Thursday, 31 May 2012

Who You On About, Leafy?

Mary McCarthy
Not much of a resemblance either - Katherine Eastland's illustration perfectly matches Jonathan Leaf's distorted representation of our hero 
I suppose we should feel grateful to Jonathan Leaf for putting MM's Centenary out there in the mainstream. If The Standard is mainstream that is. Being a Brit, I'm not entirely sure what The Standard's politics are, but, from their political headlines, and Mr Leaf's article 'Quite Contrary', I'm guessing Republican cheerleaders for the American Empire. 

  The fact that there's now some kind of acknowledgement from virtual Grubb Street that McCarthy's ton-up is imminent should be cause for celebration on this blog, shouldn't it? Well..the question must be the Leaf and Eastland version of McCarthy one that we can actually recognise? In many ways, Leaf's depiction sounds like gung-ho neo-con throwback bile, such as

 her programmatic anti-Americanism led her towards shameful and dishonest political tracts like her uncritically laudatory account of her visit to North Vietnam, Hanoi (1968). 

Or the ramblings a psycho-babbling mysogentistic red neck hard-on:

 Her rampant promiscuity—which eventually included dozens, if not hundreds, of lovers—raises the question, previously unasked by biographers, of whether she suffered from some bipolar or borderline personality disorder.  

Would he make the same outrageous judgement about a male writer? That  Byron was an over-sexed nutjob or Joe Orton a psychotic sausage-jockey?.  And yet, to give him his due, Mr Leaf does at least make a strong case that The Company She Keeps can best a male writer:

 It is Portnoy’s Complaint told from a woman’s point of view, ending poignantly and written in a far superior style.

But I think this article deserves some consideration, if only for it's analysis of the airbrushed from history phenomenon:

 Hostility towards McCarthy was evident in the academy from very early on in her career—even before her scabrous and somewhat heartless satire of self-infatuated left-wing English professors in The Groves of Academe (1952). A decade earlier, McCarthy had gained the animosity of the Communist party and its fellow travelers through her work for the Trotskyite Partisan Review, and she amplified this mutual antipathy with essays such as “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” in which she lampooned the preoccupation among literary scholars with symbolism. Here and elsewhere, she advanced the provocative notion that fiction should be judged principally in terms of its merit as storytelling, and read primarily to find out what happens to the hero or heroine.  
Another cause for resentment was her effective demolition of Simone de Beauvoir in “Mlle. Gulliver en Amérique.” Reviewing a Beauvoir volume unavailable in English, McCarthy pointed out its innumerable idiocies: a stated admiration for James “Algee” (Agee), Eugene “O’Neil” (O’Neill), and “Max” Twain; her delight in living in “Greeniwich Village”; and her belief that the shops along New York’s Fifth Avenue were “reserved for the capitalist international.” 

So , one cheer for Mr Leaf's perspicacity on this issue and two boos for the sad fact that he can trot out nasty sexist stereotypes and cold war smears against McCarthy like it was 1970.

The Real MM

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

It was to be a story of treason and divided allegiances.

But those two were not the only novels I started and then gave up. There was an earlier one, much more ambitious, which no longer exists in any file or trunk, having been--as we would say now--recycled. It was to be a story of treason and divided allegiances. The setting was the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. There, on the odd- numbered side, sat a studious person surrounded by stacks of books, doing research on seemingly diverse subjects that would turn out to be the central matter of the novel itself. The time was contemporary: 1942, the middle of World War II. I myself was sitting at an old rolltop desk, painted white, in Edmund Wilson's house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Newly installed in the windows were blackout shades. Among the frequenters of "my" public library reading room would be a number of refugees from Hitler.

