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.

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