Mary McCarthy

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Mary (Therese) McCarthy 1912–

American critic, novelist, and short story writer.

McCarthy's critical work incorporates sophistication, wit, satire, and a caustic frankness that has also characterized much of her critically-acclaimed fiction. Much of McCarthy's criticism focuses on the weaknesses of playwrights and novelists and exhibits a contempt for modern literature.

McCarthy's first book, Sights and Spectacles, is a collection of drama reviews written for Partisan Review. It contains many of the elements of her later criticism, including her insight into the practices of the American theater and her opinionated assessment of popular dramatists. In her recent book, Ideas and the Novel, McCarthy praises "the novel of ideas" and contends that it has declined in significance beginning with Henry James and Virginia Woolf.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

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Mary McCarthy has a remarkable insight into the weaknesses of others. This is not a clumsy wisecrack but a simple statement of a simple fact. Give her a book or a play or an acquaintance to fictionalize and she spots with unerring accuracy a cloven hoof, an Achilles heel, or a fly in the ointment. And, as the play reviews in her book "Sights and Spectacles" long ago demonstrated (some were written as far back as 1937), her diagnoses are usually sound as far as they go. The fault she has to find is nearly always there. What she says is nearly always true even though it is often only the harshest part of the truth.

Unlike other notable hatchet-women (Dorothy Parker for instance), Miss McCarthy is not a Sophisticate but an Intellectual…. [Though] time and circumstance cast her in with the young radicals for whom Marxian criticism of "the system" furnished that rationalization of their discontents which the previous generation had found in the war against "provinciality," she never committed herself wholeheartedly to that either. In fact, if she ever discovered what she believed, admired, or wanted she never devoted much time to praising or expounding it. But she can justify her contempt for what she does not like—and that is almost everything including other intellectuals—with telling thrusts and shrewd analyses.

As her preface here frankly admits, this is precisely what Partisan Review wanted her to do when it appointed her its drama critic. The editors did not think the theatre important even as a manifestation of decadent bourgeois culture. Just for the sake of completeness, however, they thought it might be well to have its nullity exposed…. [Miss McCarthy] was less than half convinced that her employers knew why the plays and playwrights were contemptible. But she believed (and still believes) that on the whole "American playwrights cannot write" and that "American actors cannot act." They would do to sharpen her claws on, and if anybody wanted to assume that their inferiority could be explained on good Marxian grounds, why let them….

Perhaps none of [Miss McCarthy's] judgments … is unsound in itself. Miss McCarthy nearly always has a real point to make and she makes it. We "know what she means" and it is a genuine meaning. Probably most journalistic critics of the theatre would admit as much and admit that they were as generally anxious to set their subjects in the best possible light as she was to set them in the worst. But it is not certain that their bias always led them any further from the whole truth. As Miss McCarthy says, O'Neill for example is often inarticulate. But is it really true, as she seems to conclude, that he was therefore nothing; that his sincerity, his passion, and his desperate involvement...

(This entire section contains 642 words.)

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are not worth so much as a nod of recognition?

Her method is one of the safest. If you deny permanent significance to every new book or play time will prove you right in much more than nine cases out of ten. If you damn what others praise there is always the possibility that your intelligence and taste are superior. But if you permit yourself to praise something then some other superior person can always take you down by saying "So that is the sort of thing you like." More courage is required to go sometimes out on a limb. And that Miss McCarthy has seldom been rash enough to do. Not even when it comes to embracing even the most impeccably fashionable of intellectual fashions. She always turns up her nose even at those who turn up their noses at everybody else.

Joseph Wood Krutch, "The Long Claw of Contempt," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review Magazine Co.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIX, No. 21, May 26, 1956, p. 20.

Richard Hayes

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Miss Mary McCarthy, whose disenchantment is private as well as cosmic, offers these Theatre Chronicles [in Sights and Spectacles] … with a bleak and remote indifference. Positively, they do not give her pleasure: if they possess any value, it is chiefly as "a report to a minority by one of their number from a front that was very distant, almost exotic." She sees in them, quintessentially, a blend of person and place. Nor, from the lucid plateau of middle life, does Miss McCarthy look upon this early person with favor: coolly she laments her ready tone of cockiness and unsupported hauteur. Without flinching, she exposes the particular egotism of the whole enterprise: "The notion that abstract reasoning can crush a fact (e.g., a successful play, a political phenomenon), a wholly unMarxist notion, was nonetheless the principle on which most of our criticism was practiced…. I felt myself at the helm of authority…. I was determined to make good…."

Inevitably, it chills; might not (a fatuous suggestion) Miss McCarthy allow her youth some softening haze of high audacity and cleansing scorn? For her image has charm: the salient heroine of The Company She Keeps, intolerably free, intolerably bound—"I remember," she writes, "how uneasy I felt when I decided that I liked Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Was I starting to sell out?"—handsome and hatless, climbing to the balcony with her bought ticket, confident in the virtue of her position of attack. Nor did she lack for targets, the period directly before the war being a rich mine of liberal lunacies….

The wartime theater, in its feverish, expensive nullity, next sustained Miss McCarthy's scrutiny, and here too she smoked out cant and viscous insincerity, with intermittent pauses at the healing oases of Shakespeare and Chekhov and Shaw. The rather inflated 'sense of social occasion' which pervades the earlier notices has declined; Miss McCarthy's sensibility to the chequered texture of reality is deeper, her will less insistent: she moves altogether in a freer ironic climate. Yet I would note parenthetically that the aspect of Miss McCarthy's criticism which her publishers most celebrate—her concern with theater as "pathology," as "event," as "a branch of social history"—seems to me the least substantial. Criticism projected on such terms has a certain chic and nervous stylishness; one moves, in a trance of grace, through a montage of allusions and names, inferences, frail implications of value, but all the while the object is receding: a collage of rather voulu and determined sensibility obscures it. This form is capable of surrendering an intense, witty, pointed pleasure—Miss McCarthy on the gentilities of the London theater, for example, is irreproachable and devastating—but ultimately it does not engage the intelligence at any grasping level of interest.

