Human Relations and Other Difficulties

Alex Clark in The Guardian:

Mary-Kay Wilmers has been the editor of the London Review of Books since 1992, and has just celebrated her 80th birthday; almost a decade ago, she published The Eitingons, an account of her mother’s Russian family, including Leonid Eitingon, a general in Stalin’s KGB who features in an essay, My Distant Relative, included in this selection of Wilmers’s writing from 1974 to 2015.

Most of the pieces are book reviews, and all but three were written for the LRB; only occasionally does Wilmers venture into strictly personal territory, most notably in a zinging delve into the menopause. “I have complained a lot about men in my time,” she begins. “In fact, I do it more and more… Here I am, four paragraphs into my musings, or ravings, and beginning to doubt whether I will find anything to say about the menopause that isn’t a way of saying something about men.”

What’s most striking about Human Relations, though, is how much Wilmers has to say about women, and often women of a particular kind: what we’d now call the dysfunctional (the novelist Jean Rhys appears substantively in two pieces here, including a deliciously painful review from 1983 of David Plante’s Difficult Women, whose triad is completed by Sonia Orwell and Germaine Greer), and those whose lives appear to be defined almost entirely by their relation to men.

That “appear” is deliberate; how to properly assess the ambiguous life of Barbara Skelton – wife of Cyril Connolly and then the publisher Lord Weidenfeld – whose memoir Tears Before Bedtime Wilmers reviewed in 1987, is not clear. Though it isn’t hard to alight on a juicy detail when faced with such good material – Skelton, seeing Connolly in a mess, asks what he has all over his face, to which he replies “hate”; at night, he keeps her awake by loudly whispering “poor Cyril” repeatedly, sure that she can hear – Wilmers has a terrific way of marshalling all this to wicked effect. “Instead of a child,” she explains, “they acquire Kupy, a small animal that bites.” But, argues Wilmers, although the couple both indulged in “monstrous behaviour”, Connolly was granted a latitude rarely extended to Skelton. She is similarly even-handed when it comes to Ian Fleming’s widow, Ann, citing a lament on loneliness filled with pathos: “I don’t like an empty house at sunset.”

More here.