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Who Wears Short Shorts

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I knew I shouldn’t have been typing in the condition I was in yesterday.

Of course, I’m in even worse condition today, because on top of being still sick I can’t seem to sleep.

It’s three thirty in the morning.  I came wide awake around one after having gotten to sleep around ten thirty. 

I don’t know what state I’m in.

As in state of the Union.

The other kind of state I’m all too sure about, and it’s miserable.

Needless to say, I’m finding it nearly impossible to read anything of any length.  I keep getting lost in what isn’t all that much complexity to begin with.

So, last night, in an attempt to get something done or maybe just to feel normal–when I’m well, I don’t feel normal unless I’ve done some writing and some reading every day; when I’m well, I can feel normal as long as I just read, but I have to read.

Anyway, in an attempt to feel normal, I went back to the short stories.

And this time, the short stories I read were

b) Dorothy Parker.  “Lolita.”

c) Dorothy Parker.  “Arrangement in Black and White.”

Okay.  I have a collection of stories by Parker, and it was just easier to stick to one book.

So, first something in general, and then some specifics.

I’ve always thought of Dorothy Parker as a minor writer. 

And a minor writer is what she is.  For one thing, her themes are often out of date in a way that, say, the themes of Jane Austen are not, even though both women wrote about the relationships between men and women and the ways in which those relationships led to marriage.

Parker was the spokeswoman for the great minority of women who did not fare will in what was called the marriage market, for the homely, for the undistinguished, for the desperate.

I think part of the problem, part of what makes me feel that a lot of her work is dated, is that desperation doesn’t look like this anymore.  There are desperate women out there, but not because the men they sleep with all take off as soon as the act has been completed. 

And most women these days have other things in their lives to turn their attention to.  Their lives don’t fall apart  just because they aren’t married.

Parker’s stories of desperate women are so distinctive that they often seem to be the only stories she wrote, so that people who say they have “read Dorothy Parker” have really on read that clutch of stories that deal with that particular theme and nothing else. 

But Parker wrote all kinds of stories, and the two above have nothing to do with women whose boyfriends have walked out because they put out, or walked out because they just weren’t pretty enough, or walked out because…

Let me take the second of the two above first.

“Arrangement in Black and White” is, as far as I’m concerned, the best short story about racism ever written.

And part of the reason it’s the best is that it doesn’t do any of the things  you would expect it to do.  It is not preachy.  It is all show and not tell.

And the show is magnificent.

If you’re going to write about racism, this is the way it should be done, instead of the way it’s usually done, which is as an exercise in self-righteous moralizing, complete with Serious Gravity in every word.

Parker almost never indulged in Serious Gravity, and she doesn’t do it here.  Instead, she simply presents the conversation of a single woman at a reception for a black singer.  The story was written in 1927–ahead of its time, especially given what’s in it–and it almost certainly is take from a real life reception for Paul Robeson. 

The only fully realized character–intentionally, I’m sure–is the woman speaking nearly nonstop through this whole thing, but the story is good enough that I find myself sympathizing with her unnamed, monosyllabic host.

If she were a guest in my house, I wouldn’t know what to do with her, either.

At any rate, worth looking into, if only as a tour de force.

The other story, “Lolita,” was published in 1955. 

Nabokov’s novel of the same name was published in Paris the same year, but not published in New York until 1958.  The novel was  published in English even in France, so it’s possible that Parker had heard about it, or read it.  I have no way to make sure.

Whether she did or not, her Lolita is almost the polar opposite of Nabokov’s–not pretty in any particular way, and almost the opposite of sexualized.

The focus of the story, however, is on Lolita’s mother, Mrs. Ewing–and all I can say is that she is not only one of the most clearly and compellingly realized characters in any fiction I have ever read, but that she is, as well, a right nasty piece of work.

In fact, an incredibly nasty piece of work.

It’s one of those things that creeps up on you slowly, so that by the time you realize what she really is, it’s almost gone past you.

And it is, again, an almost textbook perfect example of show and not tell.

