the boundaries rather too far–the builder of Whispering Glades decides to launch into space the “loved ones” buried in the cemetery so that he can build retirement homes in their place. This added situations and characters to the story far beyond the capacity of Waugh’s plot. Thanks to reader Dave Lull for sending this link.

–Finally, Emily Temple on the website Literary Hub has made a study and comparison of the working lives of 80 well-known novelists:

One of the many measuring sticks we use to compare writers (and compare ourselves to them) is age. We celebrate the women who started late. We gawk at, envy, and revile wunderkinds. Regardless of when they appeared, we love to marvel at famous writers’ early efforts, because of the careers they portend. But recently I’ve been thinking not about the way (or the age) a literary career begins, but about its scope. Like any job, a writing career can last a lifetime—or less than a year.

In compiling these figures, I found it interesting to see how the length of a writer’s publishing career didn’t necessarily have any bearing on their current level of fame. Just look at the ten writers with the shortest number of years spent publishing: Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, J.D. Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, Toni Cade Bambara, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Nella Larsen. You wouldn’t exactly call any of these people “minor” or “forgotten.”

Waugh was relatively young when his first book appeared in 1928 (24.5 vs average 29). Temple overstates Waugh’s first publication a bit by using Decline and Fall rather than Rossetti. And although Waugh’s life was relatively short (he was 62 when he died) his working life exceeded the average.  Temple also understates Waugh’s end-dates by using Unconditional Surrender (October, 1961) as his final work when in fact that was A Little Learning (September 1964); so his working life was 36 years (vs average 35) and age at last publication was 61 (vs average 65).

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