(Seated from left) Nicola Chiaromonte, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell. (Standing from left) Heinrich Blucher, Hannah Arendt, Dwight McDonald, and Gloria MacDonald. Courtesy Vassar College Library.
Lynne Tillman Her female characters are intelligent, active, fully developed. She proposes the relationship between men and women as a struggle of equals.
Frances Kiernan The woman is equal, thinking the whole time just as he is. Mary was always going to be an equal.
LT Why do you think she spoke out against feminism?
FK Part of it may have been that she was living in Paris. I think that something went wrong, in a way. She was a person who did best when she lived in the thick of things. Becoming involved in the Vietnam War and also in Watergate was a way of trying to get back into the thick of things. She thrived—I think Isaiah Berlin said it—when she was part of a coterie or small group. She was somebody who lived an active social life. She depended on the give and take of good friends. She performed for her friends, and for her enemies. She lived in the world totally. When she’s among the French who have very little use for her, you see her living in the narrowed circle of an expatriate’s life.
LT Thinking of Europe—McCarthy said at some point that meeting Nicola Chiaromonte and Hannah Arendt helped her leave the Partisan Review crowd in New York and broaden her view. In A Charmed Life there’s a discussion about Hamlet, Racine, tragedy, the Greeks. She writes novels of ideas. Is that out of favor here? Is she too European?
FK Ideas are very important to her. Also social context, in a way that it wasn’t for Bellow, for instance. Bellow was much more of an inward writer.
LT Which is why Arendt would be so important to her. Though she’d come of age with Bellow and Salinger.
FK Whose writing she didn’t get at all; Salinger, that is.
LT She got Burroughs and Nabokov.
FK But interestingly enough, she came to them through friends; Edmund Wilson was a great supporter of Nabokov.
LT But she took them up.
FK Doing so also allowed room for her because both of those writers lend themselves to the kind of exegesis that was natural to her. I remember asking Burroughs whether he thought she got Naked Lunch right. He said, “Well, right enough.” She was able to bring herself into it. It became an active enterprise. At the same time, it allowed her to believe that she was keeping up even though she read almost no American writers. But you’re right, she was not that interested in American writers. And Mary liked to shock, too. I think there was a certain pleasure in astonishing people with her admiration for Burroughs. Although she wouldn’t have said she admired him if she didn’t. But also he’s writing about what she thinks is a sort of modern expatriation; at that point she’s an expatriate. She’s feeling disaffected, cut off. She’s written that the modern novel’s theme is being without a nation, a home. In a way being a heroin addict would be being without a home.
LT A kind of inner expatriation.
FK She genuinely responded to that. But she also liked [Umberto Eco’s] The Name of the Rose. She liked things she could piece together, where her erudition was of help. She loved puzzles, anything that could challenge her mind. She was not easy on herself. She never relaxed intellectually. She worked so hard on Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. That anybody would take two years off from their own work to work on something so different and so difficult is amazing.
LT Reading Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, I was struck by her insistence on honesty. After all but the last chapter, there’s a postscript, reflecting upon whether what she remembered was accurate.
FK That, by the way, is one of the few books that’s taught. She’s interested in ideas, she’s interested in the search for truth. At a certain point this changed slightly. In 1962, she was interviewed by Elizabeth Niebuhr Sifton for The Paris Review, and she says, “there is a truth, and it is knowable.” I think in a way it marks a turning point. For a writer it’s not a great stance to take. It closes off possibilities. As a young woman, she says she did not see things that way.
LT I wonder why she changed. It’s a radical thing to say.
FK She loved to say outrageous things, and it probably is an oversimplification. Maybe it was from hanging out with Hannah Arendt.
LT You talk a lot about that relationship in the book.
FK But not the way most people do.
LT How do most people talk about it?
FK In a very reverent way, with Hannah the mentor and Mary the student or loving daughter. I think it was very complicated, and different people saw it in different ways. Was it totally beneficial to Mary? I’m not so sure it was. It depends on how you view Hannah Arendt. For me, she is an important figure, she is in many ways admirable. The book of hers that I’ve read that I find totally compelling, yet disagree with, is Eichmann in Jerusalem. When I pick it up I can’t stop reading it. I find it horrifying, totally effective. I think in a way it is a masterpiece. But that doesn’t mean I agree with it.
LT With what do you disagree?
FK I feel as Isaiah Berlin and Saul Bellow did: that she was simply wrong about the Jewish Councils. Those Jewish leaders didn’t believe they were collaborating with the Nazis in making lists, in doing what they were told to do, in the hope that some good would come of it. Arendt was judging after the fact, privy to information they were not privy to. I think Isaiah Berlin said if you saved 30 lives that way, you’ve accomplished something.
LT Berlin was extremely, almost violently negative about Arendt.
FK He really had no use for her.
LT People are often astonished that Arendt and McCarthy were friends. I don’t know why. They were famous women, singular even in that way, important writers, who shared a deep conviction that life, art, and philosophy could not be separated from each other.
FK Also, morality was very important. They were always making moral distinctions. Both of them were thinkers, for all that their styles were very different. And they were endlessly curious. But there is the underlying assumption that women really don’t like each other.
LT Where misogyny lies…
FK Alfred Kazin said he felt that Mary McCarthy didn’t really like men or wasn’t really interested in men, that it was with women she had her most significant relationships. Andy Dupee thought she was much smarter about her choices in women friends. Hannah offered something to McCarthy that she felt was important. There are friends of McCarthy who felt it was the most important friendship of her life. Some felt that the Mary of A Charmed Lifevanished in time. When she wrote A Charmed Life, she was very aware of Hannah not approving of it. My feeling is that Birds of America, which is a far less good book, was written for Hannah. Cannibals and Missionaries stemmed from an idea that Hannah approved of. I think the friendship was very important, until it began to impinge, perhaps, on Mary’s fiction writing. But I also think it’s hard to know because also Jim West [her fourth and last husband] didn’t like it when she was being bitchy. With that marriage, she’d entered a whole other world.