On Classic Party Fiction


Mess With a Classic

In Elisa Gabbert’s column Mess with a Classic, she revisits canonical works of literature and addresses the anxiety of confronting the art of the past (and the past in general).

Irving Nurick, illustration from the 1920s

In her 2008 review of Cecily von Zeigesar’s Gossip Girl novels, Janet Malcolm quotes the eponymous narrator’s “opening volley”: “We all live in huge apartments with our own bedrooms and bathrooms and phone lines. We have unlimited access to money and booze and whatever else we want, and our parents are rarely home, so we have tons of privacy. We’re smart, we’ve inherited classic good looks, we wear fantastic clothes, and we know how to party.” I’ve never read the books myself, but on the CW show, which I was briefly obsessed with, we hear Kristen Bell’s voice-over during the title sequence: “Gossip Girl here! Your one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite.” The actors playing these trust-fund teens aren’t just good-looking; they seem like genetic impossibilities. Blake Lively is perfectly cast as the, in Malcolm’s words, “incandescently beautiful” Serena van der Woodsen. She’s 5’10” and usually wearing heels. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan of the blog Go Fug Yourself used to call her “Boobs Legsly.” Serena and her friends and enemies (there is often little distinction between the two) have not only lucked into the 1 percent, they are also having an unfair amount of fun.

Classic party fiction is often, if not always, a kind of wealth porn. When Emma Bovary arrives at La Vaubyessard, the chateau of the marquis, for dinner and a ball, the opulence blows her bourgeois mind: “The red claws of the lobsters overhung the edges of the platters; large fruits were piled on moss in openwork baskets; the quails wore their feathers; coils of steam rose into the air; and, grave as a judge in his silk stockings, knee breeches, white tie, and jabot, the butler conveyed the platters.” Party scenes are full of these lists of foods and drinks and flowers, overloaded sentences that embody abundance, the fulsome displays of affluence. See Nick Carraway’s first party at Jay Gatsby’s: “Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York … On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” Was Flaubert the first to use this listing trope, appalled by the excess? Jane Austen’s balls are disappointingly devoid of visual detail, as if the evidence of money was just assumed. (Austen’s novels adapt so well into film because the dialogue is all there, and costume and set designers can supply the surrounding lushness.) A truly expensive party should feel otherworldly; the marquis’s ball, by putting her in “contact with wealth,” leaves Emma utterly changed. It makes “a hole in her life, like those great chasms that a storm, in a single night, will sometimes open in the mountains.”

In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, the element of unreality is achieved by the tableaux vivants, elaborate live reenactments of Botticelli’s Primavera and Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra. With their “happy disposal of lights and the delusive interposition of layers of gauze,” the tableaux “give magic glimpses of the boundary world between fact and imagination.” Lily Bart appears as Mrs. Lloyd, the subject of a Sir Joshua Reynolds painting—the guests are titillated and a little shocked (“Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up”), so I always pictured something more typically male-gaze-y than the actual portrait, not a woman reclining but standing up, fully dressed, and carving her husband’s name in a tree. In any case, it casts the necessary spell to carry Lily and Mr. Lawrence Selden away from the party, “against the tide which was setting thither,” past faces that “flowed by like the streaming images of sleep,” so they can kiss and whisper of love. Classic parties often have a watery quality. Nick Carraway is surrounded by “swirls and eddies of people” he doesn’t know. It’s the wet, blurry view through the bottom of a glass.

In his review of Making It by Norman Podhoretz, James Wolcott mentions an after-party for a Commentary symposium where critic Alfred Kazin “found himself in a bobbing sea of familiar faces.” Making It, 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) was widely reviled upon its first publication, according to legend. Wolcott calls it “a book that would live in notoriety, which at least beats total obscurity.” I wanted to root for the memoir, as an underdog, until I read parts of it; its naked egotism really is embarrassing. 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.”

