Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America

Mary McCarthy’s 1971 satire, Birds of America, is a tour de force.  Set in New England, Paris, and Rome in the 1960s, it skewers both American innocence and hypocrisy.

I chortled over this comic novel, which is still pertinent today, but, bizarrely, it seems little-known.   You don’t have to know about the 1960s to be amused by her mockery of frozen foods, a pious Thanksgiving abroad (which the hero calls “a harvest fest”), the faux-historicism of New England villages, and tourism in Europe (the protagonist thinks tourists should be licensed to go to art museums).

The 19-year-old hero, Peter Levi, an amateur ornithologist, is the son of the twice-divorced Rosamund, a harpsichordist with old-fashioned WASP values, and his father, “Babbo,”  a Jewish-Italian art historian who teaches at Wellesley.   Peter’s bird-watching is the ideal training for observing his elders and criticizing society, though his point of view is very odd.

McCarthy can eviscerate with a few well-chosen images.  Take the scarcity of bean pots.  In Rocky Port, a small New England town where Rosamund and Peter live for a short time after she leaves her second husband, Rosamund has decided to cook only American dishes from an old Fannie Farmer cookbook. But she cannot find a bean pot at the grocery store.

“How extraordinary, Peter!  The man says they don’t make them any more.  Do you think that can be true?”  She was always asking him wide-eyed, troubled questions like that one, to which he could not possibly, at his age,  know the answer; it was a kind of flattery, applied to the male ego. The only bean pot Peter was familiar with was pictured on a can.  But the saw that for his mother this was a truly upsetting discovery, tantamount to finding that the American eagle was extinct.  She was even more ruffled when she returned from her weekly shopping trip with the report that the two hardware stores in the neighboring town did not carry bean pots either.

Now Rosamund is my favorite character in the book, but I also see Peter’s point of view: why not just use a casserole?  And after she searches hardware stores in neighboring towns and comes up with nada, their landlady gives her a bean pot she had used as vase for dried grasses.  And that is the fate of bean pots and other old things:  they are used decoratively, or stuck  in the attic.

In college, Peter becomes a radical, but his parents won’t allow him to go to Mississippi with a Students for Civil Rights group.  Ironically, during a summer vacation in Rocky Port, Rosamund and Peter are arrested when Rosamund refuses to put up a fake historical sign on the rented house (long story!) for a parade and festival for tourists.

Most of the book takes place during Peter’s junior year abroad in Paris, and it is very funny indeed.   Peter is genuinely concerned about politics, but he doesn’t quite get the protocol of French student protests, where there is a tacit agreement between police and students that those arrested  will be let go in a few hours.  His attempt to intercede in an arrest annoys one of his acquaintances, but Peter’s complaint at the embassy is so ridiculous that  he does eventually get them to make inquiries:  of course the boy had been let go almost immediately!

Peter and his fellow American students, annoyed by the dumbed-down American program at the Sorbonne, have little practice speaking French, because the French ignore them.  His most satisfying interactions are with a French bird-watching group.

So how does Peter spend his time?  He argues about politics. He travels to Rome.  He spends a lot of time furtively scrubbing the shared toilets in French and Italian hotels (in Rome a group of German tourists dominate the toilet all morning). And, not surprisingly, a quixotic  attempt in Paris to help a homeless drunkard by letting her stay on his couch ends in disaster. (She vomits on the couch and steals his doorknob.)

I thoroughly enjoyed Birds of America, which was published in 1971. And  I hope McCarthy is having a comeback:  the Library of America just published her complete fiction.  My own favorite McCarthy novel is A Charmed Life, a satire of an artists’ colony in a New England village.  You can read my post here.  But I have read several of her books, and enjoyed them all.

