Reading about the parties of decades past, it sometimes seems they were all similar, and all awful—or at least that they had an intolerably high jerk quotient. Think of the celebrations in Cheever novels, or O’Hara stories: full of jerks, everyone drunk and uncouth and parochial.
It should come as no shock that Vladimir Nabokov took a jaundiced view of the midcentury American party. In fact, were I some hapless Wellesley or Ithaca hostess, you couldn’t have paid me enough to invite him to a dinner or sherry hour, even after he became a literary sensation. Imagine the appraisal you’d be in for—his curled lip, his chilly politeness, his scathing mental commentary, his careful evasion of the menu’s vulgarities. For your trouble, you’d be caricatured, at best, as some sort of composite Charlotte Haze–esque grotesque, fawning over his manners and dripping with self-assured provincialism. And that would be the good outcome. It’s hard to think of someone you’d want less at a midcentury faculty tea, save maybe a seething Shirley Jackson.
The following comes from Nabokov’s 1951 story “The Vane Sisters.”
A late arrival had the impression of lots of loud people unnecessarily grouped within a smoke-blue space between two mirrors gorged with reflections. Because, I suppose, Cynthia wished to be the youngest in the room, the women she used to invite, married or single, were, at the best, in their precarious forties; some of them would bring from their homes, in dark taxis, intact vestiges of good looks, which, however, they lost as the party progressed. It has always amazed me—the capacity sociable weekend revelers have of finding almost at once, by a purely empiric but very precise method, a common denominator of drunkenness, to which everybody loyally sticks before descending, all together, to the next level. The rich friendliness of the matrons was marked by tomboyish overtones, while the fixed inward look of amiably tight men was like a sacrilegious parody of pregnancy. Although some of the guests were connected in one way or another with the arts, there was no inspired talk, no wreathed, elbow-propped heads, and of course no flute girls. From some vantage point where she had been sitting in a stranded mermaid pose on the pale carpet with one or two younger fellows, Cynthia, her face varnished with a film of beaming sweat, would creep up on her knees, a proffered plate of nuts in one hand, and crisply tap with the other the athletic leg of Cochran or Corcoran, an art dealer, ensconced, on a pearl-grey sofa, between two flushed, happily disintegrating ladies.
At a further stage there would come spurts of more riotous gaiety. Corcoran or Coransky would grab Cynthia or some other wandering woman by the shoulder and lead her into a corner to confront her with a grinning imbroglio of private jokes and rumors, whereupon, with a laugh and a toss of her head, he would break away. And still later there would be flurries of intersexual chumminess, jocular reconciliations, a bare fleshy arm flung around another woman’s husband (he standing very upright in the midst of a swaying room), or a sudden rush of flirtatious anger, of clumsy pursuit-and the quiet half smile of Bob Wheeler picking up glasses that grew like mushrooms in the shade of chairs.
This kind of delightful cynicism owes a debt to those parties, filled as they were with strong drinks and silly hors d’oeuvres and downright miserable people. If that sort of hostess feels like a cliché now, so does the easy mockery. Of course, Nabokov knew that.
“The Vane Sisters” is more complicated and more creepy and more silly than it seems from this extract, and his narrator’s confidence is as ill-founded as anyone else’s. The thing people know about “The Vane Sisters” is that The New Yorker rejected it, and then Nabokov sent a letter explaining what was actually going on and that it was in fact more complicated and metafictional than it seemed and filled with wordplay, et cetera.
Nabokov may have known how to enjoy an awful party, but he always knew the joke was on the mocker, too. Plus, he was interested in the paranormal—and perhaps that is really the trick.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.