BOOKS; God's-eye view

EDMUND WILSON by Jeffrey Meyers, Constable pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
"IF you can show me 20 books written approximately 20 years back that have as much guts and life now, I'll eat them between slices of Edmund Wilson's head." Raymond Chandler's defence of The Maltese Falcon says as much about Wilson's reputation as it does about Dashiel Hammett's. Whose cranium could serve as the basis for those hypothetical sandwiches today? The "man of letters" with the clout to make and break reputations is an extinct species. Then there was Cyril Connolly; now there's Clive James.

The job description was outlined by Wilson himself in his essay on George Saintsbury: "The principal thrill of reading Saintsbury is the sensation of looking down on literature as with the comparative eye of God." Wilson presumably aimed at a similar status, and to a large extent he succeeded in imposing his authority on the American scene during his lifetime. But his significance is by no means self-evident today. The most fruitful approach would therefore seem to be a wide-ranging study such as Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey, using the central figure to illuminate the vanished cultural and social era in which he was an important player. Instead we get an honest, dogged and defensive account of Wilson as solus rex, down to the last scrupulously detailed female foot, bottle of gin and preferred sexual technique.

Wilson's own style - lucid, formal, sensual, filled with conviction and energy - remains his strongest attraction. This tireless and extremely successful womaniser supposedly "talked" women into bed, and his intellectual seduction proceeded along analogous paths. He therefore deserves a biographer with some verbal flair himself, in which regard Jeffrey Meyers failed to get to first base with this reader. Indeed, there is little to suggest that this book has been written by a human being at all - as opposed, say, to a data-collation and text-generation program. Points are "gone through" with the brisk efficiency of a presenter checking off items on a list; paragraph after paragraph begins either "Wilson" or "When/ Though Wilson ... "; each chapter honours the sturdy rule-of-thumb for undergraduate essays: tell them what you're going to do, do it, then tell them what you've done.

The one consistently human element in the book is also the most damaging: its defensiveness. Here is Meyers, for example, on Wilson's alcohol intake: "Wilson drank because everyone drank in the Twenties ... When the Twenties had vanished, Wilson took alcohol to help him recapture the enchanted world of his youth." Or this, on his son by Mary McCarthy: "Brought up by and sympathetic to Mary, Reuel may have resented Wilson's attempts to persuade his mother to abort him." Faced with a defence like this, the prosecution can safely rest.

But the humour dies once we move on to the notorious divorce from Reuel's mother. There is no doubt that this was a marriage made in hell, in which the sum of unhappiness was greater than any possible construction of the motives and actions of the two partners. In her legal deposition, McCarthy accused Wilson of physically attacking her; he denied it, and Meyers makes every effort to substantiate this denial by denigrating McCarthy's character and casting doubt on her veracity and sanity. Yet, in his honest researcher mode, Meyers quotes Anais Nin (with whom Wilson had an affair during his marriage to McCarthy) as saying that Wilson was "fervent, irrational, lustful, violent" and that he "terrified" her. Coming from someone as experienced and fearless as Nin, this might appear to be damning testimony, but Meyers dismisses it as a "grossly distorted account of their personal relations", written "after extracting whatever benefits she could from Wilson".

The account of Wilson's literary relationships exhibits the same disingenuous bias. There are few more unpleasant episodes here than Wilson's persistent sneering at "F Scotch Fitzgerald", the ill-read freshman colleague who managed to achieve something which would elude Wilson all his life. The way in which Wilson took over Fitzgerald's career after the latter's death, which Meyers praises as selfless and belated recompense, is of a piece with Wilson's fantasies of omnipotence. Once his friend was safely dead, Wilson could accept and control him with perfect, "selfless" impunity.

What happened if the junior partner in the relationship was not considerate enough to die is made clear by the rift with Nabokov over Eugene Onegin. Wilson had generously supported Nabokov when the latter was unknown in the States, but following the success of Lolita, which he loathed, Wilson was driven to one of the most ridiculous attacks in the history of literary feuding. This is also the occasion of a (fortunately rare) outburst of style on Meyers's part: "Wilson was right - and Nabokov wrong - when Pushkin came to shovekin: Pushkin did know English." It's nice to know that someone does, but none the less this was a mean-minded attempt by a creatively- challenged autodidact to colonise the personal cultural history of an expatriate genius who had made the mistake of no longer being beholden to him.

At the end of this long, painstakingly thorough book, one is left with the feeling that Meyers, in his well-meaning attempts to place Wilson's behaviour in a better light than is really possible, has done his client more harm than good. Despite the heroic drunkenness, exuberant promiscuity and plethora of significant names, the Edmund Wilson that ultimately emerges is the one thing he can surely never have been: dull.