Randall Jarrell's only novel features a Bryn Mawr-like women's college in which whispers and verbal shivs and sycophancy rule. "Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Benton had been endowed with one to begin with, and had smiled and sweated and spoken for the other." The institution's star-struck head is a Clintonesque young man particularly adept at raising money in Hollywood and who "wanted you to like him, he wanted everybody to like him--it was part of being a president; but talking all the time was too." Unfortunately, his new creative-writing hire only likes him the first time they meet. Thenceforth, she not only stirs things up but skewers them as well.
When the book was first published in 1954, most considered Gertrude Johnson to be a none-too-veiled portrait of Mary McCarthy. (The Partisan Review, for instance, failed to run a planned excerpt for fear of litigation.) "As a writer Gertrude had one fault more radical than all the rest: she did not know--or rather, did not believe--what it was like to be a human being. She was one, intermittently, but while she wasn't she did not remember what it had felt like to be one; and her worse self distrusted her better too thoroughly to give it much share, ever, in what she said or wrote." Pictures from an Institution is a superb series of poisonous portraits, set pieces, and endlessly quotable put-downs. One reads it less for plot than sharp satire, of which Jarrell is the master.
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“[An] exquisite, unerring comedy of manners. . . . [P]erhaps the funniest book I have ever read.”
(Cathleen Schine New York Review of Books
"Mr. Jarrell is on the side of the angels. His is a divine meanness, and he exposes his female writing devil punitively, matching her stream of poinsonous wisecracks with a series of coruscating cracks of his own worthy of Dorothy Parker at her most hilarious and deadly."
(Francis Steegmuller, New York Times Book Review
"One of the wittiest books of modern times."
(Orville Prescott New York Times