Hortense Calisher Calisher, Hortense (Vol. 8) - Essay

Calisher, Hortense (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Calisher, Hortense 1911–

American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, Calisher has a refined Proustian insight into the psyche of her characters and a keen sense of language. These are best displayed in her chronicles False Entry and The New Yorkers. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The purest of entertainers, and novelistic in the old-fashioned sense, Miss Calisher is, in addition, among the most literate practitioners of modern American fiction, a stylist wholly committed to the exploitation of language. It is nothing short of wonderful to follow a Calisher sentence as it moves from low to middle to high flight, to watch it gather force and then stop just short of ripeness—as it can invariably be depended upon to do. The stories themselves [in The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher] are a remarkably varied lot, for Miss Calisher knows the pitch and flavor of a great many voices, both of the upper- and lower-middle-class sort. Caste and class is her subject, and one nowhere more compellingly grounded than in her sketches of childhood, in which the society of the classroom and the schoolyard is portrayed in all its biting and complex reality. Small ups and downs aside, virtually all of the 36 stories here have that consistent life, that strong sense of abundance, characteristic of a genuine literary power. In sum, a notable achievement. (pp. 17-18)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (© 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 18, 1975.

Hortense Calisher has her own way with the story form. Her stories make a somewhat slow, decorous and stately progress, in the direction she destines for them, stopped only to be enriched in texture by complex, decorative words and phrases. They move on, ending so that we are struck each time by the inevitableness of her steps, by the exact rightness of her coda.

Curiously enough, it is from our realization of their difference from "real life" that we derive our satisfaction. In life we are told the history of a man or a place to whose conclusion the teller has only rarely been a witness. We receive the story along the implacable, flat and incomplete lines of chronology—this happens and then that. Calisher's accomplishment is that she lifts the tale out of the commonplace, carrying it away from the harness of hard fact by her fine verbal textures. Seen through her eyes the real world is not prosaic. Placed in lyrical, poetic spaces, it is thick and rich with implication.

She has never been much for plot. What happens in her stories is what she has defined as "an apocalypse, served in a very small cup." Sudden awarenesses, epiphanies of character are her métier, which perhaps explains why, to my mind, her stories seem more impressive than her novels. Prophetic revelation does not extend well; the tea cup is the proper vessel for sudden, small visions into the spirit. In a blaze of light, as startling as Paul's Damascan vision, we see, not a string of events, but a tableau, frozen, static, inevitable—and instructive.

But if nothing happens in the traditional sense, there is another more solid kind of knowledge we acquire of the life and nature of her characters. She catches likeness with eerie accuracy ("calls up" might be more accurate: I have the image of a fakir, cross-legged, drawing upon his pipe, as characters slowly materialize out of smoke) and this may be the result of her choices. Almost a third of [her stories in "The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher"] are about her family…. She is best, I think, with them because she allows herself to wander among them, an awkward, undervalued, sensitive child among proud, attractive, transplanted, late Victorian Southerners, living out their well-to-do "comfortable" lives in New York. No resentment ever clouds these firm portraits…. She remembers their oddities and their essential differences with accepting love. These stories are literally the core of the book, having been moved here from other locations and order in other books. Now they form a chronological hub from which her perceptions on other subjects radiate so that, with very little further imaginative stretch, one can feel a novel forming.

But she is very good, too, with the people she knew and knows about in New York, the city people and those transplanted to the city—the chic and the lonely, the proud and the dispossessed…. (p. 3)

It is perhaps old-fashioned of her, in the light of modern explicitness, but Calisher can evoke with one word the completion of sexual satisfaction more successfully than lesser and more graphic writers achieve in several pages….

One looks about for writers of the short story to "place" her among. Language: one thinks of John Updike. Economical evocation of place: perhaps Graham Greene or, in some ways, the Joyce of "Dubliners." Subdued passion: once or twice, Flannery O'Connor. Even if we acknowledge her apprenticeship to Henry James (she would seem to belong among that happy few he marked off as those upon whom nothing is lost) she has her own quality. It is hard to relate her to others in the New York school, because her New York, after all, is an interior landscape, seen very individually.

What do her stories actually do? They take us into the private depths of lives about which we know almost nothing until the moment at which she chooses to begin her story. In "Point of Departure" we are not told the names of the two characters, or anything about how they look or their private histories, nothing except the important thing: their intersecting fates and the moment at which they meet. We enter her world willingly, because she has shown us life, or the ashes of it, in her very small cup. (p. 4)

Doris Grumbach, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1975.

[The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher] reminds us that Miss Calisher, the author of several novels and a recently published memoir, deals in commodities we rarely find any longer. She believes in firm structures and plots. Her stories are filled with the detail that establishes mood and place. Her prose is leisurely, cadenced, sparked with images from a poet's flint.

To be sure, not all of Miss Calisher's stories are equally successful. "In Greenwich There Are Many Gravelled Walks," the opener of the collection, is perhaps too carefully machined—its gears well-meshed, but exposed. "The Scream on 57th Street," however, is a multi-layered tale of psychic terror that Henry James would have envied; details deftly shift and join to form conflicting patterns.

The Elkin stories are among Miss Calisher's richest achievements. They are to New York what Joyce's Dubliners is to Dublin, the subtlest social observation wrapped in rue. In them, the city's old West Side comes to life once again, the rambling apartments with their twisting halls, high-ceilinged rooms, carved cupboards, and dark, overstuffed furniture; the servants, meek, tyrannical or harassed; the smells of the kitchens; the propriety and fuss of clothes, meals, routines, manners.

These autobiographical pieces about the Elkin family have much to say about families everywhere…. They tell of the wounds inevitably inflicted in the most loving households, wounds that ache and shape events for generations.

These stories also sound a theme that resonates through all Miss Calisher's work: the isolation we cannot avoid and cannot face….

It is obvious that for Miss Calisher the human drama is the main one going. Her stories, symmetrical, conclusive, polished to the glint, are classics of their kind. (p. 19)

Eugenie Bolger, "Endangered Species," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 19, 1976, pp. 18-19.

The title of one of Hortense Calisher's earlier collections, Extreme Magic, is an apt description of her legerdemain with the short story genre. The Collected Stories should regain readers for the author, readers who have found it difficult to keep the faith after experiencing her recent novels…. What The Collected Stories makes clear is that Hortense Calisher not only is best at writing short stories, she is one of the best. (pp. 317-18)

Of all the things to praise, plot is not one. Her story lines often are fragile, if not non-existent. This is because in her fiction incident is subordinate to insight. The landscape of her stories is more often than not a psychescape of the protagonist. It is impossible to overpraise the psychological acumen which the author brings to each story….

One must also praise the beauty of Ms. Calisher's language. Not since Elizabeth Bowen has such gorgeous prose been employed to spin a tale (and Bowen, like Calisher, seems to have studied the figures in Henry James's carpet)…. (p. 318)

Ultimately one must praise Ms. Calisher's range. She writes of the urban and the suburban, the adult and the adolescent, the male and the female, the historical past and the hysterical present. Her most persistent theme is failure—of love, of marriage, of communication, of identity. One of her singular abilities is to link or relate the individual defeats of her protagonists to the defeat of traditional social and moral values in the world at large, a world which has either progressed or regressed to the point of ignoring or defeating former standards of behavior or excellence. (pp. 318-19)

Robert Phillips, in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 7, 1976.