Humor in Peter de Vries' "Afternoon of a Faun"
A study of the subtle humor incorporated in Peter de Vries' story "Afternoon of a Faun" from the collection Without a Stitch in Time.
Literary analysis: Humor in the works of Peter De Vries
One of my top ten funniest male writers, Peter De Vries died in 1993. All his uproariously satiric novels are out of print, but public libraries have at least a sampling of his work.
De Vries is one of that select group of humorists whose quotable quotes get listed. One that I have often used is “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” He had a knack for humorous paradox that I find irresistibly risible. He was a cross between Groucho Marx and Yogi Berra but with a bit more intellectual depth than Groucho and none of the unconsciousness that purportedly underlay Berraisms. He once said, “Everybody hates me because I’m so universally liked.”
I hear keen intelligence in his remark. He transfers me to an earlier age more comfortable than this 21st century I’m dealing with. Imagine a story in which the youthful male protagonist worries about having scored amorously with his girlfriend without employment of contraception. He frets over the possibility of a shotgun wedding (“armed nuptials” as he expresses it) kiboshing his matriculation at Dartmouth. But there is no consideration of abortion as a solution. These were the days when the terrns pro choice and pro life would trigger ideas about professional athletics, not today’s political/moral differences. But nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be.
I once had a friend who judged people’s intelligence, wit, and sensitivity to nuance by the degree of hilarity they found in reading Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim.” When I was teaching English, I used Peter De Vries’ “Afternoon of a Faun” in much the same way.
Most students had to be clued in about the title. Some knew that a faun was a mythological creature, half goat and half human, and characterized by excessive sexual appetite. Very few had heard of the Mallarmé poem, “L’aprés-midi d’un faune” that became a musical composition by Debussy and a celebrated ballet choreographed first by Nijinski and later by Jerome Robbins. Imparting such information is what English teachers are paid to do.
The story’s protagonist is 17-year-old Charles Swallow. He capsulizes his upbringing neatly with “I was read to sleep with the classics and spanked with obscure quarterlies.”
Charles’s father, “a man steeped in the heavyweight German philosophers,” was the main formative influence on young Charles, who developed a fondness for witty, double-edged aphorisms all of which sailed over the head of his home-spun, down-to-earth mother.
Despite living in the cultural backwater of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Charles had assembled a clique of like-minded intellectual companions who gathered and exchanged witty obiter dicta at the city’s closest approximation to a literary and intellectual salon, a restaurant and ice cream parlor called the Samothrace, “run by a Greek who let us pull tables out on the sidewalk and talk funny.” Though industrial Scranton is a far cry from Paris’s left bank, Charles and friends considered themselves in terms that work well in French but defy translation into American English. They are “pimpled boulevardiers” with a “fin-de-siecle” attitude of bored aestheticism. To stroll Scranton’s streets is not the same as to “flaner sur les grands boulevards” just as the menu of Les Deux Magots does now offer items like the “fruit compost” featured at the Samothrace.
At home Charles lounges about smoking Melachrino cigarettes. His mother worries that he has “no pep.” His father accurately diagnoses “Decadence . . . an attitude toward life.” When the mother tries to interest her son in reading the “jumbo three-generation novels” that she says she can’t put down, he quips that “the books Mother cannot put down . . . are the ones I cannot pick up.” Such quiddities anger his father. Making a truncheon of his Yale Review, he demands that Charles apologize to his mother and go upstairs to his room.
Without giving away the plot, I find De Vries’s word play exquisitely droll. Charles’s girlfriend Crystal would fit the categories of “ditz” or “airhead,’ though she attempts to appreciate her boyfriend’s intellectuality and refined taste in music and art. When Charles dropped the name Baudelaire, he “had the queer suspicion that she thought it was the name of a refrigerator or air-conditioner.” When they get together for a tryst at Crystal’s while her parents are absent, Charles finds her seductively stretched out in a backyard hammock listening to Flagstad and Melchior sing the love duet from Tristan. “I had a feeling she had seen me coming, quickly set the record going, and hurried back to the hammock in time for me to find her lying on it in a trance of appreciation.” Only readers of my age and older will snicker when Crystal says, “This music. Lawrence Melchior.” His name is Lauritz.
The evening is a success, “and that to the music of a composer whose works I had termed mucilaginous.” Fearful that the success may have included procreation, Charles sets about preparing his parents for the new development using his characterstic turn of phrase: “I’ve fallen in love with a girl I rather like. . . . I suppose I shall marry eventually. One does that. One drifts into stability.”
“Upstairs!” said his father. His mother is pleased, interpreting the betrothal as evidence of pep and downright spunk. The short work ends with humor and harmony.
First published in the New Yorker perhaps as early as the 1940s or 50s, the story is dated by its references to portable phonographs and forgotten opera singers who died in the 60s and 70s, but De Vries’ humor, accomplished without profanity or prurient sexuality, continues to be a tonic, at least to this reader. It can be found, accompanied by similar comic divertissements, in the collection “Without a Stitch in Time.”