Bringing Proust to the Village

By Christiansen, Rupert | The Spectator, April 21, 2001 | Go to article overview

Bringing Proust to the Village


Christiansen, Rupert, The Spectator


I THOUGHT OF DAISY by Edmund Wilson University Press of Iowa, L10.95, pp. 278, ISBN 0877-457697

We all know that novelists draw on their own experience, and that the greater the novelist the more magnificent and mysterious the imaginative transformation that occurs - Tolstoy's splintering of his self into the major characters of War and Peace being perhaps the supreme example of such alchemy. The American critic and historian Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) provides a fascinating case of someone who never quite learnt the trick: some literary fairy sprinkled his cradle with all the requisite gifts - a lucid, supple prose, a nose for character, an ear for dialogue, an eye for scenery - but forgot to whisper that fiction is more than a matter of lightly salting and scrambling your autobiography.

I Thought of Daisy is a novella just predating the collapse of the Twenties frolic in the Wall Street crash. It was written in 1927-8, and published in 1929; Wilson revised it in 1967, and it is this latter version, cooler and smoother in style, that has been reissued in this attractive paperback, with an introduction by Neale Reinitz. Given that a university press is responsible, a few footnotes would not have come amiss - how many of today's readers have heard of Adelina Patti or understand the ins and outs of Prohibition?

The plot is easily summarised: the unnamed narrator, a sympathetic fellow of a cultured, melancholy, alienated turn of mind, returns to New York from a long stay in post-war France and falls in with Greenwich Village literary bohemia. He is sceptical of its leftist, modernist outlook, and feels that there must be more to life than the values it upholds. His affair with the intense and gifted poet Rita peters out, ruined by an excess of cerebration on both sides. The narrator returns to visit his mentor from university days, Professor Grosbeake, and through him rediscovers the moral centre he has been missing. Towards the end of the tale, he consummates a relationship with the touchingly ingenuous chorus girl of the book's title: `frank, vigorous, vulgar, human', Daisy embodies all the red-blooded, all-American simple human warmth and sensuality that Greenwich Village otherwise lacks, and the story ends with the narrator's obscure epiphany of a state of mind in which `we no longer dread the fool nor hate the one who wounds us, but can sleep in our beds in peace and in peace face the waking world'. …

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