I really became immersed in The Sixties, the last volume of Edmund Wilson’s journals. There was a lot of interesting stuff about our family, conversations with my grandmother, who was his first cousin, and her brother Sandy who was his classmate at Princeton along with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Wilson was the first to recognize and promote many important writers like Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Faulkner, and many others. And he himself was a playwright and author with important books on a wide variety of subjects from the Dead Sea scrolls to the Iroquois to the federal income tax.
But I got caught up in his human side — a somewhat grouchy old guy who is completely honest about the decrepitudes of old age. He only has one or two teeth left and he sometimes has accidents from a loss of sphincter control — talk about honest. But he maintains, generally, a pretty upbeat attitude.
For one thing he doesn’t live in the past; he always wants to check out the latest thing. He becomes close friends with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who are the current comedy sensation. He loves the Beatles, He denounces the Vietnam War from the start. He maintains his interest in magic and puppetry and on top of it all, he’s learning Hungarian.
All in all he has a pretty enjoyable life with his beautiful and devoted wife Elena. I became sad as I neared the end of the book because of course it meant he was going to die. I didn’t expect the thrilling conclusion.
I have to apologize for the language in advance.
Elena hates Wilson’s ancestral stone house in Talcottville, N.Y., so he goes there every year alone. In the last years of his life he spends a lot of time drinking with the wife of his dentist and they do some seriously heavy petting. He’s a little concerned because he doesn’t want to lose the only dentist who can make a proper plate for him, but the wife says the husband fools around, too, and in fact he made passes at Wilson’s daughter.
But then Wilson is in New York and runs into an old flame, Anais Nin. She asks if she can write about him in her memoirs and says she found him “aggressive, arrogant, authoritative, like a burgher in a Dutch painting, and with shoes that were too big.”
They reminisce about old times and then he says someone name “O” drove him back to his club and jumped his bones. I’m thinking it had to be Anais and he just used the letter because she was married.
She goes down on him but he doesn’t feel much, so they have intercourse. Afterward, while she’s putting on mascara, she says, “People will know that I’ve just been f*cked. I look like a woman who’s been f*cked.”
“Not enough,” Wilson replies. “It’s strange,” he goes on, “that now that I’m 75 and can only get an erection at half mast, two such attractive women as she and Z should offer themselves to me.”
“O said, ‘It’s your brain,’ but couldn’t help giggling, as I did.”