Saturday, 8 December 2012

McCarthy Theatre Critic - still resonating after all these years

Sales Figures

A skillful new Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman cannot overcome the flaws of this dated and stilted play


Left to right: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Finn Wittrock, Andrew Garfield, Elizabeth Morton, Stephanie Janssen in Death of a Salesman, directed by Mike Nichols. (Brigitte Lacombe)
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Was I a “glutton for punishment”? That’s what Mary McCarthy called theatergoers who subjected themselves to plays she called “sadistic fantasies in realistic disguise.”
Mary McCarthy hated Death of a Salesman. I did, too.
So, I thought about her as I watched Mike Nichols’revival of the 1949 iconic drama, currently at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, that critics have long called Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, his finest play, indeed, an American tragedy.
There was much to praise in Nichols’ rendition of Death. But despite his brilliant direction of a gifted cast, superb sets, lighting, and music, my aversion to this play could not be denied: Salesman is awful.
To begin with, Death of a Salesman is melodrama, not tragedy, as the old chestnut about the play asserts. Two men are discussing the play after a performance. “Such a pity!” one says to the other. “He had the wrong territory.”
The dialogue of this ostensibly timeless American saga is dated, clunky, and artificial. Consider the play’s emotional climax—long-suffering wife Linda’s impassioned defense of her husband, who has descended into suicidal dementia even before being fired. “Attention must be paid,” she says. And in case you missed it the first time, Linda repeats her shrill command: “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
Who talks like that? No one. Who ever did?
The words ring false because they are false. And this artificiality underlies the play’s essential flaw—its absence of real characters. Willy Loman is, as Linda needs to remind the audience, a person. Or make that a Person. For as McCarthy wrote in Sights and Spectacles, 1937-1956, Willy is a “capitalized Human Being without being anyone.”
Although Willy seems to be Jewish, judging by his speech cadences, he could not be Jewish because as McCarthy observed, he had to be “America.” “Wholly conceptualized,” she wrote, the play is filled with stereotypes, with “cut-out figures.” Willy Loman is not a man, but a “type.”
Miller’s own stage directions make that clear. Willy’s mistress is called the Woman. Willy is called the Salesman.
Miller’s ambitions were obviously huge. By erasing Loman’s specificity as a human being—as a Jewish salesman—Miller undoubtedly thought he was creating something grander and more enduring. But as the Greeks surely should have taught us, tragedy is universal only when those experiencing it are seen as flawed individuals, not merely stand-ins for the “common man.” Miller’s desire to erase Loman’s specificity to give him universal resonance created an abstraction, or as the (Jewish) joke suggests, a salesman with rotten territory.
Miller, of course, was not the only writer of his era who sought such universal resonance in assimilation. The promotion of “humanist” politics was characteristic of many liberal and leftist Jewish writers of his generation. But just as McCarthy was astonished by the play’s popularity at the time, its endurance—its performance at every high school, college, and regional theater company, not to mention at least four revivals on Broadway—attests to the flatness of the dramatic earth around it, the relative paucity of great tragedy from American playwrights, then and now.
Most critics, of course, did not share McCarthy’s view. As the hosannas piled up, Miller became a celebrity, and his sense of his worth and work grew as well. In an interview with Christopher Bigsby in 1990, he compared Death—favorably—to King Lear. The problem withLear, he says, is that the gloom is “unalleviated.” Setting aside “the beauty of the poetry,” Miller observes, “Lear is unredeemed; he really goes down in a sack, in a coal chute.”
McCarthy, too, compared Miller’s play to Lear. Both plays, after all, deal with “an old man, failing powers, thankless children and a grandiose dream of being”—as she put it—“well-liked.” But Lear was not just any old king. “He is Lear.”

Saturday, 1 December 2012

bloggerlees' radical youth : MM & RAR

A bit of context - while researching and meeting the magnificent MM in the early 80s, I was active in the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, campaigns that were pivotal in defeating fascist groups the British National Party and the National Front. One of my jobs in Hull RAR was to help produce silk-screen posters promoting anti-racist gigs: with agit-prop artwork inspired by Paris 68, the incomparable German anti-fascist John Heartfield and The Clash, the poster designs seemed to stand the test of time, and were collated for an exhibition in Hull in 2007, as part of celebrations marking the bicentenary of the end of the slave trade in the British empire. Will Slater made this short film promoting the exhibition at the Ferens Art Gallery, shown on the hour every hour for six weeks on a big giant screen in the city centre - Yaphet Kotto has never rocked so many shoppers.

40,000 plus pageviews ! Welcome Palestine: Margaret Atwood, on receiving the MM Award, predicts: "The beleaguered Palestinians will finally be a recognized state." - an event picketed by pro-palestinian protesters

On Friday, May 21, I went to upstate New York to partake in the ceremonies at Bard College,, where I had been given the Mary McCarthy Award. You should know that I admired Mary McCarthy, having read her famous novel, The Group, in 1963, but also that Mary McCarthy was one of the first reviewers of my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The review was a stinker, and gave my publishers much grief. Mary slapped my wrists, especially, for my deplorable lack of imagination.  (True, in a way, as my rule for The Handmaid’s Tale was not to put in anything that hadn’t happened, at some time, somewhere.)

This review gave me grief of a different kind, as well: interviewers always ask you about your bad reviews, hoping for quotable sparks, but I’d received a letter from The Times telling me that Mary McCarthy had suffered a stroke shortly before writing the review. Could I say, “Well, what do you expect, she’s just had a stroke?” That would be too mean. So I said, “I was bought up never to say rude things about people much older than myself,” which seemed about the best I could do under the circumstances.

