McCarthy’s Law: Review of IDEAS AND THE NOVEL

This review, from the February 4, 1981 issue of The Soho News, is most likely harsher than it needed to be. Since Mary McCarthy’s death, I’ve been moved to reformulate some of my positions about her after reading the wonderful book Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995) edited by Carol Brightman, which reveals a side of McCarthy that seems quite contrary to her much better-known bitchiness as a critic. It proves to me that unforeseen and unforeseeable sides of some people tend to come out only in specific relationships with certain other people, and the loving generosity of McCarthy’s letters to Arendt are a particular striking example of this. —J.R.

McCarthy’s Law

Ideas and the Novel
By Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95

Despite her wicked way with some words and ideas, Mary McCarthy has never exactly thrilled me with her aesthetics. With a taste stuck so comfortably, nostalgically, even trivially in the prosaic 19th century that even the avant-garde that she values often seems furnished with fog and brass doorknobs à la Doyle, Verne, or Poe, her acute critical intelligence usually whiles away its time polishing statues and suits of armor — rather like the New York Times Book Review — whenever she turns to the Novel. (Her intriguing comments about Charles Bovary in The Writing on the Wall offer an exception to this.)

The principal limitation of this 121-page antiformalist essay – actually, four lectures given last year at University College in London — is that there isn’t very much that’s substantially new in it. Many of the same preoccupations, with a somewhat different orientation, can be traced back to a shorter, better McCarthy essay derived from lectures, “The Fact in Fiction,” published 20 years ago, and reprinted in both On the Contrary and The Humanist in the Bathtub. (The earlier piece should probably be coupled with a 1957 essay by Dwight Macdonald, “The Triumph of the Fact” — a broader cultural survey whose climactic quotations from Dickens’ Hard Times are taken over virtually intact in the fourth chapter of Ideas and the Novel.)

The parallels between the two McCarthy essays are striking. Both lament the alleged decline of a particular form — the novel and the novel of ideas, respectively. Basically the same hit parade of 19th century luminaries recurs in each: Austen, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky (the gossipy narrator of The Possessed is twice singled out), Eliot, Stendhal, and Tolstoy — although, in the latter case, special attention is also paid to Hugo.

Henry James is credited in both essays with “killing” the novel as McCarthy understands it – that is, the novel as newspaper — essentially by aestheticizing the 19th century novel out of existence. There is also a certain persistence of imagery, e.g., the brass safety pin proffered in 1960 as an educated stab at the small, unidentified object manufactured by the Newsomes in The Ambassadors makes a comeback cameo in the same capacity in 1980, when she seems even more certain about it.


Wishing the novel to be vulgar (with facts) and stuffy (with ideas) at the same time, McCarthy refuses to concede it much authenticity without them. (A figure like Beckett scarcely seems to exist for her.) This makes for a dull porridge of absolutes every time she decides to hoist her tired battle flag.

Already celebrated for her filmophobia, she has a few brief reflections on film here that stagger belief. A movie, unlike a novel, can’t be an “idea-spreader” because “its images are too enigmatic, e.g. Eisenstein’s baby carriage bouncing down those stairs in Potemkin.” Somewhat earlier, she virtually applauds James’ omission of any precise description of the furniture to be possessed in The Spoils of Poynton “because we can supply `real’ tables and chairs from our own imagination.” But if we can do that, why can’t we imagine a “real” revolution through a bouncing baby carriage — or the lifting of a drawbridge in October? I’m reminded of McCarthy’s injunction to Harold Rosenberg about action painting in 1959: “You cannot hang an event on a wall”; apparently you can’t project one, either — at least not in her house.

Compounding her confusion, she asserts that a film “cannot have a spokesman or chorus character as in a stage play; that function is assumed by the camera, which is inarticulate” — a bit  like saying that a poem can’t have a spokesman because that function is assumed by a pencil, which can’t utter a syllable. “And the absence of spokesmen in the films we remember,” she continues — thereby banishing from our memories significant films by Cocteau, Resnais, Sternberg, and Welles — “shows rather eerily that with the cinema, humanity has found a narrative medium that is incapable of thought.” Incapable of eliciting thought from McCarthy, in any case.

Describing the supplementary information about paper, publishing, and related matters offered by Balzac in Lost Illusions, she concludes, “All this, of course, has a bearing on the story, and I do not know whether a present-day novelist, deprived of the right of auctorial [sic] intervention, could succeed in telling such a complicated story at all.” Who says? “A novel that has ideas in it stamps itself as dated,” she later states categorically; and adds, “there is no escape from that law.”

Looking beyond McCarthy’s Law, I can sympathize, even empathize with her plight as the author of timely, ambitious novels like Birds of America and Cannibals and Missionaries that have met with massive indifference. I know what this feels like, but I’d hate to construct a theory about fiction or narrative based on my disappointment, even if I were invited to give a series of lectures. It makes McCarthy, for all her spirited public zeal — and despite the half-interesting parts of this book (the middle chapters, about authorial voices and Napoleon as a governing idea of 19th century France) — an unexpected soul sister of those radio-cassette-carrying teenagers who truck the streets inside their own mystic bubbles, forsaking the possibility of any social exchange. Wait until this comes out in paperback, and borrow it from a friend.

The Soho News, February 4, 1981

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