Miss McCarthy would, I venture to hope, concur in this judgment: the movement of her mind now seems all in the direction of personal encounter with artist and artifact: she is presently in her full range and maturity of discriminating power. Her accounts of O'Neill, of Shaw, of Tennessee Williams and Ibsen and Congreve and George Kelly, of Shakespeare even, may be disregarded by no one responsibly concerned with the quality of aesthetic experience. Often, they have the ferocious rancor and injustice of genius—one need not claim everything for "A Streetcar Named Desire" to recognize that Miss McCarthy has allowed it nothing—but at their best, they draw the subject into a dominating unity, alive in all its parts with a fertility of concept and image wholly rare. One flaw alone seems to me seriously to invalidate many of Miss McCarthy's theatrical judgments: an obsession with what must be called the reality principle. "Reality," of course, is the mythical criterion by which we judge the work of art, but the reality of art is surely not the reality of exact correspondence, of literal fidelity to fact and experience: rather it is the translation of that material of life into something else. Miss McCarthy, of course, knows this intimately, but she does not seem to admit it as an aesthetic premise or problem. At worst, this leads to her ludicrous scolding of the "slovenly casting" of a production which has "an Irishman playing a Jew, an American playing a Swede, and worst of all, two Americans playing Italians." This choice, Miss McCarthy continues magisterially and economically, "can hardly have been dictated by scarcity, considering the number of unemployed Italian divas and tenors in metropolitan New York." But what a havoc and shambles—indeed an irrelevance—would such an insistence make of the whole craft of acting? It is vexing that, when Miss McCarthy upbraids American plays for being badly written and poorly acted, we can have almost no substantiated sense of what she means. (p. 615)

She is condemned by her daimon to inhabit the extremest reaches of intelligence and perception; she writes, in this volume, with a special grief and sobriety, of another exile, Shaw, who regarded himself as "the only rational man in a world of fools and lunatics." On her harsh, unpeopled frontier, Miss McCarthy receives, with their lulling pieties and sedatives, emissaries from the natural human world of sympathy and compassion; always they return, however, unaccompanied, and somewhat the worse for wear. Meanwhile, Miss McCarthy's readers, like shocktroops on the intellectual front, wait out an uneasy truce, hoping for a reconciliation between something Mary has (they are not quite sure what) and something Mary does not have (again, the nature of which eludes them); in unity, however, they are certain, lies greatness. Rumors drift in from the advance guard: Miss McCarthy is mounting a new offensive! Speculation is rife: Will Mary become more partisan? Will Mary become more human? Is Mary, in point of fact, getting warm? But alas, no one knows, for suddenly Mary doesn't live here any more: she and her daimon have moved to a farther and inaccessible frontier. What news, then? Who can say? Watch Partisan Review! Watch The New Yorker! Watch Mary!

I close with a gnomic reflection in which Miss McCarthy might concur: that only the cold are obsessively preoccupied with warmth. (p. 616)

Richard Hayes, "On Mary McCarthy's Advance to Farther Frontiers," in Commonweal (copyright © 1956 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXIV, No. 25, September 21, 1956, pp. 615-16.

John Gassner

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Mary McCarthy introduces [Sights and Spectacles: 1937–1956] as "a report to a minority by one of their number," and this superbly, indeed formidably, intelligent author almost succeeds in drawing out the sting from possible criticism of her book by inserting her own keen sting into it. Not quite, however, because it is not the admitted callowness of her early reviews (not quite as callow, incidentally, as her prefatory comment on them would lead one to believe), but her current judgments that are apt to make drama critics question the soundness of her opinions. "The truth is," she says, "that I simply do not respond to the playwrights and popular actors that many other people find exciting," and she proceeds to declare that "American playwrights, on the whole, cannot write." Miss McCarthy applies the charge to Williams, Miller and Odets, among others, and inevitably she does not spare O'Neill….

After such wisdom what forgiveness? None perhaps if a reviewer possessed the author's insouciance in formulating judgments, or took as much pleasure in verbal slaughter as Miss McCarthy. But in the midst of questionable evaluations and analyses, one encounters so many brilliant perceptions that our gratification with the volume should greatly exceed our irritation. To count some of our blessings, I would cite the penetrating comments on The Iceman Cometh and O'Neill, The Wild Duck and Ibsen, Love for Love, Love's Labour's Lost, The Doctor's Dilemma … and Thornton Wilder's work. The just observations in this collection of dramatic essays may not outnumber the unjust or half-just ones, but they often go to the heart of some dramatic matter and the stimulation they offer the wary individual is quite extraordinary.

It would be indiscreet to recommend that Miss McCarthy take up play reviewing as a regular vocation; she doesn't like our theatre well enough to work for its salvation and to bear with it while trying to save it. But it is useful to hear her forthright opinions that set down sound principles or imply them…. Indeed, it would be wise to authorize Miss McCarthy to write about the theatre whenever she wishes, and to extend to her the privilege of being as one-sided or wrongheaded as she can be. She is bound to be provocative, to help purge us of much nonsense and twaddle, to irritate us into thought—and to do so, moreover, with good writing.

John Gassner, "Report to a Minority," in Theatre Arts (© 1956 by Theatre Publications, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 11, November, 1956, p. 8.

Pamela Hansford Johnson

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A collection of essays, like ["On the Contrary"], often serves to throw the personality of the writer into sharper relief than any one single work. It is like seeing him in a many-sided glass, catching an unexpected aspect of the profile, some peculiar structure of bone, some glint of unanticipated color in the hitherto familiar eye. Mary McCarthy's personality—her literary personality, I mean—has always interested and puzzled me: that voice sometimes a little too much de haut en bas, those brilliant flashes of insight, those descents into fractiousness, that delight in the topsy-turvy for its own sake, that basic, irrepressible common sense intruding at the precise moment when flights of contrariness seem hard to bear—it is difficult to make these things add up.

