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Recreating Literary Parties - A Curious Invitation by Suzette Field


Most of us like the idea of throwing a party, but if we’re not celebrating one of the traditional occasions (New Year, birthday, Halloween etc) coming up with an original and interesting theme can be difficult. As a professional party organiser I find that when I’m looking for inspiration I often turn to the pages of literature, which abound in all manner of festivities (balls, cocktail parties, banquets, wakes, orgies) from different times and cultures, usually based on the author’s own experiences. These party descriptions also feature crucial period details of what people wore, what they ate and drank and what and who they talked about.

Borrowing a few ideas from fictional bashes can help give an original slant to a party. Of course some of these literary festivities are impractical to imitate in your own home: for example Satan’s Rout from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which requires a full symphony orchestra, a jazz band of apes and a tropical forest with scarlet-breasted parrots (though I make a credible attempt at recreating this ball each Halloween for 2,500 guests at the Coronet theatre in London). Copying certain other literary parties might stretch your entertainment budget: Trimalchio’s banquet in ancient Rome from Petronius’s The Satyricon, for example, at which guests were treated to thirteen courses including a whole boiled calf and a roasted wild boar. Other events are best not imitated for health and safety reasons, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death or Stephen King’s Carrie, at both of which all of the guests are murdered.

Here are a few examples of parties from literature which might give you some inspiration for home entertaining. Further details are to be found in my book A Curious Invitation - the Forty Greatest Parties in Literature, now out in paperback.


With Secret Cinema theming their immersive movie experience this year on Back to the Future the 1980s are clearly cool again. Who better to turn to for literary inspiration on this money-fixated decade than Jackie Collins? In her seminal novel Hollywood Wives an “at home” party given by Ross and Elaine Conti in their Beverly Hills mansion is a DIY guide to all the crucial elements of an 80s party: name-dropping accessories (Baccarat glasswear, Porthault napkins), tacky dress sense (gold lamé harem pyjamas, snakeskin cowboy boots), pithy put-downs (“go sleep with your ego”) and dreadful music (Ric and Phil’s travelling disco show). The only elements you may have difficulty replicating in your own home are the real-life Hollywood celebrities with whom Jackie Collins packs her fictional party, including Clint Eastwood, Michael Caine and Liza Minnelli; and, of course, the permanent encampment of paparazzi at the end of the  drive.


German decadence seems to be forever in fashion, but instead of focusing on the usual early 1930s cabaret scene (drawn from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories), I prefer to turn to Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum, which is set in the aftermath of World War Two. Restaurateur Ferdinand Schmuh owns “The Onion Cellar” Club in Dusseldorf. Each evening he invites the drinkers who gather at his establishment to chop onions and then, intoxicated by the lachrymal fumes, to weep together and unlock their repressed emotions. This is a literary event I’ve replicated on several occasions. It’s a very inexpensive party to programme: all you need is a sack of onions, some knives and chopping boards, yet it can have surprising results, with strangers bonding and coming out with all sorts of unexpected confessions. It's certainly cheaper than group therapy and works particularly well as an alternative Valentine's night for the romantically dispossessed.  


The intelligentsia of ancient Athens (philosophers, playwrights, politicians etc) liked nothing better of an evening than going round to someone’s house for a good debate. This is documented in Plato's Symposium (incidentally the word “symposium” has nothing to do with its modern stuffy academic associations: in ancient Greek it literally meant a piss up). Guests would recline on couches and eat food off small tables. There would be a theme for them to debate over the course of the evening, which would be determined by the symposiarch  (a sort of master of ceremonies). The theme in Plato's symposium is "love". Each speaker would offer an eloquent discourse on the chosen subject, which other guests would then be free to critique. In Plato’s story various gatecrashers disrupt proceedings and by the end of the evening the guests are all too drunk to remember who has won the competition. Those of you of a more cerebral bent might like to replicate this style of party in your own homes, though the one factor you would hopefully choose to ignore is that these gatherings were male-only, as in ancient Greek times women were not allowed to socialise with men.  


The idea of a garden party may fill your head with thoughts of sherry and croquet, but 12th Century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu’s novel The Tale of Genji gives a different take on the concept. In it Genji, the son of the Mikado, is invited to a blossom viewing party. This is a springtime tradition which continues to this day in Japan, where guests gather to observe the first appearance of the blossom on the cherry trees. The epitome of refinement and restraint the Japanese garden has always espoused simplicity, which makes it easy to recreate in an urban plot. All it takes is some raked white gravel and a few trees in pots. You can always pop down to the local garden centre for a small cherry tree or even get a fake light-up one. As well as observing the blossom and commenting on the ephemeral nature of its beauty (mono no aware in Japanese) there are other traditions at blossom viewing parties, including music, dancing and haiku-writing competitions. In the last of these each guest is given a subject on which they have to compose a seventeen syllable poem. A kimono party is a few notches in sophistication up from a toga party, as a kimono is much harder to tie.

Who better to take inspiration from than the man who gave his name to the genre - the Marquis de Sade? He wrote his infamous book The 120 Days of Sodom in 1785 while he was banged up in the Bastille Prison for a string of crimes including gross indecency, sodomy and attempted murder. The entire novel (which the author describes as "the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began" and probably still holds this record) is devoted to one 3-month-long orgy, hosted by four gentlemen who share prodigal wealth and an enthusiasm for sexual perversion. With the aim of indulging in the full catalogue of carnal aberrations (there are 600 “passions” in total), they invite four prostitutes, four well-endowed studs and sixteen virgins to join them in a remote chateau in Switzerland. This is definitely something you should not try at home as it would be illegal, immoral and impractical, not to mention ruinously expensive.

A Curious Invitation
by Suzette Field is out now

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