What to Read When You’re Ill: Mary Wesley, Muriel Spark, Dodie Smith, Jacqueline Susann, Mary McCarthy, & Pushkin

Many years ago, on an idyllic vacation in the northern woods, a spider bit me My swollen ankle turned black with necrosis, I developed clonus (involuntary muscle spasms, symptomatic of neurological disease),  became delirious, and spent three weeks in the infectious disease ward of a hospital.  I was given every test:  MRIs, EMGs, EKGs, etc., etc.   Was it encephalitis?  I did not respond to the medications at first.

Slowly, I recovered.  Very slowly.  One afternoon, encouraged by a kind nurse, I ventured down to the  cafeteria, forgetting to change out of my pajamas.  When I scooped the money out of my pink bathrobe pocket, I was embarrassed to realized I wasn’t dressed. In pajamas, not fully cognizant.   I consoled myself : Who cares?  I’m a sick person in pajamas at a hospital.  And I ate my sandwich in front of a fountain, marveling at the rush and flow of water.

Since I could not yet go home, I found refuge in books. One afternoon,  as I sat in a chair by the window with its gloomy view of the hospital complex, I became lost in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, one of my favorite books.   A doctor  came in, asked me what I was reading, and was obviously relieved to see me becoming human again.  He said I was well enough to go home.

“But what was the disease?” I asked.

He said that it is not always necessary to identify the disease.  Not all diseases follow a typical course. They had tried different medications until I responded.  They did not think I’d had encephalitis.  I’d had a serious infection.  I did not have brain damage.  I should not worry.

Many years later, I try not to think of this illness.   Everything was much harder for me for a month or two than it had ever been.  At first I could barely walk to the corner and back. nd, paradoxically, I was hesitant about lying down, because I had trouble getting up again.  I was in my thirties.  I regained my health, little by little.

Books help with pain.   One day after coming home, I lost myself in Mary Wesley’s novel, An Imaginative Experience The novel opens with a stopped train: a sheep is lying on its back in a field, and a young woman, Julia Piper,  who is returning from the funeral of her young child and estranged husband,  pulls the emergency cord on the  train so she can help the sheep. Two men watch her from the window:  Sylvester Sykes, a charming editor whose wife is divorcing him, and  Maurice, a  sinister birdwatcher/stalker (yes, really) who reeks of tobacco and alcohol.

Although the novel is a love story, the prospective lovers, Julia and Sylvester, do not meet till near the end of the novel.  Sylvester wonders who the plucky sheep rescuer is, but Julia is not thinking of men.  Her young son Christy was the love of her life;  her irresponsible husband, Giles, whom she had veen in the process of divorcing, had had his license revoked and should not have been driving.  Her mother had lent Giles the car.

Sylvester’s pain is less intense, but it is still pain. His  wife  has left him to return to her first husband, who has grown very rich.  Sylvester once loved her, but has a slightly comedic attitude toward their five-year marriage:  sex had been their only connection, and she had dreadful taste. He  especially hated a plaster cupid in the garden.   When he comes home from the train, he smiles to see a taxi in front of the house, and his wife heaving the TV  into the trunk, cursing  the driver for not helping.    Although she has taken almost everything he owns, he is glad to start over again, with his own things.

Sylvester and Julia come together accidentally:  Sylvester needs a cleaner for her house, and Julia responds to his  ad at the grocery store they frequent.  Julia has a key and cleans when he is at work: they communicate by note, and never meet.  And when he writes that he would like his garden tidied up, she creates a kind of secret garden.  Each had assumed the other was old:  when they meet, they are startled.

The now underrated Mary Wesely, who published her first novel when she was 71, had a reputation for perspicuity, a graceful style, and sharply drawn characters.  Her witty novels are short and well-plotted. As a writer, her work falls somewhere between the very literary short novels of Penelope Lively and the buoyant popular fiction of Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Second Fiddle is my favorite Wesley novel:  I wrote about it here.

 BOOKS TO READ AFTER AN ILLNESS.    HERE ARE SOME RECOMMENDATIONS.

1  Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I posted about here.)

