December 26, 2015
Before tuberculosis claimed her at a young age, ROMER WILSON (Florence Roma Muir Wilson, 1891–1930) wrote a series of curious, occasionally visionary novels about violently sensitive post-adolescents suffering the effects of too much education and rumination, not to mention privilege (or its principled renunciation). On one hand a funny study of wealthy solipsists, If All These Young Men (1919) also occurs during a world war that begins as WWI is ending (or as if it had never happened), with bombs falling on England and guns thundering in the countryside: echo of one war, foreshadow of the next. Tracking a Weimar student’s descent into madness and murder, Dragon’s Blood (1926) finds the roots of German fascism in a farrago of frustrated Romanticism, deism, and homoeroticism. Latterday Symphony (1928), full of characters who talk like modernist dandies, is constructed of exquisitely difficult sentences (“Miss Fleming resumed her conversational journey through the anatomy of melancholy like a local train drawing out of a station”) and features one of the few fully drawn black characters ever created by a white author.
Wilson’s protagonists share a dogged desire to find themselves in a cosmic order they are compelled to constantly recreate through systems of belief or flights of fancy. Drifting between real and imagined worlds, “alive with goblins of introspection,” they tend to humorlessness; but their author compensates with an ironic distance that renders their pathos witty and touching, as in early Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach movies. The measure of mystery in this work is the question of whether Wilson is simply twitting the conventions of a social set, per the novel of manners, or truly forecasting “the death of society” (title of her Hawthornden Prize-winning 1921 novel). The evidence is contradictory.
READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).