During my gamin period, when I wore an embroidered dress over bell-bottom jeans and carried a basket from a hardware store instead of a purse, a friend’s mother gave me For Whom the Bell Tolls. She was getting rid of old paperbacks, and since she couldn’t expand the too-small size of my dress, she tried to expand my mind.
It was my first Hemingway, and it is unfortunately his worst. Robert Jordan, an American guerilla in the Spanish Civil War, wants to blow up a bridge. He is always referred to as “Robert Jordan,” never “Robert” or “Jordan.” No, he’s a first- and last-name kind of guy. He lies flat on pine needles to do reconnaissance, and, by the way, “the earth moves” with his girlfriend, Maria, whom he calls Rabbit. Under normal circumstances, I might have fallen in love with such a virile hero, but even I couldn’t take lines like, “You’re like one of those cocks in the pit where nobody has seen the wound given and it doesn’t show and he is going cold with it.”
In Cornelia Otis Skinner’s 1943 collection of humor pieces, Soap Behind the Ears, she shares my dislike of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Her parody, “For Whom the Gong Tolls,” is pitch-perfect.
Robert Jordan snapped the lock of his revolver, made certain the machine-gun at his hip was handy, gripped his maquina and continued to crawl up the Guadarrama hills on his belly. Robert Jordan grinned. You’re almost there, he told himself. He’d been telling himself things like that all day…. The warm Spanish earth scraped his belly. Robert Jordan could feel a pine-cone in his navel. It was a resinous pine-cone, the kind they grow in Catalan.”
I’m not really knocking Hemingway. I’m laughing at Cornelia Otis Skinner. Skinner (1899-1979), an actress and writer, is perhaps best known for the book she co-wrote with Emily Kimbrough, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a hilarious memoir of their trip to Europe after college. But she also wrote humor pieces for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other magazines.
Soap Behind the Ears is a laugh-out-loud funny collection of her humor essays and parodies. In “The Defense of Long Island,”a piece vaguely reminiscent of E. M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady in Wartime, patriotic American women worry about the defense of Long Island at the beginning of World War II. They go door-to-door with questionnaires, and, as Skinner tells us, “are frantically engaged in an activity they call doing ‘something about’ it.” Is she a qualified nurse? Does she know anything about electricity? Does she want to join the Girls’ Rifle Team?
“Aside from knitting tiny garments for the Red Cross and giving away almost every cooking utensil we ever owned in the aluminum drive, my contribution to National Defense has been negligible.”
In “A Bicycle Built for One,” she explains bicycling has come back into fashion and that a friend gives her a cheap used bike. The brakes don’t work. “Either you’re going full speed ahead or you’re dropped dead still and it’s a nice problem in acrobatic technique to determine the exact movement in which to jump.” She develops saddle sores, and I really do empathize, though of course I want you to ride your bikes because it’s good for the environment.
In “The American Quest for Tea,” she writes about the inability of American hotels to provide good tea. Often on the road, she likes tea with milk. She doesn’t mean tea bags and lukewarm water and cream–and don’t we know that’s why we still can’t get good tea at restaurants and hotels?
“The Volga Tongue” is my favorite, because I love languages, and Skinner writes about learning Russian, not because she wants to go to Russia, but because “I’ve always had a hankering to be able to speak Russian.” She muses on how the FBI might find this suspicious and interrogate her. “Not that any girl wouldn’t be delighted to be regarded as a potential Mata Hari.” Skinner tries the popular “gramophone” method, 30 lessons in vinyl records and textbooks.
Skinner perfectly mimics the language dialogues. The characters in the family “are all terribly glad to see one another and express their pleasure in hearty greetings such as “How do you do?’ and even ‘How dost one do?’ which sometimes becomes ‘How gets along thy life?’ It’s a heartwarming scene and from it one gathers that family life flows along under the shadow of Lenin just as drearily as it does under the ‘L.'”
A fun book!