Friday, June 29, 2007

Elaine Dundy, Angry Young Men, and Bad Girls

I noted the other day that I'd received the copy of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado that I ordered from NYRB Classics. Before that though, while I eagerly awaited its arrival, I was surprised and delighted to find another Dundy title, The Old Man and Me, at Nicholas Hoare Books. Delighted because it too garnered an enthusiastic endorsement from Our Girl in Chicago at About Last Night, and I've come to regard her as a reader of impeccable taste. Surprised because I thought it was out of print. On the latter point, my information was evidently out of date, for there it was on the shelf, a lovely Virago edition published in 2005.

I cracked it open on the streetcar ride home, beginning with the introduction penned by Dundy herself. Of the motivation behind the book, she writes:

My specific aim in writing 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 who followed in their wake. Loosely bound together as Angry Young Men, they hit out at everything phony, pompous, prudish, and pretentious. Their anger was exhilarating. To their delight (and to his later embarrassment), Somerset Maugham called them ‘scum’. Creating the female counterpart I knew would be tricky, as in those days when relationships between men and women were at an all-time low, females were depicted as passive and put upon. (Then came the '70s—Gloria Steinem and her Ms. magazine, Germaine Greer and her Female Eunuch, Carmen Callil and her all-female publishing house Virago. And nothing was ever the same again.) Back in the '60s I was aware that my anti-heroine might scare people off. But I did it anyway. And it was fun. After all, Cyril Connelly had advised me about my private life: 'Make up your mind, you can either be a monster or a doormat.' I opted for the former.

Some of you may remember that not long ago I was revelling in the reading of Humphrey Carpenter's group biography of those same angry young men. While I very much enjoyed being in their company for the duration of the book, I couldn’t help but register how thoroughly masculine their world was. So, needless to say, I am most intrigued at the prospect of making the acquaintance of Dundy’s female counterpart to their fictional creations.

This juxtaposition brings a third book into the fray: Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach which I read at the same time as Carpenter's The Angry Young Men. Dundy's The Old Man and Me was first published in 1964 while On Chesil Beach was released just this spring. But both books are set in 1962 England, and I'm fascinated at the prospect of considering Dundy's unrepentant bad girl heroine in conjunction with the peculiarly innocent couple at the centre of On Chesil Beach. Not that I'm suggesting that one book's depiction of that time and place is bound to be somehow more authentic than the other. Obviously there is plenty of room for diverse experiences and viewpoints in any given time and place. Nevertheless, I find it very interesting to have these books come into contact in my consciousness in this way.

It's one of those exhilarating occasions when books that I've read simultaneously or in close proximity to one another seem poised to enter into a conversation, and I look forward to eavesdropping on what they have to say to one another.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read The Old Man and Me and loved it. I've also read The Dud Avocado. I think Elaine Dundy created unique, interesting and funny female characters. They stand out still after all these years.