The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy
NYRB Classics, 248 pp., $15.95
In 2007, New York Review Books reissued Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, her 1958 novel about a young American named Sally Jay Gorce who goes to Paris to be an actress and finds herself embroiled in affairs, the aristocracy and the madcap in general. One review of the reissue likened Sally to Bridget Jones, which seemed a case of mistaken identity — Dundy’s heroine had not a trace of self-loathing. She was created, after all, by a woman who titled her autobiography Life Itself! — exclamation mark most sincerely, defiantly hers. Dundy, who passed away in May 2008 at the age of 86, was stormily married to and then divorced Kenneth Tynan, and seemed to have lived by Mame Dennis’ maxim: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Not exactly a Jonesian battle cry. But recent fiction has been starved of well-made funny girls, so the comparison to Bridget makes sense. Who else could you invoke to communicate to present-day readers that a woman is loudly and charmingly narrating a comic novel?
Now, following on the success of The Dud Avocado, NYRB has reissued Dundy’s second novel, The Old Man and Me, originally published in 1964. It, too, is narrated by a young American woman (Dundy herself was born and raised in New York, and later settled in Europe), but is set this time in early sixties bohemian London, and is based on an affair Dundy had with fearsome critic Cyril Connolly. (One begins to see why the exclamation mark.) Where her previous heroine was a winning, excitable innocent abroad, this one is a callow conniver who hides her given name (Betsy Lou Saegessor) behind an alias (Honey Flood) to land C. D. McKee, a fat old literary lion, as a suitor. McKee married her father’s widow, and when that widow died, he came into Betsy Lou’s inheritance. What’ll she do to get that money? Seduce him so that she can murder him and get what’s rightly hers, of course.
Dundy complicates the conflict between American ingénue and Old World, which she fired up into peerless screwball in Avocado, by investing her heroine with a desire to transcend her Isabel Archer DNA and pull a Madame Merle. She says “goshdarnit” on some occasions to stay in character and on others with feeling. At the end of it all, Betsy Lou wants to be liked, and she knows it. She tries to take inspiration from Proust’s Odette, but feels her lack of femme fatality keenly. “If I reminded one of anyone else,” she says, “it was merely of other American girls. I was, I repeat, nothing special, only determined. I was that. Hey, am I a new type to history? Betsy Lou Saegessor, girl cad?” It’s this internal conflict that, in the end, makes her compelling rather than repellent.
The book reads like an exercise of powers — one can feel Dundy taking pleasure in thinking and writing sharp. A former actress herself, she approaches the craft with a sense of occasion: one must put on the silk shantung and hit one’s mark, with no apologies for wanting the spotlight and knowing what to do when in it. But her desire to entertain is never cheap or self-involved — her characters are drawn clearly and vibrantly and she never loses sight of the plot. When Dundy sets a scene you can see it. She knows how to size up people and places with a jolting turn of phrase; she knows how to cock her eye and get the shot. Says Betsy Lou upon spying a potential ally at a Soho bar: “Aha, I thought, here is a moon-girl — I knew the type well from school — a moon-girl travels around in orbit reflecting her particular sun of the moment.”
The writing is sometimes a little aware of the fine figure it’s cutting, but, to borrow some tone from Dundy, why shouldn’t it be? Her comic timing is expert, and shines in such a way that one can see the book not as a mid-century artifact but as art. The occasional burst of purple prose and dated verbal tics, like “I mean gosh, I mean gee, I mean golly,” can be forgiven and forgotten when McKee rears up and demands this of a waiter who’s placed their drinks the wrong way round: “Who at this table looks young enough to risk a midday martini? Who looks wise enough to choose an aperitif?” After they leave the restaurant, he reports some remorse: “I feel like a big fat house with everybody dead inside it.” Betsy Lou, during a country weekend, upon discovering that an insufferable Bright Young Thing gets to have lunch with the older guests while she doesn’t, clocks McKee with this: “‘I see,’ I said. ‘It’s all a hideous plot. That girl’s not an hour older than me. I’ve seen her teeth and I know.’” Those were the days. It’s all cocktails, jazz clubs, barbiturates and repartee until Betsy Lou realizes she actually loves her target, at which point the book becomes unexpectedly moving. The last few lines, with Betsy Lou decidedly not ascendant, have the feel of someone blowing out the last candle of the evening.
Given all the blithe spirits and gloomy shadows, you’d never suspect that the book was something of a feminist act. Says Dundy in her introduction to the reissue: “My specific aim in this novel was to present an anti-heroine in response to all the anti-heroes so popular of the day, beginning with Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim, John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger and all the anti-heroes that followed in their wake. Loosely bound together as Angry Young Men, they hit out at everything phony, pompous, priggish, prudish and pretentious. Their anger was exhilarating.”
When one reads Dundy’s novels one does think of cheerfully scheming and bamboozled Jim Dixon. And with Betsy Lou one is put in mind of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Plath’s Esther Greenwood. She’s afflicted by both the “teenage skaz” David Lodge diagnosed in Holden and the disdain of Technicolor America practiced by Esther. But where Holden and Esther had nervous breakdowns, Betsy Lou only pretends to have one. (Life itself! And it must be lived!) Finally Dundy’s voice is all her own — incredulous, petulant, remorseful, wry, withering, loony. The books are a singular mix of British zaniness and American optimism, which is expressed in the vivacious prose. It’s the insistence on wit that makes one think mostly of Lucky Jim — and Waugh, and Wodehouse — and one wonders if Dundy found England, for all the dark weather it brought her, a more hospitable place in which to practice her gift for the comic novel. Americans prefer their serious books to be serious, whereas the British, from Chaucer all the way down to Zadie Smith, have had no trouble integrating the comedic into the literary.
What feels exhilarating in this book isn’t Betsy Lou’s anger, but her possession of what Cynthia Ozick, in writing of Isabel Archer, called “world-hunger.” She speaks of that hunger without shame — and, perhaps most refreshingly, without plunging herself into sturm und drang over it. When Betsy Lou first spies McKee, she does not cower but crows with delight. “He was still smiling at me from across his table. I smiled back. I was beginning to feel his danger and excitement. ‘He is a nut,’ I said exultantly, ‘and I am a nutcracker. I am going to crack him! Well, why not?’ I added, calming down.” Dundy’s novels may still command our attention because we in America have still not figured out how to put a beguiling, complex heroine and her appetites at the center of a novel — let alone give her all the best lines. We let the 19th century tackle that beautiful difficulty and then pretty much gave up after that. Dundy’s books might serve as some missing link. It seems telling that Avocado and The Old Man were in print in the U.K. years before they were revived here. Not only do they have a long history of comedic literature there, they also have a long history of generating iconic fictional heroines. Could this have given them higher tolerance of and more affection for irrepressible, verbally stylish forces of nature like Sally Jay and Betsy Lou? Impossible to say. What is possible to say is that we now have girl cads coming out of our ears, in fiction and in real life, but hardly any of them seem interested, like Dundy, in stalking le mot juste with panache and verve. As C. D. McKee might say: Pity.
Carlene Bauer is the author of Not That Kind of Girl. She lives in Brooklyn.
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