Charmed life - Mary McCarthy

In a late television interview, when asked if she had any regrets about her career, Mary McCarthy smiled gnomically and said something to the effect that she wished she had written more and read less. I have been worrying about this remark for decades, as it seemed to highlight one of the major tensions of the writing life: the uneasy and potentially dangerous relationship between reading and writing, between input and output, between absorption and invention. In her, this tension was marked.

McCarthy wrote a great deal, but her fictional output was limited and fits neatly in two compact volumes into the smart boxed set of the new Library of America edition, edited by Thomas Mallon. There are seven novels and eight stories (four previously uncollected). The first of the novels, The Company She Keeps (1942), can be read as a series of interconnected short stories, all reflections of a central female character, the formidable but tormented Margaret Sargent. Some of the chapters were originally published separately in the Southern Review and Harper’s Bazaar: the most memorable of them, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt”, about an embarrassing but passionately erotic one-night stand in a sleeping car on the Union Pacific railway between Omaha and Sacramento, appeared in 1941 in Partisan Review, a periodical with which McCarthy had a long personal and professional connection. The somewhat haphazard and adventitious assembling of this first novel was followed by The Oasis, set in a dysfunctional utopian community in the mountains of rural New England and inspired by the summer of 1947 which she spent in Pawlet, Vermont. This also had an unorthodox publishing history: it appeared first in England, in Horizon in February 1949, having been submitted to a contest for an unpublished short novel run by Cyril Connolly. (The judges were Connolly and Sonia Orwell, then Sonia Brownell.) It won the prize of £200 and a dozen bottles of dry sherry, and appeared in book form in Britain in 1950 under the title of A Source of Embarrassment.

McCarthy was a woman of letters, an editor, critic, essayist, travel writer, reporter, polemicist and public intellectual, and is remembered as much for her powerful presence in the literary world as for her fiction. Her friendship with Hannah Arendt, her hostility to Simone de Beauvoir and her feud with Lillian Hellman are an inseparable part of her public persona. She had originally planned a career as an actress, inspired by her dazzlingly successful appearance as the Roman senator and conspirator Catiline in a school play. As she records in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (osten­sibly a memoir, but in fact a carefully crafted work of deconstructed fiction): “From my lonely bench I surveyed them in superb isolation, the damned soul, proud and unassimilable, the marked, gifted man . . . . I spoke my lines into a hush, swept out of Rome to Etruria, to my destiny, to death . . . . Thunderous applause broke out”. Her younger brother Kevin was to become a stage and screen actor of distinction, but her theatrical range was limited and her temperament unsuited to the profession. The story goes that she had to be physically coerced into literary composition by her second husband, the critic Edmund Wilson, whom she married in 1938. This is not perhaps the trajectory of an author for whom the writing of novels was a supreme goal. She became a novelist almost by default, as had so many women before her, and the fact that she is now probably best known for this aspect of her oeuvre is due largely to the success of her best-known novel, The Group, which appeared in 1963. And of this volume, pre­vious sections had originally appeared in a slightly different form in the New Yorker, Partisan Review and Avon Book of New Writing, No 2. McCarthy was good at recycling – a term which she used herself – and good, also, as she admitted, at plagiarizing her own life.

Nevertheless, her fiction lives, and some of it has been highly influential. Her third novel, The Groves of Academe (1952), created the satirical campus novel and influenced a string of works about what we now call political correctness. The academic power struggles and devious machinations so maliciously and joyfully recorded by McCarthy from her observations of life at Bard College have given birth to a host of offspring in the works of David Mamet, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, John Williams, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and others. American universities, both liberal and traditional, are still torn by schisms, ranging from the grave to the petty, though the field of dispute is no longer dominated by sectarian politics and the shadow of the other infamous McCarthy, Joseph, who gave his name to McCarthyism, but by issues of race and gender and appropriation.

Her novel still packs a powerful punch, and evokes mass hysteria as forcefully as Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, first performed in the same year. It is blessed with one of the most devious, casuistic and unpleasant protagonists of twentieth-century fiction, the Joycean scholar Henry Mulcahy, “a tall, soft-bellied, lisping man, with a tense, mushroom-white face, rimless bifocals, and greying thin red hair”, from whose domestic predicament an appalling narrative of deceit, treachery, cunning and stupidity unfolds with mesmerizing inevitability and culminates in nothing less than an invocation of Cicero’s first Catiline oration, delivered over the phone by the President, in self-justification of his acts. The President is very fond of the sound of his own noble voice, and McCarthy had not forgotten the histrionic triumph of her schooldays.

McCarthy can herself be mildly incorrect: the sharp cut of Mrs Mulcahy’s nose, has, for example, “a secretarial quiver”, which isn’t very nicely put, and the “jinn-magic” which renews Mr Mahmoud Ali Jones’s contract was risqué even then. But she is aware of the pitfalls of language, and is an alert and useful guide to changing practice: the President is corrected when he refers to “the nigger in the woodpile”. “‘The Negro in the woodpile’, murmured Donna and was instantly ashamed of the joke.” Games of language are played with panache: particularly enjoyable is the discussion about whether Jocelyn College should substitute the term experimental for progressive on page three of the catalogue – and, come to that, would not catalog be a more advanced spelling than catalogue? And so committee meetings pass . . .

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