Calisher, Hortense (Vol. 134)
Hortense Calisher 1911-
(Also has written under pseudonym Jack Fenno) American short story writer, novelist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Calisher's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 8, and 38.
Calisher is a highly regarded and accomplished prose stylist whose subtle, textured use of language elucidates the complexities of human experience. Her writing, much of which is semi-autobiographical, is often compared to that of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Edith Wharton. Calisher sees diversity as the defining element of the twentieth century, and her fiction reflects this belief. Although Calisher writes well-received novels, memoirs, and critical essays, her short fiction is generally regarded as her finest work, notably “In Greenwich There Are Many Graveled Walks” (1951) and the novellas in The Railway Police, and the Last Trolley Ride (1966). The four O. Henry awards presented to Calisher over the span of her career attest to her skill as a short story writer.
Born in New York City, Calisher grew up in a comfortable, middle-class Jewish home. Her father, born during the Civil War, was from Richmond, Virginia, and her mother, more than twenty years younger than her husband, was a German immigrant. The confluence of sensibilities arising from her multigenerational family—the South, New York City, Europe, and Judaism—inform much of her work. Calisher earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Barnard College in 1932. Upon graduation, she became a social worker for the Department of Public Welfare in New York City. In 1935 Calisher married Heaton Bennet Heffelfinger, with whom she shares two children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1958 and a year later Calisher married novelist Curtis Arthur Harnack. From 1957 to 1986 Calisher was a visiting professor and lecturer at various universities throughout the United States. She was president of PEN in 1986-87 and of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters from 1987 to 1990.
Calisher began her professional writing career in 1948 by publishing stories in the New Yorker, and soon garnered critical acclaim with the publication of her first collection of short stories, In the Absence of Angels (1951). She was twice named a Guggenheim fellow, in 1951-52 and 1953-54. Calisher earned her first National Book Award nomination for the novel False Entry (1961). The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (1975) and Calisher's memoir, Herself (1972) were also nominated for the National Book Award. She was awarded the Kafka Prize at the University of Rochester for the novel The Bobby-Soxer (1986), and in 1989 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Calisher is known for her keen observations and ability to share them vividly through image, character, and lush, distinctive language. Her early autobiographical work, sometimes called the “Hester” stories, appeared between 1948 and 1953. These stories, published primarily in the New Yorker and various collections during these years, depict her protagonist Hester's coming of age. Calisher's first published story collection, In the Absence of Angels, includes the critically acclaimed “In Greenwich There Are Many Graveled Walks.” The story contains trademark Calisher motifs and techniques—recognizable characters responding to a dark predicament not of their own making, revealed through rich prose in an intricate and carefully paced narrative. The novel False Entry draws partly on Calisher's southern roots and explores the life of a man with such a remarkable memory that he has assumed other people's identities through his knowledge of their past. In three months of writing about these experiences in his journal, he finally determines his own identity, permitting him genuine entry into the life of his beloved. His journal is written for Ruth Mannix, whose own story is told in The New Yorkers (1969), a novel admired for its realistic portrayal of New York City. The work evidences Calisher's skill in blending her knowledge of Jewish heritage, intimate familiarity with New York City, and psychological perception in her fiction. Following a pattern that continues to inform her work, Calisher subsequently alternated between short and long fiction, and published several volumes of both together. Tale for the Mirror contains a novella and twelve short stories, including “The Scream on Fifty-seventh Street,” an exploration of fear and loneliness. Extreme Magic (1964), another volume of one novella and short stories, demonstrates a growth in Calisher's range. Two stories in particular illustrate her feminine voice: “Songs My Mother Taught Me” reveals both humor and sensuality, while “The Rabbi's Daughter” explores the feminine duality of worldly achievement coupled with inner dissatisfaction.