But, dear Mary, all is forgiven – I am now almost the same age as you were when you wrote that review, and I can see all sorts of  — what shall we call them –challenges? addlements? – coming my way. In any case, your review did not finish off my career the way it might have; and I learned from the experience, and vowed never to review books I don’t like or understand. So I was happy to accept.

But beyond that, Bard is a very impressive institution – a small, underfunded liberal arts college which nevertheless manages to practice many creative forms of outreach through its affiliated institutions,, including a very successful prison programme and a number of educational initiatives in Palestine: the graduates was Carlos Rosado Jr., who’d just been released from prison. His Project was  “The Diet of Punishment: The Transformation of Prison Food in the Post-Rehabilitative Era.” It included the raising of organic vegetables, I understand. He’d be a great speaker for the Save Our Prison Farms rally in Kingston, Ontario, on June 6: — an effort to change the Federal Government’s short-sighted plans to close all the prison farms – dealing a blow to community food efforts, retraining programmes, and prisoner health, and upping the public’s long-term prison bill. (We know that in-prison training reduces recidivism, and that interaction with nature markedly reduces illnesses in prison.)
In any case, here’s what I said to the Class of 2010.
Commencement  AddressMargaret Atwood came to Bard College on Friday, May 21st to receive the Mary McCarthy award, after accepting the Dan David prize at Tel-Aviv University.  Bard was hosting the President's dinner and awards ceremony at Fisher Center.

The protest was at the intersection of Annandale Rd. and Manor Ave. (on Bard campus) from 4:30 PM - 6:30 PM. We had about 18 people and were gathered along the road leading to the Fisher Center.

Bard College: Commencement Address and Mary McCarthy Award

Dear Class of 2010:
Congratulations! You must all have a great sense of relief – you made it through, you have now graduated from Bard College – a unique and extraordinary liberal arts college, battle-scarred but still bravely standing — where you will have gained invaluable experience in thinking outside the box and in dancing to a surprisingly different tune. I thank Bard for inviting me here, and for the honour they have done me.
I don’t deserve all the nice things you’ve said about me – a writer is doomed once he or she starts believing the billboards — because it’s part of the novelist’s job to represent humanity in its wholeness –warts and all – and you can’t really get into those warts without having some of them yourself. Yes, I am a warty person.
For who but a warty person – or, to put it in more romantic terms, one who has visited the shadow side — would have written two fun-filled, joke-packed novels about the almost total annihilation of the human race? I didn’t get any literary awards for those. Judges might warm to the idea of an atrocity or two, but the entire human race?  Note to self: Margaret. You’re an idiot. You went too far.
I hope these novels will remain just that – novels – and that you won’ t be faced with what’s in them. Still, you must have some apprehension. Ahead of you lies The Rest of Your Life, and that can be a daunting prospect, especially in these tough economic times. The difference between someone your age and someone my age is that I kind of know the plot. I know how my story is likely to turn out, and not so far from now. But you don’t, and that can be very anxiety-making.
Let me try to remember what it was like to be roughly your age – some 47 years ago.
The reason for my being invited here to Bard was the Mary McCarthy Award, which I have incongruously but gratefully received – and, as it happens, when I was your age I was reading Mary McCarthy’s famous 1963 novel, The Group. I can remember exactly where I was reading it – in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the bathtub on the third floor of a Women’s Graduate residence. It was a rambling 19th century classical white New England building – unbeknownst either to itself of to me, it would later serve as the model for the Commander’s house in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.  It was a warm late spring day; my just-washed hair had been shellacked with a green gel product called Dippity Do and rolled onto big bristle rollers, in my ongoing struggle to make it straighter. The window blind was down, but the window was slightly open, kept from being raised higher by a lock, for this women’s residence was a magnet for prowlers, peeping Toms, and exposure artists.
I was just at the famous numerological sex scene in The Group when in through the open window came a large, hairy hand, groping around to see what might be accomplished. I thought of slamming the window down on it, or putting the wet soap into it, but I did nothing. I merely contemplated it, wondering to what literary uses it might be put. Surely Mary McCarthy would have known.
That story makes those times sound carefree. But consider: World War II had been over for a mere 17 years, and many countries were still recovering from the enormous trauma and destruction that war had caused. Elvis Presley had already occurred, but the Pill and mini-skirts and panty-hose and the Beatles were still in the future; so was the Woman’s Movement that began in 1968-9. Women at college were told they were there so they could make suitable dinner-table conversation once they married a lawyer. We lived in the shadow of the Cold War and the Atomic Bomb, convinced that we could be blown to smithereens at any moment. The Civil Rights Movement was trying to end segregation, and encountering violence and murder. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 was followed swiftly by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which had scared us silly.
John F. Kennedy was the glamorous President, but he had less than a year to live: he would be assassinated on November 22 of that very same year. American involvement in the Vietnam War had already begun: a war Mary McCarthy would later oppose, as she opposed many things throughout her life. One of the many things she wasn’t too keen on was The Handmaid’s Tale, which she reviewed unfavourably for the New York Times. Lack of imagination, was her verdict. I suppose she just didn’t believe that religious extremism would ever get that powerful, though she did agree with the novel’s suspicion of credit cards.
Those of us entering The Rest of Our Life back then felt we were living in tense times. And we were. And so are you.  The problems you will face are to some extent predictable – who can now avoid the fallout from the economic meltdown of 2008? The ripples are still spreading. Then there’s the environmental and climate crisis. “If you want to make God laugh,” goes the joke, “tell him your plans.”  All gods were once weather gods, and the weather gods are laughing at us a lot.
With climate change will come water wars, and worsening conditions for crops, and famines – 25 million people entered the ranks of the malnourished in 2007 alone. Couple these conditions with growing demands for energy, and thus more Co2 and more global warming – how will such forces play out? As populations attempt to shift from less prosperous to more prosperous areas and conflicts threaten, more walls will go up, as those who have try to keep, and those who have not will in desperation try to storm the barricades. Epidemic diseases will break out.  What is a single individual to do? What can a single individual do? It will be part of your story to find out.
But more important for you to consider are the mental walls – the polarization and labelling that seem to be so characteristic of our times. When people can no longer talk about the problems they share, but can only scream as if the debate were one big shock jock radio rant, a democratic society is in trouble. Part of the screaming happens because, as a civilization, we’ve exhausted the usefulness of the old terms of reference –the traditional left and the traditional right have lost much relevance, as global financial systems twist under the strain and neither side seems able to come up with new, useful ideas. Choice of evils debates always produce extremism—people choose what they hope is the lesser evil, then call it good and demonize the other choice. It will be a challenge for your generation to synthesize – to move beyond Us versus Them, to We.
I sometimes make hopeful predictions rather than dire ones, so let me try a few. Situations that seem hopeless and deadlocked today can change in an instant. The Middle East situation will be resolved under the process begun by President Obama, when Israel realizes what many of its citizens already know – that to do otherwise would lead to disaster. The beleaguered Palestinians will finally be a recognized state. All parties in the region will join together to work on solutions to the vanishing water supply, for no one can survive more than three days without water. The entire Middle East, including Iran, will begin talks leading to a nuclear-free zone. Green energy technologies will improve to the point at which we are no longer eating and drinking oil. Industrial hemp – you’d have to smoke an acre to get high, so no threat there  –will once again be grown in the United States, adding a valuable fuel, food, and clothing crop, not to mention paper: the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.
That’s about all the hope I can handle for today.
Back to Mary McCarthy. With her strong and energetic spirit, Mary McCarthy worked her way through various ideologies –adopting them, testing them, rejecting them, to arrive at a belief in – I quote –  “the necessity for creative autonomy that transcends doctrine.” That is the gift all warty novelists ultimately need to have, and that is the gift I would wish for you. It will allow you to work in communities, but not to be entrapped by them; to contribute what lies within your power, rather than what others tell you that you must. Above all, relish your sojourn on planet earth. It may be a strenuous and demanding time, but what time has not been? Enjoy the flowers. For happily, there are still many flowers to enjoy.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The reason why MM's lifelong friendship with HA has airbrushed both from Zionist history - Victory to Gaza