The book was to contain three separate narratives, three episodes from history, linked by a common theme. The first had to do with Dumnorix and Diviciacus, the Haeduans, a pair of ill-matched brothers who figured in Caesar's "Gallic Wars": one was loyal, and one was faithless. From Caesar's point of view, evidently. For him, as for Miss Mackay, my Latin teacher at Annie Wright Seminary in Tacoma, there could be no doubt as to which was which. Diviciacus was the good Indian, and Dumnorix the bad Indian. But there was a less Roman way of looking at it, which had become visible to me as I grew up. From a Gaulish point of view, the shifty, oathbreaking Dumnorix was a patriot and the honorable Diviciacus was a traitor, an antique Quisling or mustached puppet of Rome. Overtones of current events were meant to be heard, and yet this (as I now feel) was somewhat misleading.
Certainly the story as told by Caesar was equivocal, capable of being read in opposed senses. But could that be said, really, of Vidkus Quisling if you assigned him an imaginary brother (Gunnar) who fought and died in the Resistance? There was only one way in which I, the author, could see that pair. Here, perhaps, was the flaw in the novel that caused it eventually to buckle and fall apart: the contemporary parallels were imperfect. To side with Caesar was no hideous crime; Vercingetorix himself had been Caesar's friend until the pivotal moment came; a Romanized Arvernian, probably speaking some Latin, could well have felt somewhat torn, divided within himself.
Something of the kind proved to be the case of the two Indian sachems, sons of Massasoit-- King Philip, as he was called by the English, and his brother known as Alexander--whom I began to look into, with the idea of using them as a subplot in the Dumnorix-Diviciacus section. King Philip was a far nobler figure than the crafty Dumnorix, and the story of his rising and bloody defeat was horrible: His head, said the Britannica, "was sent to Plymouth and set on a pole in a public place, where it remained for a quarter-of-a-century; his right hand was given to his slayer, who preserved it in rum and won many pennies by exhibiting it in the New England towns." Yet there was the settlers' side to be considered, too, and the side represented by the "friendlies," who in the end very successfully betrayed him. At some point, Philip, who had earned the name of a "statesman," must have been of two minds.
In short, I was stretching a point in trying to set up a harmonic with what was then "today." True, Caesar's story of the Haeduan brothers did have the capacity of eternal recurrence, causing it to repeat itself over the ages in varying "colonial" contexts. But for a Caesar to have a "side," he must be felt to be a force of civilization, progress, order, law, bridge- building; his imperial eagles nesting in the Capitol must be seen to have sharp visions and powerful wings. None of this applied to Hitler, and the refugees who were going to be heard from time to time on the library steps favorably comparing German music, scenery, coffee houses with our native articles were not rent divided loyalties; they were merely homesick.
There were no real traitors in any of my narratives, whatever I tried to think. But at that shivery time--when a rubber boat from a Nazi submarine came ashore one night on the beach near Provincetown--the figure of the traitor or turncoat had a fascination for literary people, and I suspect I was being guided by a mode-in-the-making. At any rate, I remember having little pangs of territorial jealousy when, not too much later--why did this subject appeal specially to women?--Rebecca West's "The Meaning of Treason" and Elizabeth Bowen's "The Heat of the Day" came out while my novel lay in a drawer; after all, I had thought of it first.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Novels That Got Away: Part 1 'The Lost Week' and 'Mrs Harold Husted'

November 25, 1979

The Novels That Got Away
Somewhere on these premises in Paris--along with boxes of old Christmas decorations--or in a trunk in Maine there must be the vestiges of two novels I started and abandoned decades ago. It will be no great loss if they are not exhumed. The first, titled "The Lost Week," was inspired by the descent on Truro, on Cape Cod, by Charlie Jackson, the novelist, in the summer of 1945. Spurred on by friends (the subject was "made for me," they thought), I began it there and then in the first heat of amusement. A satire, it was to be, on the literary life and the thirst for fame, just as dangerous to self-respect as the thirst for alcohol; the protagonist was called Herbert Harper. That is about all I remember, though the manuscript ran to 80 or 90 typed pages.
Better than the manuscript I remember the circumstances of taking it and my typewriter at the very end of that summer by a series of trains and a ferry to Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, where I planned to work for a week without interruption in what I pictured as the Evangeline country. I would put up at an inn or a fisherman's shingled cottage and take solitary walks along the beat to freshen my invention. The reality was different. My last view of the sea was from the ferry that took me to Digby. Yarmouth proved to be a desolating commercial town containing banks, insurance companies and a movie house.

