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:

Even more than the better-known The Forest Lovers I loved The Life and Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay, about King Richard the Lion-Hearted, published in 1900 ... the medieval romances I was writing at top speed on an empty stomach were meant to be in his manner. I cannot remember whether I showed any of them to Miss Hayward ... and what about “The Rape of the Lock”? Did we have it with her or the previous year?

Well, Granny, if you don’t know we can’t tell you. These airs of uncertainty become irritating after a while, and add to the odd general flatness of the text, a flatness not at all excited by the fact that Mary was being made love to at the time in peculiar ways by a young painter called Kenneth Callahan (her own technical defloration had occurred a couple of years earlier) and was also involved, though not seriously, with a green-eyed lesbian of 35 called Czerna Wilson, who wore her bronze hair in a pigtail that reached her hips.

Callahan’s sexual practices are now commonplace, Mary tells us grimly – ‘cf. John Updike’ – but at the time they made her feel ashamed, a shame she exorcised by dwelling on them in her mind the whole time.

As I forced revolting memories to surge up before my closed eyes, almost burning the closed lids with fiery self-disgust, did I kill a moral nerve? To flinch from such memories, simply suppress them, might have been healthier. Is it right to overcome self-disgust? Well, in any case I learned the trick of it. Nobody told me; I found out the recipe for myself ... I was a true girl of my generation, bent on taking the last trace of sin out of sex.

Alas, she has also learnt to take the interest and fun out of it too. That, it seems, is strictly for fiction, and we look in vain here for the hilarious couplings of The Group and A Charmed Life. ‘The Group’ certainly existed, but has lost its sparkle. The Dotties and Carries who were such friends and rivals and enemies at Vassar have become dimmer than the shades. One of them was Elizabeth Bishop the poet, always known as plain ‘Bishop’, who lived next to the John on her corridor in the college, and wrote a little poem beginning: ‘Ladies and gents, ladies and gents, flushing away your excrements ...’ She later got it into her head – probably correctly, one cannot help feeling – that Mary put her, and one of her Boston marriages, into The Group.

‘But what of me, Reader? Did nobody ever worry about the effect on a girl from the Northwest of exposure to the contagious disease of snobbery and the New York Social Register.’ Outrageous that nobody should worry. Why had her teachers not done something about it? (The query implies an oddly trusting conception of the college teacher’s role.) ‘But it may be that, in their view, social ambition occurred too classically in literature to be regarded as greatly harmful, lying so very close, as it did, to the passion for excellence, beauty, fine ornament, and to the gift of worship. What English major was – or ought to be – free from the vice?’ Well, nobody worried, and therefore it was somebody else’s fault, but Mary McCarthy certainly took all kinds of ambition to her bosom, and her honesty about this is engaging. Browning and Yeats would perhaps have nodded their heads in agreement at the idea that anyone keen on culture and the arts must also be keen on social advancement, and as hard as nails in getting it. So perhaps would Shakespeare, in amateur productions of whom the young Mary had often acted, until she saw she had no talent for this particular outlet for ambition, though remaining in her own way stage-struck. Her earnestness combined naive romanticism – and even her naivety was ruthless – with a wary knowledge of the minefield of American snobberies. She didn’t let on about her Jewish grandmother, and thus found herself morally in the wrong when the Group found out. They would have respected straightforwardness, but ‘I was aware of it – let me be blunt – as something to hide. I excused myself by saying to my conscience that I could not fight on all fronts at once ... whenever I visited Ginny I had to live down being Irish.’

Meantime history went on. ‘Prexy had lunch with Roosevelt on a tray in the White House, 3.2 beer became legal, and a repeal of the Volstead Act was promised ... I feel doubtful about the names of Lenin and Trotsky: when did they enter my consciousness?’ Living miserably with Johnsrud in the vacation from Vassar, Mary was none the less determined to marry him, if only because he had a car accident which he claimed as a suicide attempt. But when the deed was done and ‘we climbed into the big bed I knew, too late, that I had done the wrong thing. To marry a man without loving him, which was what I had just done, was a wicked action, I saw. Stiff with remorse and terror, I lay under the thin blanket through a good part of the night; as far as I could tell from what seemed a measureless distance, my untroubled mate was sleeping.’ So the memoir ends.

