Spectacular biography describes legendary author

December 27, 1992|By Carlin Romano | Carlin Romano,Knight-Ridder News Service

WRITING DANGEROUSLY:

MARY MCCARTHY

AND HER WORLD.

Carol Brightman.

Clarkson Potter.

714 pages. $30.

Every word Carol Brightman writes is a treat, including "and" and "the." From her first paragraph, in which she describes novelist and critic Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) as "a whistle-blower in the House of Culture" -- an original without imitators who "still" falls short of "inimitable" -- Ms. Brightman squirts you in the eyes with style, issuing a bulletin to potentially brain-dead readers and reviewers.

She is "not just a biographer" (although she turns out to be a spectacular one). She's a "writer." An "independent mind." A "presence." A queen over her subject rather than a subject to her queen.

Flinty, shrewd and cool-headed in her reporting, yet ultimately fervent in her judgments, this Maine writer and teacher doesn't flinch for a second as she goes (wo)mano a (wo)mano with a legend. She introduces McCarthy as "Bloody Mary," a polemicist "whose critical performances, in person and in print, frequently filled reviews of her work with references to scissors, swords and knives."

Does it say 714 pages up there in the heading? Hard to believe. "Writing Dangerously" goes down as fast as 214. True, some of Ms. Brightman's conclusions about the late literary lioness may catch in the throats of McCarthy's devotees: that most of her fiction wasn't "first rank," that her "ability to hurt a friend through the medium of fiction was legendary," that she may have been "incapable of real suffering."

Yet this take-charge, loving chronicle of McCarthy's life and career is finally fierce in its admiration: The closing pages, which describe the author's visits to the dying, hospitalized McCarthy, burn with Ms. Brightman's reverence for the novelist's sheer will to live. "Writing Dangerously," whose title suits Ms. Brightman's style as well, is the best-written, boldest literary biography of the season.

Coming to grips with McCarthy would test the stamina of any biographer. Still best-known for her controversial novel "The Group" (1963), which alchemized old friends from Vassar's class of '33 into clothes-hooks for her acerbic wit, McCarthy lived up to Goethe's model of making one's life a work of art by cramming it with daring experience.

McCarthy's personal life scandalized some and amazed others -- countless affairs and one-night stands, famous passionate relationships with intellectuals such as Philip Rahv and Edmund Wilson (the latter became the second of her four husbands when he was 43 and she was 26), an enduring friendship with political philosopher Hannah Arendt, and sizzling feuds with such literary giants as Simone de Beauvoir and Lillian Hellman.

"Her very notoriety," Ms. Brightman writes, "has obstructed a serious assessment of her place in American letters, as if this woman who, following a tragic childhood, seemed to 'have it all' -- the husbands and lovers, the fearless convictions, the fame and modest fortune, the 'impeccable syntax' -- could not, at the same time, possess the talent and competence to create a body of work that stands on its own."

And yet, her biographer points out, when all was said and done on the personal side, McCarthy produced "22 books of distinguished fiction, criticism, art history, political journalism and memoirs."

Ms. Brightman, who benefited from 18 interviews with McCarthy during the 1980s, believes that McCarthy's importance as a writer endures in her "extraordinary sensitivity" to precise, emotionally powerful language, and her courage in "swimming against a current." At the same time, she's unsparingly candid in documenting the sources of McCarthy's drive, achievement and talent for stirring fury in her relations with others.

Trauma permeated McCarthy's childhood in Seattle and Minneapolis. Her father and mother died of the flu within a day of each other when she was 6.

Her upbringing by relatives in both cities -- particularly her brusque Irish-Catholic aunt and uncle in Minneapolis, who raised her for six years -- troubled young Mary with doubts about her class origins, emotional stability and ethnic background (she felt an early repulsion for the "Jewish quarter" of herself inherited through her maternal grandmother in Seattle).

Even before heading east to Vassar, McCarthy established herself as a rebel. As a teen-ager, she made an elaborate pretense of renouncing her religious faith. She also calculatingly lost her virginity at age 14 to a 27-year-old man in a roadster, the start of a lifelong pattern of relationships with much older men (and an incident she analyzed in clinical detail in her 1987 memoir, "How I Grew").

Ms. Brightman, to her credit, both ponders and reports McCarthy's eagerness for attention of all kinds, including that first step toward the almost unconscious promiscuity that marked her adult life (even after realizing, one day in 1936, that she'd slept with three men in 24 hours, McCarthy recalled that she "did not feel promiscuous").

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