Completely dissimilar from her previous work, Journal from Ellipsia (1965) has been called both a work of science fiction and a work of feminism. In line with the central themes of Calisher's fiction, however, the novel explores what it means to be human, this time from the point of view of an alien creature. Moreover, the story involves a journey from the star Ellipsia to Earth; transportation serves as a recurring interest in Calisher's work, particularly its relation to American myth and public consciousness. In Mysteries of Motion (1983), another novel with a celestial theme, Calisher examines six human lives aboard a space shuttle. The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride, two novellas published in a single volume, share the theme of a journey undertaken to promote both self-knowledge and perception of the world. The protagonist of The Railway Police experiences an epiphany when she witnesses the removal of an indifferent vagrant from a train. She interprets this as a sign for her to dispose of all her possessions, including the wigs that have long hidden her baldness from the world. Determined to reinvent who she is, she decides to strike out and become a vagrant herself. The Last Trolley Ride concerns two octogenarian grandfathers who decide to share one last adventure—a trip around the world. Calisher's memoir, Herself, describes her own journey from the world of suburban housewife and mother to the world of letters. In a second memoir, Kissing Cousins (1988), Calisher explores her Southern roots following a death in her family. In the novel The Bobby-Soxer, Calisher examines the dark provincialism of small-town America and the ambiguity of identity, embodied in the narrator's hermaphroditic relative. In Age (1987), Calisher again employs the fictional vehicle of the journal, this time to shed light on the lives of an elderly couple. The brief, alternating entries, designed to be a defense against loneliness for the surviving spouse, reveal their reflections on life, relationships, and the prospect of living on after the death of the other. The novel In the Palace of the Movie King (1993) involves an Albania dissident filmmaker who escapes communist Albania only to encounter alienation and disillusionment in America. Calisher's In the Slammer with Carol Smith (1997), reveals the effect that involvement in a radical student movement has on a protagonist decades later. Calisher has also served as editor of Best American Short Stories, 1981 (1981) and published a novel, The Small Bang (1992), under the pseudonym Jack Fenno.
Calisher is known as a “writer's writer” and an important voice in American fiction of the twentieth century, and critical response to her short stories is almost uniformly positive. Critics note that she dazzles readers with her sympathetic portrayal of everyday people, caught in moments of crisis, who attempt to exercise some control over their circumstances. Where her novels are concerned, however, response to her work is mixed. Critics have faulted her overwrought style, thinness of characterization, and lack of substantial plot. Reviewers disagree about the merits of The New Yorkers, acknowledged generally as one of her most important novels. A common contentious point among critics is the way Calisher uses language. Her short story style tends toward the terse and economical, in keeping with the genre, while her novels are far more exuberant in their expression. “Elliptical” is the word most frequently applied to her prose, and depending on the reviewer, it may mean either artful or ambiguous. Some reviewers insist that this technique reflects the complex, convoluted meanings explored in Calisher's fiction, while others simply view it as overwriting and a distraction.
In the Absence of Angels (short stories) 1951
False Entry (novel) 1961
Tale for the Mirror: A Novella and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1962
Textures of Life (novel) 1963
Extreme Magic: A Novella and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1964
Journal from Ellipsia (novel) 1965
The Railway Police, and The Last Trolley Ride (novellas) 1966
The New Yorkers (novel) 1969
What Novels Are (lecture) 1969
Queenie (novel) 1971
Herself: An Autobiographical Work (memoir) 1972
Standard Dreaming (novel) 1972
Eagle Eye (novel) 1973
The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (short stories) 1975
On Keeping Women (novel) 1977
Best American Short Stories, 1981 [editor; with Shannon Ravenel] (short stories) 1981
Mysteries of Motion (novel) 1983
Saratoga, Hot (short stories) 1985
The Bobby-Soxer (novel) 1986
Age (novel) 1987
Kissing Cousins: A Memory (memoir) 1988
The Small Bang [as Jack Fenno] (novel) 1992
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SOURCE: “High Polish,” in The Progressive, Vol. 26, No. 1, January, 1962, pp. 49-50.
