Monday, 30 April 2012

Breakthrough with "...a Catholic Girlhood"

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, the most powerful of McCarthy's published writings, is a compelling account of her early years through to her adolescence. Beginning her narrative with a careful, italicized address to the reader, the author sets the tone for the following eight chapters by reflecting that “to care for the quarrels of the past . . . is to experience a kind of straining against reality, a rebellious nonconformity that, again, is rare in America."  
St Stephen's
Although she renounced religion at an early age, McCarthy was a pious child, and much of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood concerns how Catholicism shaped her adult thinking. She writes of her experiences at St Stephen's:

Looking back, I see that it was religion that saved me. Our ugly church and parochial school provided me with my only aesthetic outlet, in the words of the Mass and the litanies and the old Latin hymns, in the Easter lilies around the altar, rosaries, ornamented prayer books, votive lamps, holy cards stamped in gold and decorated with flower wreaths and a saint’s picture. This side of Catholicism, much of it cheapened and debased by mass production, was for me, nevertheless, the equivalent of Gothic cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts and mystery plays. I threw myself into it with ardor, this sensuous life ... .

What's particularly fascinating about this book is how McCarthy takes all the choices she makes as a memoirist and subjects them to  intense scrutiny. She discusses the temptation to fictionalise, the reliability of memory, the reasons to include or exclude information, the problematic process of re-shaping events and recollections into a cohesive narrative.

From Paula Becker on 

"Mary Therese McCarthy was born on June 21, 1912, at Minor Hospital in Seattle. Her parents were Seattle native Tess Preston McCarthy (1888-1918) and Roy McCarthy (1880-1918), son of a family of successful grain merchants in Minneapolis.
Tess, whose mother, Augusta Morgenstern Preston (1865-1954), was Jewish and whose father, prominent Seattle attorney Harold Preston (1858-1938) was Protestant, had converted to Catholicism at the time of her marriage. Mary was baptized at St. James Cathedral in Seattle by Father Noonan.
Tess & Mary
Young Mary started school at Sacred Heart Convent/Forest Ridge in Seattle, a private girls school run by sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but almost immediately came down with chicken pox. When she recovered she attended school for only eight days before all Seattle schools were ordered closed to help stem the spread of the global influenza pandemic then raging through the state. Before the school reopened Mary, her three younger brothers, and her parents (along with an aunt and uncle) departed by train for Minneapolis, where they were planning to live near Roy McCarthy's parents. While en route the family members fell ill with influenza. By the time they reached their destination Roy and Tess were so ill they had to be carried off the train on stretchers. Both died shortly thereafter.

From a Dickens Novel 
The four orphaned children were not told that their parents had died. Their paternal grandparents put them in the care of Margaret and Meyers Shriver, a paternal great-aunt and her husband, then in their mid-50s.
Of her years in Minneapolis McCarthy later wrote, "It was as though these ignorant people, at sea with four frightened children, had taken a Dickens novel -- Oliver Twist, perhaps, or Nicholas Nickleby -- for a navigational chart" (Memories ... p. 64). Her account of the treatment she and her three younger brothers received includes food deprivation, corporal punishment, being locked outside for hours no matter what the weather, having their mouths taped shut at night to prevent mouth breathing, and other acts of cruelty. When Mary, then age 10, was awarded a $25 prize in a statewide essay contest, her great-uncle took the money and "furiously beat me with the razor strop -- to teach me a lesson, he said, lest I become stuck up" (Memories ... p. 63).
In 1923 Mary and her brother Kevin eventually were able to convey their terrible situation to their visiting maternal grandfather. Kevin and Preston were sent to a Minnesota boarding school. Sheridan, the youngest brother (whose treatment was apparently less barbarous), remained with the Shrivers. Mary returned to Seattle to live with her maternal grandparents."

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
The first part of 'Memories of a Catholic Girlhood' takes place in Minneapolis, primarily within a 10-block radius of the Whittier neighborhood. 


Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cast a Cold Eye

Cast a cold eye On life, on death. 
Horseman, pass by!

This is the epitaph that Poet William Butler Yeats wrote for himself, and, according to his careful directions ("No marble, no conventional phrase"), it is engraved on his simple tomb in the churchyard of Drumcliff.

The ad left is for McCarthy's fourth book, “Cast a Cold Eye,” a collection of stories, four fictional, three autobiographical, published in 1950, when she was 38. 
Of the first story, The Weeds, McCarthy wrote:
I remember I wrote a story in which [Edmund Wilson] more or less figured as a character--this was when we were married--and it was not really a very favorable picture. But it was not a portrait; it was somebody who 
was in the same position vis-a-vis the heroine as he was to me. I gave it to him to read, and he had no comment on that aspect of it....I sent it to 'The New Yorker,' and they took it, and it came out. And he was really quite mad. I said, 'But I showed it to you before.' And he said, 'But you've improved it!'  
                                                                                            Mary McCarthy, Contemporary Authors,     

From The Weeds:
"She remembered all the times she had thought of leaving him before. But there had always been something-the party Saturday night that she did not want to miss,the grapes blue on the vines waiting to be made into jelly, the new sofa for the living room that Macy's would deliver next week, the man to see about the hot-water heater.
And by the time the sofa had come, the man had gone, the jelly had been made, she would no longer be angry with him, or at any rate her anger would have lost its cutting edge and she would have only the dull stone of discontent to turn over and over in her palm."

McCarthy invents the campus novel

McCarthy on McCarthyism

McCarthy's view of intellectual freedom during the years of the red scare, in the late 1940s-early 1950s, The Groves created the new genre of the campus novel, blazing the trail for the likes of David Lodge and Donna Tart, to mention just two.

McCarthy described the novel's starting point in an interview with the Paris Review:

"The Groves of Academe started with the plot. The plot and this figure: there can’t be the plot without this figure of the impossible individual, the unemployable professor and his campaign for justice. Justice, both in quotes, you know, and serious in a way. What isjustice for the unemployable person? That was conceived from the beginning as a plot: the whole idea of the reversal at the end, when Mulcahy is triumphant and the president is about to lose his job or quit, when the worm turns and is triumphant. I didn’t see exactly what would happen in between; the more minute details weren’t worked out. But I did see that there would be his campaign for reinstatement and then his secret would be discovered. In this case that he had not been a communist. "

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Killing off the McCarthy heroine

"Mary McCarthy’s best and most satiric novel, A Charmed Life (1955), centers
on her autobiographical heroine, Martha Sinnott, and Martha’s ex-husband Miles
Murphy, who meet again in a sharply observed group of old friends.

A Charmed Life is based on actual events.  In the summer of 1954, McCarthy,
with her third husband, Bowden Broadwater, returned to Wellfleet, Massachusetts,
on Cape Cod, where her previous husband, Edmund Wilsohis fourth wife, Elena.  In the novel, Martha and John Sinnott unwisely return to
New Leeds (a name that suggests new leads in life and new leashes and restraints).
Their house is near the village where her brilliant, physically unattractive, harddrinking, short-tempered, difficult and domineering ex-husband Miles lives with
his current and quite worshipful wife, Helen.  During his marriage to Martha,
Miles liked to make love on the beach, despite her protests that “somebody would
come and catch them” (73).  But she had to admit that she’d always enjoyed the
risky sex.  Their marriage had ended scandalously when, after a violent argument
in the middle of the night, she fled in her nightgown and his car, and sought refuge
with John Sinnott.  Martha and Miles meet for the first time since their messy
divorce—inevitably, awkwardly and drunkenly—at the reading of Bérénice, when
her husband is in Boston and his wife is at home with their sick child."  Jeffrey Meyers

McCarthy and her third husband, Bowden Broadwater

RL. Did you kill off Martha because you’d become tired of the McCarthy heroine?

