Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1328
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 140
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
In the Palace of the Movie King (novel) 1993
In the Slammer with Carol Smith (novel) 1997
The Novellas of Hortense Calisher (novellas) 1997
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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 finds another kind of closed community in which even the courthouse loafer has something of exclusive value—“the rested psyche of a man who from birth has had somebody handy to despise.” He learns here how to make a purposeful false entry into other lives, gathering in his memory bits and pieces of information that build up to a total picture of which he has no firsthand experience, but of which he may know more than those who do. The use he makes of his special knowledge of the life of the town, and particularly of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan there, is vengeful and has tragic results, the only time when he deliberately harms anyone but himself with his addiction. But the horror of his false testimony before a grand jury comes less from the KKK activities he describes than from his subordination of moral judgment on what has been done to his private need to say—See me. I can effect you. You will not reject me again.
All through his life, by using other people’s memories of the past he backs into the present because he fears it. In his relations with his mother and his step-father, with women, with men, at college, at war, at work in New York—always the rhythm is one step forward, one step back as he constructs from his collections of odd facts a glass wall between himself and the world. The crisis that brings him to a reexamination of his life is his fear-filled attempt to make a true entry into another life in the present.
Whether you see False Entry as just an intellectual’s In-and-Out book, or as a particularly American and personal version of existentialism, or as an answer to all of the novels of alienation and individual isolation that have dominated the mainstream of serious American fiction in recent years (and to my mind there are elements of all these present), the novel has fascinations that are often independent of the material. The style is involuted in a manner reminiscent of medieval decorative art. Arabesques of thought intertwine like Scandinavian woodcarvings and from their complexities emerge recognizable and fantastic shapes, presented with clarity and wit. And, in spite of as well as because of this density and decoration, there are moments of pathos and tenderness and there is drama of action and of the intellect. Although Miss Calisher’s fine talents as a short story writer are in evidence throughout, this is not a typical story writer’s first novel. Every part is so integrated with all the others that the whole is an original, rich, and unified design.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611
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, In the Absence of Angels and, more recently, Tale for the Mirror. Miss Calisher’s previous work has accustomed us to expect a delicacy of expression and a subtle treatment of the psychology involved in even commonplace events. In this respect, Textures of Life is no disappointment. In fact, it is a tribute to Miss Calisher’s real skill as a craftsman that she can turn a willful and unpleasant heroine, her wraithlike husband, and the dreary lofts they insist on living in, into interesting and occasionally compelling fiction.
The novel opens with the wedding reception of Elizabeth Jacobson, would-be sculptress, to David Pagani, photographer, and a young man of almost superhuman patience. Both are from middle-class families, both are half-Jewish, and both have widowed parents. In fact, the warmest and most moving section of the book has to do with the relationship between Elizabeth’s mother and David’s ailing Italian father. But the center of the novel is really Elizabeth and her obsessive need to rebel against the petit-bourgeois ways of her mother who loves domestic comfort and “nice things.” Everything and everyone, including her young husband, is ground under by Elizabeth’s single-minded intention, even after the mother has gone off to California, to avoid doing things “her way.” When a daughter is born to the young Paganis (the significance of the name should not be overlooked) Elizabeth is forced, after a series of domestic crises, to realize that she must suffer the same agonies over her child that her own mother suffered—and receive for her troubles a similar hostility.
Miss Calisher’s conclusion is not despairing but resigned and, from at least one man’s point of view, depressing. Women, she seems again and again to be telling us, are just that way. And so is life. A kind of biological determinism accounts for most of the things people spend years trying to understand. So Elizabeth and her mother are types, perhaps even archetypes, of mothers and daughters everywhere and always. But it is precisely against the universality of this suggestion that the mind rebels. Miss Calisher is good—sometimes superb—at New York and lofts and dialogues between pregnant women, but she falters when she generalizes. Elizabeth Pagani is not a modern Everywoman. She’s too pinched, too narrow even for this petty century. …
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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 always have to remove himself from everything, from the most important things, by putting them into quotes!” Wryly, she rubs this in, knowing as she looks back that this is her sin, too: that it won’t be long before she outdoes Ben in the same offense. A day of crisis brings her to decision. She can support her distaste no longer, and writes to him, breaking everything off, after which:
I went to the window and leaned on the sill. It was the holy time, a beautiful evening. A dusky wind was blowing, and the west was the color of a peach. … A few foghorns were sounding on the river, and I wondered idly whether I would ever be able to set down exactly the emotion that sound always called up in me—as I had tried and failed to do so many times before.
And after a while, as I leaned there, the words came, began to shimmer and hang in the air about me. … So I sat down at the desk again—what I wrote was published the next year. The world stretched all before me that evening, in profuse strains of unpremeditated—life. But I left the window, and began to write about it.
Writers all know this self-impatience, even self-disgust, this sense of estrangement from first-hand experience because we can’t help removing ourselves from things by putting them into quotes. Sometimes I wonder if other practitioners—painters or musicians—feel equivalent misgivings. Perhaps not: ours are intimately connected with words, and they don’t use those particular tools. Other writers have expressed the thought, though in very different form: Elizabeth Browning with “Yet half a beast is the great God Pan / To laugh, as he sate by the river, / Making a poet out of a man,” and Francis Thompson, “The poppy hangs in the wheat its head, / Heavy with dreams as that with bread.” But Hortense Calisher has evoked the old fear in fresh form and brought it home to us.
Ultimately, by the way, Miss Calisher herself succeeded in finding words for the emotion called up by foghorns on the river, in a story called “The Sound of Waiting.” (In the Absence of Angels, a collection.)
For such feats of evocation Hortense Calisher has sometimes been called a writer’s writer, an appellation that does not please her because it seems somehow limited, and that adjective certainly cannot be applied to her. It was her scope I noticed when I read her first published story, “The Box of Ginger” in the New Yorker in 1948. The style was unabashedly individual, the vocabulary was full; these were refreshing qualities at a time when most young writers, still in Hemingway’s thrall, were reining themselves in and holding themselves down, deliberately employing the most poverty-stricken language possible. Miss Calisher knew where she was going, but would not be hurried. To make her point she took the way that seemed best to her, no matter if it wasn’t a short cut. Impressed, I kept looking out for more of her work. A few years later I met her, when she came to England as the holder of a Guggenheim fellowship.
I may seem rather nervously eager to explain that I have met Miss Calisher. If so, it is because of an incident that occurred long ago in New York. I met Miss Amy Loveman of the Saturday Review, and asked her if she would permit me to review a certain book that was due to be published within the next few weeks. In England, I assure you, we often request the privilege of reviewing such books as we think might interest us because they treat of subjects within our fields of knowledge. Nobody in England, as far as I know, has ever suspected that such a request might mask depths of corruption, would-be logrolling and the like, but in America things are evidently different. This book, as I remember, was about Chinese villages: I was studying Chinese villages at the time. I swear to God I didn’t know the author. I swear I meant no harm. But Miss Loveman jumped as if stung, and glared at me.
“Oh dear no,” she said sharply. “We never let anyone review books they ask for.” And she hurried off as if to escape contagion.
Well, I resented it then and I still do, but the incident has left me rather jumpy, and I want to make it crystal clear that I admired Hortense Calisher’s work long before we met and became friends. Long before, Miss Loveman.
Miss Calisher, a tall, graceful woman with an individual type of beauty, much humor, and tremendous vitality, had told the committee—or whatever they are—who decide on the Guggenheim fellows that she wanted her grant so that she might go abroad for a year and think. This seemed a good reason to them, and they gave it to her. Away from household worries, she went back on her first resolve and began to write False Entry before she went home: there is a good deal about England in the novel. It is a long, tight book, remarkable for many reasons, not least that the narrator is a man. As far as I know no critic has complained that False Entry fails to convince on this particular point, but on other scores there were adverse comments by critics who—I think—didn’t like having to work at their reading. For False Entry is packed, and moves along so subtly that unless you pay close attention you lose the thread. It’s not the usual easy reading: and some people were puzzled by it. Others, however, were enthusiastically in favor.
The narrator, Pierre, is a man who has always been lonely. In a foreword he muses on his peculiar gift, an extremely retentive memory, and this passage gives the novel its title. “My own strange history of third-hand listening and remembering … has at least given me one bit of truth to hold for myself. … I know that there are certain people in the world … who either have never met me or do not even know that I exist, about whose lives I yet know enough, or so much, that I could claim entrance into their pasts with the most beautiful legalities of detail. … I am certain that every person, even the most commonplace, if he could but search and construe his memory, holds within his orbit of power at least one other person to whom he could do the same.” There are many people within the boy Pierre’s own orbit, including the Ku Klux Klansmen he trips up, months after they have committed an atrocity they had thought hidden, and the book gives a remarkable picture of the Southern town where these things are supposed to have happened.
J. N. Hartt in the Yale Review called False Entry a beautifully written novel. “Both in style and disclosure it is vivid and luminous, and its powerful moral argument is given an expression as dramatic as it is poetic.” The brilliant Brigid Brophy said, in London, “Hortense Calisher is an American of European sympathies, taut artistry and stupendous talent.” As for False Entry, “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.”
The author was seven years writing False Entry, which was published in 1962, and its slow development was due not only to its length but to the complications of life. She had to bring up two children; they are now adult. Even so, work is often interrupted by the necessity of earning: nowadays, she teaches, and at one point went to the Far East on one of those cultural errands sponsored by the State Department, lecturing as she moved about. Much of her consecutive work has been done at Yaddo. Moreover, her method is slow: she thinks everything out before putting it down, and does this so thoroughly that she scarcely ever finds it necessary to change what she has at last written. I find this hard to credit—I, who do my thinking as I write, and try out at least three versions of everything before I can be satisfied—but it is true. She could never have developed this technique if she hadn’t as retentive a memory as her creation Pierre.
“Oh yes, I remember everything,” she said when I asked about it. “I inherited that faculty from my father. My brother did, too. Total recall.”
As many of the stories indicate, she grew up in New York, spending her childhood in a large West Side apartment. Her father, a prosperous, kindly businessman, supported large numbers of relatives. The place was seldom free of his elderly sisters, cousins, and aunts, drinking coffee and eating cake while they shook their heads forebodingly over Mr. Calisher’s open-handedness.
“I went to the local public school,” said Miss Calisher. “PS 46, at 150th and Amsterdam. Parents object nowadays to their kids going more than five blocks to school, but we lived at 161st and Amsterdam, and I walked twelve blocks to school every day, and nobody thought anything of it. Moreover, it was what we would call today a desegregated district: a lot of Negroes lived in the neighborhood, but it wasn’t a talking point at all. Yet I was a very protected child. My mother wouldn’t let me play in the streets unless somebody was there to keep an eye on me.”
“You mean you didn’t grow up in the South?” I asked. She shook her head. “Then where did you get the material, the atmosphere, for that part of False Entry? I would have sworn—”
“Oh well, my father was a Southerner, and I was brought up on his stories. Like everyone on his side of the family he was a born storyteller, and I must have taken on a good deal of the color of it, the feeling, from the time I could understand words. We did visit his home town once. Then after I married, my husband had to go to Alabama and I went along, and stayed there a few weeks, right in the neighborhood I’ve described in the book. I remember that it didn’t seem strange even at the beginning: I felt as if I knew it.” She paused and reflected, smiling. “You know, it was perfectly natural that I should write. Most writers must come from anecdotal families like mine. There must be some little bug like me in all those groups, sitting there listening to everything at family dinners, tucking it away. That was me. My father and his relatives all had a great zest for storytelling, and of course I did, too. I wrote my first story when I was seven, in a notebook. One of the aunts sneered at it. … I’ve been angry with the critics ever since. They don’t know it, but they’re all my Aunt Mamie.” She gets angry, too, she confessed, at the blithe assumption made by many of those who edit book-review columns, that a female writer must automatically be reviewed by a female. “I’ve no objection, you understand, to woman reviewers themselves: it’s the attitude behind this custom that I resent. For a woman not to get a woman reviewer is a step up in the literary hierarchy.” After all, Aunt Mamie was a woman.
The gloomy prognostication of the aunts was justified when Mr. Calisher’s affairs fell on evil times. So did most other business affairs, of course—it was during one of the small depressions that preceded the large one of the ‘thirties—but to them, the family troubles were due solely to the crazy generosity of Hortense’s father. To earn enough money for college, Miss Calisher joined one of Macy’s training squads and held all kinds of jobs at that emporium, including the lofty position of section manager. Even after she started attending classes she worked at Macy’s as a Saturday salesman, but she hated it, and when a year was up she resigned.
“I told them nobody should work for a company unless he wanted to be president of it, and upon mature consideration I’d decided I didn’t want to be president of Macy’s. Then I rushed shrieking back to academe.” She had studied Latin for four years at Hunter College High School—hard work, but she feels now that it gave her a good grounding in English grammar. At Columbia Graduate School she took a master’s degree. Soon afterwards she married.
The big Depression hung over those early years. She and her husband and two children lived in a big, old-fashioned house in Nyack, near the river: on weekdays she commuted to Manhattan, at weekends tried to make up domestic arrears. She held various jobs, the longest lasting being that of feature-writer for a fashion magazine. It was a demanding schedule, but somehow she found the time and energy to write; her stories began appearing in the New Yorker in 1948, as I have said. The idea of False Entry was in her mind and she applied for the Guggenheim.
Miss Calisher’s second novel, Textures of Life, was greeted with general applause, a fact she considers with mixed feelings, since she knows she didn’t work half as hard on it as she had on the first book. However, the reason for the public’s preference is clear enough to other people: Textures treats of something immediately familiar to everyone, friction between generations. A boy and girl marry. The girl is in violent rebellion against her widowed mother in her snug little uptown flat. She herself, she is determined, will never be caught like the older woman in a mesh of things: she has tremendous scorn of property and security. Her young husband is of like mind, and resolves never to follow the usual ways of the world, getting and spending and so on, though his relations with his widowed father are not bad. Greenwich Village is too far uptown for these children. They find a loft in a nearly derelict building near the Battery, and move in there. But life brings responsibilities and involvements. Imperceptibly, they change. There is a child; the little girl develops a terrifying ailment. The young couple compromise, compromise further, until there comes a time when resentment against their elders has been burnt away. They are grown up. … I’m afraid that this outline makes the book sound like a soap-opera, but it isn’t one. Reading it, we feel that same delighted recognition that is one of Miss Calisher’s best effects, and are left with a tinge of regret for the light that failed.
