Magazine article The Spectator

The Dry Martini Tone

Magazine article The Spectator

The Dry Martini Tone

Article excerpt

The dry martini tone

Rupert Christiansen THE HIGHER JAZZ by Edmund Wilson

University of Iowa Press, 16.95, pp. 240

In his cool, sharp,and tensely erotic collection of short stories, Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), Edmund Wilson produced what John Updike has described as a work of exemplary ,merit, the most intelligent attempt by an American male to dramatise sexual behaviour as a function of, rather than a suspension of, personality.

A significant tribute from someone with strong claims to the same accolade, and one which has been widely endorsed Wilson himself described Memoirs as `my favourite among my books'.

So why does fiction (aside from the callow I Thought of Daisy, published in 1928) otherwise play so small a part in Wilson's amazingly fecund and various half-century of literary achievement? Several answers suggest themselves. One is that he was inhibited by the cautionary tale of Scott Fitzgerald, his more naturally gifted semblable and friend, whose chronicles of their youth overshadowed NV@ilson's own. Another is that his historical and critical instincts were so much stronger than his faculty of poetic imagination, and he showed no sign of being able to make up material which wasn't drawn directly from life.

But the more immediate explanation is that he was demoralised by the failure of his over-ambitious plan to write a largescale novel focused on his own experience of the ideological wars of the 1930s. Sketches for The Story of Three Wishes, as he titled it, survive tantalisingly, but his motivation to realise them could not survive either external financial pressures or the outbreak of the second world war, when his interest in the subject became subsumed by the epic survey of socialism published in 1940 as To the Finland Station. Of the fragments that remain, the most substantial is The Higher Jazz, an unfinished, unsatisfactory but fascinating portrait of fashionable Manhattan in the late 1920s, which was Wilson's attempt to salvage at least one of his plot-lines for a novella. Until the appearance of this admirable edition, it has lain neglected, in handwritten manuscript, among Wilson's papers in the Beinecke Library and now that it has reached print it provides an engaging appendix to his voluminous oeuvre.

Very little is offered in the way of plot: the book is largely a series of loosely connected episodes, narrated by Fritz Dietrich, a sceptical, ambitious thirtysomething with a Yale education, a dull job in business and a yen for the new music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Newly but not very happily married, he moves in the heavy-drinking, fastliving circles of the younger East Coast intelligentsia and feels a Spenglerian sense of doom hanging over his era. …

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