 I stayed at the traveling salesmen's hotel (the hotel accommodation, I think) and rode up in the elevator and down three times a day to the dining room, where I was eyed without much curiosity by the salesmen with their cases of samples at nearby tables. I spoke to nobody, and nobody spoke to me. After a single frightening foray into the businesslike streets in search of the harbor, which I never found, I stayed all day long in my room like a prisoner sentenced to the typewriter. The room was made up while I was below, eating; the waiter brought me my food with scarcely a look or a word. My sole terse exchanges were with the bank clerk who changed my money and a the postal employee who took my telegram when I nerved myself to go out a second time in order to plot my escape.
By a turn of poetic justice, this became my own lost week.

Uninspiring Yarmouth

 On my return, no one, I discovered, believed that I had gone all that way to Nova Scotia to get ahead with a novel: My friends were convinced that there had been a romantic episode, a secret tryst. And I had nothing, finally, to show for it, despite the unusual activity of my typewriter, which had been steadily yielding about 10 pages a day at the command of my weakening will. As I packed them into the suitcase, I already "guessed." I had run out of steam. The novel had ground to a halt, petering out in the middle of a sentence, for all I know. I have never looked to see.

Six or seven years later, in Portsmouth, R.I. (having published "The Oasis" and "The Groves of Academe"), I made another false start. This time the action is laid in New York. The heroine is a young married woman known only as Mrs. Harold Husted--no given name. The tone of the writing is brisk; she is a brisk small person with sandy hair. The story opens in midtown on a fine city morning; she is a brisk small person with sandy hair. The story opens in midtown on a fine city morning; she is on the street early, perhaps having taken a child to the school bus. There is a description of early morning sights and sounds-- the giant iceman emerging from his cellar, the bakery truck delivering, the milkman. Her crisp little nature loves being out among these other early birds, pioneers of the day--birds ofher feather, she feels them to be. I can recall only one phrase: "weaving a ribbon of newness through the garment (?) of the day."
But almost at once a disagreeable duty imposes itself. She must find an open drugstore and shut herself up in a phone booth to call her lover. He will still be in bed, of course, soggy with sleep, eyelids gummy, voice rheumy and thick. "Honey," he wheedles, sounding plaintive but nonetheless appeasing. She is repelled, as she is every morning when she has to wake him. But if she does not call him now, it will be too late. She cannot do it from her apartment; her husband is there. She has only this quarter of an hour. Often, as today, she is tempted to forgo letting him know when she will be free; she can put her nickel back into her coin purse and go home. But generally she exerts her will, forcing herself to drop the coin and not to be irritated when he answers. If only he could be up one morning, just to please her. He knows the burden is on her because he must not call her at home.
Yet why does she go through with this chore? It is a mystery to her. Maybe because it is a chore, like cleaning the oven, and she feels duty-bound, as a good person, to conquer her aversion. When she is with him, across a lunch table or in his (still) unmade bed, after a while it wears off. But why must she have a lover at all? He is her first, and yet he has become chronic, like a habit.
The manuscript breaks off in the phone book, that is, at the familiar lowest moment of Mrs. Harold Husted's day: no more ribbon of newness. Looking back, I think I see why I could not go on. This pitiful cramped version of the eternal triangle is too abstract, too neoclassical, to make a novel. We do not need to know more about the lover or about Mr. Harold Husted, the husband who for some plausible or implausible reason will still be at home at 9 o'clock in the morning. All we need to know has already been told. Actually this is a short story that should have ended (where it did) in the phone booth. If a student gave me the manuscript, I would tell her that. But I also see something that a teacher of writing would not have been able to guess. Clearly, this fragment is a foreshadowing of "The Group." Though little Mrs. Husted's story does not appear there, her anxious but game spirit has carried over.
Bette Davies Reconstructs

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Horrifying, brilliant, and hysterically funny—all at the same time. - Bombshell 4 : Frances Kiernan on 'A Charmed Life'.