The cold eye was cast after the event, as so often happens. But the striking thing about the memoir is not so much the absence of emotion recollected in tranquillity as the sense that truthful communication itself forfeits interest. The effect is oddly similar to the last poems of Robert Lowell, as if writing had become a habit quite lacking in relish, intensity or surprise. This strange American blight may, in both cases, be a deliberate effect: but if so, it is a dangerous tactic to adopt in a book of recollection. The reader is more easily seduced by the writer for whom the distance of the past lends enchantment, or at least the appearance of it. With J.I.M. Stewart we are on more familiar English ground, sharing in the jests and gambits of youth and young manhood. The effect is as modest as it is delightful, neither an adjective to be readily applied to Mary McCarthy’s reminiscences. Impossible to imagine her being surprised by curiosity about her past self – apart from not recalling just when things happened – let alone by joy, but Stewart finds both in days long gone, as all good composers of memoirs should. He makes himself amusing for our benefit, as Randall Jarrell, in a somewhat different spirit, made Mary McCarthy amusing for us as Gertrude Johnson, in Pictures from an Institution. Maybe not an accurate portrait, or intended to be (indeed Jarrell might have said, Gertrude c’est moi): but at least it was alive, as Stewart is alive in Myself and Michael Innes. Exposing herself to the latest critical viruses, for she has always been sedulous in keeping up, Mary perhaps decided when composing hers that she did not exist as an individual after all?

At least both books share the most engaging photographs, with all their grinning defencelessness. John and Mary Stewart smile shyly sideways at each other; Mary and Harold Johnsrud – his balding head and broken-nosed distinction had recommended him as a solid man to her grandparents – gaze into a more equivocal lens, which shows determinedly girlish glee on her part, and an equally stylised humorous resignation on his.

But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing ... what grace
Your candour thus confers upon her face!

Her Vassar yearbook photo shows Mary in a different mood, ready for Another Party. ‘She had come here to string pearls,’ as Jarrell put it. ‘And when the pearls gave out, she knew, Godfather Death would come and cart her away.’ Stewart’s candour is less deadly, more full of a mild surprise at what has happened to happen: the only child at Edinburgh Academy; the lawyer father just able to find the money for Oxford; the interview for a job at Leeds University, where kind Professor E.V. Gordon, a quiet Canadian, just happened to murmur that he knew of some suitable digs. And at those digs there were already three students, one reading medicine.

She married me some twenty months later. So if it hadn’t occurred to E.V. Gordon ... Most people, I imagine, have had occasion to make this kind of reflection. Generalise from it and you arrive at a distinctly daunting view of the slender extent to which any man controls his own destiny ... I now have 12 grandchildren. Without E.V. Gordon I might still conceivably have 12 grandchildren, but they would be a different lot. The tremendous Greek term eironeia covers this, and is at its most potent when ‘dramatic’ – when the ignorances surrounding us produce a situation with an issue opposite to that which we expect from it. There is here a large scope for gloom. Thomas Hardy was particularly fond of exhibiting in this section what he called life’s little ironies.

That gives the flavour of Stewart’s view of how things grow. Mary would brush irony aside as if it were one of those numerous young men – Forrest Crosbys and Mark Sullivans – anxious to put their hands up her skirt. Neither fate nor the faculty of Vassar should determine in whose bed she ended up. Stewart, however, finds himself in Australia, at the University of Adelaide, with a growing family and not much money, and in consquence also finds himself sitting down in the garage in the early morning to try to write a detective tale called Hamlet, Revenge! ‘Michael Innes’ was thus the product of mild academic penury; and Stewart does not in fact tell us much about him, and appears to think little of him. He is a bit more concerned with his own J.I.M. Stewart novels, and the series with young Pattullo, a nearer alter ego, as their hero. These admirable novels are underrated, I think, and their stock may well go quietly up as time passes: but for Stewart that, too, would not amount to much more than one of life’s little ironies. He is concerned to entertain us, meanwhile, with his memories, and these mostly take an anecdotal form. Some, as in Maurice Bowra’s own last book, accurately entitled Memories, take the form of anecdotes that might have been – a little dramatic sketch for Rayner Heppenstall and the Third Programme, for instance, which featured Henry James being driven in Turn of the Screw country in Edith Wharton’s car, and catching sight of the notice MOTORISTS! BEWARE OF THE CHILDREN.

Nice to feel that a past could consist almost wholly of anecdotes, and of a self constructed by their recollection, as other selves once by their enactment. Stewart had a friend at Oxford whose slender means depended on a Bible clerkship, requiring him to read the lessons in college chapel. ‘His perception of the world’s sadness at times seduced him from wholly temperate courses, and there was an occasion when he advanced to the lectern and pronounced the words: “Here beginneth the Gospel according to St George.” The Provost from his stall helpfully ejaculated, “John, boy, John!” but my friend was reluctant to admit error in a matter of fact. “Here beginneth the Gospel according to St George,” he reiterated firmly. “In the beginning was the word ...” ’