How to do the life

Lorna Sage

  • Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World by Carol Brightman
    Lime Tree, 714 pp, £20.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 413 45821 0

Bloody Mary, the blurb suggests, has found her match in her biographer Carol Brightman. Not that this is a hatchet job: if Brightman is a woman in some sense after her subject’s own heart it’s not in the way Randall Jarrell was thinking of when he put Mary McCarthy in Pictures from an Institution, saying that people couldn’t mention her style ‘without using the vocabulary of a salesman of kitchen knives’. On the contrary, Brightman is not murderous at all, but detailed, exigent, measured, beady-eyed. Nor is she a Boswell, however. She may have become an accepted figure in the McCarthy landscape in the years leading up to McCarthy’s death in 1989, interviewing and taking notes, but she proves tough-minded and independent to a degree. The tone is one of unforgiving intimacy. It’s important, obviously, that Brightman belongs to a very different generation, the one that came of age in the Sixties, when she founded and cut her teeth on an anti-war magazine called Viet-Report – the daughter, or even granddaughter generation. She inevitably regards McCarthy’s tours de force in exposing the bad faith of the radicals of the Thirties and Forties with some ambivalence: ‘By withholding pity, by honouring the weight and worth of convention in American life, McCarthy uncovers a deeper truth about the way in which American intellectuals handle the revolutionary dreams of youth, and why they so often turn on them and learn nothing from them.’ You don’t necessarily like someone for being right about this kind of thing – Brightman suspects that McCarthy was so sharp because she was in a sense so reductive, she ‘lived in relations the way other people are attached to things, places, belief systems’.

In other words, McCarthy constructed her world out of her relationships with other people, they formed its whole setting and its furniture, its material. This may be another factor informing those butchery metaphors. Certainly, Brightman is in two minds about the implications of such a ‘relative’ life: McCarthy locates reality in the details of people’s habits of living, their individual taste, their moral style, whereas her biographer wants to give more space to some version of a wider history. Sometimes, when they seem to be using the same language (about the ‘deeper truth’ of the power of prejudice and convention, or the merely fashionable attraction of the Left for figures like Norman Podhoretz, who turns out to be really interested simply in Making It) they are coming to the same conclusion from very different angles. Brightman, I think, is tacitly accusing her subject of being obsessed, a trifle perversely, with the personal. McCarthy saw herself of course as a realist, applying the perspectives of the novel-writing tradition that reached its maturity in the 19th century to an American world increasingly resistant to such readings. To focus on relations, she would have said, is not odd at all. So there’s a battle going on in these pages over the territory of the real.

This is why Brightman has chosen what sounds like the rather old-fashioned task of writing about McCarthy ‘and her World’, because that is a way of taking the story back from her subject, whose ‘mastery of the art of self-exposure’ was of course legendary. Brightman finds herself in the rather odd situation of deploring the prominence of the ‘Life’, of wanting almost to drape it in shadows, make it private, but having to settle for exposing the over-exposure – ‘Her very notoriety has obstructed a serious assessment of her place in American letters.’ She sets out to wrest the story of McCarthy’s life back from her, so that she can re-insert the shared influences, the background of ideas (her world), locate the characters in the house of American culture (Zeitgeist firmly in residence), and undo some of the bad effects of her subject’s ‘indifference to collective experience, the unexpected thing that is also happening in one form or another to nearly everyone else’. One begins to see what McCarthy meant when she told someone that she was co-operating with Brightman precisely because Brightman had her own motives for doing the book, and was writing in a way about herself. It works, as McCarthy must have hoped it would, at least in the sense that she’s been taken – taken on – seriously.