Lynne Tillman Her marriage to Wilson is talked about so much. Whatever other reasons she had, she also left him because he might in some way dominate her intellectually.
Frances Kiernan She had to leave, she’d gone as far as she could go with him. He tried not to dominate her. I love what she tells an interviewer about “The Weeds,” which was a story about their marriage. Wilson read it, helped her with it, and didn’t object to her sending it out. But he got so angry, later, when it was published. She said to him, “But you read it.” And he said, “But you made it better.” It’s about a wife who leaves, then the husband goes after her and brings her back. There’s so much anger and hatred in the story. And they’re so recognizable.
LT There’s much talk in your biography about the time she was in a mental hospital. What did you think happened?
FK Did Wilson beat her? I suspect he did. He was drunk, out of control. I think he didn’t remember beating her. Did he beat her as much as she thought? Probably not. It was awful for her, nonetheless. What she later admitted to Wilson’s biographer, Lewis Dabney, was that perhaps she was aware at the time of being put into a mental institution. Always she believed she was telling the truth. She was a great truth teller. But she misremembered things, the way we all do. Certainly, she did this less than most of us. But with time, stories altered. It happens. I start the biography with meeting Mary in the ladies’ room at The New Yorker. I remember her graying hair, it was shoulder length, and I think she was smoking by the window. But am I positive about the smoking by the window? Why was she on the 20th floor and not the 19th floor where [William] Shawn was? You’ve told this story so many times to yourself and to other people you aren’t sure anymore.
LT Being thrown into a mental hospital after that fight with Wilson would’ve been traumatic.
FK It would distort everything. Her letters to him strike me as the letters of a battered wife. Though they could be used to make a case on Wilson’s behalf—she’s trying to say I’m not going to be hysterical anymore. I find it so touching that she wants to keep her baby, Rueul. Which she does indeed do. I find her totally admirable to this day. I never got tired of her, ever. It took eight years to do the book, and that’s a long time to spend with anyone. Her life began to take over mine. I had a real crisis during the marriage to Wilson. After a while, I got so depressed; and there was a real sense of elation when she finally broke out. Then more elation when she discovers Europe, goes to Venice, finds something else. I really cried when writing her death. For me, it was terrible.
LT Her death makes me think of A Charmed Life. Death, and also sex. The sex scene on the couch…
FK Horrifying, brilliant, and hysterically funny—all at the same time.
LT It’s a great novel.
FK It’s my favorite. It was also James Merrill’s favorite. He said she could barely stand to think about death. Here she dispatches her heroine so quickly.
LT Being forced to consider whether it was right to have her main character die is one of the reasons why the ending works.
FK You don’t expect it at all. But it is prepared for. Her first book, The Company She Keeps, a collection of stories, is her best book probably. “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” is in it. It’s so modern. Everyone has learned so much from her, without knowing it. She changed the way women write.

Mary McCarthy, Paris, mid-’60s. Courtesy of Vassar College Library.
LT Was Dorothy Parker important to McCarthy?
FK No, the person who was was Rebecca West.
LT But there’s a frankness to Parker’s short stories—
FK Which Mary has. A writer named Tess Slesinger was actually the first to deal with the world of New York intellectuals. But as a writer she’s more self-effacing. Not as sharp or strident, not as good. In the best of those stories Mary has a strong main character, always the same Mary character. She is her own heroine and always best when she’s writing about herself. Look at Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Look at A Charmed Life. What’s interesting to me is that people say she’s not a good fiction writer. She is, at her best, and she’s a terrific essayist. The disparagement of her fiction is so wrongheaded.
LT Maybe it’s because of The GroupThe Group had so much attention as the next generation came along. It’s not her best novel.
FK If somebody else wrote it, it would be fine. But for her it was a falling off.
LT Through your work and Carol Brightman’s, do you think that there’s a chance her reputation will be restored?
FK I would love that. I think it’s Alison Lurie who says in my book that McCarthy had such an influence on writers that what was once profound or shocking no longer seems quite so fresh. William Maxwell then talks about posterity, and how when one looks to posterity one assumes they are going to be brighter than we are, but they’re going to be pretty much like us. And he says, “Anywhere that people have hearts they’re going to read Memories of a Catholic Girlhoodand those early stories in The Company She Keeps.” I’d like to believe that’s true: in the end quality will out. I think that what stays with me is the intelligence and the feeling both, there’s so much feeling in her writing.
LT Without being sentimental. She’s a tough thinker.
FK And she was willing to pay the price.

