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The radical and the riot girl

The relationship between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy was one of the great literary friendships of the 20th century, says Marianne Wiggins; Between Friends ed. Carol Brightman Secker, pounds 25
To Americans of a certain age, the names Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy conjure an era of political thought and activism no longer practised in the United States. McCarthy, known chiefly in England for the runaway success of The Group, a roman-a-clef about the sex lives and viperishness of a clutch of Vassar co-eds in the Thirties, was equally well known for her New Yorker travel pieces and her high-profile political duelling on and off the pages of broadsheets both in the States and in Europe. Arendt, a philosopher by training and an intrepid thinker by nature, was lesser known beyond the squalls of academia - until, that is, she published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963, the same year The Group came out, and both books, for different reasons, broke their own new hell loose.

By then, these two opinionated, brainy women had been dispatching urgent field reports to one another for 14 years. That they found much to say to one another surprised no one who knew them - nor would it surprise anyone who had read their works that what they had to say to one another they expressed in language that was fresh, fastidious and brilliant for the light it shed on any subject, be it culinary or (in the case of Nixon) evil cunning.

What amazed their acquaintances, right up until the end, when Mary gave the speech at Hannah's funeral that she would publish as "Saying Good- bye to Hannah", was the sheer strength of the two women's feeling for one another. If they had applied none of their abundant, lively geniuses to creating books, these two would have built a lasting monument in their friendship, alone. It was a Great Friendship - to my mind, one of literature's best. It stood the tests of time and quarrels, it never tested either's patience, and it yielded an emotional, I would say almost a material, security to both.

That these women cared passionately for one another with their heads, as well as their hearts, reveals itself even in their early correspondence, dating from 1949. By the time of Hannah's last letter before her death in 1975, their passionate caring has accumulated a moral shape, almost like a code of ethics that governed all their other loves. Reading their letters, then, takes one through the very process of a tentative exchange which grows into a lasting habit, a fondness that becomes a lifelong love.

As editor, Carol Brightman's is an organisational task, and a clarifying one - and in both she has been deft and precise. All the known letters between Arendt and McCarthy - with the exception of two lengthy memoranda drafted in response to something already published by someone else - are included in Between Friends, and Brightman has organized them chronologically and divided them among six arbitrary chapters, those divisions serving no real purpose except to conform with the accepted aesthetic that a book, unlike life, should have definite chapters.

Episodically, Hannah's and Mary's lives were real page-turners, both in public life and in private. Hannah's greatly beloved husband, Heinrich Blucher, was a source of chronic anxiety to her, because of his contrary heart - it confounded this great and strong-hearted woman to be mated for life to a man with a recurring coronary condition, and when his heart finally gave out, in 1970, she wrote to Mary, "I function all right but I know that the slightest mishap could throw me off balance ... Sometimes I think without this heaviness inside me I can no longer walk."

Mary, on the other hand, goes (riots, more like it) from her third to her fourth marriage in the years these letters cover, with a notable and much-detailed dalliance along the way. And politically, she was a SWAT team of one. Early on, in 1952, she writes Hannah to announce she has decided to get a degree in Constitutional Law so that she can singlehandedly bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy (He of "McCarthyism"; no relation.) Seventeen years later, she is writing to say, "Jim [hubby Number Four] agrees with you that I shouldn't try to do the lunar launch."

Frequently wrong-headed, often cruel, always spirited, provocative and provoked, these two intensely intelligent women blabbed about everything to each other. If they were ever insecure in their mutual commitment, it never shows. Rather, their letters read like romance. Brightman writes in her introduction, "We follow them down remote, barely navigable rivers of speculation about the intellectual life of our times, because we know that those two scouts keep their matches dry." And so does their editor - bright women, all three.