Hannah Arendt: Outstanding German Jewish political theorist critical of Zionists, Zionism and Israel

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975 ) was outstanding German Jewish political theorist and philosopher. She was the author of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951), “The Human Condition” (1958) and numerous other important scholarly works. Her criticisms of Zionists and Israel drew inevitable condemnation from Zionists. She coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe Adolph Eichmann  (see Wikipedia: ).Hannah Arendt in “Zionism reconsidered”, 1945: “Thus the social-revolutionary Jewish national movement, which started half a century ago with ideals so lofty that it overlooked the particular realities of the Near East and the general wickedness of the world, has ended – as do most such movements – with the unequivocal support not only of national but of chauvinist claims – claims not against the foes of the Jewish people but against its possible friends and present neighbors … But if the Jewish Commonwealth is proclaimed against the will of the Arabs and without the support of the Mediterranean people, not only financial help but political support will be necessary for a long time to come. And that may turnout to be very troublesome indeed for Jews in this country, who after all have no power to direct political destinies of the Near East. It may eventually be far more of a responsibility than today they imagine or tomorrow can make good.” [1].

Hannah Arendt, in a Letter with Albert Einstein and other scholars decrying Nazi-style Irgun Zionists like Menachaem Begin to the New York Times, 1948: “TO THE EDITORS OF NEW YORK TIMES:
Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the "Freedom Party" (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.
The current visit of Menachem Begin, leader of this party, to the United States is obviously calculated to give the impression of American support for his party in the coming Israeli elections, and to cement political ties with conservative Zionist elements in the United States. Several Americans of national repute have lent their names to welcome his visit. It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin's political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents.
Before irreparable damage is done by way of financial contributions, public manifestations in Begin's behalf, and the creation in Palestine of the impression that a large segment of America supports Fascist elements in Israel, the American public must be informed as to the record and objectives of Mr. Begin and his movement.
The public avowals of Begin's party are no guide whatever to its actual character. Today they speak of freedom, democracy and anti-imperialism, whereas until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the Fascist state. It is in its actions that the terrorist party betrays its real character; from its past actions we can judge what it may be expected to do in the future.

