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`Contrariety' is McCarthy prose theme

Occasional Prose, by Mary McCarthy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 341 pp. $17.95. The 21 essays in this latest collection of Mary McCarthy's writings were generated by a variety of occasions. Four were obituaries; one, a report on the 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in London. Others were lectures, reviews, profiles, prefaces, and postfaces. Like everything else she has written -- novels, short stories, criticism -- they testify to the ceaseless activity of a keenly independent intelligence distilled into prose whose cool beauty makes it an ideal instrument for conveying highly charged emotions and ideas.

McCarthy's sense of the importance of independent judgment and a certain consciousness of her own reputation for the same are reflected in the title of an earlier collection of her essays: ``On the Contrary.'' McCarthy's history of ``contrariety'' extends throughout her career, from the protest she (and others) registered against the Communist-dominated proceedings of the 1949 writers' and artists' peace conference at the Waldorf Hotel in New York to her sharp criticism of the Vietnam war in her two books of reportage, ``Vietnam'' (1967) and ``Hanoi'' (1968).

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Yet her contrariety goes deeper than her staunch opposition to prevailing orthodoxies, and beyond that contrariety that is inherent in the position of any militantly anticommunist liberal. It is embedded in her dialectical approach to thinking and reflected in the texture of her writing, which is based on the aesthetic principle of contrast.

McCarthy was the child of two very different families. Born in 1912 and orphaned at the age of 6, she was rescued from what promised to be a very unhappy girlhood with the dour, puritanical McCarthys by her maternal grandparents (he a Protestant, she a Jew), who agreed to raise Mary in her father's Roman Catholic faith. A central theme of her ``Memories of a Catholic Girlhood'' (1957) is the contrast between the two kinds of Catholicism she experienced: one -- associated with the McCarthys -- censorious, bigoted, and punitive; the other -- associated with the convent school she later attended -- generous, uplifting, and richly beautiful.

After her graduation from Vassar and a short-lived marriage, McCarthy became the theater critic for The Partisan Review, where she was closely associated with its guiding genius, Philip Rahv. Her 1974 obituary of him, reprinted in ``Occasional Prose,'' evokes the contradictions of his character with an ease and grace that belie the thoughtfulness of her assessment: ``So he's gone, that dear phenomenon. If no two people are alike, he was less like anybody else than anybody.''

McCarthy's second husband, the distinguished man of letters Edmund Wilson, encouraged her to write fiction. Her first novel was published in 1942 and has been followed by half a dozen more, not to mention short stories. McCarthy's best fiction is a perfect combination of social commentary and vivid character portrayal. Her fine sense of portraiture is also evident in her touching tribute in this volume to her departed friend Hannah Arendt: It is a model blending of personal emotion and objective evaluation.

McCarthy's literary criticism, represented amply in ``Occasional Prose,'' displays the erudition of the more academic criticism while taking advantage of the freer style of the literary journalist. She pinpoints the differences among ``Novel, Tale, Romance,'' and decries the general decline in language skills that has left large portions of our population unable to use so plain a part of speech as the preposition. Anyone who listens carefully to nightly newscasts will know just what she means.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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