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...
(The entire section is 1337 words.)