Attack on Arab Village
A shocking example was their behavior in the Arab village of Deir Yassin. This village, off the main roads and surrounded by Jewish lands, had taken no part in the war, and had even fought off Arab bands who wanted to use the village as their base. On April 9 (THE NEW YORK TIMES), terrorist bands attacked this peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, killed most of its inhabitants (240 men, women, and children) and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem. Most of the Jewish community was horrified at the deed, and the Jewish Agency sent a telegram of apology to King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan. But the terrorists, far from being ashamed of their act, were proud of this massacre, publicized it widely, and invited all the foreign correspondents present in the country to view the heaped corpses and the general havoc at Deir Yassin.
The Deir Yassin incident exemplifies the character and actions of the Freedom Party.
Within the Jewish community they have preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority. Like other Fascist parties they have been used to break strikes, and have themselves pressed for the destruction of free trade unions. In their stead they have proposed corporate unions on the Italian Fascist model.
During the last years of sporadic anti-British violence, the IZL and Stern groups inaugurated a reign of terror in the Palestine Jewish community. Teachers were beaten up for speaking against them, adults were shot for not letting their children join them. By gangster methods, beatings, window-smashing, and wide-spread robberies, the terrorists intimidated the population and exacted a heavy tribute.
The people of the Freedom Party have had no part in the constructive achievements in Palestine. They have reclaimed no land, built no settlements, and only detracted from the Jewish defense activity. Their much-publicized immigration endeavors were minute, and devoted mainly to bringing in Fascist compatriots.

Discrepancies Seen
The discrepancies between the bold claims now being made by Begin and his party, and their record of past performance in Palestine bear the imprint of no ordinary political party. This is the unmistakable stamp of a Fascist party for whom terrorism (against Jews, Arabs, and British alike), and misrepresentation are means, and a "Leader State" is the goal.
In the light of the foregoing considerations, it is imperative that the truth about Mr. Begin and his movement be made known in this country. It is all the more tragic that the top leadership of American Zionism has refused to campaign against Begin's efforts, or even to expose to its own constituents the dangers to Israel from support to Begin.

The undersigned therefore take this means of publicly presenting a few salient facts concerning Begin and his party; and of urging all concerned not to support this latest manifestation of fascism.

New York, Dec. 2, 1948

Saturday, 14 July 2012

To celebrate this Bastille day, MM en francais

Mary McCarthy interviewing Janet Flanner at the Hôtel Continental in Paris, France

elle fume naturalment

McCarthy in Edinburgh 1962

1962 International Writers Conference, Edinburgh: an edited history
Written by Drs Angela Bartie and Eleanor Bell, University of Strathclyde
‘People jumping up to confess they were homosexuals; a registered heroin addict leading the young Scottish opposition to the literary tyranny of the communist Hugh MacDiarmid… An English woman novelist describing her communications with her dead daughter, a Dutch homosexual, former male nurse, now a Catholic convert, seeking someone to baptize him; a bearded Sikh with hair down to his waist declaring on the platform that homosexuals were incapable of love, just as (he said) hermaphrodites were incapable of orgasm (Stephen Spender, in the chair, murmured that he should have thought they could have two)… Excerpt from a letter Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt describing the 1962 International Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh (28/09/62)
1962 International Writers Conference, EdinburghIn August 1962, a five-day Writers’ Conference took place as part of the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama. It was organised by publisher John Calder, in conjunction with Jim Haynes (then running Edinburgh’s Paperback Bookshop) and Sonia Brownell (commissioning editor of a publishing house and the widow of George Orwell). Together they produced a line-up of writers that included Americans Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy, and William Burroughs, Scots Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark, Edwin Morgan and Alexander Trocchi, English Lawrence Durrell and Stephen Spender, Austrian Erich Fried, and Indian Khushwant Singh.
This conference attracted a huge audience that filled the 2300-capacity McEwan Hall every day and was reported widely in the media, both at home and abroad. Each of the five days explored a different theme: Differences of Approach, Scottish Writing Today, Is Commitment Necessary?, Censorship Today, and the Future of the Novel. The week before the conference, Calder told the press ‘we are imposing no prohibitions on the free expression of opinion, however controversial or unusual’. The frank discussions of love, sex and homosexuality (as well as drug-taking) at both the Conference and its daily press conferences were certainly shocking. Its impact was felt in many other ways too; not least in the way it effectively launched the career of William Burroughs, who was largely unknown at the time. In Scottish circles, the famous clash between Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid has helped to redefine debates about Scottish national cultural identity. The Conference has also been cited as the starting point for many other large gatherings and conferences (e.g. the Albert Hall Poetry Reading of 1965, which characterized the counterculture in Sixties Britain) and even the existence of the major book festivals that we have today.
In September 1962, John Calder told the Herald that ‘the conference was an experience in adult education. The gamble was to see if we could interest an average public in ideas, the combination of observation and philosophy that compose the writer’s tool-kit. We succeeded because there is a great hunger for education and for an understanding of the world we inhabit.’