Friday, 25 May 2012

'I would have been Mary McCarthy's groupie' - Bombshell 3 from Frances Kiernan

Lynne Tillman For her, satire is a way of getting at the truth.
Frances Kiernan It’s still in The Group. Because The Group was conceived in 1952. But you don’t see it turning up in her fiction, really, ever again after she marries Jim West. In fact, she deliberately forgoes satire in Birds of America. It’s meant to be taken straight. The other, Cannibals and Missionaries, is a thriller. For the most part she’s playing it straight again. Satire is where she’s strongest, except for Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and of course that isn’t really fiction.
LT She’s bold in the way she wrote about sex, in her writing generally, in how she led her life. She held strong positions, used episodes from her life and people she knew who knew they were in her books. She took harsh criticism and didn’t flinch.
FK She stuck by it all. There was something in her that didn’t necessarily want people to like her. I think she wanted people to notice her.
LT You can imagine the reactions to her novels or her essays, compared with her childhood deprivations…
FK She could get through it. Because there is a difference. She was upset. John Gross talks about having written a bad review of The Group; he always felt that she’d read it. It was between them, but it never came up. She did read those things and took them hard. But at the same time it never stopped her. Somehow she could slough it off.
LT How did she take Mailer’s writing that “she was not a good enough woman to be a good novelist?”
FK She hated that review when it came out. She was really upset. Later on, with Birds of America, Helen Vendler attacked her for writing a book about the kitchen and domestic arts. The reviews were not great, and she said she began to long for something of the quality of Mailer’s review. Mailer said later on she forgave him, they had a decent relationship. It was wrong and sexist of him to do it. But at least he treated her as a figure worthy of this kind of demolition. In time, she wasn’t getting that kind of attention, and I think she may have missed it.
LT You were a fiction editor at The New Yorker for many years.
FK I was there for 20 years, always in the fiction department.
LT I wondered about your thoughts on the differences between fiction and biography.
FK No one would have written the kind of biography that I did who hadn’t come out of a fiction background. I’m so interested in Mary McCarthy as a personality. She is first and foremost the center. I’m interested in watching her develop and the contradictions in her character. I don’t believe that there is a truth that is knowable, and that permeates the book.
LT Is that why you chose to use oral history?
FK I was originally going to write a straight oral history. Then, I guess the book had three or four different people who were interested in buying it, but the one I wanted to go with was Gerry Howard at Norton. Gerry said, “We feel you should have writing of your own to control the voices.” For me the idea of doing an oral history was appealing. But it didn’t work. As the book goes on there’s more and more of my writing. What I realized was you needed my writing for the flexibility of it; also it was a way of shortening the book. It made it possible to take out about 300 pages. At some point I found the format constricting and wanted to do it as a straight biography. But Gerry felt it would be a loss. The fact is, some of those voices are terrific.
LT When you suggested doing McCarthy, had you read the other biographies?
FK No, but I did immediately. The Brightman hadn’t come out at that point; we thought Carol Brightman was doing a book about Mary’s politics, not a full-scale biography; I never would have attempted this book if I knew.
LT Was she helpful to you?
FK She’s been wonderful to me. What first happened was I read Doris Grumbach’s and then Carol Gelderman’s. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t start a book about someone I couldn’t like and respect. I saw quickly that she had flaws, but they weren’t flaws that bothered me. I think that’s important. Because people would say, “How could you do a book about this person? She was so awful!” I never found her awful.
LT What was so awful about her?
FK If you had a brush with her and she didn’t like you, she could be a terror. But I had never had a brush with her. I could imagine in my mind she liked me because people I knew and cared about she had liked and been good to. I think that was part of it. Many people have said to me, “Why you, of all people?” But what I liked in her was that she was so different from me. She was all the things that I would have liked to be, the person who did speak out. That’s why I was drawn to her. I would have been a Mary McCarthy groupie if we had met.
LT What about the instability of oral history, about people’s memories of the past and bad personal histories? Saul Bellow is particularly vicious and condescending.
FK I thought it would be obvious to readers when they’re way out of line. Bellow’s sometimes out of control. I sat with him for an hour and laughed the entire time—he’s one of the funniest men in the world. Later I thought, he hasn’t said a nice thing about anybody. I did all my own transcribing, because I felt it was important to hear the voices again. I transcribed Bellow accurately and was astonished at how mean he was. But his voice was so gentle, he was so charming. I thought, the delivery manages to mask the venom. He really hated her. It was mostly about Eichmann in Jerusalem — they were on opposite sides; Mary defended Hannah in an essay, “The Hue and Cry,” and he didn’t like Hannah. The other thing was Mary’s attack on George Orwell. Bellow was a good friend of Sonia Orwell, the widow,but he also felt that Mary was plain wrong about Orwell. She was. But it was Mary; she had her reasons.

