Mary McCarthy’s new novel illustrates the paradox that reading an intellectual – as distinct from an intelligent – novelist is an intellectually unstimulating experience. Imaginative intelligence – the quality that illuminates Dostoyevsky, George Eliot at her best, Proust, or, almost alone in our own age, Saul Bellow – is rich, complex, concrete, and mysterious, leaving the reader to draw conclusions for himself, and giving him freedom – the freedom of imaginative generosity – to arrive at ones different from the novelist’s. Mere intellectuality, all its positions thought out in advance of the creative process, is thin, shrill, claustrophobic, and earnestly humourless. Far from possessing that freedom, this novel is laboured in every sense. As the heart-sinking pages of ‘Acknowledgements’ testify, Ms McCarthy has done her homework on the Dutch political situation, landreclamation around the Zuyder Zee, terrorists ‘methods, private art-collectors, and so on. ‘I’ve suffered for my art,’ is the author’s implied claim, ‘and now it’s your turn’.
It is 1975 and a posse of Liberal noseys jetting off to denounce the Shah’s prisons is hijacked along with a party of American millionaire art-collectors. Their captors, international terrorists, take them to a remote hide-out in Holland where a situation potentially rich in ironies develops: the Liberals find themselves