In these articles, written within the past fifteen years, Miss McCarthy is reminiscent, I think, of two English writers: in her harsh, arms-akimbo hoss-sense, of Rebecca West, and in her curious insistence upon the Feminine Self (what colors, what earrings she had on, how her high heels clacked on the floor) of the remorselessly frilly heroines of Iris Murdoch…. Miss McCarthy has less an analytical mind (she speaks too often before she thinks) than a bright, pouncing one; the cat is bang on the bird more often than not. I have been hectoring students myself from time to time and from place to place, whenever they would listen to me, on the ridiculous mania for "putting in the symbols" in creative writing. Here is Miss McCarthy making precisely the same denunciations, with an edge and rasp that ought to put a stop to the nonsense once and for all. If only I could have said it as well! (p. 6)

On literature she is unfailingly interesting, though I doubt whether she has read a great deal of English writing in recent years. I may be wrong. My heart warms to her for realizing that there is suspense in Proust, that "Remembrance of Things Past" tells a story, that if the novel does "die" it will be because "character" has been ruled out of it, and that Dickens has begun to terrify his critics and biographers because they have found "A man entombed in the Westminster Abbey grave."…

Miss McCarthy can't be described exactly as "wordy," but I don't think one could ever call her concise. She tends to ramble, she wants to put everything in. All the same, it makes for good bedtime reading; and I think she will not take this as a negative compliment if I remark that my idea of bedside reading is the shorter essays of Edmund Wilson, Huxley's "Texts and Pretexts" and the collected novels of I. Compton-Burnett. (p. 46)

Pamela Hansford Johnson, "Between Glances in the Mirror, a Bright, Pouncing Mind," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 24, 1961, pp. 6, 46.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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The title of Miss McCarthy's collection of essays [On the Contrary] suggests an arbitrary contra mundum attitude. Her target, however, is less what people think than what they think they think; her obsession is with the contrast between reality and the fashionable images of reality, whether in politics, magazines, plays or novels. Reality, as she sees it, exists in the spontaneities and unpredictabilities of human experience. Yet all of us, she supposes, are engaged for a multitude of reasons in a conspiracy to escape reality, to tame and falsify it. Mankind evidently can live by cliché alone. Miss McCarthy's effort is to get us off the stuff and restore the capacity for individual perception. She does this, as ever, with immense wit, charm and style. The result is a singularly bracing antitoxin to contemporary cant. (p. 23)

The last third of the book explains brilliantly how literature takes people away from the realities of experience—from character and event…. Miss McCarthy has some fun with symbolism as one form of flight from reality—with the notion that it is old-fashioned "to read a novel to find out what happens to the hero or to have a mere experience empty of symbolic pointers." What is so inadequate about "the natural symbolism of reality"? As Miss McCarthy puts it, "You cannot be a universal unless you accept the fact that you are a singular."

Her concern with the gap between contemporary literature and contemporary reality leads her to illuminating speculations about the future of the novel. She ventures the guess that the novel is in trouble today because its ruling passion is the love of "ordinary common truth," and this makes it "of all forms the least adapted to encompass the modern world, whose leading characteristic is irreality." The "souped-up" modern novels, she adds, with injections of myth and symbols to heighten or "deepen" the material, "are simply evasions and forms of self-flattery." Modern literature has lost interest in character; "the common world that lies between the contemporary reader and the contemporary author remains unexplored, almost undescribed, just as queer and empty a place as Dickens' world would be if he had spent eight years recording the impressions of Fagin or the sensory data received by Uriah Heep in the slithery course of a morning's walk."

Miss McCarthy's manner remains avant-garde, but her impact is now that of an old-fashioned, direct, no-nonsense critic. She has no patience with smart phoneyness, and her effort at the recovery of reality has generated a growing sympathy for the traditional virtues. Of course reality can never be separated from an individual's perception of it. Miss McCarthy's vision of reality has its share of distortions and illusions. Yet she has been unsparing in the effort to unmask her own clichés. I hope it will frighten no one away from this superbly entertaining volume if I describe it as possessing a genuinely moral quality. I think it does; and, whether or not one accepts the author's answers, one can benefit greatly by pondering her questions. (pp. 23-4)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Mary McCarthy's Vision of Reality," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1961 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 145, No. 15, October 9, 1961, pp. 23-4.


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The reputation of "our First Lady of Letters" (as Norman Mailer dubs Miss McCarthy) rests, without question, as solidly on her critical writing as on her fiction. And perhaps she will be best remembered as a critic, for, in a sense, she may be accused of having written little else but criticism, so much are her short stories and novels mockingly and cleverly explanatory. (p. 48)

[In an article published in The Nation entitled "Our Actors and the Critics"], Miss McCarthy contends that drama criticism in America is purblind to acting because the American theater reviewer is unable to distinguish between manuscript and acting and between acting and direction. This failure has resulted in the critic resorting to such imprecise and catch-all terms as "brilliant," "sincere," and "moving" on the rare occasions that he does attempt to define the qualities he admires in certain actors. As Miss McCarthy points out, apprehending an actor's performance involves a variety of considerations. The critic must understand not only the actor's role but his role in relation to the play and the method or design chosen by the actor to convey his view of the role. The New York drama reviewers, she summarizes, are too frightened and lazy to have engaged in this kind of criticism.

The bias in this article hints at what is particularly successful in Mary McCarthy's own drama criticism. She does pay attention to actors and acting and to the details of production: sets, lights, make-up, costumes. She is aware of stage conventions and of innovations that defy these conventions. Only in the later essays that concern the contribution of a particular dramatist, such as Ibsen or Shaw, is the concentration chiefly on manuscript. But curiously enough, Roger Beckett, in a review of Sights and Spectacles, claims that, whether Mary McCarthy is watching Shakespeare or Ogden Nash, she sees only ideas: "The play itself is never the thing for her. The wonderful machinery going on before her eyes never itself delights her. Toward the stuff and substance of the theatre—the lights, the scenery, the faces, gestures, voices, make-up, costumes—the whole apparatus of make-believe on a stage, she is almost entirely oblivious." Nothing could be more untrue. Miss McCarthy has a good eye for details and a taperecorder memory. These attributes work to her advantage in everything she writes. Also she knows something about the history of the theater and about acting. (pp. 50-1)

What is different about the drama criticism of Mary McCarthy has to do with standards that have involved looking inward as well as outward—inward to a personally held concept of honesty which becomes a yardstick to judge the writing and performance of others; outward to what she terms articulate theater, represented by the works of such playwrights as Molière, Shaw, Chekhov, Turgenev, Ibsen, Montherlant, Strindberg, O'Casey, Hauptmann, Brecht, and Genêt. Opposed to these dramatists is Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller whose writing, she finds, strikes a false note and for whom excuses are continually being invented, "as though he were some wretched pupil bringing a note from his parent: 'Please excuse Tennessee or Arthur or Clifford; he has a writing difficulty.'"… The term "good theatre," she argues, is imprecise because it manages to dodge the center of pertinent dramatic criticism. What does it mean? she asks. "'Strong' situations? Masochistic grovelling? Sexual torture? Is Sophocles 'good theatre'? Is Shakespeare? Apparently not, for the term is always used defensively, to justify a kind of shoddiness, which is held to be excusable for the stage."… (pp. 51-2)

