Hortense Calisher Calisher, Hortense (Vol. 2) - Essay

Calisher, Hortense (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Calisher, Hortense 1911–

American novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Hortense Calisher is an American of European sympathies, taut artistry and stupendous talent. European culture in the very act of being déraciné—and letting out a mandrake shriek—is the motif Miss Calisher builds into a grand fugue in False Entry, published here last year, a huge novel you can nibble round for twenty or thirty pages before you are suddenly in, hurtling through its exciting plot, dazzled by its delicacy and stunned by its sheer Dickensian creativeness. Her effects are necessarily smaller but at their best just as cogent in Tale for the Mirror, which consists of thirteen stories, all bearing the marks of having had to earn their living. Literally, they are magazine stories: it is sad that the only one which could be called so derogatorily is the one from the New Yorker. The atmospheres range from suburban to Southern to Yiddish; there is even a superb period piece set at a 1918 victory parade, as condensed in its evocations as a bit of dusty bunting. The themes are mostly metaphors of loneliness….

Occasionally Miss Calisher's intricate prose flattens into doodling, her narrative swoops towards sentimentality or melodrama and she herself seems engulfed in a second's loneliness, where she cannot believe her own imagination. But she is only plummeting in an air pocket. One even comes to accept her scoopings, like those of a supreme soprano. Most of the time her decorative manner is as firm and economic as rococo wrought iron. Her talent is a naturally brilliant exotic, cutting a figure of stylish idiosyncrasy. Muscular and slender, it picks its fastidious way over the mudflats, leaving a print beautiful, elaborate and rare.

Brigid Brophy, "Hortense Calisher" (1963), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 159-60.

Hortense Calisher (False Entry, The New Yorkers) is one of our most substantial yet elusive writers. By any narrow or literal definition, she is becoming less and less a strictly narrative artist. Her characters are boundless states of mind. Nor does she structure books conventionally: Queenie doesn't move; it spins, pausing for scenes, pausing for ideas. Mrs. Calisher appears also to borrow imaginatively from the other arts, giving the reader the feel of the dance, of the mobile, of sculpture. In Queenie, probably the most light-hearted of her novels, she has made a tripping entry into the mind of a present-day young girl, and has with wit and spirit fashioned a kind of ballet around the story of Queenie's coming of sexual and intellectual age….

In the end, Queenie achieves the Seventies, but in a way so singular we could not follow in her footsteps if we tried. The surrealistic finale is wobbly: We are left without clues as to its degree of unreality. It is too bad that a book so full of ideas lacks a graspable central theme. The separate elements and influences that compose Queenie are also discontinuous; she is not quite an organic creation.

Taken on its own level, however, with Queenie as the heroine of a kind of Everywoman's sexual fable, the novel rewards. It is dense with insight and written intensely, with wit and love of life and of ideas.

Lucy Rosenthal, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 3, 1971; used with permission), April 3, 1971, p. 34.

[If] Herself doesn't quite cohere as a work of art, its individual ingredients are at least interesting. As a whole it is indigestible, but parts of it, like the clergyman's famous rotten egg, are quite fine. Always you are in the presence of a keen, reflective intelligence; no safeguard, unfortunately, against the kind of self-indulgent chutzpah which Herself as a whole represents.

A far more disciplined Calisher comes out in her novella Standard Dreaming, where she looks sharply but compassionately at the whole generation mess…. Standard Dreaming is a gloomy but oddly consolatory tale for our times. It shows that when Miss Calisher is writing fiction she can cook up a storm with the best of them.

Richard Freedman, "Literary Leftovers and a Consolatory Tale," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 1, 1972, p. 9.

[Hortense Calisher's] fiction often reads like poetry, not merely because the language is charged with imagery, but because there is a concentration, an intensity of expression which prohibits casual dialogue, comfortable descriptions, mundane observations….

[She] is a creator of voices, moods, states of mind, but not of worlds. Her fiction, like her autobiography [Herself], sends us back into the world we know; it may refresh and enhance it, but it does not, even for a moment, obliterate or remake it. This is not to say that she is, in some old-fashioned sense, a realist. On the contrary, rather than fabricating reasonable facsimiles of "things as they are," she takes certain "scenes" for granted and lets her quick wit and marvelous imagination play over them. If we know a bit about the scenes she selects, we're likely to find her works beautifully agile and astute. If not, she is not about to hammer the parts together for us….

Hortense Calisher is the rare writer who can move from a particular man to "the species," from a sharp observation to a generalization without appearing weary or ridiculous.

Robert Kiely, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 1, 1972, pp. 3, 20-1.

Admirers of Hortense Calisher, familiar with her previous distinguished work and accustomed to the highly personal style she has made her own, would seem to be the destined, and very likely the delighted, readers of this autobiographical mélange [Herself]. Others may find it something of a problem: to read and to make much of afterwards….

It seems a pity that Miss Calisher did not undertake to write an autobiography (her life and literary career would have justified it) but settled instead for "an autobiographical work" that is a kind of scrapbook, unified by the fact that everything in it more or less relates to herself…. All in all, a mishmash that might have been titled Advertisements for Myself if Mailer hadn't got there first.

Late in the text we come upon a reference to a novel that Miss Calisher has begun to write even while bringing Herself to a conclusion, and that novel, Standard Dreaming, is now published simultaneously with it. The novel, which is very brief, spare, tightly controlled, and, alas, not very interesting, originated in a notion that crossed her mind one day: "that perhaps the race itself is now physically middle-aged"—a kind of extension of the Darwinian hypothesis….

We are left, having read the two books in tandem, with a paradoxical conclusion: that there is too much of her in her autobiographical work, too little of her in her novel.

William Abrahams, "Out of Sight," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, October 14, 1972; used with permission), October 14, 1972, pp. 75-6.