Parties also serve a clear function, establishing and reinforcing hierarchies. “Parties were sometimes fun and sometimes not, but fun was beside the point,” Podhoretz writes, “for me they always served as a barometer of the progress of my career.” The day his New Yorker review of the new Nelson Algren comes out, he receives an invite to a fancy party by telegram. He attends shindigs hosted by Lillian Hellman and Philip Rahv and Mary McCarthy and (“at last!”) Hannah Arendt. There is a brief and fairly innocuous description of one of Arendt’s famous New Year’s Eve parties, which so infuriated her that she stopped having them for a few years. Podhoretz, for a while at least, got mileage out of being insufferable: “Enemies are all to the good at an early stage of a critic’s career, helping as they do to spread his name around.” A Vanity Fair piece about “the party of the century,” Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966, quotes Parisian aristocrat Étienne de Beaumont: “A party is never given for someone. It is given against someone.”

The midcentury Manhattan party has its own mythology, captured most iconically perhaps in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—the movie more than the novella. For all that’s terrible about the movie (the book is racist, too), the party scene is truly great. My favorite part is the shot of a woman standing by herself, laughing her ass off as she looks at her reflection in a big mirror with a gilt frame—she even touches the mirror lightly with her fingers, the way you’d touch a man’s arm when he made you laugh in conversation. Thirty seconds later, we cut back to the woman; she’s still looking at herself, but now she’s sobbing, with mascara all over her face. It captures that late-night razor’s edge between chaotic fun and chaotic disaster. It’s an improvement, I think, on the scene in the novella, a “stag party” where the only women in attendance are Holly Golightly and her six-foot-tall, jolie laide model friend Mag Wildwood (“She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty”). You can see what lines inspired the woman with the mirror in the film. In the novella, while Mag is in the bathroom, Holly implies Mag has a venereal disease, and Mag returns to find all the men have gone cold. This pushes Mag over the edge: “Since gin to artifice bears the same relation as tears to mascara, her attractions at once dissembled.” But the mirror woman in the movie isn’t Mag, just a random partygoer—as V. S. Pritchett writes of Emma Bovary, “her periods of depravity do not single her out as an exceptionally deplorable human being, but rather make her part of the general, glum strangeness of the people around her.”

When I mentioned this scene to my husband, John, he said he always thought Breakfast at Tiffany’s ripped off its parties from The Recognitions. He pulled our copy of the long (956 pages) William Gaddis novel off the shelf, located one of the scenes in question and then told me four times to be careful with the book (it’s a first edition). The scene he bookmarked features “a Village party”:

—I couldn’t quite stand a Village party tonight. Could you Arny? There’s always so quite ha—

—Hideous, Herschel supplied.

—I wasn’t going to say that, silly. I was going to say harrowing. I couldn’t stand one tonight, that special Village quality of inhuman ghastliness and dirt … Arny please don’t have another drink.

There’s a definite resemblance, the same forms of pretension—money was important, but not as important as social status or as taste. The apartments holding the parties were often small, and the cramped quarters help create a sense of overfullness and festive abundance that would require more cash if set in larger rooms. Gaddis’s Otto, a playwright, sees the party, any party, as an opportunity to be seen: “Otto (thinking only of what it looked like to see Otto entering a room) entered.” Parties are about the collective gaze, the ability to be seen from all angles, panoramically. As someone blabs at Otto about Swinburne and “de Maupassant, Guy de Maupassant of course” (“It’s like a masquerade isn’t it … I feel so naked, don’t you? among all these frightfully masked people”), Otto looks around the room “with restrained anticipation”: “He was looking for a mirror.” He wanders through the party, compulsively mentioning his latest play, which interests no one. There is more a sense of grim desperation than of excitement and possibility. Guests vie for dominance and attention; there’s a bizarre, pervasive homophobic paranoia, like a version of the Red Scare; the party ends when there’s nothing left to drink. (In youth, parties are a setting for fun; they provide alcohol and drugs and a place to consume them. In adulthood, parties are not a means to getting drunk but an event you need to be drunk to endure.)