Since finishing Textures, Miss Calisher has written several stories that are too long to be called short stories but are too short for novels: she calls them “novellas.” Of one of these, Extreme Magic, David Broff in the Saturday Review says “The rhythms of literary recognition are hard to fathom, but there seems little doubt that Hortense Calisher’s reputation is in the ascendancy.”
Recently she said, “I’m planning a new full-length novel about the reaction of people to the Two Cultures—you know what Sir Charles Snow has said about it, especially that bit about the second law of thermodynamics. But then, all my novels are about people and the Two Cultures.” She paused a moment, and added, “And so are everybody else’s.”
Ellen Cronan Rose (25 October 1975)
SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, in The New Republic, October 25, 1975, pp. 29-30.
[In the following review of The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, Rose commends Calisher's narrative skill, but finds fault in her linguistic indulgences and emphasis on style over substance.]
An oeuvre, as every critic knows, is the body of an author’s work and in the autobiographical Herself, Hortense Calisher says that “if a writer’s work has a shape to it—and most have a repetition like a heartbeat—the oeuvre will begin to construct him.” The 36 short stories of Hortense Calisher constitute an oeuvre and construct a portrait of the artist that her seven novels and four novellas neither modify nor significantly augment. In collecting them, Arbor House has given us an opportunity to see and assess that portrait.
It appears, in cameo form, in the most engaging of the stories, “Mrs. Fay Dines on Zebra,” originally published in Ladies Home Journal and first collected in Tale for the Mirror (1962). Ostensibly a fantasy, the story is a revealing self-portrait of the storyteller Hortense Calisher, here disguised as the diseuse Arietta Minot Fay. Mrs. Fay is the last of the Hudson River Minots, a family distinguished by its unique and now outmoded talent for entertaining. “No Minot had ever had a salary.” Instead they had attached themselves to various wealthy patrons as “jesters, fonctionnaires attending the private person only,” prized for their wit, intelligence, charm, that je ne sais quoi called style. The widowed Mrs. Fay, her bank account standing at a somber ＄126.35, needs to find a rich husband; the Minot in her requires him to be a patron as well, who will appreciate her talents.
Watching Arietta Fay identify and capture her patrons, we are watching Hortense Calisher at work. Like the Minots, Calisher is “not a knave, beyond a certain French clarity as to the main chance.” She has entertained her patrons superbly for 25 years, perhaps because—like the Minots—she has “attached herself to honorable patrons” who read The New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar and the best of the women’s magazines. Arietta Fay procures a patron and a subsistence by her uncanny tact as a storyteller. Calisher’s Collected Stories are a dazzling display of that tact at work.
The successful jester knows his patron, supplies his demand even before it is articulated. As Calisher says in Herself, “when you write under the likelihood that a magazine will take your work, you will not be able to prevent taking your tone from it.” Reading the Collected Stories, you can identify the wry sophistication and sardonic detachment of the New Yorker stories, the well-bred and tasteful sentimentality of those that flattered the readers of Mademoiselle and Charm. Always you are conscious of the general public, represented for me by the anonymous librarian who pasted on the flyleaf of Queenie her handwritten judgment that “Hortense Calisher always writes well.”
If Hortense-Arietta has an Achilles heel, it is just that. “Words!” she exclaims in “Little Did I Know,” another story with a diseuse heroine. “I was drunk on language. I collected words in all shapes and sizes, and hung them like bangles in my mind.” In Herself she admits that this may lead “to a rhetoric which, loving its own rhythms, may stray too far from sense,” as it does when, in “The Rabbi’s Daughter,” a baby gazes at us “with the intent, agate eyes of satisfaction.” What is agate about satisfaction? What is satisfying about agate?
This rhetoric endangers the bulk of Calisher’s fiction, the stories and novels representing “those flights from the subscribed-to-ordinary” that Calisher says are for her “the heights of literature.” There remains a small and precious residue. Even Arietta Fay must have had some private moments, when she wasn’t spinning tales for her patron.
“Imagination, which speaks in dithyramb, can never equal the rough, fell syllable of memory,” says the narrator of False Entry. Calisher’s tongue is restrained by the stringencies of memory in her autobiographical fictions, the Hester-Kinny Elkin stories that replicate her family, and the two novels, False Entry and The New Yorkers, that imaginatively build on that foundation. In the Elkin stories, that Calisher wisely put at the center of this collection “where they may radiate” (and do), verbal felicities are at the service of memory. Adjectives do not pirouette, but evoke the smells and tastes and atmospheres of childhood. In the best of these stories—“The Gulf Between,” “The Sound of Waiting,” “The Middle Drawer”—personal memory is transformed into universal truth as the child becomes “us” and the parents “them” in an eternal drama of growth and mutability.
Comparing the Elkin stories to the tales told by Arietta, one wonders why Calisher deserted the syllables of memory for the dithyrambs of the entertainer. Like Mrs. Fay, she performs superbly, knowing “every periphrasis” of her stories, “every calculated inflection and aside,” every knack of pleasing. But even Arietta Fay knows that “in this taxable world,” patrons are hard to come by and that the decline of the private patron signals the decline of “his factotum.” Can a world which rations its fuel and chastens its cuisine afford a retainer who dines on her charm? Calisher’s oeuvre, represented by the Collected Stories, constructs a portrait as exquisite as the full-length portrait in ivory of Arietta’s forebear, Yves Minot—and just as out of date.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
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 thoroughness of tone—the leisurely, patient voice of a narrator who is willing to spend infinite time giving us an almost tangible picture to hold in our minds. An offended hostess’ face “retained its smile with only a slight shift, as if she had quickly substituted a spare.” A middle-aged woman mourns “the mapped crease, fine leather too long folded, that forms between the breasts.” A cabinetmaker comes to oil the gargoyle-covered, lion-footed furniture, untroubled by “any fantasy that he might do as well by placing his supplies in the center of the arena and quickly taking his leave.”
It’s tempting to ascribe this leisureliness to the particular sense of time that Calisher must have inherited from her father’s side of the family. In the semi-autobiographical “Hester stories”—here grouped together in a section of their own—she shows the contrast between an elderly, southern gentleman’s easygoing pace and his younger, brisker wife’s. While the husband makes his way graciously through the day, stopping for extended conversations with every chance passer-by from the bootlegger to the elevator boy, the wife dashes about the house in a frenzy of schedules and appointments. Yet the husband has never in his life missed a train. “While his long view of life is so deliberate,” his daughter says, “he is not at all dilatory about its detail … my father’s naive trust in [Time] works for him as pragmatically as some people’s trust in God.”
Clearly, it’s working as well for Hortense Calisher. For her method is to entrench her characters in details of time and place as painstakingly as if she were setting out to write a trilogy; nothing will rush her. Each of her people lives in a sort of mosaic background that defines him wholly. The doddering old company retainer has covered his walls with the laces, china souvenirs, and perfume vials manufactured by the various employers in his life. The aging belle has built herself a ’20s-style nightclub deep in the woods, complete with red leather lounges and a chandelier that flashes bubbles of light across the dancers. And the dour, ambitious immigrant family, intent upon acquiring a restaurant of their own, lives in an apartment choked with the bundt pans and graduated copper molds that they exchange instead of personal gifts at birthdays and Christmases.
Embedded in these backgrounds, the characters possess a depth and texture that few other writers can put across. The details are so precise and the voice so perceptive and intelligent, that we’re willing to flow with the story; we begin to trust that Hortense Calisher knows exactly where she’s leading us. And she does. She draws to the end of her gracious tale, pauses, and then stabs. We never guessed that she would do us in so thoroughly.
Some of the stories are simply funny, but even they have a way of lingering; it turns out that they may not be so simple after all. There’s “The Rehabilitation of Ginevra Leake,” in which a southern spinster transplanted to New York finds in the Communist Party a substitute for the tea-party circuits of down home. Or “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” in which a dutiful daughter manages to draw upon two childhood conventions (never let a guest feel he’s committed a faux pas; always wear decent-looking underwear) in making the very unconventional decision to take off her blouse in public.
Most of these stories, however, end with a small, true pang—a sort of ache of recognition that comes about without contrivance. Watch, for instance, the daughter in “The Middle Drawer” delicately tracing her mother’s mastectomy scar, and reflecting on the deeper scars that mothers leave on their daughters. “The living carry, she thought, perhaps not one tangible wound but the burden of the innumerable small cicatrices imposed on us by our beginnings; we carry them with us always, and from these, from this agony, we are not absolved.”
In her introduction, Hortense Calisher says that “a story is an apocalypse, served in a very small cup.” Certainly her stories are, and each of them manages to alter, in some indefinable way, our perceptions of the world around us.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 845
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. He is a hero to youth, concerned about the future of mankind and has published for many years a magazine called The Sheet. He is also fuzzy-minded and given to rhetoric sometimes resonant but often flaccid. I find him the least successfully executed of the central characters, a better idea for a character than a realized full presence. Ironically for a populist, he is traveling with a select and elite company.
Veronica Oliphant, whose childhood was divided between New York and Barbados, is a writer for The Sheet. Black, beautiful and keenly intelligent, her ambitions have led her into the white world and into celebrity, but never into settling for anything. Her first serious affair was with Jacques Cohen-Lievering, her professor in college, a German-born and English-raised Jew. He is the most able in space, adept at adjusting to light or no gravity (gravity is an important metaphor in the novel). Veronica married Lievering in Cuba when she was very young. Immediately after the wedding, she fled, sensing he would persuade her she could not write. Veronica and her publisher Tom Gilpin are close friends but Tom has no sex life at all, whereas Veronica likes one-night stands.
One of these, an international businessman involved in the space program, is Mulenberg, the ordnance coordinator. He has pulled strings to arrange the companions he wants, primarily Veronica, with whose memory he is obsessed. He is a man for whom sexuality is central, who is energized and empowered, by his relationships and adventures with women.
Mulenberg was active in business in the Middle East, where he met the civilian administrator Wert, a former State Department man who has been assimilated by his sympathy for Iranians to the point that he married into a rich refugee family—not once but twice, both of his wives being named Soraya and both having been imprisoned together under the Ayatollah and both as close to each other as they are to him. Only one wife is along, however, and she is pregnant. Soraya’s is the only consciousness among the principal characters that we never enter, and I regretted that omission.
Wert’s is the longest tale, and while it is the most sensuous and richly presented segment of the novel, I have to judge that Calisher was seduced by the density of her own materials into overelaboration.
Another character, Mole, has taken the place of a friend because of his admiration for Tom Gilpin and because of his mistrust of his father, the admiral in charge of the project. Mole doubts the integrity of his father and suspects the flight may be programmed for failure. Lievering becomes his mentor on the space ship. Mole as a character is somewhat emblematical, but he has his quiddity, his flesh and his quirks.
This novel embodies a modern conceit, the novel of paranoia in which the worst imaginings invariably turn out to be less than adequate to the situation. All the travelers are rootless, mixed, refugee, emigrant. Mole is the youngest and the most mistrustful, but he is also Isaac, in thrall to Abraham’s drama, the pawn who can be sacrificed. Mysteries of Motion spins with its metaphors, glinting, winking. The ending is a masterpiece of ambiguity, although again Gilpin’s consciousness enshrouds us.
The interactions are subtle and engrossing. The physical sensations and deprivations of the space travelers are persuasively imagined, as are the increasing strains upon them as disasters press in. The relations between the civilian and the military, between science and government, between governmental power and the citizen, and the nature of our future are woven into the narrative. Calisher has taken an old form and revitalized it with good characters, high-tech gloss and disturbing contemporary themes.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838
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 recovered sufficiently, Tot marries her, and they share this peripatetic and uncertain life.
Calisher is completely at ease with the run-down elegance of the Saratoga season; as familiar with the foibles of the horse owners as with the assorted gamblers, gangsters and sycophants who go with the territory. Simultaneously a love story, an acutely observed satire and a nostalgic commentary on the era when racing was the sport of kings, off-limits for the rabble, “Saratoga, Hot,” seems closest to the author’s stated purpose of creating “an apocalypse in a very small cup.”
“Gargantua” is set in the hospital where the young writer’s mother is desperately ill. For the first time in her life, the narrator is completely on her own. At the time the story takes place, the treatment for her mother’s anemia is cooked liver, and with all the food in the world to choose from and only her own taste to consider, the daughter finds herself preparing liver for herself, as if the inexorable progress of her mother’s disease could be halted by her participation in the cure. There’s a circus in town, and the unearthly shrieks of the gorilla, Gargantua, float up through the hospital window, lending a surreal dimension to the scene, turning the adolescent back into a child while the mother briefly becomes a parent instead of a patient. “Gahd,” the daughter says, “Gah-hd” … an outgrown high school expression. “Must you?” the mother asks—“looking at me in the only way she ever seemed to, at two spots just above my temples, where all this future of mine could apparently be seen, already horning on the head—‘the word is God.’” Although the respite is short, a point has been made. Years later, as the writer herself is recovering from surgery, her memories of that interlude sustain her. Her mother’s illness has educated her, provided her with the support and resilience she needs to regain her strength: “My mother and I have been here together all this time. … We are Gargantua.”
“The Passenger” takes place on the Chicago-to-New York train, a long enough ride for character development, drama and resolution, as well as the social commentary essential to these stories. The writer is returning home after a television interview, although from the courteous service and well-maintained amenities on the train, we seem to be in an earlier period in the history of transportation. The club car is lively and crowded, offering far more scope for fiction than an airplane. For the sort of “small novel” Calisher has in mind, air travel is useless. She has embarked on this trip not only because trains are relatively dependable even in bad weather but because “of what happened to me on one, 15 years ago. Do I desire merely a replay of that wildly extraterritorial moment? Or do I also hope, against hope, to lay down, while still alive, the burden it left me with?” Although the replay doesn’t happen and is never described, the reader’s curiosity is not only aroused but satisfied by the events and encounters that do.
“Sound Track” and “Real Impudence” are attempts to explore new territory—the shallow and often sleazy netherworlds of rock music and pop success. These stories show signs of strain, as if the writer were struggling to overcome her distaste for her themes. The tone seems uncharacteristically judgmental; the dialogue invented rather than overheard; the targets disintegrating under Calisher’s close scrutiny.
In the end, the terminology doesn’t matter. The treatments seem the right length for the subject; neither stretched short stories nor abbreviated novels but forms particularly and meticulously tailored to suit each occasion.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3150
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?
