Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1337
The Dinner Party is an experimental novel. There is no narrator, and speakers are not identified except by subject matter, leitmotif, or an occasional self-apostrophe. The text is a fusion of conversation and soliloquy. There are crosscurrents of two or three different subjects, stichomythic or protracted, and Claude Mauriac creates the illusion of simultaneity in the varied mental associations evoked by some passing remark. The difficulties of following such a presentation of multiple experiences are only initial; they are resolved in the development of character patterns that emerge despite the loss in translation of the uniqueness of language assigned to individual characters.
In the mid-twentieth century, the experimental novel was a subspecies of the traditional novel. Examples of experimental novels such as The Dinner Party must nevertheless be assessed as is any work of art in an established medium. What Mauriac accomplished in The Dinner Party is impressive. To treat at book length the incidental chatter and random musing of eight people during a dining period of perhaps two hours is an undertaking vulnerable to arousing boredom in the reader. Not a single character in the book emerges as a great or memorable one; the relations of the characters to one another are rather trivial and in fact represent clichés of the beau monde. Nevertheless, without telling a significant story or symbolizing any extensive meaning, Mauriac sustains his kaleidoscope of sophisticated sensibilities with remarkable intensity.
There is no perceptibly dominant theme, simply a dinner party experience observed and recorded by means of the dramatic method and the interior monologue. The characters, nevertheless, are thoroughly interesting people. Their talk—about history, aristocratic genealogy, literature (Marcel Proust, Maurice Barrès, Anatole France, Graham Greene, and Gerard Manley Hopkins), astrology, travel, God, and even intellectual parlor games—is generally absorbing, occasionally informative, and often amusing. Their thoughts about one another, about themselves, and about the matters that happen to arise are compounded of vanity, lust, boredom, jealousy, creative perceptivity, intelligence, insight, and hopeful intentions, all projected with a psychological subtlety and effectiveness that impart true unity to the book. Other characters, in the persons of the seductive servant Armande or members of fashionable society who are talked about or recalled in memory, add to the dimensions of the emanating reality. Details of the courses served, descriptions of spots on the tablecloth or crumbs on a chair, and appraisals of the quality of the champagne being consumed are brilliantly integrated into the vibrant texture of the writing.
The situation that Mauriac creates out of his assemblage of characters is reminiscent of Proust. The atmosphere Mauriac’s characters breathe is rarefied. His people are elegant, aristocratic (or socially pretentious), artistic, and sensual. They are aware of social stratification, youth fading into age, their desire for one another, the interplay of their sensibilities, and the projection of their personae. Henri Bergson hovers over the table: The diners indulge in flights of memory stimulated by simple words or sensations; they consider their future, but everything is focused on the present moment of consciousness.
There is no head of the table as such, but the host sits as nearly opposite his wife as a round table seating four men and four women will allow. He is Bertrand Carnéjoux, the forty-six-year-old editor of the magazine Ring and author of a successful novel entitled Sober Pleasures (the original manuscript bore the more revealing title “Metaphysics of Physical Passion”). Preeminent in Carnéjoux’s mind is the desire to write another novel of even greater artistic integrity, formulated in a new way that will bring the words and thoughts of his characters into immediate juxtaposition. More than once, as he notes his conversation at the table, he regrets that he does not find it possible to achieve the same brilliance, the same eloquence when he is at work over a manuscript in his study. Meanwhile, he presides over the party, secure in his knowledge of amorous success with every woman present except one. His conversation is mainly about literature, his thoughts divided between love affairs and plans for writing.
His wife, Martine, is twenty-six years old, intimately known as Pilou, and the wealthy and innocent daughter of Irene, one of Bertrand’s former mistresses. Throughout the party, her thoughts are mainly radiant expressions of love for her two children, Rachel and Jean-Paul, but she is also tempted to respond to the attentions of Gilles Bellecroix.
Bellecroix is a forty-nine-year-old screenwriter who attained greater fame than Bertrand but who is not satisfied inwardly with his achievement. He is obsessed with the idea that he must produce a good novel to realize himself. Meanwhile, he observes the dinner guests with a cinematic eye, visualizing meaningful scenes in flickers of pose or behavior. Between him and Bertrand is a latent rivalry that carries over into Gilles’s flirtation with Martine, whose dancing on an earlier occasion is unforgettable to him. Gilles finds his real center of being, however, in his wife Bénédicte; he knows that for him true happiness lies in love, fidelity, monogamy.
Eugénie Prieur, still, at sixty-seven, called “Gigi” by young blades of Paris, is the oldest guest (too old to have been one of Bertrand’s conquests), full of rich nostalgic memories, the wisdom of long experience, and an intimate knowledge of social machinations. The perspective with which she endows her world is further documented by her conversations about historic family connections.
Roland Soulaires, forty-five, is temperamentally a J. Alfred Prufrock who hides his fears and his insecurity behind his idle dreams and his clever talk with Eugénie about social identification. Extremely wealthy, but fat and bald, he fails to interest the beautiful guest at his left, the twenty-four-year-old Marie-Ange Vasgne. Formerly a Canadian farm girl named Marietta but now a sultry blonde model and aspiring actress, Marie-Ange is Bertrand’s current mistress who dares near the end of the party to tease him by inquiring after Marie-Plum, another mistress whom Bertrand is never able to forget. Everyone’s knowledge of these affairs, admitted or not, is the measure of civilization for these people. Marie-Ange toys with the numbers one through six, as though seeking a pattern of sense in the world.
Lucienne Osborn, forty-two, is married to an American film producer, not present at the dinner. Her mind vapid, her body faded, she is preoccupied with thoughts of television sets, suntans, her dog Zig, and her lover, Léon-Pierre.
Jérôme Aygulf, who is twenty, finds himself out of his element. A childhood friend of Martine, he is invited only at the last moment after another guest sends regrets. Jérôme, aspiring but naïve, is at the opposite end of the scale from Eugénie. He finds himself longing for the attention and patronage of Bertrand more than for anything else. Insecure and a little awkward in this society, he nonetheless attracts the attention of Marie-Ange.
The Dinner Party belongs in that class of novels, including also Henry James’s The Sacred Fount (1901) and André Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925; The Counterfeiters, 1927), in which a novelist as a character thinks interchangeably about experience and the novel. The center of interest in Mauriac’s book really lies in the thoughts and comments expressed by Bertrand and Gilles about the novel form. Referring to his novel, Bertrand speaks of a new kind of fiction, one in which on some common occasion, such as the present dinner party, time and space would be suspended. Contemplating his next work, which will fuse thought and speech, Bertrand responds to Paul Claudel’s definition of the simplicity of truth along the line of Denis Diderot’s Proustian statement that “Everything we have ever known . . . exists within us without our knowing it.” The book is studded with criticism of novelists and theories of the novel, ideas that reveal character but also illuminate the practice of Mauriac in this particular novel. In one way or another, The Dinner Party raises a host of interesting questions about fiction.