Sour Plums

John Lanchester

  • The Letters of John Cheever edited by Benjamin Cheever
    Cape, 397 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 224 02689 5
  • Mary McCarthy by Carol Gelderman
    Sidgwick, 430 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 283 99797 4
  • The company she keeps by Mary McCarthy
    Weidenfeld, 246 pp, £4.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79649 6

In 1964, Time published a profile of John Cheever which, in a sub-heading, described him as ‘The Monogamist’. Subsequent events have proved that not to have been the fact-checkers’ finest hour. In 1984, two years after his death, Susan Cheever published Home before Dark, a memoir which portrayed her father, whose public image was that of an impeccably upper-middle-class monogamist suburban WASP, as a promiscuously bisexual alcoholic. One memorable scene had John Updike, a friend and rival – Norman Mailer called Cheever and him ‘the Old Pretender and the Young Pretender of the New Yorker’ – ringing the doorbell and being answered by Cheever, bombed out of his mind and stark naked. Home before Dark struck some people as devotedly filial, sensitive and moving etc, and struck others as an upmarket Mommy Dearest. But Cheever’s children hadn’t finished with him, and now The Letters of John Cheever, edited by the writer’s son Benjamin, means that he has become the victim of a familial double whammy.

Susan Cheever’s book is oddly neutral and matter-of-fact in manner; which could not be said of the book her brother has edited. ‘Ned Rorem took the time to shed light on the complex riddle of my father’s sexual nature. He told me, among other things, that for my father, orgasm was always accompanied by a vision of sunshine, or flowers.’ This is from the acknowledgments page, an indisputable classic of the form, in which Benjamin Cheever thanks, among others, his father’s correspondents (‘to me his entire personal and professional life seems to have been a brilliant demonstration of loyalty and charity’), his own agent (‘despite his carefully nurtured reputation for toughness, I have known him only as a good and gentle friend’), Saul Bellow and Adam Bellow: ‘The long walks we took together taught me a good deal about what it means to be the son of a well-known writer, and what it doesn’t mean.’

All this is refreshingly dippy, and as an editorial demeanour it certainly makes a change from bet-hedging academic careerism. The element of comedy – sometimes intentional, sometimes not – in Benjamin Cheever’s interventions is curiously appropriate to the letters, especially at the moments when they would be expected to be most anguished and difficult. Susan Cheever depicted the central difficulty of her father’s life as being alcoholism, and made it sound grim: Benjamin Cheever depicts it as homosexuality, and by including a series of rhapsodically erotic letters to a young man with whom Cheever had an affair at the end of his life, makes it sound like a comedy of self-delusion.

‘Have you ever had a homosexual experience?’ Susan Cheever asked her father, in an interview which was published by Newsweek. ‘My answer to that is, well, I have had many, Susie, and all between the ages of nine and eleven,’ Cheever bizarrely answered. ‘To hold your nice ass in my hands and feel your cock against mine seems to be a part of this astonishing pilgrimage,’ he wrote to one young lover: the ‘astonishing pilgrimage’ is life. ‘Neither of us is homosexual,’ he wrote to the same correspondent, ‘and yet neither of us are foolish enough to worry about the matter.’ In one of his journals he wrote: ‘I was for years and years afraid that I might be homosexual. I can’t think of a more legitimate source of fear.’

One of Cheever’s favourite remarks was that ‘interest is the first canon of aesthetics.’ The revelations provided by his offspring certainly possess interest, but it isn’t clear that they haven’t at the same time done Cheever’s oeuvre real harm, not so much by causing readers to think less of his character (as readers may have been led to think less of Robert Frost), but simply by deflecting the focus of people’s attention. Rereading Cheever, it’s hard now not to be on the qui vive for signs of how his complicated, compulsively deceiving sexuality enters the texture of his work: at the time of the publication of Home before Dark, one or two critics claimed to find evidence of Cheever’s homosexuality in his relentless attention to surfaces and ‘superficialities’. If Cheever’s children have encouraged more of that kind of thing then they have clearly done the old man a disservice. On a more mundane level, it’s now hard not to notice quite how much drinking there is in the fiction – at least as much as in Chandler or Hammett. Reading the stories, I found myself flinching every time someone reached out to punish the Gordon’s.

