No one writes letters anymore, but I still like reading them — especially when both sides of a correspondence are collected between two covers. No narrative, no argument — just the mercurial yet implicit unity of a relationship. Still, I’m not sure why I picked up this book. Certainly I wanted to know more about the author of The Human Condition and The Origins of Totaliterianism, but there are so many proper books of Arendt’s I have yet to read that I probably should have waited before delving into the margins of her oeuvre. By contrast, I’ve never given a thought to Mary McCarthy. Do people still read her? No one ever mentions her books to me. But now I’m as glad to have made her acquaintance — though in the letters of the 1950s, I have to admit, I find both women often unsympathetic: too much the snobby, old-fashioned intellectuals, full of superiority to whatever is deemed insufficiently serious. I kept longing for the arrival of the ’60s and a new kind of intellectual, someone like the young Susan Sontag with her love of rock and roll and of the ostensibly unserious culture of camp. Well, these two never became rock-and-rollers, but the social and political turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s really did shake up their judgments and sharpen their perceptions. Surprisingly, the turbulence and confusion of that time, at least as refracted through their responses, seems very much like our own. I wish I could read their dissection of Hillary vs Bernie. And how scathing they would be about Europe’s response to the refugee crisis! Of course there’s plenty of gossip, too, and while I’ve never cared too much about the ins and outs of all those Rahvs and Macdonalds, there are some striking moments — I’m sure I’ll not soon cleanse my imagination of the image of a sloshed W.H. Auden, “looking so much like a clochard that the doorman came with him, fearful that he might be God knows what,” proposing himself to Arendt as suitable remarriage material immediately upon the death of her husband, Heinrich Blücher, in 1970. And foreshadowings a novelist could hardly get away with: “I am half toying with the idea to get some magazine to send me to cover the Eichmann trial,” writes Arendt in June, 1960. Good idea, but watch out for the blowback! My only complaint about the book: dodgy annotation — things like mistaking a passing 1968 reference to Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle for one to The Gulag Archipelago (which was only published five years later), or confusing Critique, the French journal founded by Georges Bataille, with the American academic journal then called Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (in the meantime, like so many things, it’s become “Contemporary” rather than “Modern”). But collecting quibbles can be pleasurable too.

Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949–1975, ed. by Carol Brightman, was published in 1995 by Harcourt Brace and is now out of print.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...