Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A final post on raconteurs

I was able today to see what the full Oxford English Dictionary had to say on the subject of raconteurs:
One skilled in relating anecdotes or stories.

1828 J. C. YOUNG Jrnl. 3 July in Memoir Charles Mayne Young (1871) I. v. 169 Sir Charles is a handsome, thoroughbred gentleman, and a capital raconteur. 1829 DISRAELI Yng. Duke I. xii. (1831) 97 Stamped the illustrious narrator as the most consummate raconteur. 1855-6 THACKERAY Four Georges (1861) 183 Scott..the very best raconteur of his time. 1885 Manch. Exam. 13 Apr. 5/7 He was a good raconteur. No one knew more good stories or could tell them so well. 1922 JOYCE Ulysses 604 A gifted man, Mr Bloom said of Mr Dedalus senior, in more respects than one and a born raconteur if ever there was one. 1937 Discovery Oct. 326/1 Mrs. Johnson says little about herself, indulges in no purple passages, and without the conscious effort of the raconteur she manages to introduce many good stories and telling anecdotes. 1958 L. DURRELL Mountolive xv. 296 The inevitable anecdote of a famous raconteur to round off the letter. 1972 J. MOSEDALE Football iii. 35 (caption) Jimmy Conzelman functioned as quarterback, coach, raconteur, songwriter..and promoter.

So raconteuse (-tøz), a female raconteur.

1863 OUIDA Held in Bondage (1870) 46 ‘There's not one of you men now-a-days like Selwyn’, began the old raconteuse again. 1892 Daily News 2 Aug. 5/1 Let us admit that she is a good raconteuse, for the sake of grammar.

Which leads me to a couple of raconteuses, a group I've managed to neglect all week. We'll start with Dorothy Parker. She opens this selection from "Literary Rotarians," (from the February 11, 1928 issue of the New Yorker and collected in The Portable Dorothy Parker (2006)), by slagging, by implication, the literary raconteur:
You cannot go ten yards, on any thoroughfare, without being passed by some Rotarian of Literature, hurrying to attend a luncheon, banquet, tea, or get-together, where he may rush about from buddy to buddy, the writing game. I believed for as long as possible that they were on for their annual convention; and I thought that they must run their little span and disappear, like automobile shows, six-day bicycle races, ice on pavements, and such recurrent impedimenta of metropolitan life. But it appears that they are to go on and on. Their fraternal activities are their livings--more, their existences.

Granted, Parker is writing not so much about raconteurs as about a very specific type of literary hobnobber, but her capacity for scorn is so great that I doubt she would hold fire should some theoretically unobjectionable retailer of anecdotes of literary life wander into her sights.

Even so, she can't help herself; the stories to be gleaned from watching this crowd are too tempting:
I went to a literary gathering once. How I got there is all misty to me. I remember that, on that afternoon, I was given a cup of tea which tasted very strange. Drowsiness came over me, and there was a humming noise in my ears; then everything went black. When I came to my senses, I was in the brilliantly lighted banquet-hall of one of the large hotels, attending a dinner of a literary association. The place was filled with people who looked as if they had been scraped out of drains. The ladies ran to draped plush dresses--for Art; to wreaths of silken flowers in the hair--for Femininity; and, somewhere between the two adornments, to chain-drive pince-nez--for Astigmatism. The gentlemen were small and somewhat in need of dusting. There were guests of honor: a lady with three names, who composed pageants; a haggard gentleman who had won the prize of $20 offered by Inertia: A Magazine of Poesy for the best poem on the occupation of the Ruhr district; and another lady who had completed a long work on "Southern Californian Bird-Calls" and was ready for play.
But Parker, as you can already see, did not allow the glamour of the event to overwhelm her skepticism:
By pleading a return of that old black cholera of mine, I got away before the speeches, the songs, and the probably donning of paper caps and marching around the room in lockstep. I looked with deep interest, the net morning, or the bookmen's and bookwomen's accounts of the event. One and all, they declared that never had there been so glamorous and brilliant a function. You inferred that those who had been present would require at least a week to sleep it off. They wrote of it as they wrote of every other literary gathering--as if it were like those parties that used to occur just before Rome fell.

From that day to this, I have never touched another cup of tea.

To balance Parker's scorn, I'll close with a raconteuse who truly relished outre stories, Nancy Mitford. In an October 19, 1953 letter to Evelyn Waugh, she tells of meeting Field Marshall Montgomery for lunch:
Well I had my luncheon with Monty. He is terribly like my Dad--watch in hand when I arrived (the first, luckily), only drinks water, has to have the 9 o'clock news & be in bed by 10, washes his own shirts, rice pudding his favourite food. All my books by his bed & when he gets to a daring passage he washes it down with Deuteronomy. But oh the glamour! He sat me next him although there were a French Marquise & and English peeress at the bout de la table. I do hope I did well--not absolutely sure, though. He took me to see an awful little English garden with maples turning red, & I was obliged to say that I couldn't look--too ugly. He was surprised. His ADC told me he said to a French general "I know what you're like--I've read The Blessing" & the Frog replied "Yes, well I've read Love in a C. C."

And, finally, from another letter to Waugh from October 30th of that year, a description of the recent activities of her reclusive, reactionary father (nicknamed Prod):
Prod lives on a small yacht, usually tied up at Golfe Juan. He is a perfectly happy human being & the idol of the local population there. He looks exactly like some ancient pirate--bone thin, pitch black, white hair & beard & dressed in literal rags. He wears steel rimmed spectacles. He has a villainous Spaniard who does the chores--when, on one occasion this fellow displeased Prod he ran up a signal, "Mutiny on board." However nobody in the modern world, except Prod, can read these signals any more so nobody came to the rescue. Last time he went to England he was shown that list of dutiable goods at the customs. He asked for paper & pencil & wrote down everything that is on it: "perfume handbags ladies underwear etc etc." It took ages & they had to keep the train. Then they asked him to open his suitcase & it was empty. So they said they would have him up, but Prod said "you can't have me up for declaring what I haven't got, only for not declaring what I have got." Do say he's lovely.

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