Translated by Christopher Moncrieff
It is a masterpiece because of the way the language — a polished, naive and neo-classical language, almost dusty with chalk — adapts to some of the most disturbing descriptions of sex in the history of literature, making the author’s coevals and fellow-nationals Genet, Jouhandau, Cocteau and Gide look like writers for school girls. It is a masterpiece because of the constant omissions, the candid and malicious admissions, the silences — Tangier, for example, the city where the story is played out (and the only one where it could have been played out), is never named.
That description of Hecate and Her Dogs comes from Umberto Pasti’s afterword in the new Pushkin Press edition of Paul Morand’s novella. I make no apologies for borrowing the excerpt — I couldn’t begin to approach a summary that would be as good. Depravity, brutishness and sex (cold, not erotic) are what the book is about; yet it is all done in prose that is as delicate as you will find anywhere.
Paul Morand was born in Paris in 1888 and mixed with signifcant names — Proust, Malraux and the legion of American writers who called Paris home in the early twentieth centry. He was a literary star but his career suffered a severe setback during the war when he collaborated with the Vichy regime as an ambassador. I’ll go no further into his history — Max at Pechorin's Journal provides an excellent extended version in his review of Morand’s Venices.
Morand wrote Hecate and Her Dogs in 1954 when he was still under that shame (his reputation would eventually be restored). It is hard not to conclude that the bleakness of the novella and his exploration of evil is at least in part a reflection of his own circumstances.
The unnamed narrator is introduced while on unscheduled stopover in (unnamed) Tangier, some 30 years after he was posted there by the bank he worked for in the 1920s. The book is a first-person memory novella and he recalls his earlier arrival:
Methodical, accustomed to plough my life in straight furrows, I had sketched out a plan of action, with dates, before I left Paris — I would disembark on 3rd November; I’d give myself until 16th December to find a house: then three months to furnish and arrange it to my taste, one month to train up my Arab servants, and all winter to instil a sound routine in the staff working in my office.
Spring should find me ready. I would then assign myself the job of becoming acquainted with a sector (the word came in with Foch) with which I’d had little contact: that of pleasure, all the pleasures — lawful pleasures, it goes without saying. To this end, I should need a partner; I meant a mistress.
In fact, the world unfolds more quickly than the narrator’s plan. By January 1, all is done, except for finding the mistress. Shortly thereafter at a reception he meets Cotilde, the wife of a French military man who is on permanent assignment in Vladivostock and who never returns home:
In that kingdom of the vacuous, she seemed at first just another blank; everything about her lacked lustre. She wore a beige suit — simple, perfect. Her movements, so contained, barely initiated, that slightly broken voice, the uncertain colour of her eyes, the delicacy of her physique, all gave her an air of orphaned vulnerability. Women thought her ravishingly beautiful because her looks happened to conform to the current fashion: turned-up nose, eyes like a cat’s, head too small for her body, round shoulders, no hips, flat chest, long Merovingian feet, slender arms which did not spoil the line of her jackets, slim thighs which enhanced the hang of her skirts. Few men would have dared think that, made as she was, she was actually rather ugly; but bodily grace does far more for ugly looks than it does for beauty, and Clotilde was grace personified.
Those quotes are rather long (sorry about that) but it is the only way to convey Morand’s prose. Like Proust (only a half century later), his sentences both build and cascade; detail is piled upon detail with the detonation of the real subject saved for the end of each observation. And, it should be noted, at 143 small Pushkin pages, there are thousands fewer thank taking on In Search of Lost Time, although it is impossible not to make comparisons.
We know from the start that the time in Tangier was not ultimately a happy one for the narrator, but the first third of the book is focused on the affair and sex. The depravity and brutishness arrive simply:
Our courteous manners did not prevent my mistress from loving me. In any couple, there is invariably one of the two who loves more than the other or, at least, who is the first to love; that one was she. I can say this today without vanity, because it was so.
And because subsequently it was the other way round.
That about-turn was my tragedy.
From this point on, the novella is steeped in ambiguity and uncertainty. Cotilde is an active sleeper; she may (or may not) be masturbating. She talks in her agitated sleep; the words may (or may not) reflect depraved dreams. Or they may (or may not) be memories of an evil and depraved reality.
The narrator becomes obsessed with where these nighttime scenes come from — and the reader soon realizes that his observations can no longer be trusted in any form. Whether Cotilde’s descent into evil is real or not, he chooses to mirror it. Morand’s prose does not change; it remains formal and without emotion. The world he describes becomes ever more horrid.
Classics and mythology are not my strong suit, so I won’t try to link the Hecate myth (she’s three-headed, eats dogs and, yes, Cotilde is Hecate) to the novella. Those who know the myth well will probably find an entire layer of meaning that passed me by. For me, the only disadvantage of the Pushkin volume is that the excellent William Blake painting of Hecate on the cover is only a little larger than a postage stamp.
I agree with Pasti’s conclusion that in many ways Hecate and Her Dogs is a masterpiece — certainly as a short work, there are few that can compare, although I was periodically reminded of Theophile Gautier’s The Jinx ( reviewed here ) in the way that both authors capture “dread”. The novella is about evil and if that makes you uncomfortable, you won’t agree with my assessment. Equally, if you don’t like novels based on ambiguity and unreliable narration, this won’t fit your tastes. But if those caveats don’t trouble you, Morand has produced an exceptional work.