Sunday, March 30, 2008

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

More than fifty years after its first publication, the title Auntie Mame might only conjure up memories of Rosalind Russell on screen, exclaiming to some meek soul that "life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!" Indeed they are, at least compared to the wonderful Mame Dennis.

In the novel the narrator, a suburban family man, reflects on how his own remarkable relative could pretty much devour alive the pallid Unforgettable Character that he has been reading about in a magazine. This charming and difficult spinster aunt, he notes, did all the things his spinster aunt did – took in her orphaned nephew, educated him, struggled with financial problems, later entertained and vetted his college girlfriends – only with nowhere near her spice and aplomb. What makes the difference between the two? What makes Auntie Mame nowhere near being a "poor sucker starving to death" at the banquet?

Despite the book’s being often laugh-out-loud funny ("I know the most divine new school ... all classes are held in the nude under ultraviolet ray. Not a repression left after the first semester"), its theme is, really, the well-lived life. Mame Dennis has some advantages over the magazine-aunt, and over the rest of us, in living well. She is a very wealthy Manhattanite throughout most of the story. But when the Depression hits and takes most of her money as it took most of everybody else’s, she is thrown back on resources that are not financial. She is thrown back on herself, and she still knows how to live well.

In Mame we meet a hard drinking woman, an irreligious woman (except for her curiosity about the East’s "exquisite mysteries"), a woman slightly silly and (as the narrator admits) often, amid the social whirl, slightly lonely. But she is also loving, brave, compassionate, well-read, curious – and foul-mouthed, stagey, overbearing, and above all sharp as a tack. She lies abed after a party, poring over newspaper maps of Rommel’s campaigns in Africa. She reads all of Edith Wharton straight through, and can lecture pleasantly on Tudor architecture. She has elegant friends who edit fashion magazines and are "authorities on Rimbaud;" she has friends who are pushcart vendors. What Mame cannot abide is counterfeit, and her ability to spot it and name it is what makes her life well-lived even though she is only a comic heroine, and even though sometimes she is broke. Hateful people and fake things, joylessness, are what set her off. A rich, lovely girl who is rude to a waitress is, for Mame, counterfeit. So is a syrupy daiquiri masquerading as a drink, when straight Scotch is perfectly available ....

We may not share all Mame’s little tastes, but she is an Auntie to whom it is always delightful to return for a refresher course in living. She has the last word: " ‘Enjoy yourselves, darlings!’ "

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