MM. Well, I think Martha’s death is justified by the novel’s development, in the sense that she makes a logical choice, out of step with the illogical world she’s part of, but her death was never intended as anything symbolic or sacrificial. But it is true, I was becoming bored of my heroines, for technical reasons really - no matter how I tried to disguise characters like Martha and Meg, or even Katy Norell and Domna Rejnev, in terms of their appearance and profession and so on, they always turned out to be too close to me, despite the surface differences. Also, in terms of viewpoint, the fictional stand- in was becoming far too limiting. After ‘A Charmed Life’, I really wanted to explore less direct forms, without any obvious representative. ‘The Group’ was my first attempt at this – so, for the reader, it becomes a matter of deciding which characters could be trusted and which couldn’t. Take Kay’s death, for instance – was it suicide or just an accident?  To my mind, I provided enough evidence in the book to suggest that it was clearly an accident. The fact that characters like Harald and Libby – who are shown to be completely conceited and self-deluded – believe it was suicide should be enough to convince anyone of the exact opposite.

Fiction Sex Shame V Non-fiction Sex Shame

From McCarthy's autobiography How I Grew

He did not invite me to pose nude, but naturally we "went to the limit" when he set down his brushes. Some of the things he did in bed made me cringe with shame to think of afterwards. It was those sexual practices of his  now common, cf. John Updike  that taught to deal with shame and guilt. When you have committed an action that you cannot bear to think about, that causes you to writhe in retrospect, do not seek to evade the memory: make yourself relive it, confront it repeatedly over and over till finally, you will discover through sheer repetition it loses its power to pain you.

From The Company She Keeps

Waves of shame began to run through her, like savage internal blushes, as fragments of the night before presented themselves for inspection...There were (oh, holy Virgin!) four-letter words that she had been forced to repeat, and, at the climax, a rain of blows on her buttocks that must surely (dear God!) have left bruises...If only nobody could know-

Thursday, 26 April 2012

"...princess among the trolls." The Company She Keeps

McCarthy often played down her role on the revolutionary left during the thirties, as in this passage from an interview in Paris Review 1961.

