The Collected Dorothy Parker
London, Penguin, 2001, 610p
I first came across Dorothy Parker a few years ago at a Dead Poet's Slam, in which people performed the poems of their favourite deceased writers. Her poems were sharp and witty, full of cynicism and anger, but not ranting-and-raving anger, but a more poignant and observational social critique.
This collection includes Parker's poems, short stories, and journalistic writings. Her style is singular and her tone is unique. In the introduction to this collection, one particular phrase stood out: "the imagination of disaster". By this, it is implied that she always manages to see the worst in things, as all her stories end badly. It is suggested that Parker did not think she would live as long as she did: in an age when all young female writers seemed to die prematurely, Parker lived to the ripe old age of 73. The theme of death, particularly suicide, is prominent throughout her poems ans stories, in which many of her characters are angry, lonely or depressed.
Most of these works were written in the 1920s, a time in which anything seemed possible. There were riches, sex and parties: the American Dream. But nothing was ever enough, and Parker highlights people's dissatisfaction with this world, anticipating the crash of the 30s. Her stories are about people who are lonely and confused, always wanting: wanting for their absent lover, wanting for a fur coat like the one the neighbour has, wanting for more of this or less of that. These characters turn to gossip, alcohol or extra-marital sex. They crave meaning and purpose, but always seem to be unable to find that fulfillment.
And yet, her language and descriptions are so captivating and addictive that I found myself in love with the beauty in the world, rather than lamenting the problems in it. Her stories are magnificently visual, and in just a few pages, you become engrossed in these worlds, intrigued by these people. For example, in one story, she describes a women as such:
"She was tall, and her body streamed like a sonnet. Her face was formed all of triangles, like a cat's is, and her eyes and her hair were blue-grey."There is a beauty to this language that is unprecedented. Parker's humour is sharp and observational, drawing your attention to some of the most common-place things and making them entertaining:
"Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses."And that is the whole poem. Two lines: just brilliant. Though I think my favourite poem is Observation, because it perfectly encapsulates a thought I have almost every day.
Her tone and wit continue into her journalistic writing: reviews, commentaries, columns. It is like she is sat across the table from you in a coffee shop, telling you about the play she saw last night, laughing at the unconvincing acting or praising the audience's reaction.
I really enjoyed reading these stories and poems over the last few weeks, and I am ashamed I knew so little of her before now. Parker's stories end in tears or death - none of them offer the that fairytale happy ending - but they are real and honest, a criticism of the time in which she lived. She was a rare literary beauty, and I am glad she was an exception of her generation and lived long enough to give us such a vast and entertaining collection of writing.