BOOK REVIEW / Mary, Mary, quite contrary: Writing dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World by Carol Brightman: Lime Tree, pounds 20
Sunday 22 August 1993
Five idyllic years of infancy in Seattle ended abruptly with the deaths of both parents in the 'flu epidemic of 1917. Mary and her three small brothers were fostered by grim and cruel relatives in Minneapolis, fed on pigs' feet and chicken necks, beaten regularly with hairbrushes or razor strops. Mary won an essay prize at school and received a special thrashing to prevent conceit. On Saturdays she was given electric shock treatment, apparently as some form of bereavement therapy. The local Catholic church and school provided her only aesthetic pleasures.
At the age of 11 she was retrieved to Seattle by her prosperous Protestant grandparents, but her brothers were left in boarding school. Surrounded now by warmth, opulence and affection, she began to resent her grandparents' over-protective regime. At school she demanded attention and achieved notoriety by losing her faith and acquiring lovers twice her age. At the same time she loved the idea of justice and order (as personified by her grandfather) and, oddly, Julius Caesar. Vassar, 'a Forest of Arden and Fifth Avenue department store combined', fed her intellectual ambitions and her passion for literature.
Socially, however, she felt uneasy, and she made few friends. 'We were afraid of her brains,' said a classmate. Many another would say this in times to come. Vacations were a torment, for Seattle was too far and she could not be seen lingering, an unwanted wallflower, in college. Mercifully she received invitations. 'I am a person who has a special feeling about holidays,' she declared endearingly. It is not often that she is endearing; the pride which insisted that she appear invulnerable also renders her rebarbative.
Immediately after Vassar she married Harold Johnsrud, an actor, and embarked on the Bohemian life she craved, playing Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. They had no money but they did have parties. She began to write book reviews and meet left-wing radical writers. The intellectual status of American Communism attracted her but she disliked its canting proclamations. The parties went on and she joined protest marches in evening dress.
At the age of 25, when her marriage had collapsed and she was living a life of amazing promiscuity in New York, she met Edmund Wilson, 'the era's Boswell and Johnson', through the Partisan Review. She passed out during their first dinner together. A few months later they were married. Seven turbulent years ensued; Wilson claimed that McCarthy was subject to fits of insanity and aggression; she accused him of drunken violence. None the less, bullied or encouraged by him, she now wrote the stories in The Company She Keeps, which established her as a writer.
She married twice more after leaving Wilson, had innumerable lovers, and continued to write fiction, book reviews, theatre reviews, and two books on Renaissance Art. She lived variously in New York, Paris, Warsaw and Italy; she sent back roving reports from Vietnam and enraged her compatriots by stating that: 'It is manifestly untrue that all men are created equal . . . The inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness appear, in practice, to have become the inalienable right to a bath tub, a flush toilet, and a can of Spam.' Of Simone de Beauvoir she famously remarked: 'She's not utterly stupid.' Sartre declined to meet her. William Carlos Williams said that her fiction was written mainly 'for those it attacks'. Koestler said she had a 'wholly destructive critical mind'. Her McCarthy relations saw her writing as 'a scream of persecution for profit', underpinned, they implied, by the Jewish streak inherited from her maternal grandmother. And in October 1979 she crossed that narrow line between courage and folly and accused Lillian Hellman on the Dick Cavatt Show of dishonesty: 'Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.' The colossal row and interminable lawsuit which followed probably contributed to the wasting illnesses which killed McCarthy 10 years later.
This book is meticulously researched and contains a biographical glossary, notes, notes on notes and a vast index replete with lively sub-headings: 'Edmund Wilson, drinking habits of, sexual appetites of . . . etc.' There are 714 pages, about 300 too many for the average reader's appetite. Much of the detail will be of interest only to students of American intellectual life during and after the Second World War. There are occasional inaccuracies: Caroline Blackwood is described as 'a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret' - 'It's defamatory to us both,' Lady Caroline declares. The writing is clear and unfussy, blessedly free of psychobabble, and most of the central characters are vividly conjured, though it is hard to see Edmund Wilson as the squalid, lying, priapic pig who heaves and grunts through these pages. Her obvious affection for McCarthy does not blind Brightman to the chilling selfishness, sexual rapacity, lack of compassion and snobbery, but the courage and intellect shine through, and while The Group does not withstand re- reading, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and the stories remain true works of art. McCarthy's radiant smile remains too, beaming from pages of photographs: the smile of one who must be seen to be having a very good time, and the smile on the face of the tiger.
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