[In the following excerpt, Johnson offers praise for False Entry.]
Hortense Calisher’s False Entry is an immensely accomplished and fascinating first novel, one that, through both its ornate style and the obsession of its major character and narrator, engulfs the reader in its world.
Hortense Calisher’s narrator is a vicarious man, one who from earliest childhood has been a watcher and listener outside the inner circle of whatever group he has lived among. He has combined his longing to belong with a self-protective reluctance to give anything of himself to anyone, so that all relationships with others have been completely artificial on his side. In his forties this weakness has caused a crisis from which he seeks to extricate himself by writing a journal of his life as honestly as possible. This novel is that journal, the confession of a man “who for once wants his hand on the pulse of another’s life-beat, would for once see a human effect of which he is the cause—or perhaps merely an outsider who can bear no longer to stand beyond the gate.”
The son of a London seamstress who knows her place, he first wants to be a part of the rich, charming, close-knit Jewish family for whom she does most of her work. When he is ten, his mother takes him to Alabama where he...
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SOURCE: “On the Subject of Love,” in The Nation, May 25, 1963, pp. 447-8.
[In the following excerpt, Kiely commends Calisher's prose in Textures of Life, though finds fault in her generalizations about women.]
To read the newly published novels of Hortense Calisher and Iris Murdoch one after the other is a salutary and educational experience for anyone who tends to place contemporary female novelists together in the same hazy category. There are obvious attributes that women writers, these two included, are likely to have in common; they prefer to see a dramatic situation through the eyes of a heroine rather than a hero, and their feminine characters are deftly and unsentimentally—Lord, how unsentimentally—depicted; they have a fondness for precise detail, and their subject, no matter how you view it, is love.
Beyond that, these two authors defy comparison with each other. If Hortense Calisher’s Textures of Life reminds us now and then of Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn conjures up the ghosts of Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. They are, in other words, about as far apart as you can get—as practitioners of fiction in our language.
Textures of Life is Miss Calisher’s second novel. Her first was False Entry, and she has also published two fine collections of short stories,...
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SOURCE: “In Appreciation of Hortense Calisher,” in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 243-9.
[In the following essay, Hahn discusses Calisher's prose style, early fiction, and formative experiences, and the critical response to False Entry and Textures of Life.]
“Words are our reflex. We spend our lives putting things into words,” says the narrator in Hortense Calisher’s “Little Did I Know.” (From Extreme Magic, a collection.) She recalls how, as a girl at college, “I was drunk on language, the way you see kids get on jazz at Birdland. I ran all over the pasture, wondering how I could ever eat all the books there were. … And the words! I collected them in all shapes and sizes, and hung them like bangles in my mind.”
Like all good fiction-writers, Miss Calisher puts something not only of herself but of all of us into her work. Few of us don’t remember that phase of youth. And we continue to recognize emotions as we read on, though they are less easily definable and have never, perhaps, been described before. The narrator is telling of the spring when she was really in love, “the last spring in which she really lived,” when she saw the lyricism of the season slowly ebb from the affair, until love at last came to an end because she couldn’t bear her young man’s literary point of view: “Why did he...
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SOURCE: “Apocalypse In a Teacup,” in The Washington Post, September 18, 1977, p. E3.
[In the following review, Tyler offers a favorable evaluation of The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher.]
Hortense Calisher has written, at one time or another, from the viewpoint of a young girl reared expressly to be a kept woman, a man who compulsively slips into the disguises of other people’s lives, and a twirling, humming, multicolored machine from outer space. Her settings are almost always New York, but sometimes it’s New York’s Fifth Avenue and sometimes the seedy, lead-colored warehouse district way, way downtown. And at still other times, it’s the closed world of those transplants to the city who have managed, somehow, to bring their natural habitats with them intact, like the envelopes of scent in which certain perfumed ladies move.