Day one: contrasts of approach 
: Malcolm Muggeridge
Questions for day one (From original conference programme):
‘In this first discussion novelists will be asked to explain how they approach their work and why they try to write in a certain way. Some novelists are principally interested in the ‘content’ of their novels, in the ideas, the plot and the characters that they create, and regard ‘style’ as less important. Others see style as determining the nature of the content itself. The audience will hear the views of different authors on this and related problems.’
Mary McCarthy 1962Selected Highlights:In her speech, Mary McCarthy gives public support for William Burroughs’Naked Lunch. Burroughs later acknowledges that this support, and his participation in the Writers’ Conference, helped to launch his career. McCarthy also comments ‘With the French novel I think the really – the new novel – is really simply a form of dressmaking… All the French novelists have taken simply to this kind of vogueishness, this couturier novel writing, but I don’t think has much to do with novels – with the novel taken as a serious thing… I would except Nathalie Sarraute from this…’ Colin MacInnes takes issue with Mary McCarthy later. Henry Miller’s writing, he feels, reflects universal issues. His Paris does not reflect man in exile, but man in the world. Dame Rebecca West totally disagrees with Angus Wilson’s views of tradition – the novel is not as conservative as he has depicted – often it has been radical – e.g. Jane Austen (‘Jane Austen wrote novels in which her manner was that of a perfect lady, but what she was saying was to hell with Samuel Richardson and to hell with Clarissa. She said it like a lady, but the intention was strictly revolutionary.’) Muriel Spark strongly disagreed with Lawrence Durrell’s points that literature should change people – ‘I think that for a novelist to try and change anybody, for anyone to try and change anybody, is horrible.’

Day two: scottish writing today 
: David Daiches
Questions for day two (From original conference programme):
‘What is the strength of Scottish writing today and how is it related to the Scottish literary tradition? Should Scottish writers deal principally with Scottish themes, and if they do, what market do they have outside Scotland? Has there been a Scottish Renaissance in recent years, and how successful have been the attempts to use Lallans as a literary language?’
Alexander Trocchi 1962Selected Highlights:
Walter Keir 
comments ‘There is hardly any Scottish literature worth talking about… The Scottish writer of the moment… he is far too worried about national identity… Here as far as I can see it, parochial, provincial, you may not know it, but we are attending the wake of Scottish literature.’ Edwin Morganagrees, stating that Scottish writers ‘can use English if they want, and still, I think, very readily express something that is purely Scottish. But they should be interested in what is going on not only in Europe, but also in America.’Alexander Trocchi famously states that he was right to leave Scotland. The whole atmosphere ‘seems to me to be turgid, petty, provincial, the stale porridge, Bible class nonsense.’ MacDiarmid, whom he has a ‘certain love and respect for’, is nonetheless ‘an old fossil’. Hugh MacDiarmid retorts ‘MrTrocchi seems to imagine that the burning questions in the world today are lesbianism, homosexuality and matters of that kind. I don’t think so at all. I am a Communist, and a Scottish Nationalist and I ask Mr Trocchi and others, where in any of the literature they are referring to… are the crucial burning questions of the day being dealt with, as they have been dealt with in Scottish literature, if you knew enough about it’ to which Trocchiresponds, ‘We have been exerting our nationalism in Scotland as long as I can remember, and I am damned sick of it.’

Day three: commitment 
: Stephen Spender
Questions for day three (From original conference programme):
‘Should the writers use his work as a platform for his political beliefs or his views on religion and other matters? Many believe that the novelist has a social duty to expose the evils of his time and to convert the reader to his opinions. Others believe that the novelist must be above such problems if he is to create a work of art, although he may be committed outside his work. The problem of commitment divides writers sharply and is one of the principal points of conflict in contemporary literature.’
Spender and Burroughs 1962 1962Selected Highlights:
Norman Mailer
 noted ‘it was particularly brave and true to his commitment’ for Trocchi to appear in McEwan Hall and attack Scottish writing. LP Hartleynoted that he preferred the term ‘dedication’ to ‘commitment’, largely due to the political connotations of the latter. John Amirthanayagan argued that the problem of commitment was artificial – as soon as any writer begins to write as a human being, they are committed. MacDiarmid announced he was ‘the only fully committed writer present at this conference’. Khushwant Singhstated that very few writers on the platform had succeeded in putting across their commitment in their writing, also asking that writers ‘become a little more confessional and tell us about their personal commitments – not of their political, and other commitments.’ He put across his own four personal commitments (obsessions): to solitude, to love, to death, and to truth. Having described the relationship between love and the desire to resolve the ‘inner solitude’, he went on to state that love could really only exist between heterosexual couples of the same approximate age: ‘I feel that the sort of love I am talking of is denied to the homo-sexual’. GK Van Het Reve later responds: ‘As you have just heard from one of the former speakers I cannot experience real love. I think I will have to cope with it – I can only say God forgive people who can dare to say such stupid things’. Dame Rebecca West later comments ‘I would like to suggest to the organisers of this conference that if they wish to organize another writers’ conference, they should have two conferences going on at perhaps the same time. One a writers’ conference. The other a conference at which people could thrash out whether they were homo-sexuals, or hetero-sexual, or whatever.’

Day four: censorship
: Mary McCarthy
Questions for day four (From original conference programme):
‘Opinions on what may or may not be published differ widely. In Great Britain the censorship laws have recently been revised and previously banned books such as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ can now be published. In America there has been an even greater relaxation of censorship and the same applies to many other countries, but there are still others where the trend is towards more censorship. Moral and political censorship will be discussed and writers will say how much censorship they think is desirable and where existing restrictions should be removed.’
Erich Fried 1962Selected Highlights:
Mary McCarthy 
begins by stating her belief that most writers and audience will be against censorship, and that it is much harder to argue the case forcensorship than against. William Burroughs comments that all censorship is essentially thought control, but that the main reason usually given for censorship is ‘the necessity of protecting children’; yet they are ‘already subjected to a daily barrage of word and image, much of it deliberately calculated to arouse personal desires without satisfying them. That is what advertising is all about’. One of the arguments Norman Mailer cites forcensorship is that works like those by Miller and Burroughs weaken the young: ‘It makes them sophisticated, it makes them too civilised, it makes them insufficiently warlike…sexual literature, you see, does weaken warlike potential because it tends to drain it.’ Stephen Spender intervenes to comment that he feels the discussion is getting too complicated, that the basis for censorship is that readers can be influenced by what they read; that writers, if they believe that literature does good, should also admit that it does harm; that readers could be influenced by what they read in a book (one example he gives is of a reader of Goethe’s novel Vortex apparently committing suicide ‘as a result of the suicide of Goethe’s hero’).  

