Good stories, bad behaviour and elegant malice

<i>Seeing Mary Plain: a life of Mary McCarthy</i> by Frances Kiernan (WW Norton, &pound;24)
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The Independent Culture

Acid-free, physically speaking, this biography of Mary McCarthy is too elegant for reading in the bath to which one has recourse during its 800 pages. Amid the steam, the life of "the dark lady of American letters" lingers in the mind. Stepping out, one considers whether one would have been esteemed by so sedulous an intellectual.

Acid-free, physically speaking, this biography of Mary McCarthy is too elegant for reading in the bath to which one has recourse during its 800 pages. Amid the steam, the life of "the dark lady of American letters" lingers in the mind. Stepping out, one considers whether one would have been esteemed by so sedulous an intellectual.

What a brain! "I was able to compare the sexual equipment of the various men I made love with," she once wrote, "and there were amazing differences, in both length and massiveness. One handsome married man, who used to arrive with two Danishes from a very good bakery, had a penis about the size and shape of a lead pencil; he shall remain nameless. In my experience, there was usually a relation to height... There may be dwarfish men with monstrously large organs, but I have never known one."

Such was her reputation that, meeting the ancient art collector Bernhard Berenson in the Fifties, she was greeted with a reference to her story about inserting a pessary. That welcome so shocked even her that she affected to believe he was talking about Pissarro. McCarthy's early-Fifties story about the diaphragm became part of her best-selling Sixties novel The Group. Little more than a period piece, that saga is not entirely typical of her fiction - which has, however, dated in another way. Resolutely engaged with its times, it locks out readers for whom its concerns are the stuff of history.

Just as Irwin Shaw's story "Girls in Their Summer Dresses" contains more than his thick novels, so does McCarthy's 1941 story about "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt". Meg Sargent has a one-night stand on a train with a fat travelling salesman. She wakes to find "her slip and dress neatly hung by the wash basin - the man must have put them there, and it was fortunate, at least, that he was such a shipshape character, for the dress would not be rumpled. On the floor she collected her stockings and a pair of white crêpe-de-chine pants, many times mended, with a button off and a little brass pin in its place. Feeling herself blush for the pin, she sat down on the floor and pulled her stockings on. One garter was missing."

Even now, with pins more likely to pierce a woman's body than repair her clothes, the story has not lost its force. A masterpiece, is it enough to sustain a biography that Frances Kiernan has partly cast in that increasingly popular format of chunky quotations and interviews?

That story appeared in Partisan Review, and, to some tastes, there is room for another account of post-war New York intellectual life. Kiernan has assembled, and narrates, all this with panache. She follows McCarthy's familiar worldwide trajectory from orphaned childhood, by way of Vassar College, to several marriages and a prosperity that was threatened by the celebrated Eighties lawsuit from Lillian Hellman - which probably saw off both doughty old-stagers.

If, at times, it all seems as remote as that London in which people rang one another up on Sunday to discuss what Kenneth Tynan thought of some play, it is also chock-full of good stories, bad behaviour and elegant malice. Truman Capote thought McCarthy's smile "wouldn't be so painful if she had a better dentist. And then all those hairs sticking out of her nose - like a potato that's been stored so long it's started to sprout." McCarthy herself likened Simone de Beauvoir to "an athletic nun".

Trotsky, Hitler and Eichmann can seem bit players amid all this. It is no surprise that she took a suitcase of fine lingerie to Hanoi - part and parcel of her brilliance, folly and allure. If an essential insecurity made the short haul of essays superior to her fiction, they are waylaid by her crash-bang-wallop spirit - the dogmatism of a free spirit which, when checked, could produce a delightful little volume on Venice. Mentioned only in passing is Otis Ferguson, whom McCarthy called "a free-ranging literary bully". Killed in the Palermo landings, he was in fact an astute critic, good on jazz and, as a movie reviewer, the equal of James Agee and Graham Greene.

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