[Calisher:] My first stories, which appeared in the New Yorker and later became known as the Hester stories, are very much what writers traditionally begin with: they were stories about my family. Even under my hand, however, the material began to change. Since I was a young writer, I didn’t realize what was happening. Still, strange things were happening in the stories that I found I couldn’t abide by. Even though I tried very hard to get down on paper exactly what the experience meant to me, it became evident that that actual experience was fading out, to be replaced by my rendition of it. I wrote about eight of those stories and then a story called “In Greenwich There Are Many Graveled Walks,” which I showed to a friend, Julian Muller, who had helped me get published. He had seen all my early stories before they found their way into print. When I showed him this one, he asked whether these were people I literally knew. I answered that I knew people like them, or that these characters had attributes of people I knew. He said, “Congratulations, you’ve written your second novel.”
[Fitz Gerald:] Characterization is a composite of attributes of people you know?
Yes, as I think it is for many writers. There are romans à clef like Point Counter Point. I assume Aldous Huxley tried very hard to represent very accurately the personalities of many famous English people he knew—D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Middleton Murry, Augustus John. Even if writers are not working so self-consciously, they unconsciously draw upon all of their experiences and people they knew in the mysterious way in which writing is born. The actress Irene Worth was telling me the other day how she collects the gestures of people she observes in a kind of storehouse of gesture for her art. Novelists probably don’t operate quite that self-consciously; however, you will notice in Henry James’s notebooks that he records incidents or stories that he might use in his fiction. I’ve tried that, but it never works. Such notebooks are interesting to look back to, but they are not a treasure house.
[Marchant:] When I first met you, I was your graduate student at Iowa. You had that marvelous course in the novel, early on in your own career. Later, you went from writing short stories to writing novels. Would you discuss that development in your career?
Actually, at that time I was working on my first novel, False Entry, which took me about seven years to write. It was published about ten years after my first book of short stories. When that book of short stories appeared, I gave a long interview to Harvey Breit of the New York Times. He asked the question posed to all writers of short stories: “When are you going to write your novel?” I had thought it a publisher’s question, since publishers have always felt that novels make more money, that they make a career as short stories do not. I told Harvey that if a writer can say everything that needs to be said in seven thousand words, why use seventeen thousand or seventy thousand?
A work ends formally for me as a writer when I can feel inside a sense of resolution; I cannot prolong it. At that time I had no idea I was going to write a novel, and I was sure that I wasn’t going to write one just because someone thought I should. In time the novel came: this thing began to gather in me, just as stories had. For years I carried with me a sheet of yellow paper on which I had written notes for it, but I had done the same thing for short stories. I would have a whole page of key phrases that would be embodied in the short stories, key phrases that meant something only to me. Actually, the notes for some of the short stories were longer than for that first novel.
Often the best stories, or even novels, come with their endings in mind before I begin to write them—not the end scene so much as the end sentence or the end language. I had that end import for False Entry for years before I actually wrote it. That novel took me a long time in part because I had young children and I had to learn how to be a full-time writer. Also I was approaching, with some trepidation, this lengthy work, and I discovered that it takes time, it takes reverie. I had never taken as long with a book. My later novel, Mysteries of Motion, also took a long time.
[Fitz Gerald:] Once you mastered the novel form, did you find it difficult to return to the short story?
Yes, I remember being told that by the editor of the New Yorker, William Maxwell, who had seen it to be true among many writers with whom he had worked. I have done it, but I do find that my short stories are longer after having written novels. I recall my former agent Bernice Baumgarten telling me, just before taking me to lunch with the eminent editor of the New Yorker, Katherine White, who was to be my editor but was ill at the time, “Katherine always feels so awful when a short-story writer turns into a novelist.” I will not tell you what I replied!
[Marchant:] I wish you would!
It was obs … not for everyone’s ears, because I thought it rather a nerve of her to say.
[Fitz Gerald:] I have always been impressed with your short stories, for a certain magic they have. I am impressed in particular by characterization and style. For example, I recall the character in “The Hollow Boy.” Is there any background for that story that you are willing to share with us? Who was that boy?
It is an entirely imaginary character.
[Fitz Gerald:] It is a very fully realized imaginary character then.
He is an immigrant boy, and his parents are working very hard to open a restaurant. They are very stingy German types of a certain class that I did know. The setting is New York, and he is beginning to open out to his world. Everything that his parents buy for his birthday is really for the restaurant, however. He has a friend whose family is somewhat like the family of a high school friend of mine—excitable, Socialist-Labor Party types. Her father was an amateur violinist who worked in the garment industry; the women in the family were all excitable Russians who talked about art all the time. They were very warm—not that mine weren’t—and I loved them all. The friend may have been partly me.
[Fitz Gerald:] It’s interesting that you should mention that, since I thought your making the narrator an adolescent boy was an accomplishment.
And yet male writers create female characters all the time. As I have said in the preface to my collected short stories, I see no reason why we women should not make Bovarys of boys and men.
[Marchant:] I get the strong impression from what you say and write that you are not entirely sure at the beginning of the story what its form or direction will be, that there has to be an element of organic development which comes from within. Is that correct?
I may not be entirely sure of the direction, but I have a strong sense of the story’s organic import—it’s a theme, something like a round, beautiful globe that I hope to bring into being. At the same time, I may not be sure of the line-by-line narrative development—that comes at the point of the pen.
[Fitz Gerald:] Speaking of the point of the pen, I might add that I am impressed by the subtlety and flexibility of your style. Do you work very hard at style?
No!! Indeed, some reviewers have seen my style as a limitation, especially those who feel that style ought to be absolutely colorless, like the agar in which micro-organisms are suspended. Somerset Maugham was supposed to be the embodiment of that personless style. If critics value that personless style, they will criticize writers for having a “lapidary” style, to use a term once applied to my writing. I, too, believe that style ought not to be decorative.
[Fitz Gerald:] But one could see another meaning of the term lapidary: a person who examines a gem through a magnifying glass in such a way that the gem’s strong points and beauties are emphasized.
This is an old literary argument that is never going to be resolved. Fashions come and go.
[Marchant:] I read the passages on critics in Herself with great sympathy. I wanted to say, “Right on!” I agree that there is much bad criticism. What do you see as the value of good criticism?
Good critics bring us to literature. Bad criticism results from the critic’s ego getting between the work and the reader. There is always the critic who wants to make a name by using a book or author to create his own work of art. When a critic feels that he is an artist—and very few are—he is less concerned with interpreting the writer than with self-aggrandizement. On the other hand, if the critic comes to literature as Edmund Wilson did, he is passionate to bring people to the things he loves.
[Fitz Gerald:] Has any criticism affected your creative work?
Very little, I should say—except to make me angry. I want to answer critics, and sometimes I do. However, generally I avoid criticism myself, in the intervals between books. Writers learn quickly, if they are steady writers, that this engine they have inside themselves wants to keep going. The satisfaction of having successfully finished a book lasts about two weeks, and then I want to be writing again. I enjoy criticism at that point because I want to discover what I think about a work, and I do that best at point of pen.
[Marchant:] You mentioned a critic who had misunderstood your book The New Yorkers and had damaged it seriously in his review.
He was on the staff of the New Yorker and had himself just published a book. Often newly published writers are asked to review books. He was an odd choice, however, since he had just published a collection of business portraits, one of which was of the Piggly-Wiggly grocery stores. In any case, he was asked to review a novel of mine, The New Yorkers, (a companionpiece to False Entry, the two of them being a long chronicle of American life). He literally wrote that he didn’t understand my book, so everybody thought it must be my fault. Nobody thought it might be his! Afterward he wrote me the most curious letter of apology. I wished he had published it, but no one else saw it. I don’t know that the review killed the novel, but it was the main review in the New York Times. Reviews can make or break a book. What else can I say?
[Fitz Gerald:] Do such reviews adversely affect your writing?
For a while, but the only cure is to go on writing, to have something else to move on to. In fairness, I should add that I do not remember the good reviews, either. I changed publishers once, and I had to exhume from my archives what the new publisher wanted as a backlog of cuttings. Although I never systematically keep them—I am forever tossing cuttings into drawers here and there—I did have quite a few. I was quite surprised by the nice things people had said about my work, but such things do not penetrate a writer’s consciousness. If they did, perhaps many of us would stop writing.
[Marchant:] Have you ever been interested in writing science fiction?
I have written fiction about space, but I am determined that it not be considered science fiction. We must be aware that an enormous amount of our future lives will be involved in space—space shuttles, space labs, and so forth are going to be part of our everyday world. There are space museums all over the country, and yet most adults walk around in them as though they were in fantasyland.
We are dealing with the next stage in the development of transportation. I’m interested in transportation as part of America’s myth. I don’t write with that interest in mind, but I have written two novellas—The Railway Police and The Last Trolley Ride—and in the latter there is a kind of folklore passage about transportation and what it means to America, and to all of us on this planet. Scientists, I’m sure, would agree that space now offers new challenges in transportation.
I’m interested too in the moral implications, as there always are whenever we begin to do something of this magnitude; that is, moving out into space: what are the far-reaching effects on humans of this movement into space? For, of course, I am a humanist; I believe that the impulse of literature is humanistic. My husband says that I’m going to have a hard time convincing people that some of my later writing isn’t science fiction, but I’m going to try. I wrote a book called Journal from Ellipsia, which was classified as science fiction. People thought I knew a great deal about science, but I didn’t. I was fascinated by the vocabulary of astrophysics.
[Fitz Gerald:] Your husband, Curtis Harnack, is also a novelist. What is it like for two novelists to be married to each other and to work together? Many would consider that an impossible situation.
It depends on which two novelists! We are very closely married. Both of us had been married to nonartists, and we find an extra closeness because we share the same kind of work. We are very different as novelists. We come from different parts of the country: I would be considered an urban novelist, while he comes from the great heartland—Iowa—and has written very affectingly about that part of the nation. When he began to write, those books were considered so-called farm novels and were very unfashionable. That’s all changed now, and the city is beginning to get it in the neck. It helps that we have different styles; but we like each other’s work. What really makes it possible for our lives is that we both go off into our own separate places where we are thinking about our work rather than each other. Some who are not writers might resent in their spouses that kind of immersion.
[Fitz Gerald:] So the usual fears of competition don’t apply at all?
No, we root for each other, and not artificially. Most people anticipate there would be plate-throwing; I can conceive of myself throwing a plate, but not over literature.
[Marchant:] What are your writing habits?
I’m a morning writer. I get up very early, and I don’t want to talk to God or man, or husband, and he feels the same. I work until I have to stop—no definite time. You learn your own habits. Having written as long as I have, I know that toward the end of a book I can write longer into the day. Everything begins to fuse and come to its natural resolution; once you have laid down the paths, what was tentative at the beginning has direction. As I finish, I can write eight hours a day. I can work long days revising first drafts of my fiction, but those are exhausting days. I hate them!
[Fitz Gerald:] Do you consider yourself a feminist?
In Herself I tried to examine the situation of a writer who is a woman. I was speaking more to other writers than to women generally. I wrote about several oddities like the affect of a woman as opposed to a man’s: George Eliot’s curls were ridiculous, but Walt Whitman’s beard was sincere.
I’ve been a feminist since the beginning, in my way. There is a story I wrote called “The Rabbi’s Daughter,” which is reprinted occasionally in feminist collections. I’m not a doctrinaire feminist: I would never join any movement, I suppose, because I have to speak for myself. As one involved with the word, I have to make the words; I cannot allow any group to speak for me politically.
Generally, however, I believe that America is particularly backward in its treatment of its writers who are women. I feel much more comfortable in England and Europe because no one approaches me as a female writer or a woman writer abroad, but here I have to explain, as I am now explaining, that a writer who is a woman is just that, not necessarily a woman writer.
I was one of the first to use domestic life in my fiction because it was part of my experience. Men write out of their own experience, but the burden is still on the writer who is a woman to explain, even to justify, her material. Giving birth, which is rather important to life, was not considered so important to literature. It was just considered something women do. I never felt that the whole area of human expression was not open to me as a person, and I still don’t.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974
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 assume we must have missed. One character or action fragment follows another without apparent logic, and nothing is pursued long enough to hold our attention through the narrator’s shifts from one time frame and skein of relationships to the next.
The novel’s drive, then, has to come from the narrator herself—an actress, now 40, absorbed in piecing together what happened some 25 years earlier in a small New Jersey town when she, like the girl of the title, was a bobby-soxer. But Calisher has constituted her too thinly, and the book tends to stall.
The title character is peripheral. The author’s view appears to be that anyone who enters the life of a small town is so implicated in its events as to deserve the marquee. Still, the stars in the usual sense are, in addition to the narrator, a marvelous blind couple by the name of Evams and the androgynous Aunt Leo (a third bobby-soxer), who brings Calisher’s gifts into full play.
Born as her mother dies and raised by her sister Nessa (the narrator’s grandmother), Leo grows up sexually innocent, in a household where communal modesty is so much the rule that the children, or the girls at any rate, never see each other naked. When she is 17, her fiancé finds to his horror that she is anatomically male as well as female, and Leo discovers that the body she had taken for granted and thought she shared with her sisters is in fact quite peculiarly hers—or “his.”
She retreats to her room “to forge the character such a creature might best have. … And the character would be noble. Leo did not leave them to despair. Little notes came, assuring them of health, grateful for supplies, mentioning their quality. Trays, if not eaten bare, were never sent back without something gone. Far as they could tell the closed room remained as clean and sweet as the bathroom did. A note came—‘if you hear pacing, it’s just exercise.’ No pleas for something special or extra, as from the invalid or the wounded, ever came. Instead, they began to feel that they were helping. …”
The third week Leo issues a note to her nephew asking for books—Montesquieu, Pascal, “and a man named Gide who might still be alive. Books telling you straight out what to think—or diarists deciding. He was instructed to ask the librarians as well, for other books on conduct.”
The seventh week she emerges to say she must leave the farm. The family moves, and Leo sees a doctor in Boston. But his diagnosis does not resolve the ambiguity she embodies—and will ponder for the rest of her life.
So will the narrator: because she is to “be” Leo in a play about the town written by the title character’s husband (and her own mother’s lover); because in her grandmother’s eyes she is Leo’s “living image”; because she herself comes to see Leo’s puzzle—“Am I male or female?”—as tantamount to the mystery of sex itself, of conjunction and individuality, difference-in-sameness, sameness-in-difference. At the end of the novel we learn that the two-line inscription on Leo’s tombstone reads I LIVE YOUR LIFE / DO YOU LIVE MINE. “Perhaps,” the narrator reflects, “it was a stonecutter’s mistake. An omission. Or an inversion. … But it says what it says.”
