Thursday, June 04, 2009


In an Introduction to a 2005 edition of her 1964 novel The Old Man and Me, included in the brand-new New York Review of Books Classics edition, Elaine Dundy wrote about revising the book for republication:
From today's prospect, I was able to cancel a word or half a line throughout, understanding what I didn't then: that in this novel, speech read is preferable to speech spoken. The latter is full of "um," "oh" and "ah"--dead foliage that smothers the text. I eliminated most but not all of them. Some were too stubbornly embedded in the text. Words such as the all-purpose "just" that runs around this book as in "you just want to, "just a moment," "just in time," just the wrong way." I cut some of the beginnings of sentences that use such weakening qualifications as "well" and "I'm afraid" followed by I, you, he, she, it. I cut "perfectly" and "definitely." These, being eliminated, I felt released the core of the text to glow. I wanted the two protagonists to express themselves through exchanges that are brisk, crisp, direct and unadorned, sometimes to the point, often around it, even at times, soul to soul.
To think she was making all those painstaking revisions to a book of which the Master himself, P. G. Wodehouse, wrote, "There isn't a dull line in it"!

Not having the 1964 edition to hand, however, it's hard to quibble with the results: The Old Man and Me is funny, biting, pithy, cynical, and sharp, a worthy successor to Dawn Powell (with, I can't help but hear, echoes of Eve Arden's gloriously self-deprecating and cheerily bitter Miss Brooks). And I suppose it's hard to argue with Dundy's impulse to correct and improve--after all, how many authors' work is still valued enough that they're even given that chance four decades later?

1 comment:

  1. Funny: I have not read either edition of this book; but from Dundy's description of the revision process it sounds almost like she has written an entirely new book. Deciding whether or not to include vocal pauses in dialogue is IMO a pretty fundamental piece of a book's style, I'm speculating that if you are familiar with the book including the pauses and you come to read this new edition with them edited out, it would feel strange.