LT Going back to her insistence on questioning ethical positions, which she did—
FK Constantly.
LT When she attacked Hellman for lying, it also damaged her, her reputation. It was one woman, one writer, attacking another.
FK Hellman lost, too. You don’t sue someone for making a personal attack.
LT The argument went back to the 1930s—
FK Hellman was a Stalinist. In 1948 Mary and she were at a party, at Sarah Lawrence—it was the second time they met—and Mary overheard Hellman accusing John Dos Passos of turning against the loyalist cause because he didn’t like the food in Madrid. Mary stepped forward, publicly corrected Hellman, and defended Dos Passos.
LT McCarthy was politically engaged.
FK Emotionally as well as politically engaged. The way most of us are.
LT She came of age in a period when positions were very clearly drawn. That’s compelling to consider now, in our post-Cold War world.
FK By temperament McCarthy tended to side with the underdog always. But in fact the underdog tended to be right. I think her finest hour is during the 1950s, when everybody else is losing their bearings, and she doesn’t. She stays on the right side, and she speaks out.
LT Was she ever brought in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee?
FK No, because she was never a Communist. She was an anti-Stalinist of the Left, but aside from signing a petition on Trotsky’s behalf I don’t think she was officially part of any radical group. Unlike William Phillips or Philip Rahv, she had no ties to the Communists, who had funded an earlier version of the Partisan Review. She’d never joined the Party.
LT Rahv, her former lover—one of the very interesting men in her life.
FK She does define herself through the men she’s with somehow, for all her independence. Mary always wanted to be Mary McCarthy, not on anybody’s coattails. But there’s no question Edmund Wilson helped her by encouraging her to write fiction. He was the best first reader you could hope for. He also had wonderful connections. Her first story was published by Robert Penn Warren, who was a friend of Wilson’s. Wilson had lots of connections at The New Yorker. It made it easier. She wanted to believe that she was the orphan who made it on her own. We all have our own stories about ourselves.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Bombshells 2 - "Is she too European?" LT to FK about MM

(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.
Hannah Arendt

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.
Alfred Kazin

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Bombshells 1 - 'Seeing Mary Plain' biographer Frances Kiernan talks to Lynne Tillman from Bomb in 2000


Frances Kiernan’s biography Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy helps us see Mary McCarthy again, and maybe, for many readers, for the first time. Today McCarthy is best known for her novel The Group and her memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. But she wrote 20 books, including the revolutionary short story collection The Company She Keeps, as well as essays, investigative journalism, theater criticism and travel books. Born in 1912 and active until her death in 1989, McCarthy engaged with the fascinating characters of her day—critic Edmund Wilson, philosopher Hannah Arendt, art historian Bernard Berenson, novelist Norman Mailer, writer Elizabeth Hardwick and poet Robert Lowell to name just a few. Kiernan interviewed over 200 people for this book—writers of McCarthy’s generation and the next, friends, enemies, relatives, critics. In part an oral history, the biography comprises not only McCarthy’s fascinating life and important writing, but it is also a commentary of her time, spoken by the characters who made it so lively. The company McCarthy kept and the political and aesthetic debates she participated in—her involvement with the Partisan Review crowd, making a stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy, defending Hannah Arendt’s controversialEichmann in Jerusalem, and writing authoritatively against the Vietnam War—educate us about this intriguing, tumultuous period. Kiernan evokes a figure who’s both larger-than-life and vulnerable, and reminds us that Mary McCarthy’s brilliance, exquisite use of language, and fierce observations make her one of America’s most stimulating and pleasurable writers.

