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May 5, 2008

TT: Elaine Dundy, R.I.P.

product-thumbnail-140.jpgElaine Dundy, author of The Dud Avocado, died four days ago. No obituaries as of this hour, but the news is up on her Web site.

It was my privilege to be asked to write an introduction to last year's new edition of The Dud Avocado, published by New York Review Books, and Dundy made it known to me in due course that she liked what I wrote, a fact of which I am very proud.

Here's how it starts:

It is the destiny of some good novels to be perpetually rediscovered, and Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, I fear, is one of them. Like William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf or James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor, it bobs to the surface every decade or so, at which time somebody writes an essay about how good it is and somebody else clamors for it to be returned to print, followed in short order by the usual slow retreat into the shadows. In a better-regulated society, of course, the authors of such books would be properly esteemed, and on rare occasions one of them does contrive to clamber into the pantheon--Dawn Powell, the doyenne of oft-rediscovered authors, finally made it into the Library of America in 2001--but in the normal course of things, such triumphs are as rare as an honest stump speech.

The Dud Avocado is further handicapped by being funny. Americans like comedy but don't trust it, a fact proved each year when the Oscars are handed out: our national motto seems to be Lord Byron's "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter/Sermons and soda-water the day after." To be sure, The Dud Avocado is perfectly serious, but it preaches no sermons, and what it has to say about life must be read between the punch lines. That was what kept Powell under wraps for so long--nobody thought that a writer so amusing could really be any good, especially if she was also a woman--and it has been working against Elaine Dundy ever since she published The Dud Avocado, her first novel, in 1958. I don't think it's a coincidence that The Dud Avocado has never been out of print in England. I'm no Anglophile, but I readily admit that the Brits are better at this sort of thing. Unlike us, they treat their comic novelists right, perhaps because Shakespeare and Jane Austen taught them early on that (as Constant Lambert once observed apropos of the delicious music of Chabrier) "seriousness is not the same as solemnity."

Maud Newton posted the entire introduction here last June. I invite you to read it in lieu of an obituary.

UPDATE: Here's an obit in an unlikely place. I think it would have amused her.

Quiet Bubble has a brief tribute.

More from Dundy's last publisher.

Posted May 5, 2008 10:57 AM

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