Occasional Prose

Occasional Prose

by Mary McCarthy

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Reading and romance, gardening tips, a farewell to a friend, even an opera retold make up this stellar collection from the bestselling author of The Group and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood

This intriguing nonfiction collection by Mary McCarthy is a cornucopia of literary delights that challenges the mind andSee more details below


Reading and romance, gardening tips, a farewell to a friend, even an opera retold make up this stellar collection from the bestselling author of The Group and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood

This intriguing nonfiction collection by Mary McCarthy is a cornucopia of literary delights that challenges the mind and captivates the senses.

“On Rereading a Favorite Book” is McCarthy’s reaction to returning to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina after more than thirty years. In “Politics and the Novel,” she shatters a myth about the American versus European style of storytelling. Acts of reading, when consummated, are akin to “Acts of Love.” And “Saying Good-bye to Hannah” is a poignant farewell to the author of The Human Condition and, in particular,The Life of the Mind, the book Hannah Arendt saw as her crowning achievement.

Whether giving us the story of La Traviata in her own words or reviewing a charming and practical book on gardening, McCarthy imbues Occasional Prose with her powerful sense of time and place. Uninhibited and uncensored, it filters the world through her unique gifts of observation and novelist’s masterful eye for detail. This is a book for anyone interested in the life of the mind—and heart.  

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Mary McCarthy including rare images from the author’s estate.

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Occasional Prose

By Mary McCarthy


Copyright © 1985 Mary McCarthy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-4120-0


Philip Rahv (1908–1973)

So he's gone, that dear phenomenon. If no two people are alike, he was less like anybody else than anybody. A powerful intellect, a massive, overpowering personality and yet shy, curious, susceptible, confiding. All his life he was sternly faithful to Marxism, for him both a tool of analysis and a wondrous cosmogony, but he loved Henry James and every kind of rich, shimmery, soft texture in literature and in the stuff of experience. He was a resolute modernist, which made him in these recent days old-fashioned. It was as though he came into being with the steam-engine: for him, literature began with Dostoyevsky and stopped with Joyce, Proust, and Eliot; politics began with Marx and Engels and stopped with Lenin. He was not interested in Shakespeare, the classics, Greek city-states, and he despised most contemporary writing and contemporary political groups, being grumblingly out of sorts with fashion, except where he felt it belonged, on the backs of good-looking women and girls.

This did not overtake him with age or represent a hardening of his mental arteries. He was always that way. It helped him be a Trotskyite (he was a great admirer of the Old Man, though never an inscribed adherent) when Stalinism was chic. Whatever was "in" he threw out with a snort. Late in his life, serendipity introduced him to the word "swingers," which summed up everything he was against. With sardonic relish he adopted it as his personal shorthand. If he came down from Boston to New York and went to a literary party and you asked him "Well, how was it?" he would answer "Nothing but swingers!" and give his short soft bark of a laugh.

Yet he had a gift for discovering young writers. I think of Saul Bellow, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jarrell, Berryman, Malamud. There were many others. He was quickly aware of Bob Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, and became his close friend—counselor, too, sometimes. To the end of his life, he remained a friend of young people. It was middle-aged and old swingers he held in aversion; young ones, on the whole, he did not mind.

He had a marvelous sensitivity to verbal phrasing and structure. What art dealers call "quality" in painting he would recognize instantly in literature, even of a kind that, in principle, ought to have been foreign to him. I remember when I first knew him, back in the mid-thirties, at a time when he was an intransigent (I thought), pontificating young Marxist, and I read a short review he had done of Tender Is the Night—the tenderness of the review, despite its critical stance, startled me. I would not have suspected in Rahv that power of sympathetic insight into a writer glamorized by rich Americans on the Riviera. Fitzgerald, I must add, was "out" then and not only for the disagreeable crowd at the New Masses.

That review was delicately, almost poetically written, and this too was a surprise. I would have expected him to write as he talked, pungently, harshly, drivingly, in a heavy Russian accent. It was as though another person had written the review. But as those who knew him discovered, there were two persons in Rahv, but solidly married to each other in a longstanding union—no quarrels. It would be simplifying to say that one was political, masculine, and aggressive, one feminine, artistic, and dreamy, but those contrasts were part of it.

Perhaps there were more than two, the third being an unreconstructed child with a child's capacity for wonder and amazement. Philip marveled constantly at the strangeness of life and the world. Recounting some story, seizing on some item in a newspaper, he would be transported, positively enraptured, with glee and offended disbelief. His black eyes with their large almost bulging whites would roll, and he would shake his head over and over, have a fit of chuckling, nudge you, if you were a man, squeeze your arm, if you were a woman—as though together you and he were watching a circus parade of human behavior, marvelous monstrosities and curious animals, pass through your village.

