Summer Charm:  “Mrs. Gaskell and Me” and “The Thin Man”

Every summer I  hunker down with a classic like The Tale of Genji, Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, or Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander.  It is an automatic affectation for me to pick up a weighty classic, while others pretend to read slim books with pink covers.   I have found that a classic from your Not Urgent List is best perused in the psychedelic heat while sipping an Arnold Palmer with a little umbrella in it.

Bu this year is different.  I do not have a reading list.  I have wept over scenes of protesters and police kneeling together on the news; and every time I cough I wonder, Is it the virus? 

And so I have not committed to a magnum opus–yet.

But let me tell you briefly about two charming books.

Nell Stevens’s Mrs. Gaskell and Me, published in the U.S. as The Victorian and the Romantic:  A Memoir, a Love Story, and a Friendship across Time, is a splendid biblio-memoir. It is partly a historical novel about Elizabeth Gaskell, written in the second person; partly a memoir of Stevens’ Ph.D. research on Gaskell. In the novel, Gaskell struggles with accusations of immorality and libel in  her biography of Charlotte Bronte, which she later has to censor; longs to escape from her narrow-minded husband, a minister, in Manchester; and travels to Rome with her daughters, where she forms a romantic friendship with Charles Eliot Norton, an American writer and scholar.

Stevens’s book is not all fiction, or at least seems not to be.  Stevens interweaves a memoir of her own reading of Mrs. Gaskell , which an affair with a moody, selfish writer she met in an MFA program in Boston often impedes. Stevens is more frail than Gaskell, but we all have been obsessed with that moody guy in grad school, haven’t we?   Much of the book is enchantingly lyrical, and it is blessedly short.

I am a great fan of Dashiell Hammett’s noir screwball comedy, The Thin Man.  I agree with Dorothy Parker, who said:  “All I can say i say is that anyone who doesn’t read him misses much of modern America.” 

In The Thin Man, Nick and Nora, the most charming couple in a 20th-century American mystery, are enjoying their stay in a luxurious New York hotel, spending their time at speakeasies, parties, restaurants, and Radio City Music Hall.  The trouble starts on the first page when Dorothy Wynant shows up at a speakeasy and asks Nick, a former detective, if he can help her find her father, who was once his client.

And then a string of murders follows, and Dorothy’s mother, Mimi, finds the first body.  But since Nick knows Mimi is crazy and lies about everything, he does not take her story seriously. Not surprisingly,  the ex-cons, among them Studsy Burke, owner of The Pigiron Cub, are more honest than the upper-class neurotics and avaricious businessmen who demand  Nick’s help. 

You may have seen the excellent movie The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy. .  And of course he wrote The Maltese Falcon

I hope your summer reading is going well!