Friday, 27 May 2011

Battered Penguins VII

Mary McCarthy - image from back cover

It is an extremely long time since I read The Group, Mary McCarthy's most famous novel, and so I remember very little about it, except that it left me feeling miserable and obscurely unclean. Thinking that this reaction of mine might not have been due to any fault of the writer's but was rather the result of a flaw in my own personality, I decided, when I found an old copy of McCarthy's earlier novel, A Charmed Life, in a secondhand bookshop here in Budapest, to give her another go.

A Charmed Life is set in a town called New Leeds, where various artistic and intellectual people have settled, escaping the hectic life of the city in the hope of pursuing their various creative dreams. The novel, initially, is written with an eye fixed firmly on the ridiculous. New Leeds is described as a place whose 'essence ...was a kind of exaggeration. Everything here multiplied, like the jelly fish in the harbour. There were three village idiots, grinning in the post office; the average winter resident who settled here had had three wives; there were eight young bohemians, with beards, leaning from their pick-up trucks .... the local laundry service could not clean a suit without tearing and discolouring it; the garage-man's only accomplishment was the ability to scratch his head.'

When fights break out in the town, they result usually in absurdity: 'Sandy Gray threw a knife at Ellen ... and hit their French poodle.' The leading characters are presented as at the very least partly comic. One plays 'the oboe and the bagpipes' and is rich due to 'her maternal grandfather, a German chemist [who] had invented a children's laxative.' Another, sitting amidst 'lobster shells and the bones of two fried chickens' he has just devoured, is described as 'flushed from the efforts of his digestive tract ... breathing heavily, like a spent athlete.' A young would-be painter who is considered insufficiently uninhibited 'for years had been trying, obediently, to be bold and free.' Another painter, a man called Warren, whose 'only ... anxiety was the thought of his mother's funeral - what would he wear? ... he still had his bowler hat' (his mother, incidentally, is not dead), displays his latest work to two friends and receives in response only the word 'Oh' from one, while the second reflects that the picture reminds him 'most of all of Jesuit sermons on hell.'

Sadly however, the novel's early satiric promise soon gives way to darker things. Once again, as in The Group (it is all coming back to me now), the reader is presented with a scene of truly appalling sex. Martha, a character who, in order to tell the time, has to look 'at her wrist watch, which had been losing twenty minutes a day, ever since she went swimming with it in the bay the first week, and at the clock, which gained ten, and [try] to get the right time by mental algebra', is set upon, in a scene that had me repeatedly turning back in my mind to the reports of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged activities:

'She ...struggled at first, quite violently ...But he had her pinioned beneath him with the whole weight of his body. She could only twist her head away from him ... He was much stronger than she was, besides being in good condition, and he did not let her little cries of protest irritate him.. The slight impatience he felt with her was only for the time she was injured him a little to feel how she pressed her thighs, which she had managed to cross, tightly together to protect the inner sanctum...'Please don't,' she begged, with tears in her eyes, while he squeezed her nipples between his fingertips...Now he found, once he had got well started, with her arms and legs where he wanted them, that she was no longer responding...He regretted the whole business before he was halfway through...A gasp of pain came from her, and it was over.'

This episode changes everything. Despite McCarthy's efforts, the novel can no longer bounce lightly along after it has occurred. Although the whole event is presented in an oddly matter-of-fact manner, which only makes it the more chilling, its consequences are profound. Somehow though, McCarthy does not seem to grasp the shocking nature of what she has just described. The behaviour of the man who sets upon Martha is apparently neither truly appalling nor, indeed, exceptional. In the loveless world that her characters inhabit, no-one, it seems, should expect empathy, compassion, affection or tenderness. While I suspect McCarthy intended the conclusion of the novel to be joltingly shocking, for me it came merely as a welcome escape from her inhuman and brutal world.

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