Another characteristic of Mary McCarthy as critic is a delight in pronouncing absolute statements that rest on a kind of brilliant exaggeration. Parts of what she says are usually true, but the truthfulness is sometimes that of a caricature: the salient features are distorted but, through distortion, are emphasized. Like the caricature, the writing calls attention to itself. Doubtless, Miss McCarthy draws with bold, exaggerated strokes so that eyes half-blinded by sentimentalism and uncritical acceptance will see. But at times, overstatement causes the truth, which the reader could accept, to be thrown out along with the bias and exaggeration that he cannot accept. (p. 52)

Barbara McKenzie, "All Things Mortal," in her Mary McCarthy (copyright © 1966 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1966, pp. 48-75.

Louis Coxe

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An extraordinary collection and collocation in [The Writing on the Wall]. Mary McCarthy, the formidable polymath of letters, rides again and the unwary had better look out because she shoots to kill.

We begin with the essay on Macbeth in which the essayist demonstrates that the protagonist lacks all tragic stature and depth—is in fact a kind of account executive at Dunsinane, with neither imagination nor the guts his wife had, addicted to bombast and fustian. Miss McCarthy does not tell us whether or not she thinks Shakespeare intended such a portrait of the killer king. We don't have to consider matters historical or literary because Miss McCarthy is after another kind of game: she is out to get the bourgeois. In a very real sense she seems to seek what she can devour in nearly all these essays, from her bagging of George Orwell to the battue effected in Salinger country. Never one to spare anyone Miss McCarthy is at her best as the literary or political assassin, as witness her extinction of Mr. Salinger. Yet by the same token, when she defends someone whom she admires, as in the case of the essay on Hannah Arendt's troubles over Eichmann, her loyalty and sense of fair play support her in a slashing attack on those who attack her friend. One may lose all sense of the merits of the question in admiration for Miss McCarthy's controlled passion at work upon it. It is of a piece with her best gift—that for contention, polemic.

That's not quite right; the polemical approach figures less largely than the moral, for Miss McCarthy is a spoiled nun and what sets her going is a moral fervor, an almost doctrinaire adherence to the didactic, to what is good for you. And what that turns out to be, in essence, is rigor, struggle, difficulty of an imposed sort. The books she chooses to review show how sternly she regards the amorphous, irresponsible and messy world of literature.

One is bound to see very quickly that she is not a literary critic at all. The books that interest her do so for reasons that are only marginally literary and hence lead her into scholarly culs-de-sac that would do credit to an article in PMLA. She has read everything twice and remembers it—once in a while inaccurately as one might expect; the wonder is that she can have available to herself at all times that enormous range of reference. In her discussion of Nabokov's Pale Fire she is at her happiest, tracing patterns, spotting allusions and quotations, finding the right way through that crazy fun house of a novel. Again, she gives a finely lucid explication of Nathalie Sarraute's method and purpose in her essay on Between Life and Death, as she does for Monique Wittig's The Opoponax. Less satisfactory in this regard, in my view, is her study of Burrough's Naked Lunch, partly because she devotes much of her opening remarks to correcting the record and setting straight what she originally said about the book.

Yet when all is said one may justly say, with Portnoy's analyst, "Shall we begin?" I do not think that Miss McCarthy either expects or gets from literature literary responses; they are too frivolous for her. Immoral. Someone once observed of Nabokov that he is the only contemporary novelist who writes badly in three (or was it four?) languages. I think that far too often Miss McCarthy takes on faith the merit of the question and fails to ask herself if someone may be taken in before the fact, by promotion and suggestion. Nabokov has no rival as prestidigitator and radar-countermeasures-man. Miss McCarthy simply takes him at his manipulated word and assumes his greatness.

Her assumption is not even explored. The character of Pale Fire simply underscores the failure to make a true literary judgment. Nabokov is like the pornographer who has the best of both worlds: when you accuse him of gratuitous and shameless porn-for-its-own-sake he tells you toploftily that he is engaging in satire, in what is vulgarly called the "put-on" (man)…. So Nabokov can dodge accusations of vulgarism, pretentiousness, bombast and self-indulgence by accusing the accuser of naivete—of not understanding that it is all an elaborate and profound satire with the accuser as the victim. Which is the point—as it is Miss McCarthy's: there must be a victim, someone to make a fool of. (pp. 20, 22)

Miss McCarthy never takes into account that she is dealing with a book written by a person for people: to her, Pale Fire is a most superior, because most complicated, form of culture-game, in which the author sets out to fool untutored readers and to reward the hip with a sense of moral and mental superiority….

[A] sort of nonliterary gamesmanship goes on in the two essays on Ivy Compton-Burnett. The emphasis is sociological and political. Miss C-B gets high marks because she is "subversive" (just how is unclear) and lacks "social snobbery," unlike Jane Austen. And she is a "radical thinker, one of the rare modern heretics." Now that may be true though you can't prove it by me. The point is, though: is she any good? Why? How? When Miss McCarthy does get down to cases, I think she fails to make the case. The books she seems to prefer are chic or succès de scandale or obdurately unamenable. Here her moral sense goes to work: books are good for you. Hard and essentially unrewarding work is good for you. If a book is hard to read, wholly self-referential and recondite, then it must be full of cultural and moral vitamins. It may well be that books of that sort do move Miss McCarthy, but most of us get through them so we can say we have. Nobody can tell us we have to like them, though perhaps Miss McCarthy tries.

In the long run, these essays strike me as part of the history of an era. The earnest strident tones of the old Partisan [Review] and the hectoring of the contemporary New York Review of Books: the discussion moves effortlessly between them….

[Politics] and sociology have their limits; few if any of the great or good writers can pass political exams. Most if not all are authoritarian, extreme, or irresponsible which is both their right and their duty as poets or novelists. They deal with the arts of the impossible and need not develop into either ideologues or fixers unless that furthers their imaginative purposes—and it never does. Miss McCarthy seems to like her writers to be doctrinaire nihilists or thirties liberals, and while there is a great deal to be said for both positions, most of it has been said thousands of times.