Muriel Spark’s mordant comedies are the flip side of P. G. Wodehouse’s featherlight farces.  Ballad, published in 1960, makes you wonder who exactly the angels and the devils are in Spark’s light satire. The hero, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish trickster, moves to Peckham and, without a twinge of conscience, accepts two jobs from rival textile companies.  The company directors, Mr. Druce at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, and Mr. Willis at Drover Willis, say they want him to bridge the gap between art and industry in his new position as assistant personnel manager.

Dougal is so outrageous that the reader cannot feel sympathy for him.  Although he has a deformed shoulder–I kept thinking of Richard III– he uses it to get sympathy from women.   He has no compassion:  he refuses to visit his fiancee, Ginny, when she is ill, especially when she is in the hospital, because his “fatal flaw” is an intolerance of illness. Ginny doesn’t think much of his fatal flaw, and drops him. But Dougal uses this breakup with Ginny to get to know women at work:  he has a crying breakdown in the canteen, and the women pity him, comb his hair,  and tell him their stories.

I love everything Spark wrote, and this satire is perfect light reading.

2.  Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the OldFans of Smith’s charming novel, I Capture the Castle, will love  The New Moon With the Old, a kind of fairy tale of work.   It begins when  Jane Minton, the new secretary of busineesman Rupert Carrington, arrives at Dome House to take up her duties. His four children are charming:  Richard, a composer; Claire, 21, whose only ambition, she light-heartedly insists, is to  be “a king’s mistress,” a la the women in Dumas books; Drew, 19, who is writing an Edwardian novel; and Merry, 14, an aspiring and very talented actress.

But a few days after Jane arrives,  Rupert flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to cope with the household.  The novel is a fairy tale of work:  all  the Carringtons must cope with their work, and the story is fascinating.

You can read the rest of my post here.

3.  Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls.  Believe it or not, this is available in a Virago edition, but the cover of the 50th Anniversary Grove Press edition is more fun!  Susann’s pop classic proceeds along the lines of Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women and Mary McCarthy’s The Group: it is the story of three young women who move to New York, become friends at the beginning of their careers, and climb the ladder of the entertainment industry, not without much popping of pills.  Anne, the emotionally stable one from New England, works as a secretary and then becomes a model.  She doesn’t need pills (well, only very briefly).    But you can imagine what the pills do to Neely, the Broadway star who becomes a screaming home-wrecking harridan, and Jennifer, the lovely, sweet,  pill-dependent woman who decides to act in French art films because no one values her for anything except her body.

4.  Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  I loved every minute of it, and it is time to rediscover Mary McCarthy:  her complete works are now available in Library of America editions.  You can read my post here.

5.  Pushkin’s Eugene OneginIn this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate.  He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting  at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée.  The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky.  (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.)  And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

You can read the rest of my post here.

AND DO RECOMMEND BOOKS YOU LIKE TO READ WHEN OR AFTER YOU’RE ILL!

Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe

Mary MCCARTHY Mary McCarthy is best-known for The Group, her outrageously candid, entertaining novel about eight Vassar graduates, class of 1933.  It has the funniest scene ever about being fitted for a diaphragm.

Her bad moment came when she was learning how to insert the pessary by herself…. As she was trying to fold the pessary, the slippery thing, all covered with jelly, jumped out of her grasp and shot across the room and hit the sterilizer. Dottie could have died.

groves of academe mccarthy cool cover 12316And I have been reading McCarthy’s earlier satires, which are actually more effective than her famous women’s novel.

The Groves of Academe, a satire of an experimental college during the (Joseph)  McCarthy era, is clever, polished, and surprisingly twisted.  It was published in 1951.

If you expect Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or David Lodge’s Changing Places, brace yourself:   the intellectual McCarthy generates a harrowing hilarity born of liberalism and her rejection of Catholicism. McCarthy, who was a member of the Partisan Review group in the 1930s and taught at Bard College and Sarah Lawrence College in the 1940s, takes no prisoners in her bitter skewering of academia.  Every brilliant, bitter, sinuous sentence glitters with the mix of venom, idealism, maneuvering, lying, camaraderie, hostility, and cliquishness that characterizes academic politics.