Day five:  the novel and the future
: Khushwant Singh
Questions for day five (From original conference programme):
‘Many new trends in the novel have appeared in recent years and many types of ‘avant-garde’ novel have established themselves in critical and intellectual circles. Has the traditional novel really written itself out and will the public accept the new trends? Where are these trends leading us and why do so many contemporary novelists appear to create difficulties for their own sake? Will the novel perhaps disappear altogether and be replaced by some other literary form? These questions probe not only into the contemporary novel, but into all aspects of contemporary life and may point towards a solution to many of the problems of our time.’
Erich Fried 1962Selected Highlights:
Raynor Heppenstall
 notes that ‘junkie sex novel which is very much the American novel of the present… is beginning to feel already a little belongs to the past.’ Alexander Trocchi feels he’s being personally attacked ‘when there is all this mention of drugs and sex’, before arguing that the novel and the painting are old categories that are on their way out, which ‘flourished until the end of the nineteenth century at which time the most vital writers and painters began to feel them as limits other than a source of inspiration. Ergo a spate of experimentation at the beginning of the twentieth century. The fantastic anarchic disorder of modern art and the anti-novel.’ Robert Jungk disagrees with Trocchi, going on to argue that the novelist has failed ‘in this task of trying to make the horrible realities of our life more accessible to everyone… He has failed in developing new visions for a new world and new facts’.  Later,Stephen Spender says, ‘I would like to point out that everything that Mr Trocchi has said has been said in 1905.  …  I am not saying this maliciously at all, because I have happened to study a great deal of the documents of expressionists [who thought that] the fragmentation of values in the modern world should be reflected by fragmentation in modern writing. This is exactly what the futurists were saying, what people were saying before the First World War.  It led to a completely dead end and in fact I think the history of modern literature since 1914-1920 or so is the attempt to recover from this point of view.’

For more on the 1962 International Writers’ Conference, see A Bartie & E Bell, The International Writers’ Conference Revisited: 1962 (Cargo Publishing, 2012).
Photographs (c) Alan Daiches. With permission of the National Library of Scotland and the Daiches Family.

Woody Guthrie & Mary McCarthy - two mighty centurians, one Australian Revolutionary and a hundred years of struggle

W O O D Y   
1 9 1 2 ~ 2 0 1 2

"F R O M    C A L I F O R N I A    T O    T H E    N E W    Y O R K    I S L A N D,
T H I S    L A N D    W A S    M A D E    F O R    Y O U    A N D    M E."

Trotskyist never gave up quest for socialist society

Radical ... Bob Gould earlier this year.
Radical ... Bob Gould earlier this year. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
Founder of the anti-Vietnam War movement in Australia. Lifelong member of the Labor Party and Trotskyist. Bookseller. Bibliophile. Historian. Union agitator. Anti-censorship battler. Bohemian. Irish Catholic. Polemicist.
Even Charles Dickens would have had trouble inventing a character as remarkable as BobGould. Add to that list, a founder of Labor for Refugees, as a contingent of Afghan refugees at his funeral last Thursday bore witness.
There were Labor rebels of Irish descent on both sides of Gould's family. His mother, Ethel, was the daughter of Dick O'Halloran, who ran as an anti-conscription Labor candidate in the state election of 1917.
His father, Steve Gould, after fighting in both Gallipoli and on the Western Front, where he lost an arm, became a close lieutenant of the radical Labor premier Jack Lang in the 1920s. He was eventually expelled from the Labor Party along with Lang for opposing conscription during World War II.
By then, Steve described himself as a Marxist Catholic. This family background must have shaped Bob's politics but he gave as much - if not more - credit to the brothers at St Patrick's, Strathfield, for inculcating in him a critical and social democratic cast of mind.
Gould came to political life as a teenager in a turbulent time. Joining the Labor Party at 17, he was blooded in the Great Labor Split of 1955, lining up with the anti-Groupers in the Labor Party against the forces loyal to B.A. Santamaria. By this time, he was a member of both the Labor and Communist parties. Khrushchev's secret speech on Stalin's crimes in 1956 quickly disillusioned him about the Communist Party and he left it to join the local Trotskyist group led by Nick Origlass.
In the '60s, Gould came into his own. In Sydney, he was both the prophet and enabler of this decade of revolt and change. He not only formed the Vietnam Action Group, which organised and spearheaded the street protests against the war and conscription, he foresaw that movement as a harbinger of wider youth radicalisation and cultural change.
This inspired him to open the Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street in 1967 to feed the growing appetite among young people for countercultural music, posters and literature imported principally from the US.
Upstairs, he let out a floor to the Independent Filmmakers Cooperative, where New Wave directors showed their first works. It was from this shop, and the later one in George Street, that he fought censorship battles and defied police raids when he sold Portnoy's Complaint and posters by Aubrey Beardsley and - believe it or not - posters of Michelangelo's David.
Gould remained immersed in Labor politics. He was on hand in 1966 to help Wayne Haylen and Barry Robinson capture Peter Kocan after he shot the Labor leader Arthur Calwell as he left an anti-Vietnam War meeting in Mosman.
A few years later, he combined with Paul Keating at a NSW Labor Party conference to have the expulsion of Jack Lang lifted. He was a Socialist Left delegate to the 1971 federal Labor conference in Hobart, where he successfully moved for the abolition of ASIO (a success overturned soon after when delegates realised what they had done).
For decades, he remained equally immersed in the exotic world of the Trotskyist groupuscules, sometimes leaving them peaceably but often excluded because of his refusal to be silenced.
In the last 15 years of his life, Gould decided to reap the benefits of a lifetime of voracious reading, activism and research with a series of essays dictated to his second wife, Janet Bonser, and published on the OzLeft website.
Typical was an Open Letter to Keith Windschuttle, prompted by the swing to the right of a comrade and writer he had previously admired. It is a picaresque 25,000-word survey of anti-Stalinist intellectuals of the left and right in the 20th century, covering everything from the gulags to the origins of civilisation, with an account of his school days thrown in. It is an education in itself, full of surprises, like his love for Mary McCarthy and staunch defences of Orwell, Koestler, Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie.