She was still writing her own memoirs when she died, though discovering, it seems, that she’d already given too much of the material the killing Midas touch in writing it up before – most brilliantly in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). Nearly everything she wrote, though, whether officially fiction or non-fiction, battened on the life just as everyone said it did, at times, where her husbands and friends and acquaintances were concerned, so maliciously and effectively that it was hard to believe that there wasn’t some primitive bad magic involved, as in sticking pins in wax images. (To this end she liked on occasion to include in characters’ names some hint of the real name.) Brightman has a marvellous quotation from a Wellfleet bohemian neighbour, who’d found herself written into A Charmed Life (1955) – ‘it was as though I were nibbling imprudently at a mushroom, like Alice, and shrinking so suddenly that my chin knocked against my feet.’ Being a character in a Mary McCarthy narrative was not usually an enlarging experience – and of course that went for herself too, which in part explains her ruthlessness to others.

The lack of pity for herself must stem from that orphaned childhood of hers, when it was a desperate survival strategy. The story is horrible still and always – the young parents, the posy of babies, the Spanish flu (we’re in 1918, Mary was six, with three younger brothers), the reckless and inexplicable cross-country train journey to join improvident Roy McCarthy’s parents in Minneapolis, the deaths of Roy and of McCarthy’s mother Tess within a day of each other on arrival. The children aren’t told, but they work it out for themselves some time before they are set up in a poor relations’ household (a sort of family-run orphanage) with Aunt Margaret and Uncle Myers, who proceed to skimp and neglect and tyrannise and brutalise them. Mary was rescued at 11, and whisked off back to Seattle to live in style with her mother’s parents. This is the Jewish grandmother described so memorably in the Memories: grandfather, Protestant and a lawyer, constituted McCarthy’s juvenile ideal of justice, though he didn’t spring her brothers. It’s one of the great escape stories. Her sense of herself as a princess in disguise (the ‘princess among the trolls’ years later at Partisan Review) derives from this early experience, obviously enough, and so also, one imagines, does her rejection of suffering, her dread of pathos, her incurable optimism.

Losing her faith (at 12), losing her virginity (at 14) were both experiences more exhilarating than not in her account. Deciding to go to Vassar was vital to the project of growing up as she conceived it. Says Brightman (who’s also a Vassar girl): ‘it offered its students a chance to break with the past and envision an idealised future.’ McCarthy’s word was ‘transformational’; in The Company She Keeps her creature and other self Meg Sargent is made to muse that ‘it was to escape from the whole unfair business of having to have a verifiable history, that she had gone east to college.’ She was already (McCarthy, that is) shacking up at weekends with actor and dramatist Harold Johnsrud in New York, a sign of sophistication way beyond most of her socially smarter peers in the class of ’33. (She had ‘no family ... to please’, one of them pointed out thirty years later, when The Group revived the gossip: ‘She appeared to be much freer than we were and this frightened and fascinated us.’) On her graduation, she and Johnsrud married, thus, thinks Brightman, breaking a certain precarious balance McCarthy had only maintained by staying on the run from her past and avoiding domesticity: ‘It was when she began going through the motions of reinventing a family ... that she found herself alone with the ghosts of childhood ... the persona of the brash young intellectual began to unravel under the pressure of a darker self.’ It’s for this sort of reason that Brightman decides not to take sides when the next marriage, to Edmund Wilson, erupts into such violence: she’s pretty sure that McCarthy harboured a hysterical, vengeful monster which got out and raved long before Wilson co-operated with her darker self by drunkenly attacking her and driving her round the bend.

However, for the moment, in the Thirties, living still in a Twenties ethos in many ways, McCarthy found herself enrolled as one of the boys at Partisan Review (which preached ‘Marxism in politics, and Modernism in art,’ though, as she said, ‘I was more of a literary girl’). After parting company with Johnsrud she’d had a promiscuous whirl on Gay Street, but she was engaged in a serious affair with Philip Rahv (‘the most Levantine lover!’) when she fell into bed with Wilson and somehow felt obliged to marry him. ‘Of all the reasons Mary McCarthy presents for marrying Edmund Wilson,’ Brightman says, carrying through her theory of the suppressed childhood agonies, ‘the one that comes nearest in accounting for the psychic turmoil that preceded it is the death of her Grandfather Preston on New Year’s Day 1938.’ For all her ‘self-exposure’ this McCarthy is unable to connect effectively with her past, or with other people (her promiscuity is ‘a kind of purdah’), or even acknowledge her own idealisms. For instance, her political awakening occurred when she became a ‘Trotskyite’, but she later downplayed this ‘turning-point’, so that it became something private, amorous, anecdotal.