Lynne Tillman Why did you decide to write a biography about Mary McCarthy?
Frances Kiernan I read The Group in college and loved it, but it wasn’t until I read Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in my thirties that she became a figure for me—I am not a Catholic and her childhood world was very different from mine. A little later, I was Elizabeth Hardwick’s editor atThe New Yorker, and she talked a bit about Mary McCarthy. This was in the early 1980s, during Lillian Hellman’s lawsuit [McCarthy said on TV, “Every word Hellman wrote was a lie including and and the.” Hellman sued; the suit dragged on until Hellman died.] But Mary McCarthy was still a remote figure. I left The New Yorker in ‘87, went to Houghton Mifflin, and inherited a writer named Thomas Mallon. McCarthy was a great supporter of his early work, he’d read everything she’d written and loved her writing. They became friends, so I’d hear about her. I heard about his visit to the hospital when she was dying. It was upsetting, the way it can be if you have a friend who’s close to someone, and you begin to feel you know them too. So there was a sense of real loss when she died. Around the same time, I wrote a piece on publishing and got a call from an agent who said, “I know you’re half-Southern and I think you should do a book on Eudora Welty.” Out of my mouth flew the words, “No, I couldn’t. She’s too private. But I could do a book on Mary McCarthy.”
LT McCarthy wrote important fiction and nonfiction, was read by everyone, but today her work isn’t read much and is viewed ambivalently. She isn’t read like a Bellow or Mailer—Mailer especially. Mailer did much of what she did—
FK And admired her early stories. Maureen Howard suggested to me that part of the problem was that McCarthy was not embraced by the feminists. In fact, she was on record as having no use for feminism. In that way she was very much of her generation. Lillian Hellman, Doris Lessing had no use for it, but they’re taken more seriously. Hellman isn’t now; but she was at one point.
LT In the biography, Maureen Howard explains, “Partially in the early ‘60s, having performed so well on their own, they did not want to be associated with the disenfranchised.” Doris Lessing has lived longer and continued writing past the ‘70s.
FK Mary’s best fiction writing ended in the late ‘50s. The best parts of The Group were written in 1954. After that, a lot of her energy went into criticism and reporting.
LT Like her work on Vietnam and Watergate.
FK The Mask of State is terrific, the portraits so vivid; she was dead-on. I ran into Nixon’s special counsel, Leonard Garment, who said she was the one person who got it right.
LT She was also right that McCarthyism was more dangerous than the so-called Stalinist threat.
FK She just about always had the right position. The one time she was way off was about the prisoner of war in North Vietnam, Robinson Risner. She went out of her way to attack him. He’s just helpless, like a little bug she’s squashing. Renata Adler once said to me that Mary always attacked equals. That’s why you couldn’t get that angry with her. But Risner was the one time she didn’t. Mary was right that the war had to end, she was right about the South. She’s so right that when she goes wrong you’re taken aback. But she’s toughest on herself. When she collected all her Vietnam writing in The Seventeenth Degree, she wrote in her introduction about a dream—and she’s not a great believer in dreams—in which she’s lost and can’t find her way out. She begins to think that maybe she didn’t get it all quite right.
LT In A Charmed Life McCarthy wrote, “Nobody can have a permanent claim on being the injured party.” She was orphaned at the age of six, she’d suffered and been victimized by a sadistic uncle. She may have thought feminism was about victimization, not gender inequity, for instance.
FK Eileen Simpson says something about that. When they’re introduced as fellow orphans, Mary wanted nothing to do with Eileen. An orphan is not what she wanted to be in this life.
 Kiernan_07.jpgMary McCarthy, Bocca di Magra, Italy, ca. 1964. Photo courtesy of William Mostyn-Owen.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Vassar takes revenge? - from their 'special' library online exhibition

University of Maine. Doctor of Humane Letters Diploma, May 15, 1982.

The citation that accompanied this diploma stated "Mary McCarthy is important to us because she serves as a touchstone for the very finest of observation, criticism, and style. Her wisdom and her wit, exemplified in her works and her life, improve us all�Through her writing, she conveys to us her own sense of discovery and of wonder at our shared life.

The Triple Thinkers
EDWARD MacDOWELL MEDAL, August 26, 1984.
The MacDowell colony is the oldest and largest artist colony in the United States. Located in Peterborough, New Hampshire, it has conferred since 1960 an annual award which recognizes someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the arts. In her acceptance speech, Mary McCarthy suggested that this award was a "delicious high point" in her career as a writer.

Appointment Calendar, April 1959
In April 1959 Mary McCarthy was living in New York. She had a very busy social life, as seen by this calendar. People mentioned here include Philip Rahv, Nancy Macdonald (wife of Dwight), Peggy Guggenheim, Edmund Wilson, and others. In order to retreat from this active pace, McCarthy and Bowden Broadwater rented a house in Vermont for the summer of 1959.