Luckily, in the case of the true writer, the trade itself can redeem him from his own "ideas." Would it were the case with all of us. (p. 22)

Louis Coxe, "Moral Vitamins," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 162, No. 8, February 28, 1970, pp. 20, 22.

Anthony Burgess

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The brand name tells all. Potential readers do not have to be informed by me of the excellence of ["The Writing on the Wall"]—the acumen, intelligence, clarity, wit and lack of bitchiness. Mary McCarthy's quality is of the kind, nevertheless, that a reviewer is able to demonstrate in apothegmatic droplets. Thus, "As Burroughs knows, the Men in White, when not simple con men, are the fuzz in another uniform." Or "A Compton-Burnett is a reliable make, as typical of British Isles workmanship as a tweed or Tiptree or an Agatha Christie." Or her calling "Pale Fire" a "centaurwork … this merman of the deep." Or "You cannot be a minority and in the majority simultaneously, and this is the current dilemma of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir throning in France."

Miss McCarthy is excellent not only in the things she says but in her recognition of the excellence of things said by others…. [We] suspect a thing is good without Miss McCarthy's telling us; when she tells us, we're quite sure it's good. This is a pledge of our trust and deference.

It may not always be healthy to wish to agree, or be persuaded, quite so often as we do chez elle: one becomes aware sooner or later of a lack of the zest of engagement…. [Miss McCarthy] is never silly, even deliberately, and nodding so often in agreement we tend, warm in her bosom of good sense, to nod off. Literarily, of course, not literally.

Her intelligence is attested by the questions she asks. In a remarkable study of the character of Macbeth, she wonders: "Is a line of verse altered for us by the sincerity of the one who speaks it?"… Once her question is asked, we know how it can be answered—in terms of poetry in Shakespeare never being a device of characterization, except of the poet himself—but most of us would not have thought of a question so deep as to open up a subterranean cave of long-neglected esthetic inquiry. In her title-essay she wonders how George Orwell would have stood "on many leading questions of our day" and, though she makes suggestions, she is aware of worrying contradictions.

To an Englishman like myself, it is very interesting to listen to an Irish-American-Parisian woman intellectual on a writer so British as Orwell. I gather that some of her statements have already caused trouble, such as "If he had lived, he might have been happiest on a desert island, and it was a blessing for him probably that he died." It is never a blessing for anyone to die, especially a writer who, with "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four," was beginning a few years before his death to show a mythopoeic power unguessable from the early documentary-style works.

Yet it is the early books that Miss McCarthy admires most. Talking of the two great satires, she says: "Building these ingenious, Erector-set worlds based on a few simple principles such as double-think and 'but some are more equal than others' must have appealed to his sardonic imagination." This seems to diminish them to the level of a skiff carved with a jackknife or a model of Chartres made with cheese.

Nabokov's "Pale Fire" is also seen as a kind of Erector-set artifact, but it seems to differ from an Orwell hobbybook in being Fabergé-like, "a clockwork toy" with a soul and not a mere set of slogans. Miss McCarthy takes a gameswoman's delight in showing us how "Pale Fire" works: she hunts down the meanings of the most arcane tropes, and is ultimately in danger of praising the clock for the intricacy of its parts. She is keen on structures, and she pulls nearly all of Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels to pieces to demonstrate what was always implicit in their titles—namely, that they belong to the world of the Higher Game.

I don't think Miss McCarthy mentions Lévi-Strauss anywhere, but, living in Paris, she has to breathe in his brand of structuralism through the pores…. Miss McCarthy, in viewing British fiction from Paris, makes it, in Ezra Pound's phrase, new. (p. 4)

[Miss McCarthy] remains our best living mediator between the Anglo-American literary world and the French. She is good on Nathalie Sarraute, though she does not send me dashing back to the bookshelves to give her another try. She shows just how much Monique Wittig's "The Opoponax" depends not on its native lexis but its deeper structures—the significance of the French present tense being different from that of the English equivalent, and yet the Wittig novel is based entirely on such points of usage. Her essay 'Crushing a Butterfly' shows precisely what does go on in the puzzled minds of the French young, who look for literature to be engagé and want to be given not just words but Le Verbe. And yet the young are devoted to the nouveau roman, which is only words.

Two long essays, excellent though they are, disturb me with a sense of their being D.P.'s or displaced prose. One is on the nature theme in literature and the other on "Madame Bovary." The first belongs in some more scholarly work on general aspects of literature, the second to a book on Flaubert. Coming to a volume of variegated essays, one can be expected to want to read all of them only if the author's temperament, the author's idiosyncratic approach, is as much on exhibition as the subjects themselves. In these two bulky essays I have a feeling that anybody of Miss McCarthy's intelligence and learning could have done the job as well. (With the nature essay I wonder, diffidently, if the job was worth doing.) But for the rest of the volume I have nothing but enthusiasm. (pp. 4, 29)

Anthony Burgess, "When She Tells Us Something Is Good, We're Quite Sure of It," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 8, 1970, pp. 4, 29.

Francis Hope

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Reviewing a collection of book reviews calls for caution. It would be a bold—or a boastful—reviewer who claimed to recognise his own virtues in Miss McCarthy's work [The Writing on the Wall]. Not many of us can swing into action so brightly, or riffle so fast through literature to reinforce a provocative generalisation, or work so closely with a drily cerebral text, as she does at her best. But her faults are the profession's common property. Almost all of us have thrown out a fine opening sentence without considering where it will lead us; have been given more space than we really have thoughts to fill, or not allowed ourselves enough time to fill the space; have allowed a phrase to take over a train of thought, or to patch the gap in an argument…. The critic, says Miss McCarthy in a review of Nathalie Sarraute, is an unnatural hybrid of writer and reader. On a more trivial level (description, not analysis) he or she tends to be a blend of writer and talker. Miss McCarthy talks very well. That delightful evening in the New York Review of Books, that sparkling lunch in Encounter: how much one enjoyed what she said then! In a book, it takes on a new depth, in which it sometimes drowns.

In conversation, for example, there would be nothing intellectually wrong with this sentence on Nabokov's Pale Fire:

Whether the visible world, for Nabokov, is a prismatic reflection of eternity or the other way around is a central question that begs itself but that remains, for that very reason, moot and troubling.