Well, I went to New York, and I began reviewing for The New Republic and The Nation—right away. I wrote these little book reviews. Then there was a series about the critics. The Nation wanted a large-scale attack on critics and book reviewers, chiefly those in the Herald Tribune, the Times, and the Saturday Review and so on. I had been doing some rather harsh reviews, so they chose me as the person to do this. But I was so young—I think I was twenty-two—that they didn’t trust me. So they got Margaret Marshall, who was the assistant literary editor then, to do it with me: actually we divided the work up and did separate pieces. But she was older and was supposed to be—I don’t know—a restraining influence on me; anyway, someone more responsible. That series was a great sensation at the time, and it made people very mad. I continued just to do book reviews, maybe one other piece about the theater, something like the one on the literary critics. And then nothing more until Partisan Review started. That was when I tried to write the detective story—before Partisan Review. To be exact, Partisan Review had existed as a Stalinist magazine, and then it had died, gone to limbo. But after the Moscow trials, the PR boys, Rahv and Phillips, revived it, got a backer, merged with some other people—Dwight Macdonald and others—and started it again. As an anti-Stalinist magazine. I had been married to an actor, and was supposed to know something about the theater, so I began writing a theater column for them. I didn’t have any other ambitions at all. Then I married Edmund Wilson, and after we’d been married about a week, he said, “I think you have a talent for writing fiction.” And he put me in a little room. He didn’t literally lock the door, but he said, “Stay in there!” And I did. I just sat down, and it just came. It was the first story I had ever written, really: the first story in The Company She Keeps. Robert Penn Warren published it in the Southern Review. And I found myself writing fiction, to my great surprise.
This was when you became involved in politics, wasn’t it?
No. Earlier. In 1936, at the time of the Moscow trials. That changed absolutely everything. I got swept into the whole Trotskyite movement. But by accident. I was at a party. I knew Jim Farrell—I’d reviewed one of his books, I think it was Studs Lonigan—in any case, I knew Jim Farrell, and I was asked to a party given by his publisher for Art Young, the old Masses cartoonist. There were a lot of communists at this party. Anyway, Farrell went around asking people whether they thought Trotsky was entitled to a hearing and to the right of asylum. I said yes, and that was all. The next thing I discovered I was on the letterhead of something calling itself the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. I was furious, of course, at this use of my name. Not that my name had any consequence, but still, it was mine. Just as I was about to make some sort of protest, I began to get all sorts of calls from Stalinists, telling me to get off the committee. I began to see that other people were falling off the committee, like Freda Kirchwey—she was the first to go, I think—and this cowardice impressed me so unfavorably that naturally I didn’t say anything about my name having got on there by accident, or at least without my realizing. So I stayed.
I began to know all the people on the committee. We’d attend meetings. It was a completely different world. Serious, you know. Anyway, that’s how I got to know the PR boys. They hadn’t yet revived the Partisan Review, but they were both on the Trotsky committee, at least Philip was. We—the committee, that is—used to meet in Farrell’s apartment. I remember once when we met on St. Valentine’s Day and I thought, Oh, this is so strange, because I’m the only person in this room who realizes that it’s Valentine’s Day. It was true! I had a lot of rather rich Stalinist friends, and I was always on the defensive with them, about the Moscow trial question, Trotsky and so on. So I had to inform myself, really, in order to conduct the argument. I found that I was reading more and more, getting more and more involved in this business. At the same time I got a job at Covici-Friede, a rather left-wing publishing house now out of business, also full of Stalinists. I began to see Philip Rahv again because Covici Friede needed some readers’ opinions on Russian books, and I remembered that he read Russian, so he came around to the office, and we began to see each other. When Partisan Review was revived I appeared as a sort of fifth wheel—there may have been more than that—but in any case as a kind of appendage of Partisan Review.
Then you hadn’t really been interested in politics before the Moscow trials?
No, not really. My first husband had worked at the Theater Union, which was a radical group downtown that put on proletarian plays, and there were lots of communists in that. Very few socialists. And so I knew all these people; I knew that kind of person. But I wasn’t very sympathetic to them. We used to see each other, and there were a lot of jokes. I even marched in May Day parades. Things like that. But it was all . . . fun. It was all done in that spirit. And I remained, as the Partisan Review boys said, absolutely bourgeois throughout. They always said to me very sternly, “You’re really a throwback. You’re really a twenties figure.”

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

" there enough sex in the story?"

The Oasis, McCarthy's second novel. was first published as the February 1949 edition of the British literary magazine Horizon, edited by Cyril. Connelly, who called the book " beautifully written and intelligently thought and felt." And who also asked McCarthy in a letter, "Do you think there is enough sex in the story? With all those contraceptives they seem to make precious little use of them."
A brutally satiric roman a clef , The Oasis focuses on a disparate group of liberal/leftist intellectuals who attempt to create a utopian colony in rural Pennsylvania, just as the Iron Curtain is coming down and the prospect of  nuclear annihilation is becoming a real threat.
When it appeared in the U.S. a few months later, the novella caused a minor storm among McCarthy's friends. Her former lover, the critic and editor of Partisan Review Philip Rahv, was so incensed  by the caricature of him, Will Tab, that he tried to halt its publication, initiating a lawsuit alleging 132 violations of his rights. He may have been dissuaded from pursuing the case by his friend and co-editor, Dwight MacDonald, who reminded him that in order to win, Rahv would have to prove that he was Will Taub."'Are you prepared to make that kind of a jackass of yourself?'" he wondered. At the same time, Hannah Arendt, who later became McCarthy's closest friend, wrote to her: "I just read The Oasis and must tell you that it was pure delight. You have written a veritable little masterpiece."

