Musings on “The New Yorker”: Elizabeth Enright’s Forgotten Stories for Adults

Michael and Shawn in “The Good Place”

In an episode of The Good Place, the demon Shawn threatens the former demon Michael (recently converted into an angel by a moral philosophy class) with  torture:  a small room furnished with a stack of New Yorkers.

“You know I’ll never read these,” says Michael. 

“That’s the point.  And they just keep on coming!”

I understand completely about The New Yorker.  It piles up on our mail table, and after a few weeks I sneak them into the recycling pile.  Then my husband sneaks them back. I get through The Talk of the Town, the movie reviews, and the TV reviews, but shudder at the fiction, seldom read the serious articles, and cannot comprehend the fashion ads, which remind me of Charles Addams cartoons.

The New Yorker, however, used to publish very good fiction. I was enthralled by John Updike, Ann Beattie, Elizabeth Tallent, and more.  But it all changed in the ’90s, when there was an editorial shake-up.  Still, if you pore over old  New Yorker anthologies, you will find the short stories of the neglected Nancy Hale (whose work has recently been published by LOA), Victoria Lincoln, and lost writers of the ’30s and ’40s who are no longer in style. 

Elizabeth Enright

Did you know Elizabeth Enright, the Newbery-winning author of Gone-Away Lake and The Melendy Quartet, wrote superb short stories and essays for adults?  Her four collections of fiction and autobiographical essays are, alas, out- of-print, but you can read some of her work at The New Yorker website.

In Enright’s charming story, “The Sandals of Monsieur de Flandre,” published on Feb. 22, 1958, the narrator, who is an art student, and her mother, an illustrator, share an apartment in Paris.  Their eccentric landlady is an antique dealer who regularly changes the furniture in their apartment:  one night two furniture movers show up in the middle of a dinner party and demand the dining-room table. The narrator’s mother firmly expels them, much to everyone’s delight.

It turns out another trespasser regularly visits their apartment. Monsieur de Flandre, a young actor nobody likes, often wanders the halls in rubber sandals.  A comical confrontation ensues when they learn he has a copy of their key.  

An out-of-print book by Elizabeth Enright

The most thrilling thing about Enright’s work is the lovely details. She says the winter sky in Paris is “a solid pork-fat gray.” The Russian neighbors have a beautiful garden with rustling bamboo, which the narrator likes to listen to at night because it reminds her of the country, and thecat, dog, and maid seem all to be named Masha.  She also wittily describes the antiquated plumbing, all of which except the WC is located in her bedroom.  

And I like her take on French.  

“I nodded apprehensively. Though I understood French fairly well, I was barred from speaking it by the grim verb forms I had had to struggle with in school. They stood before me like so many rigid iron gates, and by the time I had decided which was the proper form to use, the occasion for using it was lost forever.”

I do understand what she means.  Personally, I would prefer to conduct conversations in a foreign language written on post-it notes!

Enright’s writing is beautiful, lyrical, and ntelligent!  I read a few of Elizabeth Enright’s stories and domestic essays at The New Yorker webite, and look forward to finding more.  

The issue with the Elizabeth Enright story.