Something unsatisfactory here. The question does not beg itself (though it is a neat turn of phrase), Miss McCarthy begs it. And if it troubles her, it troubles her readers. In the same vein, she writes: 'It is a question whether Orwell's socialism, savagely felt as it was, was not an unexamined idea off the top of his head: sheer rant.' It is a question indeed, and a good one, sharply pointed by the breathless syntax. But having raised it, one is bound to provide some answer, which Miss McCarthy does not. In an essay on the literary idea of nature, she contrasts Nabokov's view of nature as the supreme artefact with Lawrence's view of it as a repository of instinctive life, 'perhaps illustrating a class difference'. Lady, you tell us; perhaps we don't need.

The remorseless desire to stimulate is—'perhaps'—a function of the reader's laziness rather than the critic's. Somehow the ceremony must be found that will get the classics in circulation again. So Miss McCarthy puts on Macbeth with fireworks, like an undergraduate aiming for stardom….

He is a general and has just won a battle; he enters the scene making a remark about the weather … A commonplace man who talks in commonplaces, a golfer, one might guess, on the Scottish fairway….

Girls have got into Cambridge for less. But the impulse to arrest wears thin. There is no argument in her Macbeth, merely a series of paradoxes. She is better on Madame Bovary, doing both moral and intellectual justice to the neglected husband, the one true lover of the Ideal in the book. The professional reviewer might hunt for an improvised reason ('her temperament, perhaps, allows her to criticise a woman more sharply than a man'); the truth is less neat and even less interesting. One essay is simply better than the other.

Most critics of Miss McCarthy's kind find it easier to attack than to defend, just as most entertaining conversation is malicious. As if by wilful contradiction (catch me if you can) she runs the other way. She can, of course, put the boot in effectively: a few pages on J. D. Salinger kick that moody narcissist very thoroughly into the middle of last week. But without malice: she simply has no patience with anything so intellectually undemanding. Again, there is a trace of the willed contrary stance…. Like Henry Adams, she enjoys playing at literary science: why should the boffins get all the best experiments? The result is often a disappointment. Without asking her to gush over sunsets (and certainly without the heretical suggestion that reason is a man's business) one might ask her to move more slowly, but more resolutely in one direction.

Miss McCarthy always beats the clock, but sometimes at a price. 'At this point a definition is called for. What are the criteria by which we can recognise Nature?' It is all too like a New Yorker cartoon: 'Just a minute, define your terms. What exactly do you mean by "great art?"' Her essay on Nature turns on a single, worthwhile observation: buildings which are works of art—palaces or villas—impose on nature, whereas buildings that are anonymous, the products of communal skill—castles or cottages—fit in. The peasant's dwelling is 'vegetable-like', particularly in the landscapes of Ruysdael, and therefore blends with its surroundings. But the argument wriggles away. Like the modern suburban villa ('the horror of modern ranch houses or of modern colonial cottages is the stench of loneliness they give off'), Miss McCarthy's product strains for a signature. Yes indeed, this must be signed MM: it is clever, provoking, erudite, original. It is not supposed to be part of nature, but of culture. Which is as it should be. Why, then, does one feel cheated? The question begs an answer. (pp. 775-76)

Francis Hope, "Unfinished Arguments," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 79, No. 2046, May 29, 1970, pp. 775-76.

John Romano

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Implicit in Mary McCarthy's [Ideas and the Novel] is a historical thesis of the kind called "descendental." Novels used to be wonderful, intelligent things, back in the 19th century, partly because they were full of "explicit ideas"; but today's novel, without ideas, is poorer stuff altogether. There are some minor historical filigrees: Henry James is the turning point, for instance, and Thomas Mann is a 19th-century throwback. But mostly, for Mary McCarthy, the decline of the genre can be charted as a diagonal plunge, from the roman idée of Balzac and Hugo, down through to the dismal present, where the right proportion of idea to narrative is no longer even a dilemma for the novelist. Nowadays, all simply, "ideas are held not to belong in the novel; in the art of fiction we have progressed beyond such simplicities." This last is of course sarcastic. So wry is it, and so firm, that we must finally ask the question that nags, silently, throughout: if Mary McCarthy is so passionate about the lost graces of novels with ideas in them, then why aren't her own novels more than only slightly idée? (p. 32)

[It] is clear from the outset that the real interest of Ideas and the Novel does not lie in its contentiousness about the contemporary novel, but in the readings it gives of some 19th-century masterworks in the novel: The Red and the Black, Les Miserables, Lost Illusions, Hard Times, The Possessed, War and Peace, and some scattered things in George Eliot and others. They are lively, wholly engaging readings, full of critical shrewdness and readerly pleasure. And in a general way the project is very welcome, because the 19th-century realist novel is in need of appreciation and celebration these days. Their presumption of a leisurely, cooperative, highly literate audience is being rather sorely tested, and they are in trouble in the universities as well. Mary McCarthy is right in saying that Jamesian standards for fiction have been deeply influential, and the consequence has been a learned taste for shapeliness of narrative contour, uninterrupted by the intrusion of "ideas" or raw, unassimilated, accidental factuality—that which makes for the impression of life.

But taste alone would not have been decisive. That which killed off, or nearly, the academic appreciation of the overstuffed realist novel was the rise of American formalism in the 1940s. The most prolific and assertive generation of critics ever grew up on an approach to texts that originally had been devised to handle short poems by Donne, and never did anything else nearly so well. Preaching the well-tempered coherences of diminutive form, what could New Critics say to the astounding but significant disorder of War and Peace, swarming with nonfictive, "unliterary" asides? Against the strictures of Messrs. Wellek and Warren, the works of Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens, and others refused to distill "world" neatly into "word."

It is as appreciation and celebration of such an inclusive and actually hungry aesthetic that Ideas and the Novel is chiefly valuable. In particular it is good to have the sensitive reading of Victor Hugo, who, though André Gide called him the best novelist in the French language, has scarcely been attended to by English readers in this century. About all the French novels she treats, Mary McCarthy is most helpful. This is because of the nature of her insistence on the intimate relation, a "secret sympathy," between ideas and "common factuality" in novels, a condition which really does inform the making of the first wave of realist texts. Of this "secret sympathy," the modern novel knows nothing. We have banished "mental concepts," but at the same time make too much of mere facts. But the French realists, Miss McCarthy is saying, had the balance right: ideas and things in simultaneous and profligate abundance, filling out the frame of necessary human experience.

