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John Cheever (1912-1982): A Memorial

John CheeverJohn Cheever, born on May 27th 1912, is turning 100 tomorrow. It is ironic that his being long dead is such a big part of his being alive. Cheever is one of those authors that you can only picture as having been, forever looking at you from a black and white picture with railways in the background, forever departing, like a childhood memory or music from a very distant place. He was a chronicler of life, as contemporary a writer as they make them, but the eternal present in which his characters live is woven from the thread of longing, nostalgia and broken dreams. It is inhabited by the past, like family Polaroids and Norman Rockwell pictures.

Cheever’s world was the kind of world in which you got home from work on a local commuter train to find your wife crying in silence over soapy dishes. The upper middle-class suburban world in which you invited people over “for cocktails”, but gin-and-tonics always had an aftertaste of loneliness, the incurable loneliness of family men in their forties. A purgatory of trim hedges, gravel driveways and noisy children with no heaven in sight. Fitzgerald humanity minus the glamour. War veterans in suits and ties drinking scotch on the seven forty-five to Manhattan. The American dream as a brittle glass dome that the merest accident could fissure.

Cheever’s stories are sophisticated machines to extract pain from the lives of strangers, retorts in which suffering slowly condenses. They deal in the impalpable kind of unhappiness that cannot be tackled head on, but has to be distilled by the drop: you need to approach it on tiptoe, smell it in the air, surprise it in a wrinkle or a stare, because its nature is to hide behind the trappings of health and success. How do you expose the secret tensions of life not despite, but in their being unspoken? How do you extract truth from appearance without betraying the interplay between the two? This is the formal problem behind many of Cheever’s short stories from the late forties and early fifties. Many of his best have a powerful narrative device in common: a character or situation that functions as a floating eye, as it were as a probe, allowing the reader to penetrate the intimacy of a gallery of people, to eavesdrop on them, to catch them unawares, to collide with their immediate, undisguised existence.

Think of The Enormous Radio (1947), in which a young New York wife discovers that her strange new radio set can tune on the apartments of her neighbors and broadcast their arguments, their intimate conversations, their family quarrels against a background of statics. As the anger, the frustration, the despair that lurk behind the respectability of her fellow tenants are thrown at her in all their ugliness, she begins to realize — as one wakes from a stupor — that her life is no better, and is never going to be. Joan the Widow in Torch Song (1947) and Charlie the elevator man in Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor (1949) have the same technical function: they are a moving narrative focus securing a point of view on the lives of several people in a moment of moral nakedness. Or take Cheever’s best know story, The Swimmer (1964), later adapted as a movie with Burt Lancaster: the bizarre quest of a man who has decided to swim home from a party on a summer afternoon (that is, to follow the “river” of private swimming pools stretching out from mansion to mansion all along the coast) is at the same time an expedition into the misery of an affluent society and a journey of self-consciousness into the barrenness and failure of his own life.

Beginning with the late fifties, a new and slightly less gloomy horizon seems to open up. Many of Cheever’s best stories from the ensuing decade are set in postwar Italy. The waspish imaginary suburb of Shady Hill is gradually superseded by a sprawling, enigmatic, decadent Rome inhabited by puzzled American expatriates. The “Chekhov of the suburbs”, as Cheever has famously been dubbed, evolves into a “Maugham of the Mediterranean”. Impoverished noblemen, stray existences, the fascination of an incomprehensible country and the struggle to relate on a purely human level in an alien world. The unique, bittersweet atmosphere of these tales is charming, especially for Italians. In these pages, more often than not, Cheever’s trademark gloom is tempered by a sort of dignified melancholy (The Duchess, 1958; The World of Apples, 1966). As his productivity dwindled to a mere story a year during the sixties, however, Cheever also wrote some of his most depressive material to date, as epitomized by the dreary parable The Geometry of Love (1966).

Assessing the impact of Cheever’s short stories on American literature is far from simple. On one hand, he was never as successful as his implicit rival Salinger or his friend Saul Bellow. He was respected, revered, admired by some, but his commercial breakthrough only came in 1978, four years before his death, with the award-winning collection The Stories of John Cheever. At the same time, however, Cheever almost single-handedly created a brand of short fiction that is practically a synonym of mid-century American literature as we know it. Elliptic, nostalgic, detail-oriented, unbearably intense. This is where the minimalistic and strangely pathetic craft of Raymond Carver comes from. A landmark of the American novel as Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961) would be utterly unthinkable without Cheever’s creatio ex nihilo of the suburbs as an emotional landscape. The painful urgency, the drama, the anxious clarity of some of Don DeLillo’s or Jonathan Franzen’s best pages, with their rich texture of implications, things left unsaid and a sense of imminent catastrophe, are among other things a legacy of Cheever’s short prose.

Few writers have captured the creeping malaise of the “Greatest Generation” with the same degree of mercilessness and compassion: the crippling pressure of social conventions, the ever-thwarted promise of happiness in family life, the banality of privilege, the humiliation of poverty, the loneliness of well-to-do communities, the ambiguous elation of “those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying ‘I drank too much’”.

The Stories of John CheeverThanks to the memoirs of his children (also writers), to his diaries, and to the excellent work of his biographer Blake Bailey, we now seem to know just about everything there is to know about John Cheever the man. He was a grumpy and intractable alcoholic, a (not so) repressed homosexual, a loner, a narcissist, a difficult husband. His career was slow, with many ups and downs and a few unbelievably tough episodes (most shockingly, a disappointed publisher instructing him to commit suicide in order to repay a 4.800 $ advance with the money from the life insurance that came with the contract). He was the kind of writer friends have to keep out of trouble, but he was not a bohemian: his style is elegant, terse, almost classic; his characters drink too much, but they are not reveling in self-destruction; his outlook was bleak, but delicate, neither misanthropic nor sarcastic. Cheever as an author had but one interest, “the way some people live” (the title of his fist collection, later disowned), and to this lifelong concern he brought seemingly inexhaustible resources of empathy, perception, tact and formal mastery.

Literary works that manage to capture and explore a particular nuance of human experience never get old, but only improve with time. Cheever’s stories bear reading and rereading, and they feel as fresh today as they must have felt sixty or seventy years ago when they first came out on the “New Yorker”. The world has changed, fiction has evolved, marital life is no longer what it used to be in 1950s, but Cheever’s psychological miniatures still sing true, as Pride and Prejudice does, as Hemingway’s stories still do.

A very substantial selection of his work has been available in two volumes of the Library of America for the past few years, and a new updated edition of The Stories of John Cheever is coming out these days on Vintage Books. Don’t miss the chance to rediscover the greatest among America’s “minor” storytellers.

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