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VINE VOICEon August 20, 2004
Mary McCarthy is one of the most important American thinkers of the twentieth century, and she was at the heart of everything in the New York worlds of politics and letters. This superb collection of her essays shows her at her shrewdest, on subjects ranging from Eugene O'Neill to fashion magazines to Portugal to society and political figures. Famous for her unrelentingly flinty lordliness (memorably and mercilessly caricatured in Randall Jarrell's PICTURES FROM AN INSTITUTION), she can be savage in her reviews. When her stinging rebukes are deserved, as in her famous withering critique of Salinger's FRANNY AND ZOOEY, they're a delight, but even when you feel they're unwarranted or off-target they're still instructive and illuminating, and are always written with incredible elegance and eloquence. We want the best of the best critics to show, more than anything, a point of view, which McCarthy undoubtedly does: a point of view that is Europhilic, intelligent, self-important, funny, biting, and exceptionally articulate.

This collection is an absolutely beautiful hardcover edition from NYRB that is as delightful to the touch as to the eye. It is an extremely worthy investment.
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A pleasantly spiky writer, but an odd selection. Other things being equal (and I find they generally are) nothing's sexier than intelligence - but 'dazzlingly learned' and even 'rapt' though the itself rather Nabokovian title piece may be (according to the editor's introduction) it still imparts no desire to engage with the laboured artifice of Pale Fire. Only blend in a soupcon of malice, though - or a drop of spite, as Cyril Connolly said of MM's first published piece over here in his magazine Horizon - and these robust, red-blooded reviews go down a treat; even sans spite she can almost make The Naked Lunch sound interesting. There's other stuff too; she's very funny on Thirties communism (My Confession), displaying the acuity of a Simone de Beauvoir all of five years before volume one of the latter's memoirs broke cover

This non-Flaubertian was most in awe of the Madame Bovary piece: 'never more conventional.. than when she is decrying convention'; 'the lending library is a central metaphor of Madame Bovary because it is the inexhaustible source of idées reçues' and the two paras bestriding pages 134-5. So THAT's why I don't like Flaubert! How he scorns his characters! Not very clever, Gustave

'It is manifestly untrue that all men are created equal' and the fearsomely intelligent MM is less equal than most. Does she write better than Flaubert? Emma's character is 'only remarkable for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling'. Léon's 'clerkly nature passively takes Emma's dictation'. Bidding Emma adieu, Rodrigue is 'annoyed by a vague sensation that he does not recognize as grief'. 'When destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a peculiarly depressing way.' And how!

And she even ventures onto consumerism territory. (Which she was skewering in 1947; see the Chestertonian America the Beautiful: the Humanist in the Bathtub.) 'Emma's "tragedy" from her own point of view is her lack of purchasing power.' NOW I see why she's the first modern heroine! The translation referred to seems awful. It appears to be by one Mildred Marmor, but Signet certainly hit the jackpot with that McCarthy intro! Was it Signet who induced WH Auden to preface Byron's Don Juan, or was it a selected? In any event the result was impenetrable

These pieces, from SEVEN earlier volumes, are shorn of their original sources, a rare black mark for NYRB Editions; for those one will have to consult the original collections. The Portugal travel piece, for instance, reads like something from an in-flight magazine, a species now (I presume) happily extinct. The evocative cameo, almost an obituary, on 'society' person, near neighbor and sometime author Alice Brayton, lodges in the mind; the curiously undated Scrabbletown MM considers her best, and who will argue? But was there no hitherto uncollected curio worth salvaging? And how come no one ever pointed out that obstination (p143) ain't English but the French word for what in English would be obstinacy - or just plain cussedness. Juniority and mundane in the sense of urbane (Fr mondain) rather than earth-bound, both page 284, are further lapses; editress (Fr éditrice) I shall just about allow. Obstinated? Moi?
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