Calisher makes her themes explicit in the closing paragraph, where they achieve a kind of mystical transfiguration: “Across the way, the porch that once was ours is dark, though the birds return. I am standing at the double knot of my own legend, as we all are, in every part of every nation, and most of all in the nation of the dead. All lives are legendary. I haven’t yet gathered in all the threads of my own, nor will ever. Others will do that for me. This is the cued house where I learned that the hours flow under the hand like holy braille. That we are all one flesh—and that the flesh has eyes until the end. …”
It takes two readings, however, to see that the novel earns these lovely lines. Unfortunately, I suspect many readers will not make it through the first. We are in a familiar tonal world of plot and character; but the writing lacks that sure sense of key that allows one to keep the beginning in mind, to sense where one is going, yet be surprised.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7493
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 extends from an understanding of dynastic nineteenth century mores to ventures in outer space and back. Her Journal from Ellypsia foretold by twenty years the 1970s’ preoccupation with issues of gender. Though Calisher resists the term “feminist,” her sense of direction and personal certainty might seem to suggest otherwise. Among her works are The New Yorkers, The Railway Police, The Last Trolley Ride, and Textures of Life. Calisher has lived in Rome and London and is an American writer with international concerns. She has done quiet, considerable work on behalf of censored Eastern Bloc writers and poets. Her life as citizen has been notable—involving stints as President of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and of PEN, the international writers’ organization.
In person, Calisher seems always ready to enjoy herself. Her memory is that of a tale-teller. She made of this interview a casual, almost party-like occasion. A raconteuse of considerable presence, she is a tall woman whose motions still recall her days as a Barnard dance student. The interview took place in her 57th Street apartment shared with her husband, the writer, Curtis Harnack. Their front room has twenty-foot ceilings, parquet floors, Persian tribal rugs, and is lined with books. Over the 1840 pianoforte (still in relative tune) hangs a large inherited needlepoint Biblical scene, “Moses Found Among The Rushes,” a work mentioned at least once in Calisher’s fiction. There are chaises, chinoiserie, family photos, Victorian artifacts, Liberty prints, Japanese woodcuts, anatomy texts. Tiles bordering a brassbound fireplace display enameled raspberries, wildflowers, birds. The apartment—like Calisher’s fertile conversational style, like her own dense yet lucent prose—suggests a point of view: diverse, adorned, amused, and inclusive.
[Interviewer:] After you published your autobiographical memoir, Herself, in 1972, you were quoted as saying that from then on you might have no more conversation or stories, since all had been said. Has that proved true?
[Calisher:] Not quite.
It’s not a conventional autobiography.
It was to have been called The Autobiography of a Writer. That was its stance. It would never have occurred to me to approach it as an account of myself.
Because what I have written—and how I came to write it—is most powerfully what I am.
What was its genesis?
I’d been asked to collect my essays, criticism and so forth. Their number surprised me, since I’d thought of myself as a fiction writer only. Perhaps because of that, their subjects were also very disparate. I found myself writing connective paragraphs to explain how I came to write them. Those became the book, essentially.
And the title?
Changed to suit. I thought of it as a kind of reverse use of the Irish colloquial “himself” for “he.” Though Irish I am not. Herself is comfortably oblique. “I” and “me” can become oppressive. As a novelist learns.
How do you mean?
To write in the first person seems the easiest. As all young journal-writers assume. Actually it may be hardest—there are so many hazards. Garrulity. Lack of shape, or proportion. Or even of judgment. On the other hand, when you’re really riding that horse well, it can feel as if you’re on Bucephalus. And you really feel the wind on you.
You were thirty-seven when you first published—in The New Yorker. Did that seem late?
Well, there were prodigies around. There always are. I may have been one temperamentally. At Barnard, where I did write, I was said to be. But later, out in what I knew damn well was the real world—of literature and everything else—my agony was how to begin.
How do you?
What had held you back?
Fear. I’d been brought up to revere the idea of books as a necessary part of any worthy life. Good books—but any was better than none. With my father, who as a post-Civil War casualty hadn’t had the same educational chances as some of his forebears but had wanted to be a poet, the impulse was particularly strong. He went to books for ethics as he went to the pharmacy for medicine. And the rest of his family, though less interested, paid books respect. Meanwhile, though there’d been philosophers and rabbis in the grandparent generation, they themselves were all in trade or manufacturers. I think such middle-class backgrounds, where the bourgeois only sniffs at art or intellect, often produce artists. A child born to them smells the difference—as I did. And if you were rebellious enough not to want to go into trade—well, it’s only money.
Then what was there to fear?
When you have Shakespeare, Dickens, Ecclesiastes on the shelf, and in your head, where do you start? We owned some trash, but not enough. Or it didn’t take. And in college, where the gods rained down glories in every class, it was even worse.
You wanted to compete with the best, is that it?
I don’t think artists can compete—except as to money and prizes, and, of course, status. Which may be temporary. But not on the page. Or the canvas or the stone. Or the musical score. All you can hope to be is worthy of the company you respect. But at seventeen, when you’re reading the Russians, that’s a tall order. What I did sense was that there were all those riches of expression out there, and I had a chance of joining up. But I felt my lacks too keenly to start in. Yet one can change one’s mind about why that was—and I have. I used to think I lacked confidence. Now I think I knew I had nothing much yet to write about. Or not perspective enough on what was there.
I couldn’t write those first stories about them until they were all dead. That’s when I began.
It was an unusual family.
Well, I’d paraphrase Tolstoy: all families are. All people too, probably; all places. That’s in part what sends me to writing stories—to balance out the usual and the unusual in the life I see. And I think many writers begin to remember while very young.
You say your father’s education suffered from the Civil War. Surely not our Civil War?
Yes. He was born during the siege of Richmond, and married late, a much younger woman. So did his British emigré father, who is on record as an elder of the synagogue there in 1832 yet who didn’t marry my grandmother until 1854. When I was growing up I had a seventy-year-old father, a ninetyish grandmother and a late-thirtiesish mother, with relatives interspersed all down the decades.
How would that affect your work?
I had an inordinately stretched sense of time. With my first published story, I had to convince The New Yorker editors that the child in it could have had—and probably had had—a grandfather born in the eighteenth century. In a later novel, The New Yorkers, I could write of the Judge’s father in the bel époque as if I’d lived with people of that decade—for I had. As a child at the table, I’d heard first-hand how men had hired substitutes to serve for them in that Civil War. Or going forward into 1920s New York, of how old Depew, the famous after-dinner speaker, had charmed his audience. Old Chauncey in The New Yorkers comes of such anecdotes.
You really felt you had been there in those eras?
Exactly. And in the end it would give me a strange sense of … call it autonomy. Nothing to do with historical novels per se—a genre I have no feeling for, by the way. It has to do rather with a range of historical reflection longer than most people are heir to. Maybe I began to see that underneath all the period mannerisms people act much the same.
Then what is this strange sense you speak of?
As a writer, I began to feel I could venture anywhere, could write of any society by analogous experience.
Even outer space, as you have done.
As long as there are people there, yes.
What about the ethnic strains in that childhood of yours? Weren’t they pretty mixed?
I felt rather as if those had fused in me.
What were they?
We were Southern Jews, on my father’s side. What bolluxed me—a word from their side—was that we were equally both, Southern and Jewish. I knew early that most other Jews felt we couldn’t be. Yet I knew we were. Meanwhile, I was also my family’s first Northern-born sprig. So in addition I was both from the North and the South. Later I would write a lot from that stance—in my first novel, False Entry, and in a story called “May-ry,” which I used to declaim with especial gusto when reading in the unreconstructed South. But I never quite resolved being Northern in school and on a New York street, and Southern at home. As well as so German there, domestically. For my mother, and all her family, were that.
Yes, and German all through as well. As I saw when all the Hitler refugees my father brought over were added to us. So yet another compass-point was added.
What did you feel you were most?
Jewish. And, of course, American.
Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?
Not exclusively. How could I? My experience wasn’t exclusively that. But a writer who is Jewish I certainly am. When I came to write of Jews, that non-exclusive outlook would sometimes get me into trouble with the dogmatists. Or with those who feel—though they don’t always realize it or admit it—that to be that American or by background that long in America is to be “assimilated” beyond repair.
Then where does that leave you as a writer? Doesn’t it bewilder you?
No, it enriched me. To have all those strands to examine. As a person I might have become bewildered. But the writing solves that. One doesn’t have a solution to such matters; one has an ongoing process. As for complication—or complexity—it excites me. And mixture is at the bottom of almost every human situation. One doesn’t write a “pure” novel—that is, a novel purely about one thing. One writes a novel in part because things are never one thing that purely.
Weren’t all the languages in the household confusing?
There weren’t that many. A little household German, soon discouraged, because we were in the aftermath of World War I. We knew no Yiddish, except New Yorkisms like “goy” and “schlemiel.” Later that would get me in trouble with Jews who thought I was hiding out. What we had was accents. I’ve just now written an account of the family, and of a favorite cousin of mine, Kissing Cousins, in which I tell how I had a constant tape-recorder running in my head in those days. Half the family spoke like Virginians, as I did until I went to school. My father read Hebrew to us on the holy days in a Southern drawl. Yet we had Carolina visitors I couldn’t understand at all at first; years later, when I heard records of Gullah dialect I saw why. We had other family with British accents. The German side, in Yorkville since the 1890s, had thicker or thinner intonations according to their ages. Outside, there was New Yorkese—and against that my mother was adamant. She had schooled herself to speak neutral upper-class American. Which she did perfectly. And she had a horror of ugly, nasal voices. So I had to use the broad a—as in “Cahn’t.” So I did learn about voices. In fact, I had a lot of what at school was called “Speech” at home. Too much, I thought at the time.
And was it?
Not for a writer. Oh, I became a parrot for awhile. But I learned to listen. And language in the end enthralled me—the English language above all.
Yes. In Herselfyou pay some moving tributes to that. What does “bollux” mean, by the way?
As we used it, it meant “confounded,” or flummoxed—which we used also—which means nonplussed. But for “bollux” as I heard the word, no dictionary I have has anything nearer than “ballocks,” old English for “balls,” rather in the way we use it now. For years I thought our folksy or witty locutions were Southern. Actually a lot were early nineteenth century British—and fun. But now let’s leave my childhood. I get restive there.
You graduated when you were seventeen, and shortly left the household to work and live on your own. Yet you weren’t to publish for twenty years. How come? Still fear?
Not really. Circumstance. First off, I came out into the great world. Of the Depression, then. I’d already worked in department stores. That’s a very instructive milieu—of what I call “business dreams” and artificiality all mixed. But then I was plunged into the starvation world. The word “poverty” doesn’t say it hard enough. As a welfare visitor—Investigator, they called us—I saw homes, heard tales that still make me shiver. The whole seamy side of the happy U.S. It changed my life. As it would one day haunt what I wrote.
How do you trace that?
Well, the section in The New Yorkers, for instance, on Edwin and his mother. Basement people, living almost without time, without names. People almost inchoate, not even aware of what most people take for norms. Yet he rose to be a lawyer.
And a rapist, if I remember correctly.
He rose through patronage. And raped the world that helped him—the girl who represented it. That’s the way I thought he would go.
Yet that’s the book you have said is about the middle class. You like to criss-cross worlds, don’t you?
That’s the way I see it. In Saratoga, Hot, the title piece is set in the rich world of horse owners. Yet another tale in that book—“Survival Techniques”—is about a man who is wooed out of his house to join the homeless on the street. His “fashionable” street. And mine.
Your novella, The Railway Police, is about a young woman who chooses to be a vagrant. Living under bridges, and so forth.
I always half want to wander that way. Independently. Doubt I’ll make it. But I know by now that I don’t care to be an accepted habitué of any one world. That’s part of being a writer too. Wanting out. From the role-playing. Except on the page.
Do you think that impulse to wander is more usual in male writers?
No. It’s universal. Like so many characteristics that our country divides into male-female. I just came across a comment on The Railway Police, by the way, that calls it “less autobiography than a step toward feminism.” Bosh. If pushed to what it’s “about,” I’d say honesty. Honesty about money and class, mainly. And only after that about “af-fect,” as the psychologists pronounce it. Affects of dress and other artificialities—which we can also enjoy. I was having fun with that too, of course.
But you are a feminist, aren’t you?
Born. But not orthodox. And the writer part comes first. I’d never write propaganda.
You’ve written a lot about gender, though. In The Bobby-Soxer there’s even an androgyne. And in Journal From Ellipsia, your first novel on interplanetary life, the ovoid person from the other planet—how about the mix-ups there?
I was trying to get down to basic—a priori—flesh sensations in the beings we call the human animal. And in those we may know nothing of. It’s always amused me that run-of-the-mill science fiction—another genre I don’t go for—so often imputes our own sexual orientation to other possible worlds. Scientists themselves do the same. It’s hard not to. But I was interested in so much else in that book—the gap, for instance, between “word” people and “math” people, there for me ever since high school algebra. Or between word philosophers and physicists, and their supposedly opposed explanations of the universe. When one critic called that book the first feminist book of the decade, I was utterly surprised. Flummoxed.
You like rough words, don’t you? Anglo-Saxon ones. Yet you’re thought of sometimes as having a “poetic” style.
That’s the wonder of the English language. That its words can alternate between rough and soft, harsh and sweet. And, best of all maybe, short and long. Saxon and Latin. Beowulf and Spenser. Where else does Shakespeare come from? But when people talk about prose being poetic, they mean something soft or fancy—even if they mean to praise. Prose can have its own strong, profound rhythms. And its own lyric. Both as powerful as poetry. But these have to be integrated into a much larger whole. So in a novel, for instance, you may feel the groundswell but not identify quite why. Or find isolated phrases that carry a meaning so exact that it sticks. As in verse.
In some of your novellas, though—The Railway Police is one—the language is consistent in effect, a definite part of the effect. That’s the case also with the novel Standard Dreaming.
In my own mind each of my books has its own distinct shape—and the language comes out of that. But it will be more consistently so in a novella—and more noticeable—because of the length. In a long novel, there may be more than one language tone going. In The New Yorkers there are two—one dry, one emotional. Also the male-female strains alternate. The characters effected that themselves. But I didn’t notice that really until after it was written—and I’m not sure others have.
Before we leave The Railway Police, was it any way autobiographical, as that comment you quoted seemed to imply?
