Hecate and Her Dogs, by Paul Morand

by

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.

Purchased at Chapters.ca

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.

15 Responses to “Hecate and Her Dogs, by Paul Morand”

  1. Guy A. Savage Says:

    I’ve very interested in this one especially since Pushkin Press seems to have a high standard in the books they select for publication.

    I’m putting this one of my list. Thanks.

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  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I will be interested in your opinion of this one — you have read much more material that it can be compared to than I have. It is a perfect book for the Pushkin format; many of the 57 chapters are less than a page even in this small format.

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  3. Guy A. Savage Says:

    It’s on THE list but I don’t know when I’ll get to it. I’m not rigid about reading priorities; more often than not it’s either the mood I am in or I pick an antidote to the book just finished. Case in point, I just finished a mystery that was very dark and rather uglier than I expected. I’m now safe with W. Somerset Maugham for the next few days.

    I also just finished a book called A Funny Old Year by Alan Brownjohn and it may be something you’re interested in. Brownjohn was new to me (don’t know if I’m the last to know or if he’s deserves to be better known), but I hope I can talk a couple of people into trying the book.

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  4. William Rycroft Says:

    Great to read this and be reminded of the book after reading it in what felt like isolation last year( http://justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com/2009/10/but-i-was-beginning-to-need-that.html ). By coincidence I watched Lars Von Trier’s film Antichrist last night which contains a similar darkness, depravity and, most important of all, ambiguity. Have you seen it? It’s very troubling. I think I may need a week or so to figure out how I feel about it.

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  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: It is a very quick read when you do get to it. One of the reasons that I emphasized the language is that Morand creates a deceptive flow that draws you into a story that, when described, you would think would repel you. It is a major strength of the book. I haven’t heard of Brownjohn either — the publisher description of the book does provoke some interest.
    Will: I don’t know the film, sorry. And my apologies for forgetting that you had reviewed this book. For some reason, the Canadian release was a couple of months after the UK (strange, since it is exactly the same book, shipped here in cartons). I had advanced ordered and then sat waiting for it to arrive.

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  6. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: I’m bumping the book up on my list. Didn’t Morand write a book about Chanel too? If so, it will be interesting to see if it is included in the recent CHANEL MANIA ( I can think of three fairly recent films about her).

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  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: He did some interviews with Coco Chanel for a possible book shortly after the end of WWII but it never came to pass. Found the notes the year after her death and produced a transcription (Pushkin published an English version as The Allure of Chanel last spring). They are her words, not his — or at least, his “transcriptions” of her words. My wife is the Chanel expert in the house and has read it — says it was a worthwhile addition to her library, but there is a lot of Chanel in the library and this one doesn’t have pictures🙂 which are kind of useful for a fashion book for those of us who don’t know that world. I haven’t read it, so I don’t have an opinion (but given that it is only a two-hour investment, I’ll try it some day when I am in the mood). Yes, we have the films. They are very good. I’ll ask Sheila to post a comment on both book and films when she has time.

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  8. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    The Allure of Chanel is a lovely little book, but by no means a definitive work. Chanel was the woman who liberated women from the bondage of fashion (stays, corsets, etc) and was an early and authentic feminist. To understand her impact on womens’ lives. as well as her huge iinfleunce on fashion, a broader range of reading is required. The best book by far is “Chanel and her World” by Edmonde Charles-Roux, a biography, in addition to a well illustrated catalogue of her important fashion innovations.
    Coco Avant chanel (the latest film) is interesting, as are the early biopics – what is not to love about films set in Paris in the 20’s featuring fablous clothes and handsome men in smoking jackets?

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    • Trevor Says:

      Sheila, I bought my wife The Allure of Chanel for Christmas and she enjoyed it a lot. Now I see that the Charles-Roux is a great follow-up. I feel bad that when you visited you two didn’t chat about fashion! Hopefully we can fix that someday soon🙂.

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  9. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Thanks Sheila. I just watched Coco Chanel (with Shirley MacLaine). I thought I’d hate it. It was a bit annoying to watch as everyone spoke English with different accents–no subtitles (which I would have preferred). I found some photos of elderly Coco Chanel and actually MacLaine was dressed up to look strikingly similar. The film was mostly in flashbacks and the young Coco story ended after the death of Boy.

    There was one really good scene when Coco alters a dress for a large customer and you really get the idea that she modified the latest Paris fashion for her customer’s body type–a revolutionary idea for the times.
    Haven’t seen Coco Avant Chanel yet (or the Stravinsky one).

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  10. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Guy:
    I just watched that Shirley McLaine version as well, and enjoyed it, but was annoyed that it ended with the death of Boy – as though Chanel’s life ceased to have meaning at that moment. As she always did, when adversity struck (too many times in her life) she dusted herself off and moved on, propelled by her own incredible strength.

    She was amazing.

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  11. Guy A. Savage Says:

    My thoughts on Coco Chanel were about the same: There were a lot of years there not covered. Perhaps if the filmmaker wanted to make a sweep of Chanel’s life, a better format would have been a mini series or at least an extended television film. I got the sense (and I’m sure you did too) that she was JUST getting to be really interesting and then there’s the time warp thing.

    I don’t know that much about her, but since I planned to watch the Coco Before Chanel film (French film addict that I am), and the Stravinsky film (Mads Mikkelson is an interesting actor) when it appears, I decided that I might as well watch the MacLaine version too.

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  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Fascinating review Kevin. This is regarded as Morand’s masterwork I believe, the best thing he wrote. I have a copy at home and am really looking forward to it. I hadn’t seen that William had covered it so I’ll have to give that a read too.

    Venices had wonderful prose, despite an often questionable subject matter (in terms of politics mostly). Your review reminds me of that, the content may make at times for uncomfortable reading, but the prose is sublime.

    Moncrieff’s done him a great credit, the translation of Morand makes me want to check out Moncrieff’s own work, I suspect this will have the same effect.

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  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: You definitely know more about Morand than I do, but I found this to be a most worthwhile read and I agree that it is his prose (very, very well translated) that impressed me most. I’ll admit another thing that intrigues me — after reading some Malraux recently — is the way these French writers cross between fiction, politics (whatever they might be) and other kinds of writing. We don’t have a lot of English examples that include that public policy aspect in their life (I’m not counting Jeffrey Archer there). I guess Martin Amis would come as close as possible, but even then his public stuff tends to be more in writing than action.

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  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The French have a concept of the public intellectual, which in the UK at least would be something viewed with great suspicion and possibly some hostility. Alain de Botton seems the closest, Gore Vidal in the US perhaps?

    But yes, I think in the Anglo-Saxon cultures there’s not much tradition of inviting the intellectual into public discourse, they tend to be separate spheres, for better and worse.

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