Hortense Calisher Essay - Calisher, Hortense (Vol. 4)

Calisher, Hortense (Vol. 4)

Calisher, Hortense 1911–

Ms Calisher is an American novelist, short story writer, and autobiographer. It has been said that, in her poetic fiction, she limns characters who are "boundless states of mind." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

All of Miss Calisher's manifold characteristics as an author, both positive and negative, are magnified and distorted in [The New Yorkers], patently designed to be her magnum opus, for here in all their glittering opulence are to be found her predilection for ambiguity, opacity, ellipses, and prolixity—all so much a part of her charm, deftness, fluency, and sureness of touch. Adherence to story lines is not one of her fetishes, and in consequence her book often dawdles from page to page in desultory fashion, introducing meanwhile a cast of characters bewildering in their variety, actors all, in a drama centered on a New York City Jewish family. The leading figure in particular, a "lace-curtain Jew and a lapsed one," now a retired judge of the appellate court, is clearly intended to be a strong and warmly human being. Unhappily for the author her considerable talents fail to confer upon him the breath of life just when vigor and animation are required rather desperately to offset the pedestrian qualities of the narrative.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Summer, 1969), p. lxxxviii.

This generation's subject has been selfhood, and, despite all the evidence, it is after all possible to write well of it. That is, if one writes well. Miss Calisher, who does not want her readers to be aware of her prose style, has one—at its best a blend of letting go and containment that reaches the heart…. There are parts of [Herself], in the middle, that no one should have been required to read. Miss Calisher shares with the reader her journal…. [It] is a variety of gush perfected by the British (and that only for talking); its inclusion here in such volume—it was meant to take the place of daily letters—causes a serious drop at the center of the book. Confronted with this, with the inclusion of whole texts of her letters on Viet Nam to the Times, letters to critics, one asks whether it is necessary to take it all. The answer is yes, with some impatience, for so good a writer is involved here, one so rich in temper, so capable in the use of words for spirit, that one takes the whole display.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 10, 1972, p. 55.

In her complex, surrealistic style Miss Calisher in [Standard Dreaming] creates a dream world in which her characters move as automatons in the course of their search for themselves, for the children who have forsaken them, and for a world having some recognizable attributes of reality. Her book is not actually a novel in any conventional sense, nor are her characters more than shadowy figures at best, but she does write out of a sense of pain and anguish in a most beguiling style about lost souls doomed to failure. If her theme be basically the classic one of search, she pursues it with unwavering diligence.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), p. xii.

Hortense Calisher is a shrewd observer of our social ills—displacements of youth, futilities of the rich—but she is more than a naturalist noting easy details, cataloguing crimes or sins. She is a maker of fictions; she insists upon private consciousness—even when this consciousness is extreme, obsessive and "poetic"….

Calisher begins [Eagle Eye] with a convenient plot, but she refuses to structure her fiction in a straightforward manner. She knows that linear plots are lies that rarely get at the heart of perception. Thus there is for her no one Vietnam, no single youth cult, no simple family. Social "realities" are as "real" as one mind perceiving them. Radical truth is inevitably more alarming and convincing than editorial prescriptions….

Calisher stuns us with the "magic, forbidden leaps" of her imagination. She forces us to enter—and withdraw from—her narrator's mind; she offers few clues to his ultimate condition. But by testing us with her sharp vision she emerges here as a true creator—an eagle of fiction-makers.

Irving Malin, "Supremacy of Consciousness," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), November 3, 1973, pp. 26-7.

Eagle Eye is a spare, skillful book I loved on second reading, but fought with all through the first. It is tightly controlled, often as difficult as a poem—but as rewarding.

Experiencing this work of Calisher's imagination is a matter of learning the economics of her highly individual language (all the characters speak an allusive shorthand, understanding one another with maddening ease even when we miss what they are talking about), and of adjusting to a complex world composed of voices, moods, and textures, more than of keeping track of the linear plot….

Finding yourself, this novel suggests, means finding that your visions and actions touch and are touched by the lives of others….

Calisher has elsewhere treated … the problems of relationship between parent and child, male and female, humanist and scientist. If her work is seen as a continuing discussion of these conflicts, Eagle Eye is an optimistic part of her vision, an affirmation of our capability for such daring and offbeat combinations as may save us.

Joan Larkin, "Twice Over Heavily," in Ms., January, 1974, pp. 39-40.

Hortense Calisher's latest exploration of man's heart and head is as perilous and fascinating a voyage as any reader could hope to make this year. Few American writers deserve such praise. But Calisher is uniquely gifted and in Eagle Eye she has created a durable masterpiece, intriguing as a spider's web, a novel so absorbing that the idea of abandoning the fictional Bronstein family became impossible; two readings were required before I could say goodby. I could say I stayed on quite willingly. But the truth is that the Bronsteins refused to let me go.

The ties that bind the Bronsteins together are those dull, deadly twins, circumstance and habit. But in Eagle Eye, a family that less gifted writers would surely have wronged with all the old clichés has been made real, blessed with cowardice and frailty. Here, the Bronsteins represent the family of the universal rising executive, so very like my upward-bound yet needy relatives and friends that I felt sure I'd met them somewhere before and more than once. The same uncanny ability to evoke submerged traces of experience, the same disturbing sense of déjà vu that so distinguishes False Entry, is delightfully in evidence here.

But more than sorcery and polished technical skills are at work in Eagle Eye….

Call Eagle Eye a novel, then. Some people will. But others will say it is a work of art. Count me among the latter, the faithful who are glad to wait and see what Hortense Calisher will think up next, the grateful ones who cherish the company of living beings she has molded with her wise hands.

Bonnie Stowers, "'The Same World-Dwarfing Stories'," in The Nation, June 29, 1974, pp. 829-30.