A Life Changed by Dorothy Baker

This month, on November 27, the NYRB Classics Bookclub at Books are Magic in Brooklyn will be discussing Dorothy Baker's novel Cassandra at the Wedding. David Jelinek, an art teacher and scholar of Baker's work, will be moderating. Jelinek's admiration for Baker's writing goes beyond scholarship, however. Her novels changed his life. Jelinek was kind enough to write a bit about his experience. Just click through for more:

I owe a lot to the NYRB Classics, not the least of which is my marriage to Denise. She and I met ten years ago in the lunchroom of the school where we both teach; we were also married, though obviously not to one another. We shared favorite authors: Proust and Wilde. In the summer of our first year teaching together, the school conveniently asked us both to chaperone students on a European expedition, and the Fates seated us together on the airplane over. At the time, I was reading Stephan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl. Denise asked if she could read along from my copy. I said yes. On the way back, we did the same with Cassandra at the Wedding. Neither novel is particularly happy, but sometimes hope is born from inopportune circumstances, such as being married to the wrong person. We kept reading.

I admired Dorothy Baker’s writings so much that I bought her other three novels; this required some Internet sleuthing and bidding, as the books were out of print. Baker’s short stories were even more of a struggle to find, as they appear in defunct magazines, lost literary collections and university archives. (Admittedly, the excuse of having to travel to Stanford and Berkeley was none too taxing.) I wrote to NYRB to get Baker’s first novel, Young Man with a Horn, republished and cried a little when it was.

Cassandra is Baker’s masterpiece. It reads like an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona without so much of the Sturm und Drang. Yes, there’s drama, but it uncoils slowly, just as Cassandra journeys to the family ranch or gets drunk during the course of a day. There’s a bit of O’Neill here: “Long Day’s Drive into the Hills”. But there’s wonderfully humorous scenes as well.

The book is dedicated, in memoriam, to the painter David Park. Baker and he were good friends, and Park drew the trumpet that appears on the original cover of Young Man. A playful inscription to him reads, “To David, without whom this book could never have been wrote.” Dorothy was “one of the wittiest people ever,” her daughter Joan emailed, “Sort of a Dorothy Parker type.” David Park’s compositions now grace the NYRB covers of both Baker novels.

With the ability to look at a subject from differing perspectives, Park’s early paintings and Cassandra are influenced by Cubism. Add identical twins, Cassandra and Judith, who co-narrate the story, and the view becomes kaleidoscopic, a fly looking at its own reflection. Early in the novel, Cassandra gazes in the bar mirror and is unsure who is reflected: Cass, Cassie, Judith, Jude or Judy. Indeed, the two women even have alternating names.

It’s a tale told from varying voices narrating the same events, much like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but also like a duet. The twins share a piano; Dorothy and David were also musical. “One of my fondest memories is David banging out jazz on the piano with my mother belting out the lyrics. What they lacked in talent, they compensated for in volume!” Young Man is loosely based on the life of composer and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, a native of Davenport, Iowa. Oddly enough, I found myself in Davenport a few years back, asked to officiate at the wedding of Denise’s sister (not that I’m an expert on marriage). My second priority was to locate Bix’s home. Standing outside it, I felt a rush similar to when I held a photograph of Dorothy from Stanford’s library archive.

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