His own childhood in the Russian Ukraine had stayed fast in his mind. He used to tell me how his grandmother (his parents were Jewish shopkeepers living in the midst of a peasant population) ran into the shop one day saying "The Tsar has fallen," and to him it was as if she had said "The sky has fallen"; he hid behind the counter. Then, when the Civil War began, he remembered staying in the shop for weeks, it seemed, with the blinds pulled down, as Red and White troops took and retook the village. His parents were early Zionists, and, after the Civil War, they emigrated to Palestine, where in the little furniture factory his father opened he got to know those strange people—Arabs. Just before or after this, he went to America, alone, to live with his older brother. There, in Providence, Rhode Island, already quite a big boy, he went to grade school still dressed as an old-fashioned European schoolboy, in long black trousers and black stockings, looking like a somber little man among the American kids. Starting to work early, as a junior advertising copywriter for a small firm out in Oregon, he had no time for college and got his education, alone, in public libraries. In the Depression, he migrated to New York. Standing in breadlines and sleeping on park benches, he became a Marxist.

This education—Russia, the Revolution, Palestine, books read in libraries, hunger—shaped him. He read several languages: Russian, German (his family on its way to Palestine had spent a year or two in Austria), probably some Hebrew, and French, which he picked up by himself. He had a masterly sense of English and was a masterful copy-editor—the best, I am told by friends, they ever knew. American literature became a specialty with him; he had come to it curious and exploratory like a pioneer. Hawthorne, Melville, James, these were the main sources that fed his imagination. His insights, never random but tending to crystallize in theory, led him to make a series of highly original formulations, including the now famous distinction between redskins and palefaces among our literary men. He himself, being essentially a European, was neither.

Though he knew America intimately, he remained an outsider. He never assimilated, not to the downtown milieu of New York Jewish intellectuals he moved in during his early days, not to the university, although in time he occupied a professor's chair. When he lived in the country, which he did for long stretches, he was an obstinate city man and would hold forth darkly on the theme of "rural idiocy." He never learned to swim. This metaphorically summed up his situation: he would immerse his body in the alien element (I have nice pictures of him in bathing-trunks by the waterside) but declined or perhaps feared to move with it. His resistance to swimming with the tide, his mistrust of currents, were his strength.

Remaining outside the American framework, his mind had a wider perspective, and at three critical junctures in our national intellectual life, its reflections were decisive. First, at the time of the Moscow trials, when he and William Phillips broke with the Communists and "stole" Partisan Review, which they had edited as an organ of the John Reed Club. Second, during the War, when he broke with his former collaborators Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg on the issue of whether the war against Hitler should be supported by American radicals or not. We had all been affirming the negative, but Rahv in a long meditative article moved toward the opposite position: I remember the last sentence, with which I did not agree at the time but which struck on my mind nevertheless and reverberated: "And yet in a certain sense it is our war." Third, in the McCarthy time, when so many of his old friends of the anti-Stalinist left were either defending McCarthy or "postponing judgment," Rahv, alone in his immediate, PR circle, came out, in print, with an unequivocal condemnation and contemptuous dismissal. On Vietnam, so far as I remember, he did not pronounce at any length but maybe he did and his characteristic voice is lost to my recollection, having mingled with so many others.

The words "radical" and "modern" had a wonderful charm for Philip; when he spoke them, his sometimes grating tone softened, became reverent, loving, as though touching prayer beads. He was also much attached to the word "ideas." "He has no ideas," he would declare, dismissing some literary claimant; to be void of ideas was, for him, the worst disaster that could befall an intellectual. He found this deficiency frequent, almost endemic, among us. That may be why he did not wish to assimilate. I said, just now, that he was unlike anybody but now I remember that I have seen someone like him—on the screen. Like the younger Rahv anyway: Serge Bondarchuk, the director of War and Peace, playing the part of Pierre. An uncanny resemblance in every sense and unsettling to preconceived notions. I had always pictured Pierre as blond, pink, very tall, and fat; nor could I picture Philip as harboring Pierre's ingenuous, embarrassed, puzzled, placid soul—they were almost opposites, I should have thought. And yet that swarthy Russian actor was showing us a different interior Philip and a different exterior Pierre. Saying good-bye to my old friend, I am moved by that and remember his tenderness for Tolstoy (see the very Rahvian and beautiful essay "The Green Twig and the Black Trunk") and Tolstoy's sense of Pierre as the onlooker, the eternal civilian, as out of place at the Battle of Borodino in his white hat and green swallowtail coat as the dark "little man" in his long dark East European clothes eyeing the teacher from his grammar-school desk in Providence.

February 17, 1974


The "Place" of Nicola Chiaromonte (1905–1972)

When Chiaromonte died in January 1972—of a heart attack, just after taking part in a discussion program on Italian radio—there was a remarkable outburst of emotion. As news of the event spread, to his widow, in their Roman apartment, came a continuous flow of telegrams and letters expressing the grief of people of the most varying kinds, from the head of state to the old woman who used to sell him newspapers in the village in Liguria where he once spent his summers. One of the most moving was from a young member of Potere Operaio (an extreme leftist group), which read something like this: "He has been a model for everyone of intellectual and moral lucidity." When he died, Chiaromonte was in his late sixties and far in his thinking from the extreme left. The memorial tributes that followed during the next weeks in the press were, again, from the most varying sources: ranging from the centrist Corriere della Sera and La Stampa to the communist-inclined Paese Sera. Most interesting was the fact that in all those words written and wired there was scarcely a one that had an official or conventional ring, even those sent by official "personalities."

