Before all else, the cover for the NYRB Classics edition of Edmund Wilson’s linked stories, Memoirs of Hecate County, is simply gorgeous. So lush, so decadent, so audacious in the indulgence of satin and rosettes and blondeness and repose and that disconcertingly rousing feeling of having caught a beautiful woman in a luxuriant, half-dreaming stretch on the bed. Exactly like the stories in these deliciously fat book.
So. Between the pages, then. Five stories, one novella — a range of subjects bound by one unnamed narrator. We are in Hecate County, with its “gardened and arranged estates,” and calculated suburbia. Its underlying menace! This is Wilson’s vision, this is the Hecate County that impresses itself upon you, one you can never abandon. Our narrator will try to. But, even in the leaving — in the escaping — he is haunted: “I had packed my bad nights with my baggage.”
There is a story [“The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles”] about a duck disguised as a man, a twist that seriously crept up on me, and left me blinking several times into the page — nothing like a shape-shifting mallard to wake you up. There is a story [“Ellen Terhune”] about a time-travelling house [not unlike “Split-Second,” a short story of Daphne du Maurier] — where our narrator finds himself laden with a mission to what, exactly? exact revenge? right an imagined wrong? imagined? These first two stories, rather fabulistic [and not just because of the ducks] — and, as with the rest of the stories, full of characters made furious by their pains and disappointments, their dashed ambitions, even their loves.
One story [“Glimpses of Wilbur Flick”] deals with, basically, one’s ambition juxtaposed with the limitations of your lot in life. It’s about “real heritage,” which is, to one characters, “a vague bourgeois feeling that he ought to be busy about something.” Har.
Another story [“Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn at Home”] has pages and pages of French. Unintelligible-to-me, no-translation-offered French. Okay then.
And another story [“The Mullhollands and Their Damned Soul”] focuses more intensely on the business of literature, the narrative and the tone reading like a love child of The Great Gatsby and Gilbert Sorrentino. A commentary on art and letters — especially all the dirty money that makes it run. An industry’s machinations and gimmicks — rigged book reviewers, wily publishers, bought reading groups, novels written in an assembly line manner, hokiest of hokey marketing — all to earn more and more money, even at the risk of sacrificing the integrity of the art.
“The trouble is . . . that in literature, just as in anything else that’s serious, nothing’s really any good at all that isn’t based on the recognition of the very best that’s ever been possible. If you begin recommending second-rate — let alone the third-rate and the fourth-rate, as the Readers’ Circle sometimes does — you’re not gradually educating the people, as Warren claims he is, so that they’ll be able to appreciate something better: you’re simply letting down the standards and leaving people completely at sea. The most immoral and disgraceful thing that anybody can do in the arts is knowingly to feed back to the public its own ignorance and cheap tastes.”
All the stories fall under Louis Menand’s description, in his introduction: “. . . wrapped in a cloud of cynicism and disgust . . . the vision of a writer who believed that capitalism was the engine of terminal moral decay.” In Wilson’s stories, “moral decay” is a rich, exuberant creature.
More so with the epicenter of the book, the 200-page novella, “The Princess with the Golden Hair,” which is, as Menand describes, “a story of erotic attraction — two types of erotic attraction, in fact, attraction to the naked and attraction to the adorned.” Erotic, dangerous.
It is, essentially, a love story albeit skewed: our narrator fancies himself in love with two very different women, Imogen and Anna. Imogen is the theatrical society matron, at times oppressively pretentious with her fondness for costumes, her “affectation[s] of grandeur.” The beautiful Imogen is our narrator’s Ideal, “the splendid embodiment of a type that I had not supposed I cared for but for which an undeveloped desire must always have been buried in the subsoil of my mind. The type of the American beauty.”
Anna, on the other hand: all natural. Our narrator’s first sight of her: “after my dazzlement with Imogen, rather dry-skinned and pale-eyed and plain.” Gone is the breathless romanticism, the courtliness for Anna of no affectations at all, for Anna from gritty New York, a dancer, an escort.
Our narrator and Imogen construct a dreamworld, imagine themselves husband and wife, create alternate lives:
And now, finally, I had known through Imogen the possibility of the perfect partner, of the two indivisible people who spend their whole lives as one, admiring and understanding and caring for one another, longing for one another in absence with an ache that is also exultant in its sureness of eventual reunion, and coming together in the brimming fulfillment of tenderness, of fondness, of passion, of the unique need for one another — I had known, in fact, the possibility of all that had once meant by “love.”
Our narrator and Anna, so carnal, so honest, so simple. Anna, “passionate for so frail and quiet a girl — blind kisses, nothing but those meeting mouths.” Our narrator keeps a diary to record his affair with her, and in the entry for the third of April:
——ing in the afternoon, with the shades down and all her clothes on — different from anything else — rank satisfactory smell like the salt marine tides we come out of — appetite, on these hurried occasions, increased by dress, stockings, and shoes, which would be dampening and quite out of key at a regular meeting at night.
Imogen is a conquest, Anna is a willing participant to what love affair our narrator has to offer. Each is everything the other isn’t. [Our narrator even goes so far to note how small Anna’s breasts are compared to those the corsets of Imogen struggle to contain.]
It is inevitable — perhaps, mandatory — for our narrator to compare and contrast the two. After all, he see-saws between them, with barely a break in between. When with Anna, Imogen’s pristine image tarnishes.
I felt that [Anna] really knew me, as Imogen had never done. For Imogen I had simply been a character in an imaginary romance she had lived, the man with whom she had dreamed of eloping ever since she had married Ralph; but for Anna I was an actual person whose behavior and personality she was able to observe and gauge as she did those of other people.
But, then, when with Imogen, Anna is coarse — Imogen once again becomes everything: “. . . Imogen was upon me again like some creature of enchantment in a folk tale that appears to the hero three times.”
[Midway into the novella, my hysterical marginalia: Imogen and Anna, archetypes, yes? Discuss! Not right now, I can’t, no, not really.]
The reader begins to suspect: Imogen is our narrator’s American beauty, his Ideal, because, to put it bluntly, she does not put out. Coquettish, evasive, eager to put up the illusion of forbidden object? And so, sex with her becomes a fixation for our narrator. Imagining sex with her. Planning how to have sex with her. Anticipating the glorious aftermath of sex with her.
She becomes Object [excuse the snooty capitalization]. Or, well, her sex does. When Imogen finally — there is no other word for it — relents, our narrator spends one very long exultant paragraph on the wonders of his Imogen’s body. Of his Imogen’s vagina. Yes. A sample:
. . . what struck and astonished me most was that not only were her thighs perfect columns but what all that lay between them was impressively beautiful, too, with an ideal aesthetic value that I had never found there before.
Okay. It all gets rather graphic, detailed, and, well, erm, lubricious. Well. There. [Let me let out a horrified giggle for a second: Oh my god, an ideal vagina!]
The rest of the novella’s as rich. As decadent. So much physical beauty, so much cruelty of the soul — all beautiful language. More so when our narrator — and, of course, Edmund Wilson — focuses on the most passionate epiphanies, the disintegrations of then-absolute truths. Just so very glorious.
Glorious, Memoirs of Hecate County. Lush, cynical, nostalgic, occasionally coarse, sometimes baffling, constantly glorious book. Gorgeous, decadent, luxuriant, audacious in its indulgence and insistence on beauty, never mind the menace, despite the menace, because of the menace.