One of the revelations provided by the letters is quite how much Cheever minded what he saw as his own unsuccess as a novelist. Posterity is likely to concur in downgrading most of the longer fiction: his best works are Falconer, a cross between a gay prison novel and a Jacobean tragedy, and the short stories. A sad late letter, written while he was dying of cancer, reports how he had distributed copies of the collected stories to the doctors attending him, and how much the doctors had liked them: ‘they seem in the end to be mostly what I’ve written.’ Less surprising is the full revelation of the extent of Cheever’s indifference to and ignorance of politics: just about the only political act in his life was his attendance at President Johnson’s much-boycotted White House banquet for writers and intellectuals, and even then he doesn’t seem to have reflected on what he was doing.

One of the surprising things in Mary McCarthy, Carol Gelderman’s new biography, is just how adventitious and chancey the lifelong engagée’s entrance into politics was. At a New York publisher’s party in November 1936, James Farrell, author of Studs Lonigan, asked the 24-year-old Mary McCarthy if she thought Trotsky – recently accused, at the Moscow trials, of conspiring with the Nazis to assassinate Stalin and foment a counter-revolution – was entitled to a hearing in his defence. McCarthy had been out of town and didn’t know anything about the case. Farrell filled her in on the details and repeated his question – did she think Trotsky was entitled to a hearing? ‘Why, of course,’ said McCarthy. ‘Were there people who would say that Trotsky was not entitled to a hearing?’ Farrell asked her if she also thought that Trotsky was entitled to the right of asylum in Mexico, which he was then attempting to secure. She said that he was.

Four days later, McCarthy got a letter from ‘The American Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky’; her name was on the letterhead. Understandably incandescent with rage at this presumption, McCarthy was planning a letter of protest to Farrell, a prime mover in the enterprise, when she started to get telephone calls from Communist acquaintances warning her off the committee. An open letter published in the magazine New Masses, and signed by fifty luminaries, Theodore Dreiser and Lillian Hellman among them, urged committee members to resign. Some did so, but McCarthy, seeing an attempt on the part of the (then influential) American Communist Party to stifle debate, did not: she started to make herself an expert on the Moscow trials, and to work flat out on the committee’s behalf. (Over forty years later, she was to apply similar zeal in the task of combing through Hellman’s writings, looking for lies.) An international commission of inquiry was set up to investigate and review the Moscow trials. The commission was attacked for casting doubt on the fairness of the trials and thus dealing ‘a blow to the forces of progress’.

Twenty years later, McCarthy told Farrell that his action had ‘changed my life – for the better’. She fell in with Philip Rahv, Dwight Macdonald and other young intellectuals disillusioned with Stalinism, and they founded Partisan Review, with the intention of making it an independent, left-minded commentator on literature and politics. The personal consequences of all this were large – she started living with Rahv, and then, through the magazine, met Edmund Wilson, whom she was to marry – and so were the intellectual consequences. She has not stopped belonging to these circles, or participating in these debates, and has given offence across a creditably wide range of the political spectrum – though it’s worth noting that the least-reviewed book McCarthy has ever published was the excellent Hanoi, a sympathetic account of North Vietnam in wartime. Incidentally, when Rahv sent Trotsky a copy of the first issue of PR, the great man sent him back a distinctly ungushing letter: ‘It is my general impression that the editors of Partisan Review are capable, educated and intelligent people but they have nothing to say.’

