Saturday, 2 June 2012

'Crisis of faith for the author' - The Novels That Got Away (part 3)


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.


The second episode was to be about Parnell. Here one set of loyalties crisscrossed with a tangled host of others: multiple loyalties, multiple betrayals. Kitty O'Shea betrayed Captain O'Shea with Parnell, then betrayed Parnell with him; at least O'Shea believed that a child she bore while "wedded" to Parnell was his own. Next, O'Shea, having taken money and a Parliamentary seat for his silence, betrayed Parnell to prudish public. The faithful Michael Davitt thereupon deserted the "Chief"; Ireland deserted her Leader, who took ill and died, abandoned by all but "Wifey." As Yeats said it, to the music of a street ballad: "The Bishops and the Party / That tragic story made, / A husband that had sold his wife / And after that betrayed; / But stories that live longest / Are sung above the glass, / And Parnell loved his country, / And Parnell loved his lass."
Yet who betrayed whom and what? Ireland was faithless to Parnell, but wasn't Parnell faithless to the cause of Irish liberty, not to mention Gladstone, in evidently preferring the "lass," who in reality was a 45-year-old married women when the blows began to fall? Moreover, the tragedy had its sordid interludes of trimming, lies and venality: Parnell might have braved the scandal and lived openly with Mrs. O'Shea, maybe married (she had grounds for a divorce), if they had not been waiting for her proper old aunt to die and leave her a large inheritance. Instead, they continued to buy off the untrustworthy Captain O'Shea and were exposed anyway when he upped and filed for a divorce. Only the villain of the piece remained true to his lights. His motives seemed to have been always financial, with revenge as a secondary spur, moving him at long last to action when the main interest was thwarted.
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.