As a professional party organizer, I often turn to the pages of literature for inspiration. Fictional parties can not only be entertaining but also instructive, blending the best elements of reality and fantasy, coming both from the real-life experience of the society of the period and also from the author's imagination. How people socialized in other ages, in other cultures, can tell us a lot about how human society has changed or, in many cases, how it hasn't. In Trimalchio's dinner party from the "Satyricon" (written around 65 AD) the guests discuss sport and the weather and grumble about food prices and how young people have no respect for their elders. Plus ça change...
Parties in literature can be an opportunity for a spot of satire, often poking fun at the social aspirations of nouveau riche hosts (Trimalchio's dinner party again or Mrs. Leo Hunter's costume breakfast from Dickens's "The Pickwick Papers") or the gaucheness of the guests (Mr. Pooter in the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith's "Diary of a Nobody"). Parties can also be pivotal points in the dramatic structure of a literary work, providing a suitable setting for a meeting, an affair, a fight or even a murder. The characters in Proust's "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu" traipse round a succession of parties over the seven volumes of the novel. Quite a few books have been written about a single party: Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" or James Joyces's "Finnegans Wake."
In many ways literary parties are the perfect social occasion: you can enjoy them to the full without ever having to make small talk with bores, fork out for an expensive taxi home or wake up with a hangover.
Here is a selection of my favorites. Some of these parties I have recreated at my own events (I put on Satan's Rout at a Halloween event for 2,500 revellers in London last year). Others I'd like to have attended. Most I'd have like to have written.
1. TRIMALCHIO’S DINNER PARTY from the "Satyricon" (attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter)
Possibly the most famous and most extravagant dinner party in literary history. The ebullient host is Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio, a former Roman slave turned shipping magnate, keen to advertise his new wealth. His guests have to endure twelve punishing courses, including a whole wild boar accompanied by suckling piglets, a hog stuffed with sausages and a boiled calf wearing a helmet. This fare is served by singing, dancing slaves, who recite their master’s hack poetry. Even the carving of the meat is choreographed in strict time to music. In a mawkish finale the host stages an elaborate dress rehearsal of his own funeral, complete with musicians and weeping mourners. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original title for "The Great Gatsby" was “Trimalchio of West Egg.”
2. JAY GATSBY’S SATURDAY NIGHT PARTIES from "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Long Island in the summer of 1922 plays host to a series of lavish parties thrown by the mysterious Jay Gatsby. The guest list is drawn from the ranks of Broadway stars, jazz musicians and film producers who are entertained by a full orchestra. The guests’ conversation revolves around speculation on the source of their reclusive host’s wealth, with theories abounding as to whether he is a spy or a bootlegger. But there is a hidden agenda behind Gatsby’s hospitality: he hopes that one day his lost love - Daisy Buchanan - will turn up to one of his dos. Once the parties come to an end Gatsby’s guests prove to be fickle, with only two of them bothering to show up to his funeral.
3. THE WARRIOR FEAST from the "Prose Edda" by Snorri Sturluson
For the dead Viking warriors dwelling in Valhalla (“The Hall of the Slain”) life is a little samey. They spend their days fighting out in the fields and their evenings partaking in a magnificent banquet. The food is supplied by a magical boar, roasted each night and reborn whole the next morning, and the drink comes courtesy of an endless supply of mead flowing from the udders of a goat standing on the roof of the building. The waitresses are Valkyrie handmaidens. But even good things have to come to an end. The party is destined to go on until Ragnarök -- the ultimate battle between good and evil -- where the bad news is that, according to the prophecies, all the warriors will be slain (again).
4. THE DUCHESS OF RICHMOND’S BALL from "Vanity Fair" by Thackeray and Childe Harold by Lord Byron
This was a real-life party, hosted by the Duchess of Richmond who, like many British aristocrats of the time, was living in self-imposed exile in Brussels for financial reasons. Its claim to fame relies on a total historical fluke. The ball was held on June 15th 1815 for the officers of the Duke of Wellington’s army. Napoleon invaded Belgium that same evening. Festivities came to a premature end as the martial trumpets sounded. Lady Caroline Lamb famously said of the party: “There was never such a ball. All the young men that appeared there shot dead a few days later.” In reality only 11 of the Duchess’s guests were among the fatalities in the ensuing battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo.