You can lose yourself in one of her short stories—brief though it may be, a thin little scurry of pages. For the usual drawbacks of the short story as a form (its suddenness, the artificial compactness of its events, the effort required by the reader to become involved with its characters, only to be abandoned by them some 15 minutes later) are neatly circumvented by Hortense Calisher.
Reading the fine new paperback edition of her Collected Stories, we are over and over again drawn into her situations by a certain...
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SOURCE: A review of Mysteries of Motion, in The Washington Post, December 31, 1983, p. C2.
[In the following review, Piercy offers a positive assessment of Mysteries of Motion.]
Hortense Calisher’s ninth novel, Mysteries of Motion, takes large chances under which its structure and its prose at times crumple, but the vision is extraordinary enough for us to allow for its faults and still praise both the ambition and the work highly.
Mysteries of Motion belongs to the genre of “Ship of Fools” and “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” centering on a situation in which diverse characters with diverse histories are brought together. In this novel, the past occupies the bulk of the novel. However, if the form is venerable, the content is slightly in advance of 1984.
Five men and two women are launched from Cape Canaveral on the ship Citizen Courier, the first civilians scheduled to travel to a space platform to live. They believe themselves to he part of a group of civilians chosen to represent every interest and condition of the population of the United States, whom NASA is transporting into space as pioneers.
The novel, unfortunately, begins in the consciousness of Tom Gilpin, who is largely responsible for the pressure on the government to include people who are not astronauts, not perfect physical specimens, in the space program....
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SOURCE: A review of Saratoga, Hot, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 21, 1985, p. 5.
[In the following review, Kendall offers a favorable assessment of Calisher's stories in Saratoga, Hot.]
“Some stories cling to the pen as novels do,” Hortense Calisher has said, trying for more than the high or low moments of life; reaching for the essence of the life itself. The eight fictions in this collection belong to that arbitrary category, qualifying by ambitiousness of purpose rather than complexity of plot, number of characters or length alone. Although these particular tales are layered and complex, calling them novels embroils the reader in an unnecessary academic riddle. When is a story not a story?
“Saratoga, Hot” shifts back and forth from the time that Tot, the well-meaning but undirected scion of a prominent horse-owning family, is the driver of a sports car involved in a serious accident. Nola, his date for the evening, suffers injuries that leave her lame. Traumatized by an overwhelming sense of responsibility, Tot is unable to settle upon a permanent career, supporting himself by managing a series of racing stables—work with little security but enough perks to make life comfortable. Horse owners, especially the lucky ones, are generous with their spare houses and cars, only too happy to include a personable young man in their festivities. When Nola has...
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Hortense Calisher with Gregory Fitz Gerald and Peter Marchant (interview date Spring 1986)
SOURCE: “A Conversation with Hortense Calisher,” edited by Earl Ingersoll and Peter Marchant, in Southwest Review, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 186-93.
[In the following interview, Calisher discusses her approach to writing, her prose style, the transition between writing short fiction and novels, and her interest in space travel and transportation.]
With the publication of her first collection of stories, In Absence of Angels, in 1951, Hortense Calisher began a distinguished career that has seen the publication of a dozen and a half novels, collections of short stories and novellas, and an autobiography. Her most recent works are a collection of short fiction, Saratoga, Hot (1985), and a novel, The Bobby-Soxer (1986).
The conversation that follows is an updated transcription of a videotaped interview which took place at the State University of New York, College at Brockport, where Miss Calisher appeared as a guest of the Brockport Writers Forum. Speaking with her were Gregory Fitz Gerald, writer and founding director of the Writers Forum, and Peter Marchant, writer and member of the department of English at the College.
[Fitz Gerald:] To what extent does autobiographical material enter into your fiction?
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SOURCE: “Pondering a Family Mystery,” in The New Leader, June 16-30, 1986, p. 20.
[In the following review, Cavell offers a generally positive assessment of The Bobby-Soxer, though she finds shortcomings in the disorienting quality of the writing.]