Otto is an introvert, but he’s choosing to play an introvert, too—his mask, his party persona. He retreats to the bookcase: “When among people he did not know, Otto often took down a book from which he could glance up and note the situation which he pretended to disdain.” Here he can half-read and half-observe—and, he hopes, be observed observing. Possibly, Capote did lift this from Gaddis. Here’s the unnamed narrator in Breakfast: “I was left abandoned by the bookshelves; of the books there, more than half were about horses, the rest baseball. Pretending an interest in Horseflesh and How to Tell It gave me sufficiently private opportunity for sizing Holly’s friends.” Or maybe by 1958, when the novella was published—Gaddis’s novel came out in 1952—the bookshelf-hoverer was already a cliché of party fiction, if not actual parties, a detail as familiar as ice cubes clinking or dogs barking in the distance. If all parties resemble other parties, the way all party people resemble other party people, then all parties are intertextual, they reference each other. Amusingly, my husband John plays on this particular cliché in his 2010 novella Under the Small Lights, in which a character pulls a book off a shelf at a party. The book is Gaddis’s The Recognitions.

Where are the parties in nonfiction? I skimmed Gore Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest looking for dirt on Anaïs Nin’s salons—Nin and Vidal were friends, kind of; he writes of even his closest friends with a measure of contempt—but while he alludes vaguely to parties, and describes hanging out with various literary celebrities in various cafés and bars, these encounters are usually mild, often a little awkward. The cover of our trade paperback of A Moveable Feast advertises tales of “the wild young years of the Lost Generation in Paris,” but it’s not a wild book. When Hemingway meets Scott Fitzgerald, you think the partying is about to get good, but Hemingway depicts Fitzgerald as a melancholy hypochondriac who can’t hold his liquor: “Scott did not like the places nor the people and he had to drink more than he could drink.” They go to Lyon together to retrieve a car Fitzgerald has left there, and Hemingway is annoyed that drinking literally all day while they drive across France in an open car in the rain should have any effect on his companion—Fitzgerald becomes convinced he’s going to die of something called “congestion of the lungs” and keeps insisting that Hemingway take his temperature. Hemingway’s solution is to order him double whiskeys. 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.

In the last episode of Gossip Girl, everyone gets married—more Shakespearean comedy than Whartonian tragedy. But most classic, post-Austen party fiction ends badly, the way “the metal years” end in Penelope Spheeris’s LA music documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II. Emma Bovary swallows arsenic. Lily Bart OD’s on her “sleeping draught,” probably meant to be laudanum. There is more at stake at these parties than having a good time. John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, published in 1934, might be the most tragic of the bunch. It begins with a Christmas party “in the smoking room of the Lantenengo Country Club,” which is “so crowded it did not seem as though another person could get in.” The usuals are there (“the Whit Hofmans, the Julian Englishes, the Froggy Ogdens and so on”), interchangeable “terrible people” getting “gloriously drunk” on “drug store rye” (“It was not poisonous, and it got you tight, which was all that was required of it and all that could be said for it”). The fun ends when Julian English throws a highball in Harry Reilly’s face. Over the next three days, self-destructive to the point of insanity, Julian stays trashed, trashes his marriage to his wife Caroline, then takes a bottle of Scotch and a package of cigarettes into the garage and starts the car. The next day, Caroline is wretched with grief, “a tunnel you had to go through, had to go through, had to go through, had to go through”—grief becomes a kind of never-ending hangover.

I have noticed one of the symptoms of a bad hangover is guilt. You regret all the toxins you’ve consumed, of course, but also the things you’ve said and done while your inhibitions were lowered, your temper shortened. I think of the end of Gatsby’s party, when “most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.” The neurologist Oliver Sacks called the guilt of a hangover “penitential depression.” The guilt is there even when you can’t remember much of what happened. An old friend used to text me in the morning after parties: Did I do anything horrible last night? I’d text back, Of course not. But how would I know if she had? I was poisoned, too.

Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author, most recently, of The Word Pretty (Black Ocean).