by Elaine Dundy, introduction by Terry Teachout
NYRB 2007, first published 1958
Reviewed by Seana Graham
I suspect this one will either grab you or it won’t. Initially, I thought I might be in the latter camp. As our story begins, Sally Jay Gorse, American in Paris, is walking down the boulevard St. Michel late one morning. She’s on her way to meet her lover in a dress meant only for evening wear and with her hair dyed “a marvelous shade of pale red so popular with Parisian tarts that season”. For me, none of this boded well. But things change.
Sally Jay, after failing to run away from home and school several times, has effectively been bribed by her wealthy astronomer uncle to finish school, after which he will pay for her to go live abroad for two years in exchange for her coming back to tell him all about it. He is not the only person in the novel who will instruct Sally to “live for them.” This may seem odd, but Sally’s exuberant way of living has room to accommodate their vicarious needs.
As the story continues, Sally Jay is gradually revealed as something more than a ditz, mainly because the tale unfolds from her point of view. She is wearing an evening dress in daytime, not for effect, but because she hasn’t managed to sort out her laundry. Sally knows that her adventures may be viewed askance, but in reality she is observing and critiquing her own persona just as much as she is observing and critiquing everybody else. No surprise, then, that she is soon intrigued by the possibility of becoming an actress.
From our present viewpoint, Sally Jay’s preoccupations may seem overly centered on the lives of men. She is involved with Teddy, an older European man who already has a wife and mistress. She runs into a previous American acquaintance, Larry, while en route to Teddy, and immediately falls in love with him. It is apparently a form of chemical attraction because almost nothing Larry does then or subsequently would seem to add to his allure. She also meets Jim, a better than average painter who creates a kind of rustic studio in the heart of Paris and wants her to move in with him. But Sally Jay is really looking to find what might be an authentic life for herself. For various reasons, none of these men seem to offer it.
At one point in the narrative, Sally Jay loses her passport. It’s a perplexing loss, and one with serious consequences. As a card of identity, though, its loss is appropriate. She won’t get a new one until she has figured out a few more things about what her identity actually is.
This is a comic novel with a serious backbone. I think some who dislike it may doubt that underlying structure. It’s interesting to me that Elaine Dundy, though having spent some time in Paris, eventually ended up in London, where she married the formidable theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Her choice of Paris instead of London for this tale, which uses autobiographical elements, is a revealing displacement. Although Dundy herself seems to have known everyone of consequence in England, it is hard to imagine her being able to combine both the exhilaration and the whiff of the sinister in a London setting in the way she does in Paris.
Dundy credited her friend the British novelist Henry Green for helping her find her voice. In the Guardian article linked to below I found this analysis of her work by Dundy herself:
“I began to recognise that I was hearing a voice that was me but that wasn’t me,” she wrote in her 2001 memoir, Life Itself!. “It was a voice Henry gave me, yet I’d heard it before. But never this clearly. It let me play the screwball again. It went back to my mistaking the Avenue d’Iéna for the Champs Elysées, to growing aware of having this intrusive alter ego inside me, this comic presence I had to give space to.”
If you’re looking for a lighter read for the summer, this may be one to check out.