The Triple Thinkers

Partisan Review was an important literary and political journal during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Mary McCarthy served as an editor in the late 30s, and published stories and reviews there for many years. This 1941 letter from PR editor Dwight MacDonald (1906-1982), also a friend, discusses McCarthy's famous story " The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit."

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Paris V New England in pictures

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
Paris 1971

Mitchell Lichtenstein: future project
Adapted from Mary McCarthy's tragicomic Roman à clef about a circle of bohemians living on Cape Cod in the 1950's. A Charmed Life centers on the thinly veiled portrait of McCarthy's turbulent relationship with ex-husband Edmund Wilson.
Mary McCARTHY (USA), writer. - Mary McCarthy (USA) writer (right). 1965. - Curiosity, Hat, Pavement, Umbrella, Woman (all ages)
Paris 1965

 From a property guide website for Wellfleet: McCarthy famously called Wellfleet “the seacoast of Bohemia” in her novel “A Charmed Life.”   

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Part 2: 'What do you have against Lillian Hellman ?'

Let's talk about Chappaquiddick. 

I don't give a damn about what Senator Kennedy was doing with Mary Jo Kopechne. I don't find that reprehensible. It's what happened afterwards. It's the cover-up—all those distinguished Democrats getting together to figure out how to play it. The original thing could have happened to anybody, but what happened afterwards could happen chiefly to a politician, and a politician who put his career first. 

What about Pope John Paul II? 

I'm not really very sent by this Pope. To me, he looks too much like a football player. I don't see him as a spiritual man, like Pope John, whom I really did love. This new Pope has been taken in by the discovery of PR techniques. There are superman touches. He'll say anything depending on the audience. 

You say you're against jogging. In fact you compared it to masturbation, a word we would never have used as kids. 

I don't like the way people look when they jog. There's something very abstract about the idea. It's some terrible turning back on the self, I feel. It's like going for a walk wearing a pedometer, like our Uncle Meyers. The jogger isn't even really running; he's on some sort of treadmill. 

I can't imagine being as directly and openly critical of another actor as writers seem to be of each other. Why do writers have the long knives out? 

I would call it plain speaking. As a writer, you don't have to function as part of a group. With actors, there's getting the show on that night, and that requires a bit more closing ranks. 

In talking about Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, you objected to it because, you said, violence is the ultimate pornography. Is that a phrase you would go with? 

Yes. Now that sex isn't forbidden, violence is the only thing that gives people a thrill anymore. It's the only thing, generally, that's forbidden. 

You were quoted as saying, "I don't like John Updike anymore." True? 

I did say that, but before I had read his marvelous African book, The Coup. He's so gifted, but I think he should give his private life a long rest. 

Have you ever read James Michener? 

No, no. But as Jim Agee once said, reviewing Oklahoma! without having seen it, you don't have to have seen it played to know it's bad. 

What do you have against Lillian Hellman? 

Well, I've never liked what she writes. And there was a little episode back in 1948 when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. She was in a sun parlor telling the students that the novelist John Dos Passos had betrayed the Spanish Loyalists. She was defaming Dos! I couldn't stand this woman brain-feeding these utterly empty, innocent minds, and thinking she could get away with it. 

A young novelist, John Casey, said all Mary McCarthy's characters have feet of clef. Isn't the senator in your new book a thinly disguised Eugene McCarthy? 

There's no attempt at disguise; it's supposed to be an improvisation on the theme "Gene McCarthy." It was great fun to do! To be inside his mind, to be his voice. Reading it aloud the other night, it was right on target—right into the old catcher's mitt. You know the real Gene McCarthy is extremely funny, but extremely perverse. When anything is expected of him is when he will not deliver. 

You and the poet Elizabeth Bishop were at Vassar together, weren't you? 

Yes, she was a class ahead, but she doesn't figure in The Group. They were mostly high-C-average people. She was too bright and original. I think she was, along with Robert Lowell, our best poet. And now they are both gone! 

Can you ever get to the point where you let the activities of your mind rest and sort of drift and dream? 


Thank you, Mary. 

Thank you, Kevin, my dear.