Wilson’s great gift to her was that he sat her down and bullied her to write fiction for real, a red-faced, intellectually patrician Willy patronising his own cool Colette. Brightman’s account of their marital battles is even-handed, and as I’ve said depends in part on the view that McCarthy, while not clinically mad (as he tried at moments to make out), was monstrous in her own right. Another ingredient, I imagine, is that Brightman admires his work; and yet another, the suspicion that McCarthy needed the dramatic tensions and intrigues and tortures she let herself in for in order to write. Be that as it may, it’s at this stage of the story that the question of what sort of writer Mary McCarthy is becomes a pressing one.

Interestingly enough, Wilson may have made a good guess right at the beginning, when he wrote his ‘Homage to Edith Wharton’ (who died in 1937); certainly, as Brightman says, there is ‘something eerie’ in Wilson’s account of how Wharton ‘began writing serious fiction during the period of a nervous breakdown, in the midst of an unhappy marriage’. McCarthy’s later life – her flirtation with exile in Europe, and in particular her literary life in the Paris of the nouveau roman (which she thought a fraudulent notion) – also has suggestive parallels with Wharton’s Left Bank sojourn in the ‘same’ Paris as Gertrude Stein and all those other Modernists she avoided like the plague. As a novelist, McCarthy belonged, essentially, in the realist tradition, as did Wharton, and it’s arguable that the kind of hollowing out of realist conventions by satire, irony and black comedy which is what Wharton gets up to when she’s not being (as in The Age of Innocence) nostalgic – the style of The Custom of the Country, for instance – is very much the precursor of McCarthy’s manner.

Brightman, in an uncharacteristically direct tribute to ‘the tug of McCarthy’s personality’, says that ‘she helped root my own theorising mind in the material world’ – which is very much the realist project, and the kind of thing that gave McCarthy such moral authority when she pointed to the ‘contagion of ideas’ in the era dominated by her witch-hunting namesake, Senator Joe. However, this is also where biographer and subject are most out of sync. McCarthy’s heyday came when ‘ideology crumbled, personality bloomed’ (Irving Howe). Brightman is always equivocal (see above) about McCarthy’s tendency to ‘strip ideas of their abstract character and return them to the social world from whence they came’, even when she’s impressed by it. McCarthy’s authority, according to Alfred Kazin, increased in relation to ‘the growing conviction of meaninglessness in the air’, and the climax of this process was The Group, where she’d planned what she described as a ‘compendious history of that faith in progress of the Thirties and Forties ... a crazy quilt of clichés, platitudes and idées reçues. Yet the book is not meant to be a joke or even a satire exactly, but a “true history” of the times.’

The problem was that you couldn’t any longer, when it came to it, write full-blooded realism: ‘the novel, with its common sense, is of all forms the least adapted to encompass the modern world, whose leading characteristic is irreality. And that, so far as I can see, is why the novel is dying.’ The last remark is distractingly ‘period’ in the fashionable sense (this is 1960), but the tenor of what goes before is interesting, and allies McCarthy with all sorts of other writers and critics – Raymond Williams, Doris Lessing and (perhaps most suggestively) Iris Murdoch – who were all talking about something similar at the same time. You can describe it in many different ways, but it comes down to the disintegration of the representative function of fiction, as much as its representational one. As McCarthy put it in a much later essay, ‘the novel, after all, is the literary form dedicated to the representation of our common world, i.e. not merely the common ordinary world, but the world we have in common ... Common sense, also known as the reality principle, rules the novel.’ Brightman thinks The Group probably looks now like ‘a literary confection from a bygone era, a ventriloquist’s tour de force ... there is something missing at the core.’ It seems to me more like a pushing of the realist convention to its bitter end: the book’s ruthless and hilarious demonstration that the whole of life is becoming a matter of ‘life-styles’ turns it into a reluctant kind of anti-novel. One of the recurrent difficulties Brightman has with McCarthy’s way of thinking is the importance she ascribes to ‘chance’ – ‘chance not choice’, ‘her peculiar reverence for the whims of chance’ – but if you re-christen it ‘contingency’, and think about Iris Murdoch, then you get the picture: chance is the means by which you throw your characters into bed with each other, for instance, thus introducing them to the limits of freedom and the muddle of living.