But she is crucially, centrally wrong about the next phase of realism, about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and George Eliot, probably because in them a wholly different relation between ideas and facts obtained. As the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs repeatedly pointed out, the factuality of the 1830s novel in France led to the dreary, idea-less, informational prose of Zola: naturalism, not realism. Far from furthering the role of ideas by any "secret sympathy" with them, the plentiful facts of naturalism led to the regrettable poverty of ideas in modernism: out of Flaubert, by way of Zola, came Joyce. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and George Eliot clearly stand aside from that development. That is because their realism was as much imagined as observed: the sympathy was between ideas and imagination, of a kind that might or might not confirm the ideas, and might indeed explode them. The heir to this other tradition was D. H. Lawrence, for whom "common facts" hardly existed, and yet he is plainly a novelist of ideas. Thus he is somewhat confusing to Mary McCarthy, and her reaction is to wax a little nasty on the subject of his work.

What she is most of the time, however, is ardent and witty and wise. One is grateful, above all, for the chance to read an armful of masterpieces over her shoulder. (pp. 32-3)

John Romano, "In Praise of Loose Baggy Monsters," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 24, December 13, 1980, pp. 32-3.

Laurie Stone

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Ideas and the Novel reads like notes for an angry letter, the kind banged out after a feverish night, the kind full of arguments that sound brilliant when tossing on the pillow but frenzied when read with a little distance. One senses some gadfly biting Mary McCarthy's haunches…. But the author doesn't name the pest. We're not supposed to notice it, I guess.

McCarthy begins with an attack on Henry James and Virginia Woolf for damning the Victorians and ushering in the art novel. According to McCarthy, James and Woolf pinched the form more than they freed it. They added emotion and sex as subject matter, but purged the novel of thought—of talk about morality and politics. Thus, McCarthy says, the novel lost its authority to comment on society, lost its eclecticism and capaciousness.

McCarthy would say the novel lost its balls, if she talked this way. Actually, she comes pretty close to equating thinking with phallic display…. One never knows quite what McCarthy means by ideas in these essays …, although one gets the sense, after a while, that ideas only register for her when presented in didactic form.

While it's true that James is sometimes precious, ornate, vague, and that he often omitted "suspense, physical action, inventory, description of places and persons, apostrophe, [and] moral teaching," it's also true that he had plenty of ideas. These were primarily about emotion and the art of the novel. (p. 44)

Much in this diatribe is haphazardly written. McCarthy admits to relying on memory when speaking of Uncle Tom's Cabin, as if it weren't her job to reread the book. At another point, discussing the evil effects of books as a theme in the novel, she offers this tidbit: "D. H. Lawrence comes to mind again, though I do not remember any citations of specifically harmful reading matter mentioned by him." So why bring it up? The literary essay really does do better without hair-twirling—and inaccuracy….

Most confusing and disappointing, McCarthy doesn't actually take on the contemporary novel, as one expects from the opening complaint. The rather interesting feistiness trails off after a few pages, and we never find out which novelists offend with their shallow artyness—or what McCarthy is driving at. Is she referring to Barth? Fowles? Lessing? Irving? Ozick? It's unlikely these writers would drink at the same bar.

McCarthy turns, instead, to writers, mainly of the 18th and 19th centuries, who welcome Ideas, like loyal and stalwart soldiers, into their realms. She describes the various didactic forms: the debate novel, the spokesman/author surrogate novel, and the missionary novel or tract. Some of her preferred books don't argue a particular set of ideas but still include meditations, opinions, and conversations in which people think. McCarthy likes, among others, Peacock, Dickens, Lawrence, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, and Stendhal.

Of these there is much appreciating, though little that's new or captivating. The plot summaries are overly long, and after a while, organization disintegrates as McCarthy unaccountably switches from a discussion of novel forms, to a loose, free-associative ramble through novel themes. The section on the Napoleonic figure is informative, but elsewhere there are numerous preposterous assertions.

At one point, McCarthy describes Lawrence's ideas: his belief in the "blood instinct," his distrust of the intellect, his attraction to strong, macho men—the typical panoply of protofascist notions. Then McCarthy writes: "If his ideas, true or false, have stayed with us, if he was a novelist of ideas … to whom we can still listen … this must be because he was an artist as well as a cogent, programmatic mind … because he makes us feel as we read these novels that there is something in what he says."

Not so. To be moved by Lawrence does not by any means require buying his philosophy. Nobody these days, save perhaps McCarthy, reads Lawrence for his ideas. Lawrence was not a cogent thinker, except, on occasion, as a critic of literature, and mostly his ideas get in the way of his storytelling. In the best works, where the tract is subdued—Sons and Lovers, Rainbow, Women in Love, the short stories—Lawrence is a powerful poet, not a persuasive intellectual. His gifts to English letters have nothing to do with the kinds of ideas with which McCarthy is concerned….

Elsewhere she gives some very strange praise to Victor Hugo, the painter of panoramas, for remaining remote from his characters' interior lives: "There is a delicacy of feeling in the decision to stay outside. It is as though the mind of another—even a fictional other—were a private room, whose threshold ought not to be crossed by anyone but the occupant. A mind, no matter whose, is a hortus conclusus, like the immaculate maiden's chamber with potted lily and prayer books which only the Angel Gabriel is allowed to invade. Hugo is a chaste novelist, respecting the chastity of his characters."

This is a repudiation of the whole thrust of modern literature and modern life. In the 20th century, the narrator changed from a moralist/teacher to a psychologist, a prober of minds, an interpreter of dreams. The nature of reality and issues of right and wrong didn't disappear, but rather were seen from a new angle—that of feeling and buried motivation. All one has to do is think of Conrad (never mentioned by McCarthy), or Dostoyevsky for that matter, to see how the moral and philosophical spheres became inseparably affixed to the psychological. In its history, the novel has never appropriated a more dramatic or capacious Idea than the unconscious.