RL. You said recently that “…to be a novelist you have to have this alert social thing.” Regarding ‘The Oasis’, was this the moment when you became more interested in social interaction, from a political perspective, as the subject for a novel?

MM. I think many writers begin with short stories because a novel sometimes seems too big a project to undertake, but there wasn’t one definite moment. I’d always been attracted to exploring the idea of social justice and when I began work on ‘The Oasis’, the novel was really the only suitable form. To write a novel, I think you have to have quite a bit of experience, to know how different kinds of people behave and to be able to judge them. Politically, I’ve never really understood why people saw my treatment of all those liberal-left characters as so destructive. That old picture of me as a sneering satirist with an acid tongue is utterly stupid! What I really wanted to do was to provoke some sort of political re-thinking on the left, about the problem of trying to live up to your principles. ‘The Oasis’ wasn’t really an attack on the theory of utopias, but more about the failure of the wrong people trying to put them into practice. And yet the right people probably wouldn’t have made it work either, because of the nature of utopianism, I suppose – various projects have proved the impracticality of those types of ideals.
But, for me as a novelist, it’s more than a social thing - I sometimes see a novel as a kind of testing ground for different principles. Take ‘A Charmed Life’ for instance – I was very interested in exploring the difficulty of maintaining personal ethics in a skewed social environment – New Leeds – built on the shifting sands of moral relativism. In the end Martha’s downfall is not because of her ex-husband but because she pays the price for not standing by her own principles.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

On the McCarthy Heroine

RL. Meg never seems to realise the independence she longs for in those stories. Is this a pessimistic point of view?

MM. Well, no, I don’t think so. They were realistic in the sense that they drew on my own experiences at the time. I think it’s true that I wrote them, or one of them at least, partly as a way of hitting back at Wilson, but I was attempting to be truthful about what had happened, without trying to generalise from my own position. So realistic, and unromantic, yes, but not pessimistic.

RL. The one hope for many of your heroines seems to be their critical self-honesty. Does this conscience represent anything more than an individual solution to broader social problems?

MM. The self-honesty part's at the core of everything I’ve written! Can’t you tell? Far from being subjective, I think truth and honesty are principles to be defended in all aspects of life, political and personal. Take Solzhenitsyn - I have real doubts about some of his views, but I’ve nothing but admiration for his courage, standing up to the full force of the Soviet system. As for my characters, those early heroines are thoughtful, observant, doubting, never really inclined to delusion or fantasy. In many ways, with their cherished intellectual honour and curious consciences, they’re very conventional heroines.

Mary McCARTHY (USA), writer. - Mary McCarthy (USA) writer (right). 1965. - Culture, Museum, Necklace, Sculpture, Woman (all ages)

RL. But for some of your characters, like Polly Grabbe in ‘The Cicerone’ and Lakey in ‘The Group’, wealth and privilege offer greater freedom and control. With these characters, were you pointing to class differences in the way women negotiate relationships with a male world?

MM. Well, I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms - but yes, this could well be the case. It’s pretty obvious that wealth, beauty and intelligence allow a character like Lakey the kind of independence denied to her college friends, though it’s difficult to think of Polly as representative of an alternative life-style for women - she was essentially a comic character whose reversal of roles was just as crude and spiteful as in some traditional relationships.

Mary McCARTHY (USA)- writer. - USA. The writer Mary McCARTHY. 1971. - American (nationality), Cigarette, Female personality, Interior, Laughter, Living room, McCARTHY Mary, Portrait, Proper name in caption, Seated, Smoker, United States of America (all), White people, Woman - 45 to 60 years, Writer

Monday, 23 April 2012

"...she saw herself as a citadel of socialist virginity, that could be taken and taken again, but never truly subdued."