Perhaps this is a very British way of reading McCarthy. Brightman supplies a rather different comparison in the person of one of McCarthy’s bêtes noires, Simone de Beauvoir, with whom, she rightly says, McCarthy has more in common than she would like to think. Denouncing Beauvoir and her feminism (‘She made it through her sex’), McCarthy comes up with an interesting line on the social gifts that women develop ‘as a species – from their historic position of having to get their way without direct confrontation ... the gifts of observation and analysis’. Again, I’d say this tied her in (a bit shakily perhaps, she was hardly one to avoid ‘direct confrontation’ herself) with women realists at the end of their tether. However one values it, The Group didn’t lead anywhere much for her, though it made her fairly rich – a process she’d started on already with Venice Observed and The Stones of Florence, which Brightman prefers, along with the Vietnam reports of the later Sixties.

Back to the life: Bowden Broadwater, her third husband, had been ‘a man who believed in her performance absolutely’, they played house, gossiped, travelled; he was younger, bi-sexual, and (it seems) lightweight. In the process of writing The Group, she met and fell in love with the fourth, James West, a diplomat with a wife and young children, and an unholy mess ensued before they established themselves as a grand couple, and she finally ‘mellowed’. Elizabeth Hardwick, a loyal if witty and sceptical friend whose comments always enliven the page and who stayed with McCarthy to the very end, described West succinctly as ‘a husband-type husband’. In handling all the personal material – often dauntingly labyrinthine and occasionally poisonous – Brightman is a model of even-handedness. She also does justice to the great friendships of McCarthy’s life with Hannah Arendt and Hardwick and Nicola Chiaromonte, and the smaller ones with figures like the aged Bernard Berenson, and the aborted ones with figures like Nathalie Sarraute.

The book’s last major episode before the final act is supplied by the 1980 Lillian Hellman libel suit, when she sued McCarthy for repeating on television what she’d already said in print – that every word Hellman wrote was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’. In a sense it’s a throwback to the earlier McCarthy style, and the whole story plunges even further back to the Thirties, to the betrayals and intrigues of the Left. Hellman died before the case came to court, though McCarthy’s remarks had already sparked off enough investigation of Hellman’s autobiographical stories to reveal large fibs, distortions and thefts designed to make Hellman look a heroine. It is not a very edifying spectacle, though it does underline the quality of rancour in these people, so strong only death undoes it.

McCarthy’s own reading and rewriting of her life, by contrast, turned it into ‘a picaresque life of pratfalls’, Brightman says in conclusion, invoking a rather pungent comparison with Defoe’s Moll Flanders:

It is a reading that contributes to the peculiar sense one gets from McCarthy’s character, as well as from her prose and politics, that she stands somehow above the fray ... In this Mary McCarthy really does resemble Moll Flanders, who[se] ... essential self ... remains untainted by the influences around her ... She leads a charmed life.

Perhaps this quotation is enough to convey something of the strange sense one gets from this book that the relation between biographer and subject is at the last a kind of rivalry over how to ‘do’ the life. A paradox emerges: by making her subject out to be in bad faith, perhaps even so self-cauterised early on that she became ‘incapable of real suffering’, Brightman succeeds in giving McCarthy a new lease of life. Writing Dangerously is a serious book in the best sense, one that sends you back to contrary Mary with a new interest. And, in its struggles with/against its subject, it suggests that the genre of biography, too, so long hailed as the refuge of kinds of realism no longer found in much good fiction, is suffering from the corrosive effects of what McCarthy called ‘irreality’. Whose life is it anyway? you sometimes want to ask. But then this, too, is an effect of the power and intelligence of the writing.