Tuesday, April 27, 2004
I've had a deep John Cheever festival happening in the background of the rest of this reading, starting with the journals and dipping in and out of the collected stories The Journals (5 stars) are remarkable, some of the writing I most value anywhere from anyone. I was first given them in Xerox out of The New Yorker, by an academic advisor I had for one semester at Yale. I carried those around (still have them somewhere) ever since, though I did finally pick up the book itself.

What is so remarkable about his journal writing? Many, many things. The man writes about the weather so dazzlingly that I would read a collection of his writing just about that. He writes with such beautiful compression that he tells whole stories, or suggests sets of stories in a half-page or less. When I turned to the stories after the journals, I found them mannered, a little forced, overwritten after the allusive richness of the journal entries. And, he lays bare the work of being a writer-he tries things on--he gather little bits of the days and holds them up in his hands--and in hte middle of it all, he is human: drinking more than he likes and despising himself for it, struggling with his sexuality, loving his children, fighting with and yearning for his wife. In composing this, I have tried to resist the impulse to spend many days just recopying some of the best of his passages. I may resist and I may not. Here is one:

I wool gather about this (a museum guard making a pass), walking back in the sunlight—smell of burned coffee, church bells, and then at a turn in the street I step into the smell of the sea, strong and fresh, and my woolgathering is ended. The smell is persuasive, and this persuasion is: to have faith in men. There in that dark gallery for a minute or two we stumble on midnight, and the borders of the conscience, where we doubt the promise in the faces of strangers, we doubt that life has any spiritual value. Then I lunch with the Warrens and board a first-class local, a little compartment lined with red plush like a box at the opera, and so we speed north again toward Rome, me in the company of an old man, a young student, and a soldier. I see the fruit trees again and the trees hung with vines and the famous sea, and rising from the shacks of a disreputable summer resort a round tower and, with it, memories of heroes, purple cloth, its splendor and its disappearance. And than I can only exclaim, watching the country in the dusk, how incomprehensible life is: there is the son my wife carries, the guard caressing the marble limbs of Achilles, the smell of the sea, the love I bear my children, the fruit trees that seem to make their own light in the dusk, the conversation among the three passengers, which I cannot understand, the sparse farmhouse lights, the carts and bicycles on the roads leading into every village.

The balance in this writing, the simple power--it is lovely, lovely.

I have never read his novels, despite my admiration for his other writing--perhaps it is time for the Wapshots. More Cheever to come.


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