5. SATAN’S ROUT from "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov
Theater of the Dolls
The Devil, disguised as itinerant conjuror Professor Woland, arrives in 1930s Moscow with his retinue to host his annual Walpurgis Night celebration -- the Springtime Ball of the Full Moon. He requisitions a modest apartment on Sadovaya Street in which he manages to magically incorporate a tropical forest populated by parrots and butterflies, two grand ballrooms lit by will-o’-the-wisps, where a symphony orchestra and an ape jazz band play, and three ornamental fountains spurting champagne. The guest list consists of the damned souls of notorious murderers, traitors, psychopaths and heretics, including Caligula, Messalina and Ivan the Terrible’s chief of police. A raucous time is had by all until the guests turn to powder at the first cock crow.
6. THE BLACK AND WHITE BALL from "Underworld" by Don DeLillo
Another real life party, hosted by Truman Capote. The Black and White Ball took place at the Plaza hotel in New York in November 1966. The 500 guests were drawn from the host’s friends from the worlds of showbiz, politics and finance, ranging from Frank Sinatra to J Edgar Hoover. It was a masked ball, but guests’ mask size tended to be in inverse proportion to how big a star they were. "Have you ever seen so many people gathered in one place in order to be rich, powerful and disgusting together?" DeLillo enquired in his fictionalized account of the party. Nevertheless, Capote enjoyed his new career as a party host so much that, despite being only 42, he never bothered to write another novel.
7. QUEEN ALICE’S FEAST from "Through the Looking Glass" and "What Alice Found There" by Lewis Carroll
Alice Pleasance Liddell (aged 7 ½) steps through her drawing room mirror one November afternoon to discover she has become a pawn in a giant game of chess. Advancing to the eighth square she finds herself promoted to Queen and a ball is duly thrown for her. However, she has difficulty persuading the doorman to let her in and when she does gain admittance she finds she doesn’t know any of the guests (who are mainly animals and flowers) apart from the Red and White Queens, who bully and patronize her in their usual heartless manner. The party ends in one of the most surreal denouements in a novel not known to have been written under the influence of mind-altering drugs.
8. THE WONDERLAND BANQUET from "Lights Out in Wonderland" by DBC Pierre
Gabriel Brockwell, “microwave chef” and anti-capitalist pamphleteer, finds himself -- for frankly rather absurd reasons -- obliged to organize the ultimate party. Enlisting the aid of restaurateur, Didier “Le Basque” Laxalt, he commandeers the disused Tempelhof airport in Berlin as a venue. The guests are international bankers who arrive in private jets (only two of them are not billionaires) and pay at the door in diamonds. The menu (in homage to Trimalchio) consists of 12 courses, with several of the chef’s signature dishes featuring endangered species, including Panda paw, Koala leg and Galapagos Island tortoise. Nubile young girls and boys are laid on for the guests’ postprandial pleasure with opium and cocaine on the side and the banquet soon degenerates into an orgy.
9. THE SOCIETY OF ARTISTS’ FANCY DRESS BALL from "Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse.
Middle-aged loner, depressive and self-styled Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, is not exactly the person you’d expect to find at a cool arts party in 1920s Zurich, but under the influence of his new best friend, prostitute Hermine, he finds himself a guest at a lavish fancy dress ball. Harry is too square to wear anything but black tie, but his beloved woos him by dressing up as a man and then a black Pierrette, and they end up dancing the night away to a jazz band in a basement themed on Hell. However it’s at the after party at the Magic Theatre that things shift unexpectedly into the realms of psychedelia, which might explain the novel’s subsequent popularity with the American 60s counterculture movement.
10. BILBO BAGGINS'S ELEVENTY FIRST BIRTHDAY PARTY from "The Fellowship of the Ring" by JRR Tolkien
The notable eccentric, Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, throws the most lavish party in the history of Hobbiton to celebrate his 111st birthday. To avoid accusations of favoritism he invites everyone in the Shire - an expensive obligation as, according to hobbit tradition, those celebrating their birthday are expected to give presents to their guests, rather than the other way round. The hobbits eat and drink solidly all day long and are then treated to an exotic firework display by Gandalf the wizard at half past six. The host himself vanishes later in the evening in a flash of magic, but the guests eat on undeterred. The most over-refreshed of them are removed at midnight in wheelbarrows.