Some observers have seen in McCarthy’s combination of qualities – her famous toughness, and her nearly-as-famous charm, to which this biography testifies – the product of a peculiar genetic cocktail, combining Irish Catholic, New England Protestant and Middle European Jewish ancestry. These are the ingredients in the upbringing she chronicles in Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, still probably her best book. McCarthy’s parents were killed in the great flu of 1918 and she was subsequently brought up in Minneapolis by her great-aunt and her husband, the monstrous Uncle Myers of Memoirs. She and her brothers were not allowed to play with other children or with toys sent to them by their better-off relatives, go to films or eat sweets, though they had to peel almonds to help Myers make candy for his personal consumption. Mouth breathing was thought to be a bad thing, so their mouths were taped shut at night. When McCarthy won a prize in a State-wide essay competition – ‘The Irish in American History’ was her victorious entry – Myers confiscated the $25 windfall and beat her with a razor strop to prevent her getting ‘stuck-up’.

When her maternal grandparents found out the state of affairs, they took McCarthy – not her brothers – to live with them in Seattle. The milieu there could hardly have been more different: her grandfather was a lawyer widely admired for his probity and rectitude, a man known for once turning down a fee because he thought it was too high. His wife, every day except Sunday, would go shopping downtown in her electric car. The couple supervised McCarthy’s education through to Vassar, scene of her most commercially successful novel, The Group.

After Vassar, she married Harold Johnsrud, an aspiring theatrical writer/director; wrote her first pieces for The Nation; underwent the break-up of the marriage; met the Partisan Review people; met Edmund Wilson; and married him. ‘He did not smoke, but after a long and arduous workday, he often consumed a bottle of whisky. She was (and still is) a smoker. Despite their shared desire for stability, the marriage, his third and her second, was doomed from the start.’ Wilson beat her up, especially after she got pregnant. On one occasion, taken to hospital for a rest after being assaulted by Wilson, she found herself confined to the Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic without her knowledge or consent. Their marriage did have a less terrible side, however. Wilson was publishing furiously during the years they were together – The Triple Thinkers (1938), To the Finland Station (1940), The Wound and the Bow (1941), Memoirs of Hecate County (1944) just to name the greatest hits – and he encouraged her to do the same. McCarthy’s career in fiction began when he locked her in a room and ordered her to write a story. The story she wrote became the first instalment of her novel, The company she keeps (1946 and just reprinted). Its title? ‘Cruel and Barbarous Treatment’.

McCarthy’s subsequent career has been controversial. Her criticism has attracted widespread praise, and The Stones of Florence, initially published with a multiplicity of photographic plates, invented a whole genre of illustrated guidebook. But her novels have given a lot of offence. They are based closely on real people, and are merciless in their character analysis and foible-dissection – ‘real plums in imaginary puddings’ is her own formulation, but the plums have not always seen it quite that way. It is hard to open any of her books at random without encountering something one would not be at all pleased to hear said about oneself. The character Randall Jarrell based on Mary McCarthy, in his novel Pictures from an Institution, is described as having ‘a bark worse than her bite. But what am I saying? Gertrude’s bark was her bite – and many a bite has stayed awake at night, wishing it was Gertrude’s bark.’ McCarthy, one learns from this biography, is aware of the effect her portraits have, and regrets it, but says that ‘I can’t stop myself.’ She and her third husband once had to sell a New England holiday home before publication of a novel set in the area. They knew what was coming.

Gelderman’s book doesn’t take you very far into this side of McCarthy, the occasional ferocity of whose tongue is, surely, genuinely startling. Instead she emphasises McCarthy’s kindness and generosity, and the impartiality with which she makes herself a subject of her own scrutiny: the author-surrogates in her fiction have as hard a time as everybody else. Another, more serious criticism of the book is to wonder why it was written at all, when its subject published a volume of autobiography (How I grew) only two years ago. McCarthy is still alive and kicking, giving offence and charming people. One person to whom McCarthy gave offence was Hannah Arendt, with whom she had an exchange at a party (again) at Philip Rahv’s (again) flat in 1945. ‘Amazed that Hitler was so uncomprehending as to have longed for the Parisians’ love during the German occupation ... McCarthy said that she felt sorry for him.’ Arendt was furious. ‘How can you say such a thing to me, a Jew and a person who has been in a concentration camp?’ The two writers did not speak again until 1949, when they had a reconciliation on a subway station. McCarthy apologised for the Hitler remark. Arendt admitted that she hadn’t really been in a concentration camp. They became lifelong friends.