His daughter, Natalie, says her father was first and last a Trotskyist yet his hero was Lenin. He read all the latest revelations from the Kremlin archives about Lenin but they never shook his appreciation of his daring in thought and action.
Gould was well aware that the evolution of the Soviet Union and its allies had long ago ruined the attractive power of socialism but that did not stop him from searching for ways and means to renew the quest for a socialist society of the free and equal.
Green shoots elsewhere, whether in Egypt or Spain, did not overexcite him. He was to the end more interested in what was happening inside the Labor Party, the unions, the Greens and the remaining Trotskyist groups in Australia.
Bob Gould is survived by long-time friend and lover Jenny Haines, second wife Janet Bonser, first wife Mairi Wilson and daughter Natalie.

Woody, Mary and Bob share a joke....

Monday, 2 July 2012

Sarabande Books' McCarthy prizewinner speaks out - from their blog


Mary McCarthy’s Centenary: An Author’s Gratitude

June 29th, 2012
In honor of Mary McCarthy, the lady and her work, we’ve asked one of our McCarthy Prizewinners to say a few words. Take it away, Mr. Mullins.

“Winning Sarabande’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction was the break I needed at a critical time in my career as a writer.  I’d worked on Greetings from Below for eight years, and I was in my thirties, and I felt that if I didn’t publish the collection, after toiling for so long, I might give up on the whole endeavor of writing fiction.  Then Sarabande called with the good news, and everything changed.  I soon got a job teaching creative writing.  And I had the confidence to begin a new book, a novel.  The fact that the prize carries the name Mary McCarthy means a lot.  The Company She Keeps was a significant inspiration for Greetings from Below—each of which is a novel in stories.  I’ve always been a fan of McCarthy’s work, and it’s been a tremendous honor to hold a prize named for such an inimitable writer.”
—David Phillip Mullins, author of Greetings from Below
Winner of the 2009 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction
For more about Mary McCarthy and her 2012 centennial, visit:

Mary McCarthy & Company -by Steve King from B&N review

Mary McCarthy & Company

Mary McCarthy was born 100 years ago today. McCarthy's first book was the semi-autobiographical The Company She Keeps (1942), describing the swirl of ideas, politics, and love found in New York City by a young woman fresh out of college. McCarthy came to New York in 1933, fresh out of Vassar; her linked, tell-almost-all stories "could, for once, rightly be called a sensation," says Elizabeth Hardwicke, "for candor, for the brilliant lightning flashes of wit, for the bravado, the confidence, and the splendor of the prose style":
They are often about the clash of theory and practice, taste and ideology. Rich as they are in period details, they transcend the issues, the brand names, the intellectual fads. In "The Portrait of the Artist as a Yale Man," we have the conflict between abstract ideas and self-advancement, between probity and the wish to embrace the new and fashionable. About a young couple, she writes: "Every social assertion Nancy and Jim made carried its own negation with it, like an Hegelian thesis. Thus it was always being said by Nancy that someone was a Communist but a terribly nice man, while Jim was remarking that someone else worked for Young and Rubicam but was astonishingly liberal."
Hardwicke's comments are in her Introduction to McCarthy's last book, the unfinished and posthumously published Intellectual Memoirs (1992). This is a sort of bookend to McCarthy's first book, in that the author returns to her 1930s New York life, this time providing entirely unmasked portraits of her men (Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, and others) and times.

McCarthy was in the public eye throughout her fifty years as a writer -- in all, twenty-eight books of fiction, essays, and commentary -- and would keep company or cross swords with many of the twentieth century's most influential figures. Hardwicke does not mention Lillian Hellman, the most famous of the latter group (and born yesterday -- June 20, 1905), but she does not avoid McCarthy's taste for such open, if partisan, combat. And if McCarthy could be "in her writing, sometimes a scourge, a Savonarola," she could not be what's worse, a bystander or double-talker:
...Mary did not understand even the practical usefulness of an occasional resort to the devious. Her indiscretions were always open and forthright and in many ways one could say she was "like an open book." Of course, everything interesting depends upon which book is open.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Mary, Dick & Nora - from NYT

