Someone I love: Joan Wyndham
Someone I hate: Ernest Hemingway
Combine them and you get: Elaine Dundy
As you can imagine, I had a strange combination of feelings about The Dud Avocado. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about a young expatriate American party girl and her relationship with an American man called Larry, whom she runs across in Paris. When she runs into Larry, she’s involved with a married Italian, but she immediately fancies herself in love with Larry and becomes involved in a theatre production that he’s directing. Along the way she has various romantic entanglements and – well, okay, there is not an airtight plot. You’re not reading for that. You’re really reading for the characters and Sally’s narrative voice.
The aforementioned narrative voice is nearly perfect sometimes, and Dundy gives her characters wonderful things to talk about. In an early scene when our heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, eats lunch with Larry, he tells her that he has made a study of classifying the different types of tourists. It’s bang on:
“Basically,” he began, “the tourist can be divided into two categories. The Organized – the Disorganized. Under the Organized you find two distinct types: first, the Eager-Beaver-Culture-Vulture with the list ten yards long, who just manages to get it all crossed off before she collapses of aesthetic indigestion each night and has to be carried back to her hotel…”
I may be this kind of tourist by nature. The thing is that I have read a lot of books, and it is exciting to be able to see the things you have read about (read about, not seen – if you have seen pictures of major landmarks then very often you will get there and find they look exactly like the pictures and are not as interesting as you imagined they would be). Fortunately I have managed to learn that the nicest thing you can do when you are abroad is find a good place to have breakfast (outside or by a large window), and have breakfast there each morning with a book to disguise the fact that you are people-watching.
And people-watching is largely what makes The Dud Avocado enjoyable. If I may say so, Elaine Dundy is far better than Ernest Hemingway at making me want to spend (bookish, not actual) time with the 1950s disaffected expatriate set. Sally describes the cliqueish behavior of the various artist and actor groups in a way that makes them spring to life. I think this works so well because Dundy is essentially writing about her own life. Sally is still young and naive in a lot of ways, but Dundy doesn’t lack the necessary critical distance. I could have spent the entire book reading conversations between Sally’s friends and friends of friends.
Good times. Actually, the more I think about The Dud Avocado, the less I mind its lack of plot and vaguely Hemingway-like tone. It’s not as charmingly spontaneous as Joan Wyndham. But then nobody who is not actually Joan Wyndham can really be expected to be Joan Wyndham, so I should forgive Elaine Dundy on that front.
I read The Dud Avocado for the Spotlight Series NYRB Classics Tour. Again I say, up with independent presses!