Posted by: zhiv | January 9, 2012

Notes on Jean Stafford and The Mountain Lion

Getting to the end of The Mountain Lion, just a few more pages to go, and I must say I don’t know where it’s going exactly or what it’s really about, but this is a magnificent book by a fine writer. I had an idea of Stafford as an important figure and writer from David Laskin’s Partisans, a group biography which tells the story of her life with Robert Lowell and the other mid-century NY intellectuals, but after reading that book I gravitated to Mary McCarthy and became fascinated, knowing that I would get around to Stafford sooner or later.

Unlike McCarthy, who perhaps had some trouble finding her voice and metier and then kept going and wrote her way through a long and amazing life, Stafford seems to have been more of a natural fiction writer, a born novelist and storyteller. McCarthy was fiercely intelligent and a personality, and her life was her art through her early period, while she developed her skills as a critic. Edmund Wilson famously helped her begin to write fiction, and she followed up her success by adding great accomplishment as a memoirist to the mix. It added up to a long, productive and extraordinary career, with a shape and success and readability that seems to get better and clearer with the passage of time.

Stafford provides a strong contrast. I don’t know that much about her, with vague memories from reading Laskin’s book a couple of years ago. Stafford’s talent was evidently obvious in her first novel, Boston Adventure. It has been awhile since I was trying to read “Literary Boston,” which had a Maine and New England sidebar, but hearing about Stafford’s book enhanced my interest in her. I remembered that The Mountain Lion was her best book, but also noted that she won the Pulitzer for her collected stories. Her personal story is one of sad trauma and decline, as her relationship with Lowell was marked by his manic-depressive machinations, and she was in a horrible, disfiguring car accident. And, like Wilson and McCarthy and Richard Yates and so many others, the grind of daily drinking in the postwar years eventually gave way to a pathetic and debilitating alcoholism. Stafford wasn’t able to keep reinventing herself the way that McCarthy did. But she was a major talent and important and this is an impressive book, which I’ll write about as soon as I finish, I hope.

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