No. Not literally. But surely a writer uses his or her own psyche in anything written. When we test out our own insights on how other people might feel, the testing-ground is ourselves. Our views on anything from politics to landscape are tinctured with our personality. But all that’s a mile away from autobiography. Either the kind that serious biographers and readers crave—to help them interpret the work, and the author—or like The National Enquirer in the “real” and possibly outlandish details. So I’ll tell you a story. In The Railway Police the heroine, who is beautiful and bald, wears wigs. In college I had a friend who came from a family all of whom lost their hair at puberty. Probably gene-connected and medically well documented. In the end the woman in The Railway Police reveals this to her lover and goes off to confront the world bald. That’s commonplace now—we have to show our honesty in other ways. But not then. And the gossip ran—in the media and out—that I too was bald.
Actually you have a lot of hair, don’t you?
For the record—yes. But that year, some column reported that people were calling wigs “Calishers.” When I was on a television show in Hollywood the emcee alluded to it. So I bent my head and said, “Pull.” He turned green, and wouldn’t. An opportunity lost—by both of us.
The way I heard it you tugged at your hair yourself to demonstrate.
Sure did. But I’m not sure they believed me. Sometimes critics tell you kindly what you “meant” in a story or a novel. I used sometimes to deny that, or say what I did intend if they were wrong. Whereupon they would look at me pityingly. So now I just tug at my hair.
Let’s go back to your life. During that period before you wrote, you did marry and have children and followed your husband’s career from city to city. Didn’t that contribute to your inability to start writing?
No. I’ve never been able to blame myself for being a woman. Or blame bad inner trouble on being one. To be a writer who is a woman, however, does have professional hazards. But that’s different.
You’ve described your life in those cities—no intellectual company, babies, not much money, new territory.
The loneliest time in my life. Desperate that I no longer had any intellectual status. And hard lines, yes, as to circumstance. But the real fear still held. And held me back. Meanwhile I was learning like mad. American society, different from any I’d known. The expertise attached to being a household woman and a mother. Any life expertise is useful to a writer—and those would serve me well. Just as usefully, in their way, as a man’s going to war. Or not going. One day in the novel Eagle Eye I would write a lot about the young men who for one reason or another had to stay home—as I did—during a war. I knew how that felt. That’s when you learn that sex needn’t matter that much in what a writer writes.
You’ve often written in the persona of a man. In False Entry, your first novel, the narrator is a man. Why?
When I was first asked that, I answered, “He had to be able to go anywhere.” And for some of the places he did go—the inner sanctum of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance—that’s still so. There are women in that book also. But I confess I did jokingly suggest to my publishers that I use a pseudonym. “Maybe I should be one of the Georges,” I said. Actually, when the book came out, nobody called me on the male narrator business.
Well, the book created a stir just as a book. I’ve read that Cheever told you it was the only metaphysical American novel he knew of. What did he mean?
I’m not sure. I was so pleased he admired it. And I knew better than to ask what he meant.
What other expertises would you say you have? You trained as a dancer.
Well, I was once a lousy pianist. Musically, I’m a decent listener. I once taught dance to amateurs. And, of course, I know university life quite well, and the student world as I go in and out of it. Household arts were dinned into me by listening to clan talk—I wasn’t trained—and just by being in houses—many—over a lifetime, and very various. Motherhood has no firm curriculum, but it can make you mechanically minded, and it can connect you firmly to physical life. Maybe that’s why I like manuals—good ones. Like how a sailmaker works. Or the evolution of the trolley car. And maybe they keep me from being too metaphysical. A manual stimulates, like a teacher, and brings you back—or into—that world.
You used sailmaking in Saratoga, Hot. How about The Last Trolley-Ride?
Well, I rode some old-style trolleys when I was a kid. I can still hear the unique sound the cane seat-back made when the conductor took hold of its brass handle, one after the other, and reversed the seats. That reversal—how he could in effect turn that huge, lumbering car the other way round—gave me pause even then. Maybe transportation itself as a theme of mine started then. It’s the opposite of a firm sense of place—or of a yearning for the true place. Pierre, in those two related novels, had that. His travel was trains—and I was hipped on those too. There’s a recent story, “The Passenger”—her whole life rides before her eyes on the Chicago-New York train. As for The Last Trolley Ride, my mother-in-law used to talk a lot about the big interurban trolleys that once connected upstate New York towns. I lived in that area once, and only realized long after I’d left it how it had gripped me. Trolley Ride is really a tribute to that countryside—and a lyric one I guess, because it’s all voices. Mainly two grandfathers who had been war buddies, exchanging. Or one of them—talking to descendants.
There’s also a character in it obsessed with his toy trolley system. And one of the buddies grew up on the barge canals.
Well, I began as a New Yorker, meaning the city. Later I lived up the Hudson River for a long time, and in several small cities near the barges. I guess I’m a New York Stater by now.
Transportation is a very American theme.
A planetary one now.
Well, I know that Mysteries of Motion, your longest novel since The New Yorkers, is set on a space shuttle like the Challenger—but somehow I don’t think of its theme being transportation.
No. It’s the mode by which the real themes travel, this time.
It’s not science fiction.
It was written to occur in about 1990. Again I was in luck, for that’s about the way we’re going—space colony talk and so forth.
You must have researched.
About a week. I read NASA’s own reports. Which stank to high heaven—excuse the pun—of bad possibilities. When the Challenger fell, I was teaching a class at Brown. Students brought me the news. All I could say was “Yes.” Not that I was a prophet. It was just—all already there if you looked. Later I thought of going over the book to check all the stuff that had come true, but I couldn’t bear to at the time.
That would be unlikely. Congress doesn’t go to novelists for confirmation. When Mysteries was published, John Noble Wilford of the Times, who interviewed me, did tell me he couldn’t fault the space details. That’s maybe because the book goes more for what those mean—and the vocabulary. Which can be hilarious. Or somber. Actually as I talk about it to you, I’m thinking—outer space, in its basics, is very like a household. And astronauts often act as if they are in one.
But your shuttle doesn’t fall.
No. It has another fate.
Would you talk about the technique in that novel?
It is a return to straight narrative. When the material is that freakish or strange, you need to speak plainly, more in ways the reader is used to.
Although in everything you write there are passages that take off.
Well, in outer space maybe that’s needed too. But you’re right, I do take flights. It seems to me that everybody’s psyche does that, or craves to. Art only follows suit. Or satisfies that craving. But if you ask about technique—one merely gets to know one’s own habits. And only after the work is done. I know that I always at the end of a book or a story narrow it down. The sentences get shorter, often very short. In a kind of felt rhythm.
Each of your works seems impelled by its own rhythm, or voice.
Is that conscious?
The subject dictates the approach. I don’t consult with myself beforehand. It happens.
Can you give a name to that novel’s form?
I’ll try. Call it a cluster novel. Separate lives, each completely told, then clustering in a voyage. In old-style Iran, people used to sit or sleep on the floor with their feet pointed toward a central brazier.
I’ve heard that when you first published in The New Yorker, many publishers asked to sign you up, but you wouldn’t.
Well, many asked for a novel right off. And I only had half a dozen stories to my name. I had to find my way.
There’s a well-known letter in Herself stating your independence. Are you against editors, the editorial process?
Not at all. I’ve had some fine ones. But the process has to be different for each book. And the best editors know that.
You write notably about sexual love. In Mysteries of Motion there’s also the life of Veronica, the Black Bajan journalist, and much more in every book. Do editors ever try to make you write a book solely about love?
No. The shortest story in my first collection, In the Absence of Angels, is about the end of an affair. Most of the themes to come in the larger works are in that book—as in Tennessee Williams’ first collection of short plays, Twenty Wagonloads of Cotton, where one sees many of his full-length plays in embryo. But I write of sexual affairs as part of the affairs of the world. No one had to twist my arm for me to write Queenie. Which is a comic novel about a girl who was brought up in the world of kept women, but wanted to be a college girl with all the normal repressions. And how she did it.
That book certainly found its own voice. Not usually yours. With one chapter called “A Heart Without Envy,” meaning penis envy. And one called “Political Fuck.”
I had my eye on the student mores of the times. And their language. I laughed out loud so much writing that book I was afraid it couldn’t be that funny. My publisher was afraid I didn’t take the finished novel as a serious enough accomplishment.
People did laugh, though?
Yes, lots. But also took it seriously, as he’d said. Even the sedate Library Journal, which surprised me.
What’s your own attitude toward Queenie?
A romp that simply took me by the hand and led me. “Dead Wrong But Alive”—another chapter heading—was how I felt about the couple in it. Young people buck me up. At their best they’re our moral health—and our hope. And their vernacular took me by the hand too, and swung me.
You think of the human animal first?
Even in myself. I think of myself as a person—after that as a woman. If one doesn’t, one narrows oneself. And the world.
It seems to me that your writing about female sexuality is some of the most accurate writing there is. You see no difference between male and female writing?
Those differences are always individual. But in the possibilities and the range, no. There used to be more actual differences as to experience—particularly in war. And of course opportunity—political, industrial, and artistic still lags. Particularly so in this country.
As a writer who is a woman do you now feel you can go anywhere, achieve anything equally with writers who are men?
Within my powers as a writer—yes. And that should go without saying. But in my country, it can’t. I grew up, you know, in a generation of war novels and macho—Hemingway’s being the most prominent. It took me a long time to feel that I could go to all the wars of life and mind. I confess I am more interested in wars of the mind.
But you don’t function in the world of the “woman writer.”
I think it’s ultimately foolish of us to re-segregate ourselves. The strengths of sisterhood are possible without that. And the work itself can be as much from the dower of what we are as women as we want it to be.
You wrote a novel called On Keeping Women. …
That one was as much a woman’s book as I could make it. But I wouldn’t want to write from that focus only. Matter of fact, I prefer Textures of Life, in which the young couple, a pair of would-be artists who confront marriage, domesticity, children, all at once, are given equal time. I think you write better about women if you don’t write about women exclusively. As with any subject. And I did as well there on the silent wonders of daily life as I’ll ever do. I write about dailiness a lot.
Like in a passage beginning—“How is the word ‘beauty’ like a capon basting?”
That’s pretty metaphysical.
Households tend to be. At least for me. After Bernard Malamud read Herself he said to me, “Why Hortense. You’re an intellectual.” I don’t think he meant to condescend. And Roth once said to me that he envied me because I would know how to dress women in novels. Actually that’s something I’ve never done. Obligatory description of what a woman may be wearing. I love dress, but it bores me in books. Except in Anna Karenina. Where Tolstoy dresses her, knowing precisely how. It’s a demonstration of the novelist’s art of observation. I doubt he pursued the details, or was coached.
You function as a critic also, don’t you?
Essays, mostly. I’d like to review more. But I want to do unto others as I would wish to be done unto me—to review a book in the light of the author’s total work to date, and that’s more time than I usually spare, though I’ve done it when interested. In the intervals between my own books. And I don’t want the critic head taking over, as it quickly can. But it can be instructive. I discover what I think about literature. And critique by other writers is the best literary talk.
Does what critics say about literature affect you?
The best ones are literature in themselves. So I read them on that score. But I suspect I’ve been influenced only by what they write about—the primary manuscripts.
Would you name some?
I read all the Russians I could my seventeenth year. Old Constance Garnett versions. Or Turgenev, by some forgotten minister. Couldn’t have cared less. They shook me at night, as I leaned out over the city. Apartment house windows are great to brood from. It was a banner year.
Critics over here usually compare you to James, or to Proust.
They get in a rut. I read James first in college, but not the big ones until much later. I admired him, of course—more than that—and wrote a piece on him once for Louis Kronenberger’s biographical compendium. Proust I only read in bits until I was forty-one, and returned from my first year abroad. Lay on the grass all summer and read him through—it was a way of staying abroad.
But some see Dickens in you.
In England. Brigid Brophy there, and Angus Wilson, both said that early on. And it is true that Dickens was probably the first great English writer I read—in the old collected volumes of Harper’s Weekly from the Civil War years. Which pirated Dickens, serially. When you read the first sentence of Little Dorrit at eight or ten it’s like the opening of a wide door. We also had Barnaby Rudge. At that age I half had the idea that all novels began in prisons. Maybe they half do. As for the short stories, we had “The Great Stone Face” in a collection of Hawthorne’s stories, and that influence in stories of mine like “The Summer Rebellion”—I can see clearly, even though I probably haven’t read “The Great Stone Face” since I was ten.
What about the French?
That’s the other side of the story. Buried deep. Couple of years ago I reread Les Miserables. It was then I recognized, or remembered, how when I was a kid I’d read and reread a strange book of Hugo’s we had at home also—L’Homme Qui Rit. What I recognized in Les Miserables were rhythms, and perhaps moods, that once again seemed natural to me—I could almost feel my early self drinking that prose. In Hugo is maybe where I learned the freedom to be discursive, to trust that there will be readers who can accept long sentences, and long meanings. In the nineteenth century quite ordinary readers could do that. And also accept that a big novel can ramble structurally, and maybe should. It’s the run-of-the-mill jobs where you always know where you’re going. A big novel has a deeper directional sense.
But you also write “short.” Short books, short sentences.
Yes, Age, the new novel, is like that. Though I’ve noticed that in whatever I write, even in the short stories, it often tapers down at the end to brief statement. A matter of musical coda maybe. But also a matter of pith.
The French write notably both long and short. Balzac did.
And he can write of the inner psyche less circuitously than Proust and do it in terms of tables and chairs, furnishings, so that when you get to the person or the family, you already know them. He was an obsessive collector, you know. Yet France is the land of the inner psyche. The inner expertise. They are wonderful confessives. But when I was young what impressed me most was their high seriousness about literature. Often humorless. But high.
You don’t think we have that?
Of course we do. But not as a nation. Paradoxically, today it’s the nations that don’t have liberty, or freedom of expression, where books are the breath of life even to the many.
What’s been your ambition as a writer?
When I was young I had a modest ambition. I wanted to give birth to the world. Mine. I think all artists, even the great ones, are combinations of arrogance and innocence. As life goes on we may lose one or the other in some proportion. To function best one must have both. Once I began to write, though, I learned that the ambition can only phrase itself in the book. There’s such an enormous difference in the writer being, and the writer doing.
That seemed to preoccupy you in Herself.
Yes, with respect to politics particularly. How far must I go in political action. Shouldn’t one’s “causes” be in one’s books. Not literarily, that’s hell on wheels for any book I would want to write. But one’s real engagement is on the page. You don’t have to be there in the flesh. But also for me, there’s the question of performance. Appearing, reading one’s work. Culturally appearing. I can still feel shy socially, though I know I don’t show it. But in front of an audience—in a theatre or a hall—I feel an instant empathy. All those tipped faces. And my voice knows how to get to them. Exploring your own work for what you truly know it has, and getting applauded for it—a double sensation. I’m a diseuse—and the work I’m presenting is mine. People crowd up afterward, and say fine things. But I’m only secondarily a diseuse; I’m a writer. So I worry about the vanity. I know too many writers who’ve gone too far toward the vanity of the podium, or used too much energy there. So I don’t do as much of that as I could. Even though it gets the books around.