And, as if to completely discombobulate the reader, the hero is unattractive and not even sympathetic.

Henry Mulcahy, a Joyce scholar and instructor at a small “progressive” college in Pennsylvania, learns that his contract will not be renewed.  It is not a good time to be a leftist:  he was fired from a university in California because of his radical writings in The Nation.  He was hired as an instructor at Jocelyn solely because friends called in favors to Maynard Hoar, the liberal president of the college.  Hoar stood up for freedom of political beliefs; now the budget has been cut and he has decided to stand down.

Henry has a satiric view of his situation, but he knew Jocelyn was the end of the line for him and his family.

He sat down at his desk, popped a peppermint into his mouth, and began to laugh softly at the ironies of his biography:  Henry Mulcahy, called Hen by his friends, forty-one years old, the only Ph.D. in the Literature department, contributor to the Nation and the Kenyon Review, Rhodes scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, father of four, fifteen years’ teaching experience, salary and rank as instructor–an “unfortunate” personality in the lexicon of department heads, but in the opinion of a number of his colleagues the cleverest man at Jocelyn and the victim, here as elsewhere, of that ferocious envy of mediocrity for excellence that is the ruling passion of all systems of jobholders.

groves of academe paperback mccarthy 80059Seeing no alternative, Hen manipulates his friends to intercede on his behalf:  he says his wife Cathy has a severe heart condition and that any shock could kill her, and he implies that the FBI is out to get him and that Hoar has caved to pressure.   He has a group of earnest supporters, including Domna, the youngest, most loyal member of the Literature department, and Alma Fortune, the department chair, who resigns on principle.

But when they learn that Hen has lied (Cathy was ill after her last pregnancy, but isn’t now, and Hen was never a member of the Communist party), the group is furious.  Although Hen  is brilliant and popular, he is a lazy teacher, he  doesn’t take the tutorials seriously, and turns in his paper work late.  How far must they go to protect him?

McCarthy sketches a hilarious picture of the  “progressive” college.  The students have tutorials instead of classes, and major in whatever they want, even if it is Broch’s The Death of Virgil and they don’t know Latin. The faculty argues over the correct spelling of “catalogue” and whether the students should have a two-week field work period in January.  (The teachers go on vacation during field-work period).  Then there is the never-ending poetry conference where  one of the more flamboyant poets speaks on Virgil.

The majority of the students present had never heard of the  person being alluded to as the Mantuan; they supposed he was a modern poet whom their faculty had not yet caught up with–a supposition correct in a sense, as Howard Furness, maliciously grinning, remarked in his slippery voice afterwards.

Mary McCarthy and Dick Cavett

Mary McCarthy and Dick Cavett

I love McCarthy’s work, but she was a bit of a hellion.  I remember in 1980 watching the Dick Cavett Show when she called Lillian Hellman a liar. She said,  “[E]very word she [Hellman] writes is a lie, including `and’ and `the.'” Hellman sued , and the lawsuit only ended with Hellman’s death four years later.  Two great underrated American women writers at each other’s throats!  Tsk,tsk.

Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life

“Just aMcCarthy a charmed life 80057 minute!”  I said.

I didn’t really want to go on a bike ride on Sunday.

I was addicted to reading Mary McCarthy’s  A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village.

“I’m coming!”

But how could I tear myself away from  the exploits of the heroine, Martha Sinnott, an actress and writer who has also breezily taken graduate courses in philosophy?  (I took it with me in a bag, in case we rode to a cafe.)

If you are under the impression that McCarthy was a schlock writer, let me say that A Charmed Life is nothing like her best-seller, The Group.  I very much enjoyed her literary beach book about eight Vassar graduates, and it obviously paid McCarthy’s bills, but I consider it a highbrow hybrid of Peyton-Place-meets-Valley-of-the-Dolls.