The themes of Hortense Calisher’s latest novel will be familiar to readers of her earlier works: how we live each other’s lives, discovering ourselves and them in the process (her short stories are full of such wonderfully strange identifications); the intimate interconnectedness between persons and events that is revealed only in time, through reflection and dialogue; the present as a tale whose telling thus requires the future. In The Bobby-Soxer there is another theme as well—“the haunted provincialism in American life,” as one character puts it.
All these demand a reader’s patient collaboration; and for me, at least, the narrative is not sufficiently compelling. We are often in the dark about things we haven’t been moved to see. Worse, once we are in a position to discover the sense in events and conversations that were initially enigmatic we may have forgotten them.
Whereas a good mystery yarn keeps its readers firmly in hand while teasing them along, The Bobby-Soxer—no mystery story, yet a story meant to be full of mystery—has us continually turning back in search of what we...
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Hortense Calisher with Allan Gurganus, Pamela McCordick, and Mona Simpson (interview date Winter 1987)
SOURCE: “The Art of Fiction C: Hortense Calisher,” in Paris Review, No. 105, Winter, 1987, pp. 157-87.
[In the following interview, Calisher discusses her early life, diverse family influences, literary beginnings, and the themes, preoccupations, and creative processes behind her writing.]
Hortense Calisher was born in Manhattan in 1911. She writes with great affection and authority about New York then and now—a city as textured, compact and allusive as her best prose. On the page, her memories of her upper-bourgeois childhood always exercise a power and specificity, a great charm.
Her publishing career began somewhat belatedly at the age of thirty-seven when, while she was living in the suburbs with her first husband and two children, her early stories started to attract attention. Recognition has remained consistent if sometimes merely respectful. Perhaps no evaluation of a single Calisher work does justice to the author’s collective range, to her ease in all genres. The range of work has been noted by English critics such as Brigid Brophy; she places Calisher in a social, moral, and stylistic continuum involving Edith Wharton and Henry James—two other writers equally at home with stories, novellas and the novel. The subject matter of Calisher’s work...
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SOURCE: “Age: Laying Bare Life's Fears, Triumphs,” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 6, 1987, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yuenger offers a positive evaluation of Age.]
For more than 40 years, Hortense Calisher’s pen has served as a scalpel slicing through to the emotional underside of American life and quietly, deftly laying bare its inevitable inconsistencies, its fears and its small triumphs.
Now, aged 75, after 15 novels and a well-received autobiography (Herself) that have placed her firmly in the pantheon of nonblockbuster literary gods who can be depended on for a steady stream of solid craftsmanship, she has written what appears to be a coda—the chronicle of a septuagenarian architect and her husband, a minor poet, whose legacy to each other is an almanac to be read only after one of them dies.
That is no easy task, yet Calisher makes of the archive a gently lyrical paean to the intelligent examination of lives lived well together. It is wry, annoyed, bittersweet, ever open to the surprises of daily life that seem destined to remain with us regardless of age and experience. And it is erotic. Yes, erotic. Old couples who have enjoyed many years together (and anyone who has heard stories of the frisky flirtatiousness that attends social functions in old peoples’ homes) know that there can be another, deeper dimension to physical love....
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SOURCE: “Charting the Frontier Called Age,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 13, 1987, p. 11.
[In the following review, Drake offers an unfavorable assessment of Age.]
What to make of this slender novel/novella by Hortense Calisher? It is as fragile and paradoxical as the state of its protagonists, a spunky pair—he a poet, she an architect—who are confronting the last frontier: the uncharted territory of age.
These two, Rupert and Gemma, have made a pact in their 70s to keep separate journals of their life together. The journals are to be read only when one of them dies, which means only the survivor gets to read both. It’s a curious, not entirely logical idea, troubling even to the characters as characters.
It allows Calisher the conceit of giving us introspective views of the same life seen through different angles of a shared prism. In this case, it’s two views of a marriage in which events by now are few and mostly unremarkable. The device, an opportunity for close examination of the emotional process of aging, is oddly used.