Do the books fulfill all your ambitions?
Of course not. I have a life apart from them. One lives and loves, like anyone else. And if even one book was wholly all your statement, why would you ever write again?
What’s the sensation of writing?
A sense of power and surprise when it’s going well. But always obsessive hope, as you pace an almost familiar terrain.
Surprise at what?
At what can happen under your hand. When the whole becomes greater than the parts. But the real surprise is afterward. When I see that the book has made its own rules. Each one in the end makes its own form. Even Herself did that, though it was concerned with fact.
That touches on one of the main characteristics of your writing. Your range is so broad, you elude classification. You are not a Jewish writer, you are not a feminist writer, yet there are elements of all this in your writing. You don’t write only fantasy, you don’t write only psychological realism. We never know what you are going to do next.
Should one? I know that for immediate acceptance in any art, to have one image is much safer. As with painters who paint one vision, or one size canvas, or one broad but alternating four foot band of paint. Their next show will be more or less like that—with small changes usually called “subtle”—and the critics can talk safely about the development of the broad band.
I think you unnerve a lot of people who want to categorize because you won’t be categorized.
I’m with Blake there—against Joshua Reynolds and the whole eighteenth century idea that there’s one methodology for any art form. We see ourselves as the most incredibly diverse age of all. So maybe it can comfort us to see repeated images, the same kind of work from a writer all the life-long. That has virtue. Yet as to myself, it seems to me that my so-called range must be my answer to the diversity of my age.
So you think you mirror the diversity of our age in a particularly American way?
In my genes, certainly. Combined with the family history, all the places we came from. The generation gaps. The enormous diversity of my home town—New York. I come from the admixture we set ourselves up to be.
Do you think that your range, and your idiosyncrasies of style are less tolerated because you are a woman?
I think the range—so-called—might engender hostility against any writer. Who’s conceived as not willing to hunker down and be common with the rest of us. Even just to write a lot can make people hostile. There’s only the one area in which I do have to note a sex-linked response—and I honestly don’t think most American reviewers and critics, or scholars, are even aware of it. First, American critics and scholars don’t emendate writers who are women—until we’re well dead. Generally speaking, the pejorative for a woman who writes complexly is “obscure.” A man who is “obscure” however, may well be “profound” and merit interpretation.
In Herselfyou wrote that you had to write everything as if your life depended on it. And then you added: “Of course, it does.” Do you still feel that?
Intimately. The page isn’t all of my life. It’s what I offer from it.
I’ve noticed that instead of saying “writing,” when referring either to your own or other people’s, you often say “the page”—as if that’s the final judgment. Do you feel so?
There it is, yes. That’s what’s there.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553
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.
Calisher’s aging couple have seen it all: children, survival of broken marriages that remain surprisingly well remembered if at times unreal, personal animosities that simply refuse to die. They can still be silly, and they have learned to live with regret—though never entirely. After 35 years, “What bothers us deepest,” the wife, Gemma, reflects, “is that one of us will inevitably be left behind.”
“Dear Rupert,” she taps out on her computer screen, “I write as we agreed. I begin. But I refuse to think of you as possibly to die—or dead.” There is about all this the rustle of old age, like autumn leaves pressed into the pages of a long-forgotten book. But the account is repeatedly and abruptly rescued from tedium by wordplay; for example, Gemma’s conclusion that Op-art resembles nothing so much as “a paramecium in drag.”
Such one-liners aside, Age is studded with observations about features in the landscape of the elderly. Women have surrendered to old age when they let their stockings droop. A touch or look can stir ancient memories; a word, ancient enmities. Life’s most important moments are interrupted by the need to go to the bathroom. The slump of a shoulder, a momentary memory loss—all these take on new and added meaning.
Authors long have been fascinated by the challenge of dealing acutely with the passage of time. There is a clear line connecting them at whatever level—from, say, Montaigne’s essays about the woes of gallstones and the foibles of men to Avery Corman’s new “50,” in which generational differences become dishearteningly clear in something as simple as a younger woman’s inability to hum a few bars from “Stardust.”
Calisher took up the challenge four decades ago. In prose as luminous as it is accessible, she has quested after what in an earlier book she called “the sweet kernel of the human condition.”
That is in Age. It is a quiet, well-crafted, lovely book.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558
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 universal. But Calisher is hit and miss. Too much of the time she focuses on minutiae that remain minute. Nor does she achieve enough distinction between the voices of Gemma and Rupert.
Though she claims to alternating chapters being written by these alternating members of the couple, they sound exactly alike, which is frequently confusing.
Much more problematic, however, is Calisher’s idiosyncratic style. She writes in strangely unfinished sentences. Without verbs. Like this. Usually. Too often.
While striving for simplicity, this overaffection for truncated phrases becomes merely eccentric. Just as perplexing is the fact that she’ll careen from something as exquisite as “those sunbelt clothes that look like food coloring” or “the sun splashes all with afternoon paint” to something as improbably awkward as “‘Now you tell me. What you’ve been up to. I’ve told you. What I.’”
On balance, the cleverness of “cheese smacking of the best cholesterol,” the perception of “What youth does is make me uncertain I am still in the world” or the happy economy of “It’s where you say what you should never think” do not make up for too much of the rest of the self-conscious writing. There is an unshakable awareness here of a writer at work.
Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s “Joanna’s Husband and David’s Wife” utilized the similar idea of a husband and wife contributing to a single memoir (in this case a husband comes across his wife’s record of their life together and injects his own vastly different perceptions of it). While it is not the same story and has nothing to do with age, there was a color and individuality in those characters that we miss in Calisher’s manicured volume. Too much gentility is part of it, but Age natters where it should speak. It is embroidery rather than a work of the heart—or to borrow Rupert’s words: “A progression of replicas almost without matter, without devotion to any original.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349
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 make us care passionately about the characters; both provide role models to emulate as we grow older. And perhaps most important, both show us the precarious balance involved in preserving dearly held behaviors while growing, changing, and moving forward. …
Despite the novels’ similarities, Second Chances is the more engrossing, more resonant book. Age is full of insight, with wonderfully constructed sentences and vivid imagery, but it lacks the cohesion of a well-defined plot. Although some scenes lack certainty and others seem contrived, the book is filled with brilliant, quirky statements and passionate ideas. Read together, these books expand the world a little bit, helping us look in the mirror, refreshed and proud, gratefully accepting the gray hairs and wrinkles as our triumph.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6806
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 reader into its protagonist’s circuitous stream of consciousness.
Central to all three, however, is a movement (a recurring one in Calisher’s fiction) from the heights—in Textures of Life, of a smugly superior perspective; in Queenie, of ingenious theorizing; in Eagle Eye, of emotional distancing—to an active grappling with mundane, problematic realities. Typically, in Calisher’s works, the thematic emphasis is on both the movement from and toward, on the protagonists’ rites of both extradition and initiation. Appropriately enough, all three novels conclude with an open-ended journey about to begin.
This movement from the ideal to the real is presented most straightforwardly, even schematically, in Textures of Life. Its plot is a classically familiar one: young newlyweds, convinced they can live life on their own rarified terms, become gradually enmeshed in the textures of everyday life. The novel opens with the chilly wedding reception of Liz Jacobson and David Pagani, nineteen-year-old self-termed artists who barely conceal their disdain for this thoroughly tasteful, bourgeois occasion. Liz’s antagonism has another, more personal focus: her mother Margot, who “understood that her daughter’s animosity toward her … was connected with her own very blamable dependence on nice things” (TL, 7). Fearful of succumbing to a love of things, of becoming like her mother, Liz’s anger, “harbored like a gift, reassured her” (TL, 21).
On their wedding night, Liz and David triumphantly survey their all-but-empty New York City loft, where “space lay … like a weapon” (TL, 15), warding off middle-class trappings and values. They are supremely confident that they can make of their life together “a significant arrangement—of the best” (TL, 29). That night ends, however, with an unconsciously “significant arrangement,” a portent of things to come: falling asleep with Liz in his arms, David, “with all his family goods around him … looked like a man uneasily drowsing at his post but still sentinel against his Indians, his burden across his knees. He looked like a householder” (TL, 30). As the novel proceeds, chronicling their first four years of marriage, they come to acknowledge what the reader knows from the outset: they are more conventional, more typical, than they yet realize.
The second chapter ironically parallels the first. Following their children’s wedding, Margot Jacobson and Nicholas Pagani have dinner in Margot’s apartment. Nicholas, burdened with a diseased heart, has a spell that necessitates his staying the night. On the surface they seem an unlikely couple: Margot is a conventional New York matron; Nicholas, a California artist who has led a quietly unconventional life. Before the talk-filled night is over, however, they will have forged a relationship that will culminate in marriage. The chapter’s concluding scene is a mirror image of the first chapter’s, but with a crucial difference—Nicholas’s unspoken counsel to the sleeping Margot: “Prepare. Prepare for a little while, not to be desolate” (TL, 57). Their developing relationship then moves to the background, ironically and intermittently counterpointing Liz and David’s.
For a time the younger couple’s life is all that they had hoped. Liz compares it to a tape measure, “all linear and good, back of that first black-marked inch a firm, satisfying nothing” (TL, 59). Even when forced to find a new home, one with a reliable water supply, they welcome the chance for a new beginning. This move to another, larger loft, however, triggers a homemaking urge in Liz that terrifies her. Having spent weeks working obsessively—and, by choice, alone—to perfect their new home, she feels far from triumphant the night of their house-warming party. The old metaphors for her life—“linear and good,” “good thick weaves” (TL, 106)—give way to a sinister one. Their guests gone, Liz strikes a morbidly melodramatic pose: she stands before David, a rope looped around her neck, and announces: “‘Liz Pagani housewife and interior decorator, hung by her own rooftree’” (TL, 113).
Having long clung to the fiction that they were, in all things, unanimous, Liz and David are stunned by evidence to the contrary: Liz feels trapped by her housewifely compulsions; David, in sharply ironic contrast, feels that “marriage was daily clarifying his life and his work, leaving them free to be” (TL, 107). They are speedily reunited, however—by mutual disbelief and dismay—when Margot and Nicholas telephone from California to announce that they are married.
The night’s turmoil is soon smoothed over, however, and when, some nine months later, Liz and David have a child, it again “seemed to both that they now had everything. They saw their way clear to seeing life clear” (TL, 170). All too soon, though, their life becomes muddied, even nightmarish, when their daughter Mary suffers a series of mysterious and terrifying convulsions. Learning her daughter is severely asthmatic, Liz is physically oppressed by an overwhelming sense of her helplessness. Her complacent optimism, and its accompanying image of an unencumbered linear life, give way to a “new image of her life—the hook … a heavy mass that pushed up from below and protruded like a deformed sternum, around which the body reshaped itself like a grasshopper’s tailcoat” (TL, 221).
At the novel’s close, the generations seem, momentarily, to exchange places. Margot is newly widowed. Invigorated, however, physically and emotionally, by Nicholas’s adventurous spirit, she is about to embark on a solo trip to Europe. Liz and David, forced by Mary’s asthma to leave their dust-filled loft, are moving to the California home Nicholas had, years before, built for himself and his son.
Throughout the novel, Margot has at once dreaded and welcomed her daughter’s eventual confrontation with unyielding realities. When it comes, however, she feels not righteous vindication, but sorrow: “Still young in face … [Liz and David] looked in some way exposed prematurely—as if, in whatever overnight experience had come upon them, only youth had kept their hair from turning white” (TL, 226). The novel ends on a guardedly optimistic note, with Liz’s and David’s realization that “it was not the end of things, only no longer the beginning” (TL, 248). Coming down from both literal and symbolic heights, they now see themselves as part of the “weave of life, that no one ever made” (TL, 248). This change in perspective brings about artistic growth as well: at the outset of the novel, both Liz and David are self-termed artists; by the novel’s end, they come to grasp how much they have yet to learn.
Liz is a sculptor whose early work is clearly self-obsessed: small female figures in wax, “all stylized toward the same anger” (TL, 194). Later, while pregnant, she sculpts a wooden torso of a neighbor whose body, lined by pregnancies, fascinates Liz. Her subject is still essentially herself, however: scrutinizing the finished work, Liz “felt her own nakedness” (TL, 177). After Mary is born, she tries to capture the child in sketches and in clay figures, but “all kept to a stubborn abstraction” (TL, 175). These many failures to capture a recognizable Mary send Liz, newly humbled, back to art school: “She was learning of the power to be drawn from her own ignorance” (TL, 175). Later, grieving over her child’s illness, Liz learns of the power to be drawn from suffering; she envisions not herself alone but rows of figures suspended on the hook: not, significantly, in wax, the malleable, fleshlike medium that she has long preferred, but first in plaster, then in bronze—unmalleable, technically demanding, but enduring. Still angry, but no longer the adolescent who made a scapegoat of her mother, “she felt the angry balm, the upsurge of her powers—what it might mean to be an artist” (TL, 221).
David also experiences the upsurge of his artistic powers only after life—and artistic failure—humble and enlighten him. Throughout most of the novel, he and a partner are making a film about people as seen solely through their objects—the opposite of the life unencumbered by possessions that he and Liz envision for themselves. By the novel’s end, David views the completed film as a failure: “the essential, overdocumented, had slipped the sieve” (TL, 245); what remains is only a flashily empty technique. At this stage, convinced that what matters most is content rather than technique, he has only a compelling image that he wants to translate into art. Like Liz’s, his artistic dilemma is a paradigmatic one—how to give individual expression to a communal reality:
If one could imagine a loom, or looms innumerable, warp-and-woof radiating everywhere, perhaps not even from a center. The texture was so tight that one could never see, even over as much as four years of it, where any one part had begun. …
But how in God’s name would one show it pictorially? Or any way. It would be such an illuminating of the obvious, stretched thin as a skin that enclosed all the world.
At the novel’s outset, Liz and David thought themselves superior beings capable of willing an ideal life, an ideal art, into existence. Only when they accede to forces beyond their control do they escape an egotistical concern with subject or technique. In this novel, as in subsequent Calisher works, having to come to terms with limitations, compromises, and failures is, paradoxically, a liberating experience, both emotionally and artistically.
