Sex and Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s 1963 bestseller The Group is a minutely detailed and unflinching study of eight girls just out of America’s then top women’s college, Vassar.  They’re about to embark on romance, sex, work. The novel shows where those first forays into real life get them or leave them stranded; occasionally one or two of them are happyThe clue to McCarthy’s unusual style is on the last page: ‘Her conscience was clear. She had made a little pact with herself to speak only the exact truth and insinuate nothing.’ Although there’s no one word for the result it reminds me of the German Neue Sachlichkeit, which was, in the 1930s, a writers’ fashion for a down-to-earth fidelity to facts. This was a reaction against the previous decades of Expressionist emotionalism. In McCarthy’s case however, with her novel set in the US in the 1930s, after the Depression,  it seems to have sprung from a mixture of the sharpness of her mind, her social and sexual confidence, her natural broadmindedness and abundant talent, all that coupled, no doubt, with painful memories of a Catholic education and the upheaval of being orphaned at eight. McCarthy (1912-1989) was fiercely well-educated, high-minded and definitely on the literary side of the writing business, but what she managed to produce was, in the early 1960s context, literature’s finest answer to good journalism about upper middle-class American life. She didn’t delve deep into her characters’ psyches but she observed how social expectations and realities quickly revised their ideals. Readers intolerant of past inequalities won’t take kindly to the monied routine and the servants, nor the relative readiness of women to subordinate themselves to their men. But you can be quite sure this was how it was for the class of ’33. I’ve seen McCarthy accused forty years later, fancy that, of going into too much detail over the mechanics of sexual initation and how to cope with rubber contraceptives and the disagreeable and worrying sides of having children and watching one’s friends change for the worse, get hurt, deceive themselves. Embarrassment, curiosity, awkwardness, and little and big prejudices are what McCarthy doesn’t shun, for better, for worse. She’s very good at delineating the different sexual appetites of women, and differences between men too, and congruences between men and women. No one is a gender stereotype or a cipher in McCarthy’s upmarket New York, and many are still in complicated relationships with their parents. She’s also an amusing writer, as her characters announce their foibles to us directly. I wasn’t prepared for one of the girls, the most go-getting, the least sincere, being labelled ‘bad’ at the end. It’s the only direct judgement in the whole novel, apart from what damns a sexy-seductive bad egg, a struggling playwright called Harald. Generally the men, more or less attractive, more or less reliable, are somewhat in the background of what really interests this novelist. There must be a lot of McCarthy’s own multi-faceted and sexually keen but also naturally independent personality in here. Meanwhile, what a mind! The other book to read is her correspondence (1949-1975)  with Hannah Arendt, Between Friends. Arendt, a German philosopher and political thinker and a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, saw Mary as the best kind of American, totally open to experience and verging on the naive. McCarthy loved Arendt as a real European intellectual, above the American scene and able to see it critically; also able to explain Aristotle and Heidegger to her by return of post. McCarthy spent many years in Europe, writing articles and guidebooks, and reporting back to Hannah on her love affairs as well as her thoughts on politics (very much on the left) and language. Hannah had to deal with being vilified in the Jewish press for her criticism of Jewish behaviour during the Holocaust. Mary McCarthy has no English equivalent I know of.

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