Calisher focuses on the minutiae of living—the descending spiral of energy and autonomy, the extended concerns that creep up on people as age treacherously advances.
Not a bad approach, theoretically. This zeroing in on the particular can, and often does, have echoes in the...
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SOURCE: “The Triumph of Age,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1989, p. 7.
[In the following excerpt, Bader offers a tempered assessment of Age.]
“I suppose most couples the age of Rupert and me are not expected to be still compelled by sex,” writes Hortense Calisher. But Gemma and Rupert (he, seventy-three and she, seventy-seven) have little time for the supposed-to-bes and the process of graceful aging. Thirty-five years into their marriage, they still surprise and baffle one another. Sometimes their anger comes through, but more often, joy, reveling in one another’s being—physically, yes, but also emotionally and intellectually. Whether our witness is to their shared laughter or pain or to their mundane or worldly talk, we are privy to the special relationship they have worked so hard to create.
In a series of short, alternating chapters, we are taken inside the soul and psyche of each partner. We enter, for example, into that heart of hearts where lust for life competes with dreaded death, where terror is a constant companion. But fear of one’s own death is not so frightening; rather, both Gemma and Rupert fear the aloneness that will follow the other’s passing. …
[Alice] Adams introduces us to a special group of people [in her novel Second Chances] and, like Calisher, zeros in on the concerns and challenges they face. Both novels...
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SOURCE: “Coming Down from the Heights,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 554-69.
[In the following essay, Snodgrass examines the related themes in Textures of Life, Queenie, and Eagle Eye, drawing attention to the movement from ideal to real and symbolic to literal in each.]
Like many a beginning writer, Hortense Calisher drew first on her own life history, but, as she relates in her memoir Herself, “suddenly after less than a dozen close-to-autobiographical stories, their process is over; I want out, to the wider world” (H, 42).1 However much the stories, novellas, and novels that followed this change in direction differ from the early stories in their subjects and styles, the rites of passage theme proved to be an enduring and ever developing one. The Hester Elkin of the autobiographical stories is the first of many Calisher protagonists to come out into a world in which change is the only constant.2
Three of Calisher’s novels, though stylistically worlds apart from one another, dramatize young people’s initiations into adulthood. Textures of Life (1963) is Calisher’s most quietly conventional novel; Queenie (1971), an exuberant comedy of manners that blends the real and the surreal; Eagle Eye (1973), one of Calisher’s most demanding works, plunges the...
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SOURCE: “Friends for Life: A Writer Remembers,” in Washington Post Book World, January 8, 1989, p. 7.
[In the following review, Krim offers a favorable evaluation of Kissing Cousins.]
Any writer who asks to review a new Hortense Calisher has obviously got big self-destruction problems. This latest Kissing Cousins is only a veritable sliver, a mere 100 or so pages, and yet so masterful/mistressful is Calisher with her fertile, fine-pointed pen that the result can depress a fellow practitioner for weeks. Why you say? Because very few in our trade can compete with the resources, the promiscuous deposits of literary gold, that “Hotense” (as her southern kissing cousin calls her) brings to the page: without even breaking into a fine bead of perspiration, she throws out enough wit, music, candor, grace and frightening smarts to electrify the dull and chasten the self-satisfied.
And one can only boost one’s tattered self-confidence when every now and again she gets too rich for easy digestion, like a great chef on a spree.
All this formidable display is in the service of preservation. “Time must have a stop,” wrote Aldous Huxley, and Calisher not only wants to freeze-frame it, she wants to honor it. We may have lost our sense of memory as a society, but it only takes one individual who has lived through World War I and the decades following to restore...
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SOURCE: “Calisher's ‘Monologuing Eye,’” in The Fiction of Hortense Calisher, University of Delaware Press, 1993, pp. 107-17.
