November 25, 1979
The Novels That Got Away (part 3)
By MARY MCCARTHY
Post-divorce cartoon showing Parnell using the fire escape to evade detection.
Yet who betrayed whom and what?
The third episode was hazier in my mind. It would probably have dealt with Wordsworth. The Poet Laureate, Browning's "Lost Leader" ("Just for a handful of silver he left us, / Just for a riband to stick in his coat."): His repudiation of his youth, of the French Revolution, of Annette, the French girl, and the reputed child of their union that he was said to have disowned.
Yet, since I was thinking of a turncoat poet, I am surprised that it did not occur to me to put in Pound, a bona fide traitor to his country, either as a replacement for poor old Wordsworth or as a modern foil to him. The reason may be that a genuine traitor did not interest me. To me, Pound's politics, to which (it must be said) he was faithful, were a silly aberration; in this sphere, I found him simply a curio, not much different from Lord Haw-Haw or Tokyo Rose. I was incapable of taking seriously the pull of Fascist ideology. In a novelist this may not have been a virtue
In other words, the novel I believed I was writing had only a remote bearing on the "big" theme I had set myself. This, obviously, was why I could not go further with it. I had no faith in it myself. Yet in any novel (in my experience) there is a crisis of faith for the author. This generally occurs toward the end of Chapter Two, when the first impetus has gone; occasionally in Chapter Three. It happened to me with "The Group," with "A Charmed Life," with "Birds of America." The crisis can last a night or a few hours; with "The Group" it lasted years, during which I put the manuscript aside, thinking I would never go back to it.
There is no use going on till the crisis is resolved. You cannot evade it; you have to face the strong possibility that what you have been carefully writing and rewriting is not a fiction but a hollow lie. If you finally persuade yourself that your suspicions are wrong, you can continue. But another crisis may occur. A moment comes, though, about three-quarters of the way through the book, when you know you are gong to finish it; this is the moment when it has gained your belief.
With the initial crisis, a simple rereading, after an interval, may reassure me. More often, notes to myself in the form of questions and answers are required ("What am I trying to say here?" "What's behind this or that incident?" "What makes me give him red hair?"). In short, there has to be a severe critical effort to get behind or underneath the glassy written surface you laboriously mine your own book for its meaning. It may be that you can find nothing behind or underneath, or else something you do not like. Then you put the book aside. Occasionally, time will disclose to you a meaning or pattern that you failed to find on the first look--time has turned you into a more "objective" reader.
With the public-library novel, this confrontation did not take place. I was too inexperienced. Somewhere in the Dumnorox-Divaciacus part that is, toward the beginning, I got discouraged and stopped, I had looked ahead and was daunted. What I might have noticed, had I paused and asked myself questions, was that this historical farrago was not about treason but about me. The division between the Haeduan brothers was in myself. I was a natural rebel who was also in love with law. This was my autobiography, and it was not going to change.
Ten years passed. Then all of a sudden I found a use for those by that time yellowed pages. They were salvaged, like old dress material, for "The Figures in the Clock," in "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood." That was where they had always belonged, where in fact they came from. From Annie Wright Seminary and my Latin teacher, Miss Mackay, who for semi-fictional purposes now became “Miss Gowrie." For me, at least, this was a happy ending, for Dumnorix and Diviciacus had been resting uneasily all that time in some half- closed chamber of my mind, turning from side to side like Dante's sick man. Now I had done my best to make them comfortable--Caesar and Vercingetorix too.
But as yet I have not found a good place for Parnell.