(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Hortense Calisher described the short story as “an apocalypse, served in a very small cup,” thus indicating her Jamesian penchant for intense psychological portrayals presented within the aesthetic confines of brevity of style and economy of emotional impact. After “A Box of Ginger,” her first published story, appeared in The New Yorker in 1948, critics praised Calisher’s writings for their complexity of theme, verbal intricacy, and strength and multiplicity of evocation. She has been compared with Henry James and Gustave Flaubert in her passion for precision and craftsmanship and with Marcel Proust in her motifs of the many-sided psychological levels of human experience.

Calisher has been described as a spokesperson for the “middle ground” of the ordinary, rather than the extreme, the unusual, or the bizarre. Her most convincing characters are, by and large, observers of the mysteries of human existence, seeking viable modes of action and belief in their own individual progressions toward the development of self-identity. The existential themes of choice and commitment and the search for meaning through self-definition are pervasive in her writings, as is the influence of phenomenology. Her short stories, in fact, can be seen as exemplifications in art of Edmund Husserl’s definition of the phenomenological epoch (suspension of judgment) as the capacity of a single moment of experience to unfold itself into endless perspectives of reality.

The themes of Calisher’s stories focus upon bonding, the need for individual lives to merge in moments of appreciation, empathy, or love to assuage the emptiness, alienation, and apparent meaninglessness of much of human existence. The progression in her writings is generally outward, toward a merging or a reconciliation based upon understanding and new insight. Her stories also assert the power of illusions over everyday life and the reluctance with which fantasy is surrendered for the stark obduracy of reality. Primarily depictions of the complexity of human experience, Calisher’s stories are presented via a poetic concern with language and imagery for communicating the subtleties of characters’ insights into their experience. She has been praised for the insights into the psychology of women in her works and for her own contributions to women’s literature.

“In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks”

“In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks,” a story many critics consider a modern classic, is an example of Calisher’s themes of bonding and insight, both often attained against a background of psychological suffering and a sense of the amorphous character of life in the modern world. On an afternoon in early August, Peter Birge returns to the small apartment he shares with his mother after taking her to the Greenwich sanatorium she had to frequent at intervals to discover that “his usually competent solitude had become more than he could bear.” He is a victim of defeated plans; the money he had saved from his Army stint for a trip abroad will now have to be spent on his mother’s psychiatric treatment. His mood is one of disheartenment and isolation. Recalling taking his mother to the sanatorium on this bright, clear summer day, he senses the irony of his own plight—anyone “might have thought the two of them were a couple, any couple, just off for a day in the country.” He is aware that much insanity in the modern world passes for sanity and that beneath the seeming calm of most lives lie secrets and potential complexities known only to the participants themselves.

Peter’s estrangement from his mother is complete; Greenwich has claimed her through the sanatorium as it had through the Village. In the Village, she had become a fixture, a “hanger-on” in the bars in the presence and superficial camaraderie of would-be painters, philosophers, and poets, until alcoholism and a steady routine of safe and predictable fantasy—“a buttery flow of harmless little lies and pretensions”—became all that she had subsisted on for more than twenty years. Arriving at the sanatorium was like playing out one more fantasy scene from the bars, a safe world of protection and illusion. For the son, however, no illusions are left to comfort him. “It was just that while others of his age still shared a communal wonder at what life might hold, he had long since been solitary in his knowledge of what life was.”

Finding being alone unbearable, Peter is prompted by his loneliness to visit his friend, Robert Vielum, for the same reason that many others stopped by, “because there was likely to be somebody there.” Robert is “a perennial taker of courses” who derives a “Ponce de Leon sustenance from the young.” Buttressed by family fortunes, he has ambled his way through academics, gathering up a troupe of enchanted devotees fascinated by his adirectional philosophy of hedonism and apathy. Watching him closely, Peter discovers that Robert is very much like his mother; they are “charmers, who if they could not offer you the large strength, could still atone for the lack with so many small decencies.” People are drawn to Robert as they are to Peter’s mother, for the exhilarating excitement of “wearing one’s newest façade, in the fit company of others similarly attired.”

Peter discovers that he has arrived in the midst of a homosexual love triangle; Robert has abandoned his plans to go to Morocco with Vince in order to go to Italy with Mario Osti, a painter. Robert is charmingly aloof, totally insensitive and unresponsive to Vince’s emotional sufferings over being abandoned and rejected. A fight ensues, and Vince retreats to the bedroom as Robert’s daughter, Susan, arrives to spend the summer in her father’s apartment. When Mario looks out the window into the courtyard and discovers that Vince has committed suicide, Robert’s carefully poised game of façades and practiced indifference is shattered by the reality of human despair.

Mario’s self-protecting “I’d better get out of here!” is in direct contrast to Peter’s compassion and empathy for Susan, whom he feels to be a fellow survivor of the carelessness and emptiness of the chaos of other people’s lives. “I don’t care about any of it, really,” Susan tells him, “my parents, or any of the people they tangle with.” Peter finds this a feeling with which he can empathize, and he agrees even more fully with her statement: “I should think it would be the best privilege there is, though. To care, I mean.” The bond of mutual understanding of what has been lost and what is missing and needed is established between Peter and Susan as he realizes that they are alike in their same disillusionment with the world. The story ends on a note of muted optimism as Peter tells himself that “tomorrow he would take her for a drive—whatever the weather. There were a lot of good roads around Greenwich.” If one envisions Greenwich in the story, both the sanatorium and the Village, as symbols of the sterility and insanity of most modern existence, then the journey “around Greenwich” may well be an affirmation that the two young people can avoid the dissipation of their parents’ lives through the bond of caring the couple has established.

“If You Don’t Want to Live I Can’t Help You”

“In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks” is roundly critical of the self-destructive waste of emotional abilities most people’s lives become, a viewpoint even more heavily endorsed in one of Calisher’s more moralistic stories, “If You Don’t Want to Live I Can’t Help You.” On the day that Professor Mary Ponthus, a teacher at a New England college and a scholar of some repute, is to receive an honorary doctorate of letters, she pays a visit to her nephew, Paul. Paul has lived off the trust fund that Mary has administered for twenty years, and his life has become cankered with dissipation. “Foredoomed to the dilettante,” he has dabbled in painting, writing, and love affairs...

(The entire section is 3301 words.)