[In the following essay, Snodgrass examines Calisher's authorial perspective and trademark prose style, drawing attention to the opposing aspects of “old world” realism and modern sensibility in her work.]
Calisher’s reviewers invariably dive into the same adjectival pool and surface with a handful of epithets—“Jamesian,” “convoluted,” “dense,” and “elliptical”—when characterizing her distinctive style. Whether admiringly or hostile, they often call attention to Calisher’s “fondness for the supersubtle.”1
Calisher’s theme and, with some exceptions, her stories are not in themselves either unique or strange; she herself, in several novels, has called attention to the “single story” (The New Yorkers [hereafter cited as NY], 559) always waiting to be told. Perhaps these familiar chords create certain expectations in book reviewers: specifically, a realistic, middle-of-the-road style—as opposed to a difficult, self-referential style—as the appropriate vehicle for her theme and stories.
To separate style and subject is to ignore or deny Calisher’s achievement as a writer. Her ideal, one realized in work after work, is what she has defined as the “best style”: “so much the...
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SOURCE: “Lights, Camera, Confusion,” in Washington Post Book World, February 11, 1994, p. 2.
[In the following review, See offers a tempered assessment of In the Palace of the Movie King, noting a lack of plot or progression in the book.]
Reading In the Palace of the Movie King is like doggedly climbing an escalator that keeps going down. There’s no forward movement, no plot, and since Hortense Calisher is such an accomplished novelist, with such a long and distinguished career, you have to assume that’s her choice: She’s through with plot or straightforward story. She’s doing something else, and if you can’t get it, that’s your problem, not hers.
This novel is set in Albania, Hollywood and New York City. The people who wrote the press materials here must have been more than usually at sea about this material: They describe the hero, a filmmaker named Gonchev, as “a famous Bergman-like film director,” when actually Gonchev hangs out in Albania, making—if I read correctly—actorless silent films about cities. The “cities” are nothing more than movie sets, since Gonchev can’t leave Albania. He’s built those sets at a place he fancifully calls Elsinore. Calisher seems to think that a collection of artificial cities is something special, artistically speaking, but how Elsinore is different from the back lot at Universal, I really can’t say....
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SOURCE: A review of In the Palace of the Movie King, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 216-7.
[In the following review, Malin comments on Calisher's prose style and offers a positive assessment of In the Palace of the Movie King.]
Calisher has not received the critical attention she deserves because she writes in a complex, distinctive way. Her sentences are twisted, skewed, ambiguous. The declarative questions itself; pronouns become “ghostly.” The style is paradoxically clear and indeterminate. Her new novel, in effect, is an ambitious, subtly detailed meditation on place, language, art, and politics. The plot is not very important in a Calisher novel. Here we have a “European” film director who encounters America. He is aware of his marginality. And he understands that this quality applies not only to emigrés (or exiles) but to every man and woman. Although he tries to establish patterns, to understand the reasons for isolation, he cannot completely “arrange” meanings—the word arrangement is one of the significant words in the novel—he can merely brood about the “prison persons” we all are. (We live in solitary confinement.) Calisher recognizes that her “hero,” Gonchev (whose “real” name is different), is a king—or would-be king—of his linguistic, perceptive, epistemological state. And his...
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SOURCE: “On Hortense Calisher,” in Iowa Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 185-7.
[In the following review, Snodgrass offers a favorable evaluation of In the Palace of the Movie King.]
Paul Gonchev, the hero of Hortense Calisher’s twelfth novel, In the Palace of the Movie King, is one of her most elusive and intriguing characters. Like so many of her protagonists, he clearly sees the psychic enclosure he has devised for himself, all the while blind to the costs it exacts. In this novel, however, the boundaries are literal as well as metaphorical. Sixteen years before the novel begins, the Russian-born Gonchev leaves his adopted Japan for the “fiercely xenophobic” Albania, where, paradoxically, he enjoys enormous artistic freedom and creates travel documentaries that have earned him international acclaim. Since actual travel is forbidden, Gonchev—on the grounds of his movie kingdom, Elsinore—constructs eerily accurate scale models of the world’s major cities. No Balkanized Hamlet, Gonchev is a man in love with film and film-making: he “Dubb[ed] his plateau Elsinore … for a once-glimpsed shot of an old location site in California’s Santa Ana range, used long ago by the Hollywood he might now never see.”