Mary and Dick enjoying the and and the moment


The New York Times

Vamping With Nora

Dick Cavett
Dick Cavett on his career in show business, and more.
So frequently the wrong people die.
While traveling in a remote part of western Nebraska — away from the news media except for little local papers — I saw a friend’s e-mail suddenly change from its harmless subject to the appended line, “Sad about Nora Ephron.”
One of those moments when the mind does its inadequate best to fend off the truth. “What’s sad about Nora? Surely not … ”

We sat, facing each other, dismay bordering on panic. The setting: “The Dick Cavett Show,” somewhere in the early ’70s. Nora and I are talking. My producer, sheet-white, had just delivered the news during a commercial that my next guest, a famously eccentric genius actor with a legendary thirst, had, in a gesture of professional shabbiness, gotten “tired” of waiting backstage and had left. (His initials are Nicol Williamson.)
Nora and I, having used up all our good stuff and at the point where I was supposed to say, “My next guest…”, now faced what felt like a Sahara-wide half-hour of remaining airtime to fill. We set forth on our trek.

It may sound improbable that two such, ahem, engrossing people couldn’t fill the time as if tumbling from a log, At this distance, it seems crazy to me, too. But it’s a peculiarity of such a show that it somehow doesn’t work that way. We had, in the elegant phrase, shot our wad. I wish I could make that convincingly clear. It’s a little like asking a singer or dancer, wiping their brow after having successfully done the expected performance they were geared for, to do two or three more right now just like it. The mind has moved on. It’s weird and shows again how just “sitting and talking” on TV is not remotely like doing the same thing in real life.
After what seemed like an hour of gasping for air, lurches and restarts and awful pauses, we had killed only 10 minutes. Only 20 to go.
Each time I looked at the studio clock it seemed to have the same time it had before. Had the hands been welded in place? In a state of stunned disbelief we somehow dragged ourselves, and what felt like at least two tacklers — and any remaining viewers — to the finish line. As the closing theme song mercifully sneaked in and the eon-length show faded from the screen, we, at least figuratively and maybe in fact, fell into each other’s arms like two survivors pulled from a mine.
And agreed to meet the next day to plot the slow death by poison of Nicol Williamson.
Nora Ephron on "The Dick Cavett Show" in February 1971.Courtesy of the AuthorNora Ephron on “The Dick Cavett Show” in February 1971.
Years later, Nora pointed out that at all our subsequent encounters, before cordial greetings, each gave a little involuntary shudder upon seeing the other. Like friends who’d survived a long-ago car crash together.
All that aside, I did one good thing for Nora and her arsenal of talents. I gave her a play to write.
It had to do with the notorious incident on my PBS show when I had lightheartedly asked Mary McCarthy, who’d talked about underpraised writers, to name some overrated writers.
That’s when she delivered her famous remark about Lillian Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” It flowered into a notorious lawsuit about which much has been written. Including a Broadway play Nora managed to construct from the wreckage.
In the world of letters it was generally held that, by suing, Hellman had disgraced herself and betrayed her own principles about free speech and criticism. Nora saw Hellman’s actions as “a kind of dance of death.” An effort to, in fact, shorten McCarthy’s life; which, in my opinion, the anguish and costs of Hellman’s monumental lawsuit undoubtedly did. (It amused Nora that the late Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and my hard-drinking friend Jean Stafford always referred to Lillian as “Old Scaly Bird.”)
But that same Nora found the appallingly spiteful Hellman to be a vastly entertaining friend who made her laugh. She called her, in a chat we did for the now defunct magazine Show People, “too much fun to hate.”
In that same staged restaurant “conversation,” Nora told me she was startled to read in her morning paper just what in fact had happened the night before on the Cavett program.
“One of the rare nights when you missed my show, Nora?” I asked.
“One of the rare nights when I missed your show,” came the reply, with a wry line reading that Eve Arden might have envied.
Intrigued and inspired, Nora turned all this unwieldy and psychologically complex matter into an entertaining play, “Imaginary Friends.” The longstanding hatred between these two competitive women who became famous at the same time (1929) had all the seeds of drama. Nora stated at our magazine interview lunch what could hardly be called a trivial factor: “They had a lot to fight about. One was beautiful and one was not.”
I told Nora, in a merry jest, that I had tried out for the part of “Dick Cavett” in her play but had been turned down.
“We wanted someone younger.” (Laughter all around.)
I loved making Nora laugh out loud. We talked about Hellman’s “Julia,” a tale apparently bogus from tip to toe. In it, Lillian claimed to have risked her life during a dangerous period in Germany by smuggling a vast number of German marks — hidden in her hat — to Julia.
I said that owing to the value of the mark at that particular time in Deutschland, to have smuggled, chapeau-wise, the amount Lillian claimed, her hat would have had to be the size of a Volkswagen. Nora’s laugh was my reward.
For a sample of Nora at her deadliest best, and for your entertainment, I shall now ask my operatives to guide you to what I would put in a Nora time capsule. It’s a review in this newspaper from 1972 of three books about and by gossip columnists. Before you go there, let me whet your appetite by the last bit of Nora’s review of the columnist Sheilah Graham’s memoir about her sex life. Its title — and could you have guessed? — “A State of Heat.”
Nora wrote, “I’m afraid I may have made ‘A State of Heat’ sound like one of those ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ things. I don’t mean to. It’s as close to being unpublishable as anything can be these days. Sheilah Graham has been in on a pass for years as a result of her affair with Fitzgerald: it’s about time it ran out.”
I don’t know how to close this. If there is that so-called better place, then Nora’s surely in it.
Her going left ours a lesser one.