I’m going to make it a rule that I only review books immediately after reading them. When I’m in a book, I’m full of enthusiasm for talking about it, and able to see all kinds of significant details. Once I’ve finished it, and maybe read a couple more books, and several weeks seem to have slipped past, then I’ve forgotten all the things I wanted to say and my heart’s not in it any more. Only I have to make an exception for the book I’m going to tell you about now, Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, because it was too funny and entertaining not to mention at all. But I read it at the wrong moment, really, because it was comfort food and at the time, I was in no need of it. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying it, but it was the kind of book I wished I’d saved up for a rainy day.
Auntie Mame is apparently an American classic, as it went on to become one of the bestselling books of its day and then one of the top ten Broadway shows of all time. Now Penguin have re-issued it with a plaster pink cover featuring a bejeweled and black-gloved hand, with a cigarette in a long holder balanced between the fingers. This is a fine introduction to Auntie Mame, a New York society woman, progressive in her thought (wedded to extravagantly loopy ideas), able to turn her hand to anything with chameleon grace (old school drama queen entranced by the idea of herself in many and varied guises) and with a heart of gold (the saving grace that makes her endless scheming and self-delusions tolerable). The comedy of Auntie Mame arises from the mismatch between what she is and what she thinks she is, and the performance she puts in to try and cobble the two together. The narrative is written not from her perspective, however, but from that of her young nephew, Patrick, who comes to live with her from the age of ten onwards when his conservative, uptight father dies. Needless to say, his father deeply disapproved of Mame, but had no other relative who could act as guardian. We love Mame because she does love Patrick, even if she cannot resist manipulating him, and Patrick loves her too, although she exasperates him beyond measure.
The book progresses as a series of escapades delivered chronologically as Patrick grows up. In each one some complicated situation arises that threatens to bind Auntie Mame and Patrick to it inextricably, until a combination of chance and pizzazz brings about a triumphant conclusion. So it’s a good old-fashioned classic American episodic narrative, driven by character, a kind of Huck Finn for WASPS. I found that it wasn’t a book I could read a lot of in one go, because each chapter had a chocolate truffle sort of taste to it – hugely satisfying as a one-off, but subject to diminishing returns and eventual biliousness if you binge. Apparently it was written as a series of short stories, but in that form nineteen publishers turned it down because it was ‘unmarketable’. A novel was required, and finally one publisher saw how it could be done. This device (which I won’t bother explaining – it’s not worth it) is the weakest part of the stories and ought never to have seen the light of day. But don’t worry about it because it’s completely negligible and won’t spoil any reader’s enjoyment. And the enjoyment is very much worth having. The book is a winning combination of hilarious character portraits and witty one-liners. For instance, in the chapter in which Mame gets married and turns, briefly, into a Southern Belle, she journeys to her husband’s family home asking “when am Ah gonna meet yo sweet little ole mothah?” (phonetic dialogue being one of Dennis’s favourite devices). The narrator responds crisply that:
‘Mrs Burnside could by no stretch of the imagination be called either sweet or little. But she was old, and I suppose that God in His infinite wisdom had seen fit to make her a mother, although I’ve often risked blasphemy to wonder why. She was built along the lines of a General Electric refrigerator and looked like a cross between Caligula and a cockatoo. Mother Burnside had beady little eyes, an imperious beak of a nose, sallow skin and bad breath. She wore a stiff black wig and a stiff black dress and she sat all day long in a darkened drawing room, her pudgy hands – encrusted with dirty diamond rings – folded over her pudgy belly.’ And young Patrick has no more love for the boy relation he is left to keep company with: ‘Although he was only six months my elder, Emery Oglethorpe was a century ahead of me when it came to a firsthand knowledge of evil.’ Now this novel was first published in 1955 and it may come across as dated and even stereotypical to American readers, who are seeing for the nth time the origins of typical character portraits. But it made me giggle. The situations are so beautifully worked out for the most part (only one disappointed me) and the writing so consistently amusing that it would have been churlish to complain of some degree of familiarity (and bear in mind this probably was original, fifty years ago). This isn’t a book to come to for depth and meaning, though; it is a frivolous frolic of a narrative, a romp and a cancan. It’s glorious camp, dahling, and none for worse for that. Save it up for when the world seems a cruel, hard place.