Not long ago I ended a friendship, albeit an insignificant one, over an insult aimed at the author and filmmaker Whit Stillman. His book Love and Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated, my erstwhile pal sniffed, was “just another” in the glut of novels resurrecting Jane Austen. Had my sort-of friend stopped there, we might still be exchanging the occasional social media bon mots and links to articles about Billy Haines. Instead, he dared to also opine.
“And not a very good one,” he added, about the Stillman novel.
The man was mistaken. Stillman’s novelization of his film of the same name is a wee masterpiece. The fact that its narrator is a child of 5, one who defends his re-creation of complete conversations by telling us that “The true explanation partakes of mystery,” elevates the shtick of revisiting Austen in this novel’s early pages. The mannered prose is both pitch-perfect and deliberately self-conscious — Stillman is nudging us in the ribs even while forwarding his story about Susan, a woman on the hunt for a pair of husbands, one for herself, the other for her daughter.
A retelling of sorts of an Austen novella titled Lady Susan, this version punches up Austen’s genteel humor with laughs and lowbrow comedy aimed at a scheming widow who’s gold-digging for two. Stillman’s voice is equal parts Patrick Dennis and P.G. Wodehouse, and always lavishly funny.
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When you go to hear Mr. Stillman read from Love and Friendship at Changing Hands Books on March 27, do not allow him to overhear you refer to him as an expatriate. He, an American living in Paris, prefers (according to a story in the New York Times last summer) to be thought of as a “forward-deployed American.” And when you go on March 28 to the free ASU-hosted screening and discussion of Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan, at Harkins Valley Art Theatre, remember not to ask him if Metropolitan (about a wealthy young boarding school student whose parents are divorced, whose father is married to a witch, and who is carrying on a romance mostly in correspondence with a shady woman named Serena — all things reportedly true about Stillman himself) is a Roman a clef, as he’s likely tired of that question. Ask instead when we might see more episodes of The Cosmopolitans, based on his delicious Amazon.com pilot film, or maybe ask him about the difference between studio-financed films (his The Last Days of Disco was an expensive critical success) and independent films (Metropolitan, released in 1990, was shot on a shoestring and earned Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay).
Or just sit there and enjoy the droll good humor of this talented author and filmmaker, who’s come all the way from France to share his work with us.
Whit Stillman will read from his book Love and Friendship at Changing Hands Phoenix on Monday, March 27, at 7 p.m. He will be at the Valley Art on March 28 at 7 p.m. for a screening of Metropolitan, followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.