Sunday, January 27, 2019

Her glorious, whiplash despair

In a chapter about feminism, on Dorothy Parker:
Finally, through Woollcott, I come face-to-face with the holy Dorothy Parker, who I feel had been waiting for me forever, in 1923, with her lipstick and her cigarettes and her glorious, whiplash despair. Dorothy Parker is monumentally important because, it seems to me at the time, she is the first woman who has ever been capable of being funny: an evolutionary step for women as major as the development of the opposable thumb or the invention of the wheel. Parker is funny in the 1920s and then — I am led to believe — no other women are funny until the eighties. Parker is the Eve of female humor.

Robert Johnson invented the blues, at midnight, at a crossroads, after selling his soul to the devil. Dorothy Parker invented amusing women, at 2 p.m. in New York's best cocktail bar, after tipping a busboy 50 cents for a martini. It's hard not to draw conclusions as to which is the brighter sex.

But Parker also worries me, because half the funny stuff she writes is about killing herself: funny doesn't seem to be working out as well for her as it does for, say, Ricky Gervais. And it cannot be ignored that it takes nearly 60 years for any women to be funny again after her. The trail she blazed stayed notably untrodden.
— from How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran.

I love Dorothy Parker! Or so I thought. The fact is, I barely know her. I know her aphorisms, a poem or two, and her reputation. It's time I change this.

So this week I read Alpine Giggle Week, a letter Parker wrote to her publishers from Switzerland, by way of excusing her late delivery of the Great American Novel she was purportedly working on.
It's damned near impossible to write from this place. I must be seen to be believed. It's so out of joint with any other form of life that you can't tell about it. The Magic Mountain is the nearest thing to it, and even that is an understatement. (Scott, by the way, is incensed that Thomas Mann has already done that book, because he wants to do one about a tuberculosis colony; having been her three days, he feels he is an authority.) My attitude toward the sicks has changed, since last Winter, when I spent too damn much time in being sorry for them. Now they disgust me.
It's fresh and frantic; it recounts plenty of drinking and drops a lot of names. It's funny. But it's a letter; it wasn't crafted with care and sarcasm — it's off the top of her head.

I've started in on Parker's short stories. They are incidentally witty, but they are primarily dark, with feminist leanings. "Such a Pretty Little Picture" describes the epitome of suburban domesticity, from which a man walks away. It calls to mind the Flitcraft parable in Hammett's Maltese Falcon (but predates it), and any number of Simenon's novels — it's unusual, though, to read the story as framed by a woman.

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