Friday, June 1, 2012

Blake Bailey, Michael Chabon, Susan Cheever, and Allan Gurganus celebrate the centennial of John Cheever

From left: Michael Chabon, Susan Cheever, Allan Gurganus, Blake Bailey
Photo: Nancy Crampton © 2012

On May 17 writers Blake Bailey, Michael Chabon, Susan Cheever, and Allan Gurganus gathered at the 92nd Street Y in New York City to celebrate the one-hundredth birthday of novelist and story writer John Cheever.

Following a recording of Cheever himself reading one of his favorite stories, “The Death of Justina,” novelist Michael Chabon introduced his reading:
Every writer has his or her own personal pantheon of greats. John Cheever has long occupied and continues to occupy the highest position in my pantheon of writers. . . Of the things you do love [in a writer’s work] there are some that you love fiercely and intensely and more than any other. The story I’m going to read to you tonight is definitely one of those. I think it’s probably Cheever’s first great story, “The Enormous Radio.”
Cheever biographer Blake Bailey explained how Cheever’s “first flush of fame” in 1964, when the publication of The Wapshot Scandal landed him on the cover of Time magazine, created a problem. Although “the funniest and most charming of men, Cheever was morbidly shy. He drank to mitigate that shyness.” And he had no intimates. “His only confidante was his journal. It was twenty-eight volumes, 4,300 single-spaced typed pages.” Cheever had to figure out how to cultivate “a persona on a vast public scale.” Bailey charmed the audience with his own “cheesy” impersonation of one aspect of Cheever's persona creation, as chronicled in his biography:
The main aspect of this personage was his curious accent. Was he a Cambridge Brahmin? British? What? It was hard to pin down. Philip Roth pointed out that it wasn’t really a New England accent at all—“more like an upper-class New Yorker, someone like [George] Plimpton, perhaps.” This was close, though Cheever’s accent was somewhat more mutable than Plimpton’s. When appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, or putting an impudent barkeep in his place, Cheever became almost a parody of the pompous toff (“like Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island”), but at other times—relaxed, cracking jokes—he sounded not unlike a boy from the South Shore with an English mother. “I knew John before he had an accent,” said Jerre Mangione, his old FWP colleague from the thirties. No matter. Most agree that Cheever’s accent became a well-assimilated part of his persona—“a suave, fictional dialect,” as the poet Dana Gioia put it, “[that] seemed to have the force of ancient authority, as if he were some New England Homer standing at the apex of a long oral tradition.”
Cheever’s daughter, Susan, perhaps best known for her critically acclaimed memoir Home Before Dark, read four passages from her father’s journals because, she said,
Everybody knows that when he was writing with a capital “W” he wrote like an angel. But one of the things that fascinates me about him is that when he was just writing in his journals he also often wrote like an angel. (Which suggests that writing can’t be taught, even though I spend a great deal of time teaching it.)
She described the following entry as her favorite:
Waiting at the R.s’ for Susie [“That’s me.”] to finish her French lesson, with Ben. A northwest wind and a winter twilight, a moon already bright before dusk and a cold night on the way. This hour when we seem caught in the bluff death of the year. The light loses its breadth, but not its clarity or its power. These subtle blues and lemony lights are like the lights of anesthesia, lust, repose. The stars come out and the play of light continues. It is not that the light goes, a dimness falls from the sky over everything, obscuring the light. The dimness falls over everything. The cold air makes the dog seem to bark into a barrel. Bright stars, houselights, rubbish fires.
Novelist Allan Gurganus closed the evening with a vivid reminiscence of his experience as one of twelve students enrolled in Cheever’s class at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973 (only three had ever read Cheever before: Ron Hansen, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and himself):
He sat cross-legged on a blonde oak desk looking like a Noel Coward leprechaun. Blue-and-white striped Brooks shirt, unpressed khakis. John Cheever wore size six Weejuns. (You know I’ve always wanted to say that. For its interior rhymes. For its being factual. For its snappy attempt at sounding both as smart and clear, well, as John Cheever. So yes, John Cheever wore size six Weejuns.) Though he was only sixty-one, due to being a lifelong chain smoker/drinker fresh from intensive care, he looked eighty. And I at twenty-five, studying this battered idol, felt too smooth, half-formed . . .
Cheever’s courtesy struck me as heart-breaking. He treated us like this room’s celebrities. Such eagerness to amuse and be amused. Such readiness to become hopeful, or at least distracted. He had already written most of his immortal prose and just this mortal husk seemed left. . . . He carried an ardent charge, some chance belief in the great Greco–New England birthright called Valor, Decency, Love. He trailed transcendentalist optimism, though by now it was like those jet rings you can only see at sunset. When nervous his Yankee accent grew more temperamental and regional. This day Katharine Hepburn couldn’t have understood him.
Gurganus ended with a moving imagining of Cheever at work (“Over one hundred stories in The New Yorker alone; I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters, that’s a heroism!”):
And if that first page he types does not utterly sing here in the maid’s room where such wage earning occurs, he just wads that up. He rolls a clean sheet into the manual and he tries. That last attempt, it just didn’t mean enough of one thing. It lacked a salt sting. It lacked the apple smell. So we’re going to start over: the compression, the emotional surge, the sheer necessity we feel in these brief stories that tumbled in only to recede with tidal force. Even as we read them today all are still guided, puppeteered and deified by one dear, confused, pansexual, 130-pound, alcoholic husband and father, not yet letting himself sneak upstairs in stockinged feet to snitch an 11 AM snort from the pantry, a reward for another morning spent earning his way into the promised world denied, while carrying on his back his family, his lies and addictions, his fugitive sex, his genius, and of course his beneficiaries, all of us, all the readers alive on earth tonight. Well done ye good and faithful servant. Happy Birthday, John.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Collected Works of John Cheever (boxed set)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Wikio - Top Blogs - Literature