Chiaromonte would hardly have guessed that he had "stood for something" to so many and might even have tried to refute the evidence as it poured in. He had left Italy as a young man to become an anti-Fascist exile in Paris, where he was close to non-violent Anarchist groups. He took part in the Spanish Civil War, enlisting in Andre Malraux's air squadron; he is the character who is always reading Plato in Man's Hope. At the time of the Nazi invasion, in 1940, he fled with his Austrian wife to the south, his wife died in Toulouse, and he eventually continued on, reaching the United States, via North Africa. It was there that he met Camus, who became his close friend. In America, he wrote for the New Republic, Partisan Review, and Dwight Macdonald's politics. His friends here were Macdonald, Meyer Schapiro, James T. Farrell, Lionel Abel, Niccolò Tucci, Saul Steinberg, and—less close then—me.

In the late forties, he went back to Europe, working first for UNESCO in Paris (for which he was very unsuited). He returned finally to Rome, where he started doing a theatre column for the old Il Mondo, a liberal (in the American sense) weekly. In the fifties, with Ignazio Silone, he founded the monthly Tempo Presente. When he died, he was doing theatre reviews for L'Espresso and writing political and philosophical reflections about once a month for La Stampa. His ideas did not fit into any established category; he was neither on the left nor on the right. Nor did it follow that he was in the middle—he was alone. Though his thought remained faithful, in its way, to philosophical anarchism, he had long lost the belief in political "effectiveness."

In America, after the forties, he was not well known. He sent occasional "Letters" from Europe to Partisan Review and wrote occasionally for Dissent. In 1966 he gave the Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton. They dealt with the novel and the idea of history in it, and were published, as a volume, in London under the title The Paradox of History. In Italy, his volume of theatre essays, La Situazione drammatica, had won a prize in Venice, and his Gauss lectures were published in book form as Credere e non credere.

The present essay is a preface to a selection of his theatre reviews and essays, not including those in La Situazione drammatica, to be published in Italian following a selection of his political writings. It is characteristic, probably, of our period that his death should have prompted what might almost be called his "discovery." Consciousness of a loss has awakened curiosity as to what exactly was in the vacated space.

Nicola Chiaromonte deeply loved the theatre. The fact was surprising, "out of character," to those who knew him as a man attached above all to ideas and principles, a theorist and reasoner, and—perhaps more important in this connection—a detester of artifice. He was every one of those things, though it did not follow that he was also, as some imagined, a puritan and therefore a natural enemy of the stage. Yet grease paint and footlights, the makeshifts of illusion and impersonation, were scarcely, you might have thought, his element. The glamour of the theatre, long recognized as one of its essential attractions (a collection of theatre pieces by the excellent American critic Stark Young was called simply Glamour), ought to have keen a source of repulsion for Chiaromonte, even as a youth. And, unlike many or most play-reviewers, he had never, so far as I know, cherished any ambition to tread the boards himself.

It is hard to imagine him dressing up as a child to take part in home theatricals or school pageants, indeed to picture him in any sort of costume or disguise. Nor can I hear him declaiming poetry at a Prize Day to the admiration of teachers and parents. There was nothing histrionic in him; when he spoke in public, he was certainly no orator, though sometimes forceful when angered by incomprehension of what to him intellectually or morally was clear as day. If he was "stage-struck" at any period in his life, collected theatre programs, pored over photos of stars, this cannot have come about through a process of identification with objects of fame and applause. No one could have been less desirous of shining than Chiaromonte, and the hero-worship of actors common in his and my day among young people should have been totally foreign to him who had so little interest in the immediate satisfactions of the performing, capering ego.

Nevertheless not only was he a continuous playgoer, by profession and inclination, but he loved actors and actresses. To go backstage with Chiaromonte after a performance, say at the Eliseo, was a delightful and entertaining experience; though a modest and shy man, he basked in the atmosphere of good will and affection that he seemed both to bring with him into the actors' dressing-rooms and to find there waiting to meet him. As his theatre criticism shows, he was a friendly critic of actors and a respecter of their art—encouraging to young people and beginners but fond too of the old idols even when compelled to remonstrate with them for some misguided interpretation of a scene or role. He had a great simplicity of heart, and if perhaps he looked on actors as children, something childlike in him responded, so that often he seemed more at home, more easily himself, in the greenroom than at any soiree of his fellow writers and intellectuals.


Excerpted from Occasional Prose by Mary McCarthy. Copyright © 1985 Mary McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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