I began by asking about her current writing projects

MM. I’ve started work on a new autobiography, what my publisher calls an intellectual autobiography, beginning in 1925, when I first seemed to notice that there was such a thing as an intellectual!  It starts where Memories of a Catholic Girlhood ended, more or less, but it’s really nothing like Memories, in style or content.  I’ve approached the early part from a different angle and used a lot of new material, especially new portraits. The impulse to improvise – re-imagining conversations or re-ordering events for dramatic impact and so on – is nowhere near as strong as it was for Memories. Maybe the greater distance of time has made me more particular in some ways, or at least it’s reduced the urge to follow fictional conventions.

RL. On the topic of writing and recollection, how do you respond to comments made by some reviewers of your early fiction, that it was simply thinly disguised autobiography?

MM. In many of those early short stories, fictionalizing events from my own life was, at least partly, I think, a kind of distancing device for self-observation, making it easier for me to step back and study my own feelings, under the camouflage of fiction. Most writers begin by writing about themselves and, in that sense, I was certainly no exception. Having said that – and going back to your question - I do so hate that sloppy assumption which somehow labels The Company She Keeps as ‘merely’ autobiographical, as though there were just this one-to one connection between writer and character. I think it shows a lack imagination, a lack of attention to the writing itself. Actually, it was only after I’d written my third story that the idea of a heroine for a novel began to take shape - which, in one sense for me, was really a kind of experiment in perspective. But anyway, that sort of criticism is all the more irritating because it overlooks the ideas I was really trying to consider.

RL. Did that include considering Meg Sargent as somehow typical of her gender and era?

MM. It was never my aim to characterise Meg Sargent as a woman of her times, though I think any serious writer will automatically reflect the social values of their age, in one way or another. No, the idea of femininity, as an identity, or as some sort of restraint or restriction, was not my concern; neither was I particularly interested in examining ‘gender’. I was far more interested in describing human affairs, not just male-female, but the wider network of social ties and influences, in relation to personal integrity and honesty, for instance, or power and justice. The idea of surviving a particular kind of domination was obviously a concern in a story like ‘Ghostly Father, I Confess’ which, as you probably know, had quite a direct autobiographical source, growing out of period in my life when my second husband (Edmund Wilson) had convinced me to see a psychiatrist – three in fact, all very conservative, politically and professionally – in return for a divorce and custody of my son, Reuel, who was then 4. In fact, it was really a trick to stop me filing for separation - not a conspiracy as such, but they all wanted me to go back to the marriage. As things turned out, once I’d escaped from Wilson, it became perfectly clear that all my so-called psychological problems were the inventions of the psychiatrists.

RL. In one particular story – ‘The Friend of the Family’ – you make a clear connection between the decline of a marriage and the rise of fascism. In drawing this parallel, were you developing the idea of male-female relationships as political power struggles?

MM. The story was conceived on experimental lines, in terms of making comparisons between politics and human relationships in general, not just male/female. I don’t know how anyone could put a feminist label on that, or on anything else I’ve written for that matter. Feminism is simply not part of my generation’s way of looking at things - though obviously, the politics of human affairs has always interested me. And, in that story for example, it was a natural connection to make, between social behaviour and political tyranny.


That McCarthy's own views were outwardly at odds with my feminist reading of her fiction posed obvious questions. Could the writing be feminist and the author not?  Was she a feminist in denial?  Dr John, my tutor in American Studies, suggested I ask her directly, which at first seemed absurd: a literary giant consenting to be interviewed by a student from a provincial English university? Not very likely.  And yet, as Dr John pointed out, she had accepted an honorary degree from Hull in 1975, which he thought might be a useful angle of approach, adding that if you don’t ask, you obviously don’t get. So I wrote to her in Paris in September 1981 and, to my immense surprise, she agreed to meet me at her apartment on the Rue de Rennes in January 1982.
It was a cold but sunny afternoon in Paris when I called on Mary McCarthy. I was a bit late because of a hold up on the metro, and, as she’d been quite precise about the timing of our meeting over the ‘phone – ‘at 2, for just an hour’ – I had to hurry out of the station exit and was sweating by the time I found the address.
Despite McCarthy’s reputation for caustic wit and razor retorts – a construction by male critics, which she famously dismissed as ‘Balls!’ – I found her to be a patient, polite and positive interviewee, whose replies to my often awkward questioning were always carefully considered. As far as ‘outing’ her as a feminist, my mission was not as unsuccessful as I’d feared - it’s appealing to speculate about what she might have gone on to say, had we not run out of time at an interesting point in the conversation.