The protagonist of Queenie also comes down from the heights at the novel’s close—in a double parachute with her lover. The style and tone of Queenie are a radical departure from the realistic, quietly modulated Textures of Life. A comedy of manners and morals, set in New York during the Vietnam War period, the novel follows Alexandra Dauphine Raphael (Queenie, for short) from a happily unconventional adolescence to a happily conventional adulthood. Her literal descent, as exuberant, comic, and unexpected as everything that has preceded it, is the objective correlative of a willingness to immerse herself in the conventional weave of everyday life.
Queenie’s coming of age is recounted in a series of questioning monologues, “cloud-confession[s]” (Q, 155) in which she addresses, for two-thirds of the novel, assorted authority figures—representatives of university, state, and church, even God Himself. The novel is, in a sense, a contemporary Pamela: like Richardson’s heroine, Queenie assiduously records her thoughts and experiences—albeit on a tape recorder. There is yet another, more important difference: unlike her predecessor, this contemporary heroine is eager not to retain, but to lose, her virginity.
From the very outset, it is clear that Queenie is no typical sixteen-year-old beset by predictable angst: “A happy childhood can’t be cured. Mine’ll hang around my neck like a rainbow, that’s all, instead of a noose” (Q, 13). Queenie has had an enviably secure, loving, and, by bourgeois standards, shockingly unconventional upbringing: she “was born and raised to be a kept woman” (Q, 14) by Aurine, an old-fashioned courtesan, who is either Queenie’s aunt or her mother, and by Oscar, Aurine’s lover and perhaps Queenie’s father.
Queenie is an old-fashioned girl in a modern world. She has had an atypical education—“I didn’t hear about the mysteries of life, I got the recipes” (Q, 37)—but she suspects that the recipes may not apply outside the charmed circle in which she has been nurtured. In the novel’s opening section, Queenie’s confidant is, ostensibly, a college admissions director to whom she is addressing the standard self-descriptive essay. In this never-to-be-sent letter, the facts are outnumbered by such questions as: Can she, like her role model, Aurine, “be happy and successful these days without penis envy?” (Q, 68). To her surprise, she does not have to wait for college for the answers. They come, tuition free, in the course of three parties, at once Queenie’s farewell to childhood and her debut as a sexual, albeit still virginal, creature.
The party scenes are wonderfully executed set pieces, each a miniature comedy of manners in which the male ego and, sometimes, male organ come under scrutiny. In this section, “A Heart without Envy,” Queenie addresses another authority figure, a priest—a curious choice, at first glance, but, given Queenie’s determination to situate the sexual in the theological, a logical one. The first of Queenie’s farewell/coming-out parties is a sedate, elegant affair hosted by Oscar for his male cronies who have watched Queenie grow up. Dressed in a demure, girlish outfit, as though to help her aging admirers momentarily forget the passage of years, Queenie is a solicitous, keenly observant guest of honor. Men, whatever their ages, have become unfathomable creatures that she is eager to understand. At the party’s climax—Aurine’s perfectly timed, highly theatrical entrance—Queenie suddenly sees Oscar’s friends in a radically different and revealing perspective: “I can see what they’re envying. They don’t envy us, of course, her or me. … Can it be they’re all envying their former, other, better days? Can it be a man spends most of his life envying himself?” (Q, 88).
She has her answer—although, it turns out, a provisional one—after the second party, hosted by Aurine at the restaurant she owns and attended by her courtesan friends and their men of the moment. Once again, Queenie is both fascinated and mystified by the workings of the male ego. The ancient maitre d’, Marcel, his characteristic dignity inexplicably marred by a continuous smirk, serves course after course of “strange, dark food” (Q, 100). This party climaxes with his drunken revelation: revenging a blow to his ego—Aurine has hired a new chef, also named Marcel—he has flavored each of the many courses with his own wine-fortified urine. Again, Queenie is surprised by the uniform expression of pride on men’s faces. Most astonishing, however, is Oscar’s response to her exclamation that a woman would not think of such a reprisal: “‘Queenie—it’s even truer a woman couldn’t’” (Q, 106)—certainly with not such facility. There may, then, be a cause for penis envy: a penis is a powerful weapon able to defeat even the most subtle woman. Later that night, ruminating on the theological implications of the evening, Queenie wonders if “God [is] really as queer for men as they are.” Her theory of male envy suddenly becomes, much to her dismay, “penis theology” (Q, 115), a disquieting vision of God-ordained male superiority.
Following the climax—or, literally, the anticlimax—of the third and final party, Queenie thoroughly revises her “penis theology.” This party is a “family” affair at the home of one of Aurine’s fellow courtesans. Their collective erotic aura so intoxicates Queenie’s date, Schubert Fish, that he lies in wait for her in a darkened room, exposed. For a moment Queenie thinks seriously of losing her virginity, but Schubert’s “five little prideful words”—“‘And it’s not circumcised either!’” (Q, 146)—precipitate explosive giggles from Aurine and friends, hiding, ever-watchful of their ward. The consequence is “the kind of fall you have to stand up and button your fly over” (Q, 147). Following this third lesson in male pride—and in its downfall—Queenie feels a shade less virginal. She concludes, happily, that penis envy is a myth designed to protect its vulnerable idol. Finally, Queenie understands why Aurine has a heart without penis envy: “People who have the power plant don’t need to have power complexes”; her penis theology is supplanted by its distaff counterpart: men have the envy; women, the heart; and “God is for cunt” (Q, 152). On this triumphant note, Queenie’s childhood—and the first section—end. Confident about what she has, if not what she is going to do with it, she enters a nearby college, “the Hen-coop,” where, along with fifteen hundred other girls, “eggs in an incubator,” she is “Chicked!” (Q, 155).
In this section’s monologue—Queenie’s term paper on herself—she announces that the time for action has arrived: “no thoughts are any good unless you lay your bod on the line with them” (Q, 156). Furthermore, college is “the end of the secret life” (Q, 175). What better way to affirm these two new convictions than to research what old-fashioned parlance termed an orgy, the “fuck-in” (Q, 181). Faced with a dizzying number of thematically oriented orgies, Queenie chooses a “‘grieve-in’” (Q, 187), a ballroom full of people “rocking together for social action” (Q, 204), protesting everything from “‘poison nerve gas!’” to “THE DATING SYSTEM IN SCHENECTADY” (Q, 204). Any doubts Queenie has had about being an old-fashioned girl are soon dispelled: she is “stuck with this sneaking perversion for a twosome” (Q, 207) and by the conviction that “doing it for no reason must be best” (Q, 215).
Priorities now in order, Queenie leaves college. Dowry packed (her taped monologues, a ＄50,000 diamond, and a cache-nombril in which to display it), she, happily and without much preamble, loses her virginity to Giorgio, a friend since childhood. Queenie is still the nonstop monologist, but she no longer needs “interlocutors”: “People to report to, imaginary or otherwise. Life enhancers! Father-images who can’t talk back” (Q, 223). With Giorgio, more often in than out of bed, she realizes that “doing something means you don’t have to describe it” (Q, 235). True to form, however, Queenie continues to record everything but the sex act.
In this final section of the novel, the real and the surreal intertwine. Giorgio’s present vocation—hijacker “of anything anywhere” (Q, 243)—culminates in a grand (perhaps imaginary, perhaps aborted) coup: hijacking the president of the United States. Queenie and Giorgio leave the plane, which may or may not contain the hijacked president, in a double parachute. The girl raised in a “sky-village” (Q, 17) on “Fifty-Seventh-Street-and-penthouse-Seventh Avenue” (Q, 13) finally touches ground. At the novel’s close, she and Giorgio, “happily struck with each other, in a realistic way” (Q, 273), are contemplating marriage: “‘Call it the call of the wild,’” says Giorgio. “‘Toward the conventional’” (Q, 275).
In Queenie, Calisher has embellished an adolescent’s coming of age with the comic, the farcical, even the fantastical: the coming-out parties, the political group grope, the jet-hopping revolutionary’s life. Correspondingly, she has created a style (embodied in the persona—or, more accurately, the voice—of Queenie) that weaves a richly comic web around typical adolescent questions: Who am I and what do I want?
The novel’s exuberantly ornate style—and, correspondingly, Queenie’s voice—is contemporary baroque; indeed, the novel itself is a modern-day version of an eighteenth-century opera bouffe. Toward the novel’s close, Giorgio, having listened for the first time to Queenie’s taped monologues, describes her life as “a cross between light opera … and broad opera bouffe” (Q, 245). Indeed, like a typical opera bouffe, the novel is “rapid in movements, having much repetition of short motifs, a disjunct melody line, comic effects produced by sudden offbeat accents, … and an infectious gaiety and vigor of utterance.”3
In this contemporary version, Queenie is both heroine and performer; like a well-trained bel canto singer, she excels at both improvisation and ornamentation. Her skills are put to the test in the novel’s concluding pages. Inspired by Queenie’s tapes, Giorgio has found another vocation, that of theatrical impresario. He envisions a New York musical of her life to be entitled “Queenie—An Old-Fashioned Girl” (Q, 219). Eager for even more material, he urges Queenie on. And, like the trooper she is, she bursts forth with highly ornamented, always improvised, arias and recitatives, such as
“Female Confessing. Recitative”: So, no more La Pasionaria for me? Tha-ats pop! But secretly … after the first half-hour of social justice, ain’t it all shop? … uh dress the wound, uh give the blood, uh lead the blind … and then Stop?
… Maybe after the first half-hour everything is pop— andlovebetweenthelegs isonlypossible because it needn’t take that long? —Or between any places you choose, of course. … So here’s my song:
(seriously) Ah tigerbaby of life, sucking your milk, seeking your vineshade, I know you! It’s me! Getting laid. And I just want to be. I just want to be.
(naturally) And who cares if I overslept? I’m being kept.
Queenie’s closing songs paradoxically celebrate her coming down to earth, putting “one prosy foot after another” (Q, 267). She is no La Pasionaria, the Spanish Communist famed for her fiery oratory, and, despite her nickname, no queenly figure above it all. Nevertheless, like other Calisher protagonists, Queenie relishes her distinctive voice, her distinctive angle of vision: “‘I don’t mind being a feminist on my own,’” she tells Giorgio. “‘Once you join the others, you’re only a unionist’” (Q, 267).
Queenie concludes, as do the majority of Calisher’s novels, not at the end but at the beginning of a journey at once literal and metaphorical. Before returning to New York with Giorgio, Queenie offers this comically ambiguous envoi: “‘Ciao, childhood. … Be happy.’ I don’t know yet whether I mean hello or goodbye”; the “Ciao” is aptly chosen: “What else can you say when you are traveling?” (Q, 282).
Wherever her travels lead, it is certain that her happy childhood will be a legacy in and a talisman against a fashionably graceless world. For beneath the novel’s broad jokes, the satiric stabs at 1960s radical chic, lies a comforting norm: the family as love nest and haven, where a general benevolence reigns. Queenie’s coming of age is, in a sense, both a coming back to and a departure from that haven. Although she and Giorgio will not make themselves carbon copies of Aurine and Oscar, they hope to emulate the older couple’s grace and tact—in general, their ability to keep themselves “up to the mark” (Q, 78).
In other Calisher works, beginning with the autobiographical stories, the legacy of the family is a more complexly mixed blessing, as the young protagonist of Eagle Eye discovers.
Like Queenie, Quentin “Bunty” Bronstein grew up in a comfortably middle-class household, the only child of doting parents. In stark contrast, however, to Queenie’s happy love nest, Bunty and his parents form a tense, mutedly unhappy triangle. The twenty-two-year-old Bunty sums up his childhood:
There was a terrible fragility about the Bronsteins. That they didn’t know of. Their kid did his best to act accordingly. In all the Boy’s Lives of famous men he had ever read, there was this simple beginning, in which the boy was held transparent in the vial of family, to grow. While the life put one foot after another, scattering little grenades of bread that even in the city would one day lead out of the forest, in single file.
They all three thought they were leading a linear life.
Just as Queenie’s exuberant voice generated a distinctive fictive world, in which a happy ending is assured, so, correspondingly, does Bunty’s densely convoluted consciousness establish the darker tenor of Eagle Eye. Although Bunty’s voice dominates, it does so, for the most part, in the third person: clearly, a tactic to objectify himself in the face of an overwhelming subjectivity, to get a bead on his own life.
Bunty is the titular Eagle Eye who, the morning after his twenty-first birthday party—“A year late, but it should last a lifetime”—is about to descend from his safe, interior eyrie and to begin “sweating out the world” (EE, 10). The party, with its disquieting revelations about his parents and with his mother’s near suicide, marks the end of Bunty’s attenuated adolescence. After a series of flashbacks to his youth and to the previous year’s travels in Europe skirting the draft, the body of the novel focuses on the evening of the party and on Bunty’s efforts, in the months that follow, to make sense of his life, past and present, private and familial. His coming of age demands that he widen his vision; it is not enough, he discovers, merely to retreat from his parents’ world. He must see through and beyond their fictions, their attempts to “dwarf the world” (EE, 227) to reduce it to a speciously manageable reality, in order to home in on what makes his life worth living, on “what’s worth murdering for” (EE, 10).
Bunty’s childhood memories are of material gains and psychic losses. His parents, Buddy Bronstein, a self-made businessman, and Maeve, once Buddy’s secretary, are upwardly mobile in the extreme, never putting down roots, moving from a good address to a better one, jettisoning people and possessions along the way. Bunty, silently rebelling against their “linear life,” feels increasingly “diminished” (EE, 17) by his parents’ insatiable acquisitiveness. Craving permanence, spatial and temporal, he wants to be “where his future was indissoluble from his past, friends passing and repassing in a guild he knew” (EE, 13). From childhood on, Bunty retreats, eagle eyed, to an interior eyrie, maintaining an emotional distance from his parents’ undefined but joint, “energetic sadness” (EE, 23). On the evening of his party, however, both his illusory detachment and his parents’ equally illusory “linear life” will be shattered, forcing Bunty to come down from the heights.
After his year abroad, safe from a Far East war, Bunty returns to the familial battleground, to the latest, most grandiose apartment—“oh, so we’re richer, we’re that kind of rich now” (EE, 67)—and to an alarming change in his parents: they seem detached from each other; theirs is no longer a joint sadness. Maeve, though looking younger, more beautiful, is ghostlike, curiously detached not only from her husband and her guests but also from the son she once doted on. When she does finally communicate with him, it is to destroy the fiction she herself helped to maintain all these years that the three Bronsteins were a happy family. She warns her son, “‘Buddy’s afraid to be rich. He has to have somebody to lay it on. But the peacock has to stand very still. Take his money, if you have to. I earned it. But get away somewhere’” (EE, 155).
