The Company She Keeps

A work friend recommended I read Virginia Woolf. You’re in for a real treat – she said – she describes perfectly feelings I didn’t know I had. I read To the Lighthouse and had the same impression. She explodes these nuanced emotions and small gestures, a look across a table, a twinge of regret, a sigh of sadness into extraordinarily far-flung metaphors.

Peter looked across the table and exuded a curiosity that, like a panda that in the absence of bamboo, had simply deflated, a furry balloon pricked with a nail, and smeared its flabby weight over the bent yellow grass. He lowered his eyes and sighed.

Virginia! How did you know?

Of course, Woolf’s metaphors are a bit more – artful – but it was worth a shot. I love the wild quality of the metaphors, like she’ll check all the darkest corners of the highest shelves, put ingredients together that no one else thinks would be palatable. It’s distinctive and I love it.

This week, I started reading Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. it’s the first of McCarthy’s novels that I’ve picked up and it’s extraordinary. The first thing about it that I noticed was the same quality of her grasping at, isolating, and perfectly preserving the most strange and nuanced feelings. She describes, in her fourth chapter, an eccentric host of wild Dinner parties (Pflaumen) and his tendency to rope the narrator into helping him modify his cocktail recipes:

“Once you had made your criticism, everybody would be very happy. It was a form of exorcism, some minor or totally imaginary error is noted and corrected, symbolically, as it were, with the idea that all real and major imperfections have thereby been dealt with –– as if by casting out some impudent small devil you had routed Beelzebub himself. Perhaps, also, there was a hope of dispersing responsibility; that cocktail was not Pflaumen’s any longer, but yours and his together, as it would never have been if you had merely given it your approval. By arriving early, you had become his hostess, and, all at once, you were sure that Pflaumen had intended this to happen.”

I read numerous passages like this and marvel at the imagination of their authors.