Donnerstag, 5. Juli 2018

B-Sides: Mary McCarthy’s “Rogue’s Gallery” / Sean McCann In: Public Books 3/7/2018

About her wit there was never disagreement. It was sharp, and it was cold. Even by her own account, Mary McCarthy’s pen was a scalpel, her eye a coolly dispassionate instrument for dissecting the charades of the bien-pensant and self-regarding. Stalinist intellectuals, bullying husbands and adulterous lovers, craven politicians and manipulative artists. Everywhere she looked McCarthy saw self-deception and moral cowardice, greeting it (so she told her friend Hannah Arendt) with “bitter exaltation.” In her best-known books—Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, The Group—and in her legendarily ruthless reviews and essays, McCarthy lanced the pretenses of the smug and lambasted the dishonesty of the powerful. Her admirers saw McCarthy as a wicked satirist. To her critics, she was simply heartless. No one ever called her a warm and fuzzy writer.
And yet, there is “Rogue’s Gallery.” Where did it come from, this odd tale plopped into the middle of her first book, The Company She Keeps? Even in that quirky, loosely arranged collection of stories McCarthy persisted in calling a novel, “Rogue’s Gallery” is an awkward party crasher. The tale has little to say about Meg Sargent, the brash protagonist McCarthy modeled on herself. Also missing are the perennial concerns that made McCarthy a feared combatant in the macho literary circles of mid-20th-century New York. “Rogue’s Gallery” has nothing to say about the moral evasion of left-wing literary intellectuals, the bad taste of middlebrow artists, or the self-regard of entitled men.
Instead, McCarthy’s story zeroes in on a lovable conman whose escapades Meg recalls in the form of a memoir at first uproariously funny and then surprisingly sad. A one-time bootlegger turned small-time art world hustler, Mr. Sheer runs a failing antiques business (Meg is a sometime employee) and dreams of someday entering a world of wealth and status. In the meantime, he struggles to survive on two unreliable sources of income. When he is not convincing rich clients to invest in miniature crystal portraits of their beloved dogs, Mr. Sheer is borrowing and then fraudulently selling other dealers’ merchandise: a Better Call Saul of the 1930s. Meg renders his whirling efforts to stay a half-step ahead of his creditors in a tone that can only be called loving.
What accounts for that affection? Curiously, Meg appears to be drawn to her dishonest boss precisely because he proves indifferent to the values she holds most dear. Meg thinks of herself as brutally honest. Mr. Sheer prefers an artful lie to the plain facts. For Meg, art is an Olympian pursuit of truth. Mr. Sheer is certain beauty is a hustle and scholarship a sales pitch—the more rococo in its evasion of the facts, the better.
As she sweats out the summer months in Mr. Sheer’s down-at-the-heels office, reading Proust and worrying about her moral integrity, Meg marvels at discovering a man entirely deaf to her most treasured concerns. He “could hardly tell a Cellini from a Remington,” she observes. But Mr. Sheer worships “any kind of ingenuity: boxes with false bottoms, cuckoo clocks, oval miniatures of the school of Boucher that opened if you pressed a button and disclosed a pornographic scene.” The more desperate his circumstances, the more earnestly does he keep his faith in guile and trickery and the hope that they will someday land him the respectable life he has always craved. ... [mehr]

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