Other Selves

John Bayley

  • How I Grew by Mary McCarthy
    Weidenfeld, 278 pp, £14.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 297 79170 2
  • Myself and Michael Innes by J.I.M. Stewart
    Gollancz, 206 pp, £12.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 575 04104 8

Invented stories contain a kernel of mystery because no one – probably not even the author – knows in what relation they stand to a possible fact. If Walter de la Mare had known a disquieting and dominating old lady, and written about her, he would not also have been able to write the masterpiece of ‘Seaton’s Aunt’. The process works another way, too. In his splendid stories John Updike creates a far more telling image of himself as a denizen of suburban America, and a participator in its ritual matings and partings, than if he had spelt it all out in the true first person, recounting his triumphs and disasters in the field of sex and family life. The moral seems to be that writers use themselves better in their novels and stories than in an autobiography, in which they simply put it all down, with various degrees of relaxation and garrulity. A memoir by Proust, instead of a novel by Marcel, is a depressing thought.

Such reflections are prompted by Mary McCarthy’s latest book. There was something challenging and stimulating, a bracing offer of American romance, about A Charmed Life, and Cast a Cold Eye, and The Group, and other novels and tales of hers. Even Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood had a zing to it, and the energy of illusions. But How I Grew leaves us on the cold hillside. It is, to be frank, more than a little boring, like having tea with an elderly lady who holds you with her glittering eye while going on and on about her misspent youth. Boasting about it, in fact – but in a mumbling sort of way, dense with references to Maddies and Dotties and Hucks whom you seem expected to know about. Who is Mary McCarthy writing for? Either the decidedly elderly or the very young might respond: the first because they can remember what she is talking about, if they knew those sections of American life; the second because it is a thrill to hear the sacred monster reminisce. The inbetweens can only remember with nostalgia her novels and the persona she created in them.

But it would be graceless to grumble; and the cold eye seems disconcertingly aware of what our reactions may be, frequently addressing us as ‘Reader’, with a little flip of the wrist. In any case, the reader interested in the American stage and screen in the Thirties would certainly be gripped by the last quarter of the book, for Mary McCarthy’s first husband was the actor, scriptwriter and embryo playwright Harold Cooper Johnsrud, with whose activities she was closely concerned before she left Vassar at the time of her marriage. They parted after a few years and Johnsrud died in 1939 of burns received when trying to rescue one of his manuscripts from a fire in his room at the Brevoort Hotel. Rather unkindly, he features in the absorbing ‘Brief Biographical Glossary of Lesser Known Figures’, compiled by Carol Brightman, which the reader comes on at the end of the book.

Edmund Wilson, one of the Better Known figures, is referred to but has no walk-on part: that marriage is yet to be. Early days with the grandparents in Seattle are mostly a matter of books. Mother and father died of Spanish flu in 1918 on the train on which the family were travelling to Minneapolis (I recall reading about this in Catholic Girlhood – how Mary’s father, already doomed, drew a revolver on the conductor who wanted to put them off). Here she makes nothing of this beginning and asks for no sympathy: perhaps such a trauma goes into life rather than print. At least money and books and a place in Seattle society were no problem. Everything began with reading, and Maurice Hewlett was one of the favourites:

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