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. Read More