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Bawdy peasant girls performing a bear dance. Masked revelers spinning to the sound of a mariachi band. An accordion-playing polar bear. Collective onion-chopping commiserations to a Jazz accompaniment. The haunting sounds of a Japanese Koto played under cherry trees. Saucy snacks served by naked serving girls and boys.
If you were to come across any of these spectacles, you might think you’ve wandered into a work of fiction; and you would be right. In her first book, A Curious Invitation, London’s premier party promoter Suzette Field invites you to indulge yourself in the “Forty Greatest Parties in Literature”, which include masquerade balls, banquets, orgies, even a wake and a high school prom.
Today, in modern London, the same experiences await you at the regular soirées hosted by the Last Tuesday Society, where, alongside Viktor Wynd (proprietor of the Little Shop of Horrors in Hackney), Field has been astonishing London revelers since 2007 with extravagant, atmospheric events that claim to plumb the depths of “the esoteric, literary and artistic aspects of life in London and beyond”. As such, A Curious Invitation is a well-researched product of the author’s experience as one of the city’s legendary 21st-century impresarios. She is keen to offer inspiration to other party planners, through which “non-party givers” and the less adventurous may live vicariously, as the likes of C. S. Lewis and Jane Austen did through their own stories.
A Curious Invitation lists all the boasting and the arguments, the romances and the vices, and the haves and have-nots of the greatest fictional literary parties. Field details who hosted, who attended, what foods and drinks were served, and the entertainment, conversation and outcomes. The book also includes the legacy of each party’s author, observing how closely their life followed the party, and how much the book chronicling the party impacted upon the author’s life.
It is remarkable how much these various accounts exemplify the idiosyncrasies of the cultures of their time—from the Greek symposiums in the times of Plato to the Hollywood sleaze of Jackie Collins. This vast compilation traverses the history of western literature, with a momentary detour through the Japanese cherry trees in The Tale of Genji, and a stop-off in a remote town in Chile, in José Donoso’s Hell has No Limits. This is also probably the only occasion on which you’ll find the Three Musketeers rubbing shoulders with Winnie the Pooh, Jay Gatsby, Bilbo Baggins, and high school and college kids. There are only subtle signposts that point towards the social and historical context of all of these great parties and their revelers, which may seem problematic for more critical readers or scholars of these exemplary works. Despite referring in her introduction to how significant these parties are as literary devices, Field doesn’t really explain this in much detail. To dwell too heavily on the book’s context, however, would be to miss the point of the book, which is a party in itself—as extravagant, indulgent, superficial and convivial as the greatest celebrations in literary history—with a highly illustrious guest list. A Curious Invitation is a book for people of discerning taste who seek some wilful delusion and joyful delirium of their own.
The book also acts as a unique and amusing access point to some of the world’s literary greats for anyone who has never read the likes of Proust or Dostoyevsky. Though Field admits she never read Proust or Joyce until she was researching the book, she demonstrates a keen interest and awareness of the literary conventions of such great writers. She wears this knowledge lightly throughout the book, inviting the reader to engage just enough so that they might “talk knowledgeably” about these stories and, indeed, impress people at literary parties, the art of which A Curious Invitation is all about.
Parties were once considered the natural collective state of human beings; today they are recognised as just one constitutive element of a thoroughly modern life. Since the industrial revolution arrived and transformed small, rural traditional communities, parties have become stages for parading the excesses of modern culture as well as for defying all its responsibilities and its alienations. These tendencies are all apparent in Field’s well-observed selections. Many of the characters appear to be haunted by some anxieties, but continue to live, for the duration of their parties at least, as if they were utterly problem-free.
“Man is corrupted by the exercise of reason and purified by ignorance,” Field quotes the protagonist of Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin during his own dream party. This is why revelers are drawn to a party, why authors are attracted to them: they are the site where a great manner of things—which may not otherwise seem so—could be possible, a place where fantasies are allowed room to breed away from the constrictions of rational, adult life. Escapism is what party-goers at the Last Tuesday Society surely seek, but literature is also ripe with such opportunity, like the wanderer in Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier who picks up a book and becomes “immersed in the most tranquil happiness imaginable”. A Curious Invitation is a testament to Field’s ability to manifest human desires—which has brought her such success on the London scene—and how these desires have been, and continue to be, informed by centuries of art-making.
But, of course, no party can last forever. It is the ominously poignant recognition of “the ephemeral nature of all things”, as described in The Tale of Genji, that acts as the common thread bringing together these great parties from literature. Whether it’s the case of Satan’s Rout in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, where death is omnipresent; or at Belshazzar’s Feast in the Bible’s Book of Daniel (c 200 BC), where guests are literally shown “the writing on the wall”; or in Balzac’s Bacchanal, when Raphael discovers with his hangover that “every desire of his must cost him days of his life”, parties represent the very best and worst moments of our lives, our greatest desires and fears. Perhaps it is strange that a book so full of life is so perpetually haunted by its opposite, but perhaps this is only to be expected. This state of being is best described by Balzac as an “exquisite limbo”, embracing and indulging in a few pleasures as an act of defiance against the pains of both life and death.
Published on 11 Oct 2012 in hardcover. You can buy the book from Picador or Amazon (also available on Kindle). As part of the book’s launch, three parties are being held—two of which have already sold out. If you don’t want to miss out, book now for the Dia de Los Muertos Ball on Saturday, 3 November, 10pm-3am at the tunnels beneath the Strand. £25/person or £100/five.
Follow Suzette Field on Twitter.