Gonchev is a vigorous man in his fifties whose life, private and professional, seems complete. His Elsinore, ringed by craggy mountains, is at a literal...
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SOURCE: “What a Marvel!,” in The Spectator, May 25, 1996, pp. 32-4.
[In the following review, King offers a favorable assessment of Age.]
A past president of the American PEN Center and of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a recipient of a life-time achievement award of the National Endowments for the Arts, Hortense Calisher is a writer widely known and admired in the States. That this delicate and subtle novella has had to wait eight years for its appearance in this country is an indication that, inexplicably, she is far less well known and admired over here.
More than 40 years have elapsed since an American colleague in Greece pressed on me a copy of Calisher’s first collection of short stories, In the Absence of Angels. I have been reading her ever since. Now 85, she has passed through that melancholy period when reviewers and even readers say, in effect, of an aged author, ‘That will do extremely well. You have delighted us long enough. Let younger authors have time to exhibit,’ and instead say, ‘What a marvel!’ That she is a marvel no one should doubt after reading this book.
As her title Age indicates, Calisher is here writing of the many perils and pains of growing old and of the few, but undoubted, consolations. Rupert, a famous American poet, and Gemma, a respected but now retired architect, live in...
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SOURCE: “Find Hortense,” in The Nation, December 1, 1997, pp. 34-6.
[In the following review, Allen provides an overview of Calisher's literary career and offers a positive evaluation of In the Slammer and The Novellas of Hortense Calisher.]
Hortense Calisher, who was born in 1911 and has been producing highly original and frequently highly acclaimed fiction for half a century, is the odd-woman-out of the contemporary American literary pantheon. There’s no entry for her in the most recent Britannica, and not so much as a mention in Frederick Karl’s numbingly comprehensive American Fictions: 1940–1980, published in 1983. One looks in vain through critical studies of novelists and story writers from the fifties to the present day for even token consideration of a writer who has often (if inconsistently) excelled in both genres—whose 1975 Collected Stories was in fact generally acclaimed by reviewers as one of the finest such collections of our time.
Furthermore, Calisher’s standing in the rarefied world of her peers seems well-nigh impeccable. She has served as president of both American PEN and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and done a cultural tour of Japan under the aegis of the State Department (a junket amusingly described in her 1972 memoir Herself, which was nominated for a National Book Award). If the range and density of...
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Baranczak, Stanislaw. “The Small, Battered Desk.” The New Criterion 1, No. 6 (February 1983): 31–3.
Written in response to Calisher's essay “The Long, Shining Table,” Baranczak argues that Calisher oversimplifies and misunderstands East European writing in her article.
Barrett, William. “Alone with the Page.” The New Criterion 1, No. 6 (February 1983): 33.
Barrett responds to Calisher's intimation in her essay “The Long, Shining Table,” that the oppressed conditions under which Eastern European writers work is enviable.
Calisher, Hortense. “Hortense Calisher Replies.” The New Criterion 1, No. 6 (February 1983): 39–40.
Calisher responds to the commentary of Stanislaw Baranczak, William Barrett, Cynthia Ozick, and Richard Wilbur concerning her essay “The Long, Shining Table.”
——— “The Long, Shining Table: Writers in Eastern Europe.” The New Criterion 1, No. 5 (January 1983): 1–8.
Calisher addresses the stark differences between the publishing practices in the United States and those in Eastern European countries through a recounting of her experiences travelling in Eastern Europe, and her various meetings with writers, scholars, and intellectuals.
DuBeau, Catherine. Review of...
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