We no longer read novels, as the Victorians may have, to learn about geography or God. We read them for reports on how life, at this moment, is being lived, and felt. We want the truth, no holds barred, and we have become adept at sniffing out the disingenuous and the unwitting cover-up. McCarthy probably knew all this when she wrote The Group. I will never forget the lonely month I once spent in London and the pleasure I received from this witty, intelligent novel, written by an author who had, gratefully, absolutely no respect for her characters' chastity. (p. 45)

Laurie Stone, "Belting Chastity" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 7, February 11, 1981, pp. 44-5.

Phyllis Grosskurth

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Ideas and the Novel contains Mary McCarthy's Northcliffe Lectures, delivered at University College London last year. If one actually goes to hear such lectures one can savour the wit, the premeditated pauses, and the charm of the speaker. If one loses the chain of associations, it is almost always because one's own attention has wandered momentarily. To read rather than to listen to them is to lose the immediacy of the speaker's presence, but also to gain the time to ponder the force and plausibility of a particular argument. Ideas and the Novel—covering as it does a wide spectrum both of novels and historical periods—is far too compressed to make a satisfactory book. To have heard the lectures must have been provocative and entertaining; to read them is to be irritated and bewildered.

"He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it." T. S. Eliot's ambiguous remark about Henry James was itself a dramatic and arresting opening to a lecture, and it might have been interesting to know what Miss McCarthy believed Eliot meant by this statement. It would be far more interesting to know what she has in mind when she uses the capacious word "idea" herself and, more precisely, what she means by "ideas" in the novel. Is she talking about ideological convictions, debating points, attitudes to life, obsessions, abstractions, or beliefs that inspire people to action or destruction? Although she repeatedly tells us that ideas are no longer accepted in the modern novel—a fact she seems to lament—she never tells us what we have lost or what we now have in its place.

James, she seems to assume at the outset, is responsible for this disappearance of ideas, yet within a few pages a generalized causality seems to have been at work as well. McCarthy supposes that "the present predicament is a heritage from modernism in its prim anti-Victorian age". Ah, now perhaps we are getting somewhere. Virginia Woolf, for instance, deliberately set out to see what could be discarded from the novel—but that is all we hear about Virginia Woolf. Miss McCarthy is now galloping off across country, loosing off grapeshot rather aimlessly at whichever Victorian novelist comes within range. The Victorians filled their books with descriptions of people, places, and things; they were, in fact, repositories of information.

And ideas? Well, Miss McCarthy herself seems to grow a little uneasy that she may have stumbled too far into the forest because at this point she admits that she took down her Reader's Guide to Literary Terms and looked up the entry for "novel". She read that: "In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the novel, as an art form, has reached its fullest development."… It now appears that we are getting somewhere, as she posits a number of possibilities as to what the novel of ideas is, the Reader's Guide lacking any reference to it…. "Does it mean a novel in which the characters sit around, or pace up and down, enunciating and discussing ideas?" This type of novel would include The Magic Mountain, all of Aldous Huxley, and the fiction of Sartre and Malraux. All these writers are post-James so perhaps Miss McCarthy is now going to tell us that what they wrote are not really novels of ideas after all. Before we reach this point, however, we are told that these novels involve isolated situations in which the characters have the opportunity to talk, even if nothing is ever resolved. Disposing of these books by implication, she continues: "Still when the novel of ideas is spoken of, maybe another type of story is being referred to—a story that does come to some sort of resolution."

Why the passive tense? Miss McCarthy has given us to understand that she was going to be our guide, and one begins to wonder if we are lost in a jungle rather than a mere forest….

In her second chapter (or lecture) Miss McCarthy, assuming now that ideas were the staple of nineteenth-century fiction, discusses how they are expressed either through a particular character detached from the author (Balzac and Lucien de Rubempré, for example), or divided between character and author (Stendhal in The Red and the Black). Finally, she talks about the dangerous ideas that authors such as Flaubert were aware of disseminating in their novels—such as the disastrous effect of romantic fiction on Emma Bovary. Novels of ideas—whatever they are—are not always a good thing.

But hope should not be abandoned. There are novels in which certain characters are ruled by ideas—Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black is obsessed by the idea of Napoleon, which ultimately leads to his downfall. But nineteenth-century England has nothing to match this, though Dombey and Son—which Miss McCarthy reads "as a parable of Empire"—perhaps comes nearest to it. She then makes an extraordinary statement: "Victorian fiction, generally, seems to have missed out through insularity, which was a side-benefit of Empire, on the shaking experience of the century: the fact of seeing an idea on the march and being unable to forget it—radiant vision or atrocious spectacle, depending on your point of view."

English fiction missed out on the ultimate novel of ideas, as practised by Dostoevsky, to which Miss McCarthy now devotes her full attention: Crime and Punishment and The Possessed. She describes at great length what happens in these novels, in which characters are "incarnate ideas". Verhovensky in The Possessed is the driving-force behind the destructiveness which ensues from ideas, but "If he is an Idea, which I wonder about, it is an idea without specific content, a principle devoted (but not dedicated) to destruction". Sadly, this is the closest we are going to come in these lectures to a genuine novel of ideas, with the exception of Hard Times, which is ultimately rejected because "The nature of an idea, surely, is to be abstract, ie, the polar opposite of the concrete, of the plurality of facts, living and dead, each different from the next, that the world consists of."

The conclusion is that novelists are now afraid to have ideas, or that if they do attempt to have them, they are jeered at. Solzhenitsyn is declared by the critics to be backward and Iris Murdoch is accused of "deliberate archaizing"…. I wish that Miss McCarthy had analysed a typical modern novel to show us just how it has been vacated of ideas—but, in her concluding remarks, it appears that all the time she has been talking about the English novel…. Miss McCarthy concludes: "If the novel is to be revitalized, maybe more such emergency strategies will have to be employed to disarm and disorient reviewers and teachers of literature, who, as always, are the reader's main foe." I understand that this ringing finale evoked thunderous applause at the time, but for the life of me I cannot understand why.

Ideas and the Novel is a gallimaufry of prejudices, witticisms, and red herrings. It saddens me to see Miss McCarthy waste her fine mind on a tattered rag-bag of undeveloped impressions. Some novelists make good theorists but quite clearly Miss McCarthy is not one of them; she should get on with writing good novels.

Phyllis Grosskurth, "An Absence of Abstraction," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4066, March 6, 1981, p. 252.


McCarthy, Mary


McCarthy, Mary (Vol. 1)