Parker did  herself a disservice with all t hose stories about desperate, homely women–and by her life of playing the part she wrote about so often.

Too much of the response to her has been a kind of contemptuous pity. 

It obscures the fact that when she wrote well she wrote very well indeed, and that she always had a first class mind.

I’m going to see if I can finally get to sleep.

Written by janeh

January 21st, 2013 at 5:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Who Wears Short Shorts'

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  1. Cheryl

    21 Jan 13 at 3:22 pm

  2. There’s a bit missing from Lolita.


    21 Jan 13 at 4:44 pm

  3. Something about “Black and White” keeps reminding me of a Helen Hokinson cartoon–in fact, a PARTICULAR Hokinson, though I’ll admit I can’t find it. The Hokinson and the Parker women overlap a fair bit, though I think Hokinson liked her “girls” more.


    21 Jan 13 at 7:11 pm

  4. Going back to a previous topic, I ordered a used copy of “The Evolution of Political Though” by C Northcote Parkinson from Amazon. It arrived today and is stamped withdrawn from St. Paul public library. (I have no idea which St. Paul). There goes the idea of libraries as permanent places to keep books.


    24 Jan 13 at 11:49 pm

  5. Traditional librarians must be weeping tears of blood watching what is happening to hard copy books today. If’s highly unlikely that our two copies of Parkinson’s book are the only rarely accessed library books for which there is a sudden demand sparked by discussions such as ours.


    25 Jan 13 at 5:34 am

  6. I wound up buying several copies of “Evolution of Political Thought” lately. Every one was ex-library. Presumably one has to clear up shelf space for 20 copies of the latest Danielle Steele or Stephen King.

    I think the public libraries made a serious mistake when they decided to drive the subscription or rental libraries out of business by competing for the best-seller trade. I am not opposed to a library staying current or to maintaining fiction. But when a library buys dozens of copies of a title knowing that next year it will only need one or two–well, that’s not really the “repository of knowledge” business. It’s more the multiplex or video rental business. I don’t really look on entertainment as a government function. (Not that some politicians aren’t hilarious–but seldom on purpose.)

    I have very fond memories of some libraries too poorly-funded to discard older titles.


    25 Jan 13 at 9:46 am

  7. I received my Parkinson copy yesterday . It was owned by a real live person and rather well read.

    But alas, my brain is rather fuddled from bronchitis/flu meds to prepare me for lung biospy next week . So the book has a place of honor on my night stand , waiting for my brain to be unfuddled. I am rereading all of my Chaim Potok books … they are all old friends. I also read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis which still haunts me.

    Bed rest is affording me extra reading time and my two cats and two dogs have made pillow and blanket forts in the bed with me :)

    Hope you feel better Jane … this flu bug is horrible !


    25 Jan 13 at 11:12 am

  8. Worth keeping in mind that “traditional librarians” can be part of the problem, though. Some of them always did think they were censors. One system (New York Public?) never carried Tarzan books, because the buyer was convinced Tarzan and Jane were living in sin. (They were married by Jane’s father, an ordained Methodist minister, you dirty-minded people.) Over on Old School Wargaming, someone was describing a library which tossed–didn’t sell; just put out with the trash–a complete run of The Irish Sword, because it “looked militaristic” to the librarian. The readers of Bauhaus to Our House may remember architectural schools demolishing detailing to be sure no future generation learned it. If only our institutions were equally concerned when the students don’t learn anything!

    Has everyone else read “The Western Canon According to Me” on Jane’s web site? Double it or maybe triple it. Have Marx Adam Smith and Hamilton or Colbert. Have Clausewitz, Jomini, Mao and the Small Wars Manual. Then toss in the economic and military history to make sense of them, and the critical commentary to make sense of the fiction. You’d wind up with about 200 books. But a library that kept those would be more use than most college campuses.

    For myself, a generation ago I packed for moves on the assumption that any public or base library would have a copy of certain books. I no longer pack on that assumption.


    26 Jan 13 at 8:46 am

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