But A Charmed Life really is a dazzling book, and I now have a new level of respect for McCarthy.  Many have said she is a great underrated American writer, and now I see it.

A Charmed Life focuses on John and Martha Sinnott, an unconventional couple with an idiosyncratic relationship to the village of New Leeds.  Martha used to live here with her violent first husband, Miles, but ran away from him seven years ago after he locked her out of the house in her nightgown.  Now she and her second husband, John, are back in New Leeds.

McCarthy’s eloquent description of the attractive couple piques our interest.  Not only are they bright, they are beautiful.

The Sinnotts were a romantic couple.  Strangers still glanced after them on the street, wherever they went:  waiters smiled; butchers beamed; as if they were morganatic, said Martha, who had begun to find their position ridiculous.  It was partly their appearance.  Martha was a strange, poetical-looking being, with very fair, straight hair done in a little knot, a quaint oval face, very dark, wide-set eyes, and a small slight figure; she had been on the stage.  John, also, was quite remarkable-looking, tall and small-boned, with high coloring, neatly inscribed features, and dark-brown, stiffly curling hair; he was the son of a military family and was often taken for English.

Martha is a minor artist herself, writing a play at the insistence of her husband.  But here’s the catch:   she feels like a charlatan, because she dislikes writing the play, but doesn’t dare tell  John, who keeps her to a schedule, more or less locking her in the study every day.  (N.B.  This reminds me of the writer Colette’s  husband, Willi, locking her up in the attic to write the Claudine books.)

Martha is not impressed with New Leeds, a hub of mediocre artists.  She confides in her old college roommate, Dolly, an artist who has come to New Leeds on vacation,

“This horrible bohemian life you see up here, with lily cups and beards and plastics–it’s real leveling, worse than suburbia, where there’s a frank competition with your neighbors, to have the newest car or bake the best cakes.  I can understand that.  I’m like that myself.  But here nobody competes, unless there’s a secret contest as to who can have the most squalid house and give the worst parties.  It gives me the strangest feeling, as if I were the only one left in the world with the desire to excel, as if I were competing, all alone, on an empty stage, without  judges or rivals, just myself–a solipsistic nightmare.”

The scenes that highlight the wild seesaw emotions in Martha’s relationships with men are templates for some of the more intense work of the ’60s.  McCarthy’s book can be read as a predecessor of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? or  John Updike’s fiction about suburban adultery.  Did Albee and Updike read McCarthy?  I wouldn’t be surprised.   Martha’s meeting with Miles ends in disaster.  Although he has remarried, he and Martha are a good intellectual match, who talk about Shakespeare and Kant at a play-reading at a neighbor’s house.  They also talk about the unities of tragedy.

Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  Miles drives her home, and their drunken attraction ends in a rape.  Martha does not want to have sex with him, but John is away, and Miles is so insistent that Martha finally laughs and realizes it doesn’t matter, so often have the two already had sex, and anyway she can’t stop him.   But when she gets pregnant, she wonders if the child is Miles’s.  The doctor insists that it is statistically impossible, since they had sex right after her period, and she had sex many times with John, but Martha’s ethics lead her to insist on an abortion.

This decision, in my view, makes it one of those odd Catholic novels turned on its head, the kind of think Walker Percy always manages to pull off.

I am looking forward to reading McCarthy’s other novels.  So many to choose from.

By the way, everybody of my generation, or everybody who watched Dick Cavett, witnessed Mary McCarthy’s  faux pas on the Dick Cavett Show in 1980, when she said that Lillian Hellman was a dishonest writer.  She added, “I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

Lillian Hellman sued her.  The lawsuit went on for four years.

Two fascinating women.  I’ve read a good biography of Lillian Hellman, A Difficult Woman.  Does anybody know any good biographies of McCarthy?