Sunday, 22 April 2012

No Feminist Here

In 1982, for the 24 year old me, McCarthy’s feminism was a truth waiting to be told, and, having despaired at the deadly corpus of Lit. Crit. on her, I thought I might play some part in announcing the discovery. I didn’t know it at the time,  but it turned out I wasn’t alone in this view:  McCarthy’s one-time editor on Partisan Review, William Barrett, had reached a similar conclusion. In his memoir of the New York radical scene of the 1930s and 40s, The Truants, published in 1982, Barrett wrote of ‘The Company She Keeps’: “We did not know it then, but she was in fact firing the first salvo in the feminist war that now rages within our society, though I doubt the movement has since produced any weapon of equal class and calibre. It was also something of a shocking book, or seemed so at the time.”
     But the trouble with seeing McCarthy as a feminist was that she really wasn’t having any of it. In fact, she had expressed an intense dislike for feminism, or so it seemed from a succession of fairly unequivocal public statements:

“A woman can’t possibly have all the prerogatives of being a woman and the privileges of being a man at the same time….I much prefer being a woman, probably for very bad reasons like liking clothes and so on.”  Vogue 1963.
“As for Women’s Lib, it bores me….this whole myth about how different the world would have been if it had been female dominated…seems a complete fantasy to me.” Miriam Gross, The Observer 1979.
“I’ve always liked being a woman. And it seems to me that one of the problems of a lot of feminists is they don’t like being women.” Carol Brightman, The Nation 1984

To be fair, McCarthy had also voiced admiration for a number of feminist writers and causes, yet, at the same time, it was obvious that she held a deep dislike for radical feminism and was invariably at pains to distance herself from ‘woman’s lib’. 

"You really are a sweet girl," he said, "even if you do act like a trotskyite dragon."

The earliest and best proof of McCarthy's explicitly political interest in one-sided heterosexual power struggles, can be found in her first book, ‘The Company She Keeps’, a collection of six loosely linked short stories, first published in 1942. While the subjects of the stories are men, the perspective belongs to Meg Sargeant, a young, radical, intellectual cipher for McCarthy, sexually and politically active in 1930's New York, whose various experiences and misadventures are painfully recorded and dissected.

“She might marry a second, a third, a fourth time, or she might never marry again. But, in any case, for the thrifty bourgeois love insurance, with its daily payments of patience, forbearance, and resignation, she was no longer eligible. She would be, she told herself delightedly, a bad risk.” (Cruel and Barbarous Treatment)

“The man’s whole assault on her now seemed to have a political character; it was an incidental atrocity in the long class war” (The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt)

“‘Ah,’ she said, ‘now you are on Frederick’s side. You think I ought to welcome my womanly role in life, keep up his position, tell him how wonderful he is, pick up the crumbs from his table and eat them in the kitchen.’” (Ghostly Father, I Confess)  
“The romantic life had been too hard on her. In morals as in politics anarchy is not for the weak. The small state, racked by internal dissension, invites the foreign conqueror.” (Ghostly Father, I Confess)  

A recent Observer review, by Sophia Martelli, offers an interesting summary: 

" Semi-autobiographical and self-revealing, The Company She Keeps is a jagged diamond of a book, the multifaceted parts giving a glimpse of a brilliant but fractured whole. " 


Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Magnificent Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy's centenary is this year, 2012. One of the greatest political novelists of the 20th century, her life and work will be celebrated here. I met Mary in Paris 30 years ago and will be publishing my interview with her on this blog.