At this anything but festive occasion, Bunty feels a stranger among other—for the most part, hostile—strangers; he observes the guests as if separated from them by a great chasm: youth on one side; age, shabby with compromise, on the other. The only person he feels at ease with is a young woman, a homeless transient, who has crashed the party. Otherwise, his encounters with the middle-aged guests—notably, with Janacek, a famed child psychiatrist, and with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Melchior—are sparring matches. He is on guard with these would-be father figures who seem intent on converting him to their systems of belief, their forms of “world dwarfing.”
Bunty soon discovers that Maeve herself is intent on escape. Like Liz and David in their loft, Queenie, with her penthouse “cloud-confessions,” and Bunty himself in his interior eyrie, Maeve, too, has taken to the heights—but for self-destructive purposes. Her eyrie is a terrarium, a retreat from others, especially her husband: “a bulb of opaline glass … extruded on air again, as if the building had blown a last bubble before it gave up its climb” (EE, 85). Sensing some danger connected with it—even the plants seem to want out—Bunty spends much of the evening monitoring her hourly, solitary visits there. When he finally maneuvers his way past Maeve, who is determined that he not enter the terrarium, he discovers that she has made it her private death trap, filling the pots with ball bearings that have weighted the terrarium past its safe limits. The party comes to an abrupt end: Bunty escapes the terrarium just before it begins to fall; Maeve is taken away by the psychiatrist; and Buddy takes his son to the one place where he feels most at home, most safe, his penthouse office.
Later, following a guided tour of his father’s “lair” (EE, 174)—the equivalent of Maeve’s terrarium—with its bird’s-eye view of Manhattan, Bunty is caught off guard: his father’s world dwarfing encompasses the past as well as the present. He has filled one of the rooms with his father’s office furnishings and with the “worn possessions which drop off a family as it jogs, never to be seen again, unless, like here, they’ve been saved” (EE, 179). The room is Buddy’s attempt to save the past, but it is windowless, dustless, mothless. Bunty wants “to live in a room that is real” (EE, 185).
More important, he wants to save what is real and hopes that his father’s computer, an IBM 7090, may hold the key: “‘Oh God. … Oh God god. … The Lord is my shepherd.’ Here you are” (EE, 177). Bunty once had a passing teenage love affair with the very same model, nicknamed “Batface.” Then, as now, he felt the urge to deify the computer, but that urge soon passed: “Old Batface will do exactly what you tell it to—right or wrong. As all the manuals assure us, it is the perfect fool.” Even so, he takes heart from knowing that the computer—unlike his parents—“can’t lie, like a man does. To itself” (EE, 136).
Soon after reencountering Batface, Bunty wonders if the computer might hold the key to processing his memory and, by extension, his life: “If one day you fed it all the clues of meditation that you had with you, the little blurts and jargons that kept you going but hidden, and meant you to yourself like your own vibration in the dark” (EE, 12). Bunty had once wanted to become an architect, hoping thereby to build and, thus, to possess permanence. He has now found another vocation, one mixing memory, desire—and design: “It’s no trick at all to break away from a family. … You can cut up a family in one day’s night. With the facts. … But where do the facts go then? Can they be saved? Maybe there’s a vocation in that” (EE, 185). Unlike his parents—Maeve wants to destroy; Buddy, to freeze the past—Bunty wants to meld present and past. The computer may prove, he hopes, to be his state of the art’s deus ex machina. After months of immersion in computer courses and weekend sessions with “Batface” in his father’s office, Bunty outlines his ambitious project to his father: “‘A consultation service; organizing a man’s knowledge of his own life. … It would be a life-bank like the records the government is building. Only every man for himself’” (EE, 197–98).
Before Bunty’s plan can be put into effect, however, he feels compelled to put his still nascent adult self to the test. The night of his party, Bunty had warded off various proselytizers: his father, the psychiatrist, and the priest. Now, however, he seeks them out, eager to try to answer, essentially, the very questions that Queenie put to herself: “What’s smart about me? What’s dumb?” (EE, 185).
In these charged encounters—somber parallels to Queenie’s three coming-out parties—the notion of audience, alluded to previously, takes on crucial importance. As a child, Bunty was painfully conscious that his parents’ scenario of their family life needed an audience—himself—to confirm it. Buddy played the part of the affable, self-effacing tycoon; Maeve, “inside the shell she made to be looked at” (EE, 87), played the movie star; Bunty saw himself as their “Bunty-doll” (EE, 186), “a kind of mule-stupid dollbaby he scarcely recognized” (EE, 32). Unlike Queenie, he needs real rather than imaginary father figures. Further, he needs them to be equals with whom he can communicate, not audiences to perform to, at a remove.
He is determined not to play the role of “Bunty-doll” with the psychologist Janacek, who, like his parents, is dangerously needy of control and of an audience. Theirs is a sparring match: Janacek wants information only Bunty can provide about Maeve, whom the doctor has taken under his wing; similarly, Bunty wants information from Janacek about a woman, now dead, named Jasmin, who had been Janacek’s estranged wife and, for a brief while, Bunty’s lover. The basic antagonism between the two men stems from Janacek’s refusal to confront painful memories—beginning with early years in a concentration camp as the son of a camp guard—and from Bunty’s determination to remember and thus save his past, including those, like Jasmin, lost to death. In Bunty’s mind, their conversation ends in a stalemate: “We’ve done our bit for each other, that’s all. But I’m not his style of listener” (EE, 192).
Much to his surprise, Bunty finds that he is Father Melchior’s style of listener. Initially, however, Bunty is so much on the defensive—in fact, he is wearing mirror sunglasses—that he is unable to see the man before him: humble, kindly, and, like Bunty himself, a man struggling to come down from the heights. The priest, soon to leave the priesthood for married life, does not want to convert Bunty. As Father Melchior sips his wine and Bunty smokes his joint, they come to be “like cronies” (EE, 216)—like equals. In parting, Bunty presents the priest with one of his prized possessions, a knife with thirty-nine uses: “‘A wedding gift. Keep it for the road’” (EE, 216). It is a quietly significant moment in Bunty’s life. Previously, he had wanted to keep fast both people and possessions. Now, in response to the priest’s question—“‘Can you spare it?’”—Bunty answers: “‘I’ll remember I had it once. And that it wasn’t lost’” (EE, 216). By giving freely of what is his to give, Bunty demonstrates that he has grown out of a childlike passivity in which he helplessly watched people and possessions slip away.
Bunty’s visit with his father is framed by the other two, thus emphasizing the polarities of the father-son relationship: on the one hand, there exists between them the kind of tension and suspicion that characterized Bunty’s meeting with Janacek; on the other, there is the always hoped for but never realized mutual acceptance and unspoken rapport that he and Father Melchior enjoyed.
Bunty’s meeting with his father is especially painful, and crucial, because it will be their last. Buddy, dying of kidney failure, is in the hospital, the last of his controlled, sterile environments: both physically and emotionally, he is unable to rid his system of wastes. Bunty has, in a sense, armed himself for the meeting; once again, he is wearing mirror sunglasses: a tactical move, no doubt, both to keep himself at a certain distance and to weaken the performer-audience relationship between himself and his father. When, however, Buddy exchanges his glasses for Bunty’s, a momentary truce occurs: “In the mirror-lenses, I saw myself, in him” (EE, 199).
This genuine, albeit silent, rapport is, however, short-lived. Bunty tries to buoy up his dying, despairing father—“‘Take it easy. … You were brought up to expect the best. … Us to expect the worst. It’ll work out’”; his father counters with an automatic, patronizing response that Bunty heard all too often while growing up: “‘Smart. … Very smart’” (EE, 199). Once outside his father’s hospital room, Bunty weeps—for them both: “My tears for him sluiced through my fingers like his money. Nothing I could do for him either way. Live an imitation life, you get an imitation death” (EE, 200).
At the novel’s close, Bunty is about to leave, Batface in tow, for a Berkeley think tank, where he hopes to create “a computer-dating-process with your own mind” (EE, 224). But first, he, like the protagonists of Textures of Life and Queenie, comes down from literal and symbolic heights. A mugger’s blow to the head leaves him “down in the gutter, dirty, and not ashamed of it.” Mirror sunglasses gone, “His vision was 20–20 now. … He was Batface, had been all along. Bunty to Quentin, Batface to Eagle Eye, one plane ticket would carry them all” (EE, 245).
Although Bunty’s father has died and his mother and Janacek “are revisiting the death camps, one by one—A pilgrimage, to dwarf the world” (EE, 223) to one suffering entity—Bunty is not traveling alone: “The Bronsteins were moving again; it was his heritage. Though it was the ports that bothered him, he would settle for the journeys” (EE, 248). Like the protagonists of Textures of Life and Queenie, Bunty is on the verge of a Janus-faced journey: he is saying both hello and good-bye to his past. More important, he has finally come not only to accept but also to embrace life wholeheartedly as an ongoing journey. Suffering and loss have generated for him, as for Liz in Textures of Life, a new metaphor for his life:
The jangle of personality that everybody was, rode along with him, a tinkle of manacle at the wrist, a chain-gang at the anklebone. The song of the first loss, training him. What are we here for, here for, if not to see each other’s lines of force? And see them, see them pitiful?
Bunty’s basic dilemma, that of a young man grappling with family, loss, and his own still provisional identity, may be commonplace, but the novel’s style—allusive, elliptical, poetically compressed—makes an old story new and arresting. Many reviewers, criticizing the novel for the absence of a straightforward, easily accessible narrative, failed to see that the novel’s style is, in fact, inseparable from its meaning. The anonymous reviewer for The New Yorker complained specifically against “the constant intrusion of phrases like … ‘his father’s linear reality’”4—singling out for approbation one of the keystones of the novel. Stylistically as well as thematically, the novel opposes “the linear life” of facile explanations, of formulaic responses.
At the novel’s end, Bunty has undergone a radical reorientation: “He was no longer trying to record himself as the primary aim; that was the old post-uterine dream with which the psychiatrists had already grabbed off half the century. Process was the reality” (EE, 202).
For Bunty, as for the protagonists of Textures of Life and Queenie, this acceptance of a fluxional reality comes only after he has come down from the heights of eyries, literal and symbolic. Like Bunty, at the outset of an open-ended journey, they “are all going to the lost-and-found” (EE, 249).
Quotations from Hortense Calisher’s works are cited in the text using the following abbreviations:
H: Herself (New York: Arbor House, 1972),
TL: Textures of Life (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963),
Q: Queenie (New York: Arbor House, 1971),
EE: Eagle Eye (New York: Arbor House, 1973).
Despite the theme’s pervasiveness in Calisher’s work, there has been no prior critical recognition of its centrality. Aside from a doctoral dissertation (“The Work of Hortense Calisher: On Middle Ground,” by Arturo Islas, Jr. [University Microfilms, 1971]), which is basically a collection of plot summaries (its thesis being that Calisher, in her fiction, advocates the middle ground), Calisher has received short shrift from the critical community. And, although her works are regularly reviewed in major periodicals, the reviews tend to follow a pattern: plot summary and a sentence or two characterizing the work and/or Calisher. Nora Sayre’s comment, in a review of Queenie, is representative: “It’s perilous to generalize about her fictions or her themes because she writes in so many contrasting styles” (New York Times Book Review, 28 Mar. 1971, 5). My doctoral dissertation (“Rites of Passage in the Works of Hortense Calisher” [University of Delaware, 1987]) is the first attempt to demonstrate the thematic coherence of Calisher’s work.
Donald Jay Grout, A Short History of Opera, 2d ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 1:248.
The New Yorker, 12 Nov. 1975, 217.
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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 that human glue. This she does, and in a special way: the entire inspiration of her book is to pay tribute to a woman she loved, a substitute younger mother or older sister you might say, who died at the beginning of the 1980s.
This woman, Katie Pyle, was an oddity by the standards of her day—a southern Jew who shook off the usual Jewish claims of higher education and marriage to become a frontline nurse during World War I. She hovered in the background of Calisher’s life for some 60 years, both a realistic and a soothing presence, and brought the sad “romance” of the South to the author’s parochial New York scene, just by opening her mouth: “She [her sister] died in my awms, Hotense.” Katie, whose language was like swamp musk, was family without actually being related.
How it all began—the romance with the South, with Katie, with Katie’s mother and (on occasion) her siblings—has its roots in circumstance, true enough, but owes its follow-through to Calisher’s enveloping, multiplying, greenhouse personality. Both their fathers had been born in Richmond, Va. (as was Katie), both had come to New York to seek their fortunes in the Jewish merchant tradition, and it was natural that the unmarried, attractive Katie would be welcomed into the busy Calisher household. Katie brought coolness and good manners into what Hortense sometimes must have thought was a cartoon strip of free loaders and relatives, presided over by the author’s neurotic, German-born mother.
One gets the feeling that there is a subtext to this little book which is often too subtle to grab, but is worth hunting for. It goes in this direction: Calisher was wistful about her father’s Virginia roots; they represented the real America to her rather than her mother’s greenhorn accent and foreign ways. This seems to have been an underlying chemistry in her idolatry of Katie, who had once actually been a guest at a famous plantation named “Shirley” before she came North to live. And while there, Katie had even learned such un-Jewish things as riding, fishing and hunting—not without their sexy, taboo appeal to the city kid, who could never lap up enough stories.
Whether Katie Pyle truly deserves the “poytry” that her younger (by 15 years) kissing cousin bequeaths to her memory will never be known. She is obviously seen here through the eyes of emotional need and brimming nostalgia—even as pure writer, apart from subject, Hortense Calisher has always been as lavish as she is deft, a maker of gorgeous prose arabesques. Not that she isn’t also squarely rooted in what we judgmentally call reality. She most intimidatingly is: wife, mother, grandmother, author of almost 20 works of fiction, vast traveler and delicious travel writer, currently president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and God knows what else.
But as she tells us early on in this combination exorcism and valentine, for many of her earlier years “I was what I heard.” At the most crucial time of her life, she “heard” Katie Pyle more clearly than any other human voice. It’s to her great credit and sense of irony—really, a sense of grief when highly intelligent people have to come to terms with their own secret vices—that she ends her memoir by saying, “I only spoke Southern for a time … Katie is dead now. And I am from the North.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4631
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 fused sense of all its elements that it cannot be uncompounded—how-you-say-what-you-say, so forever married that no man can put it asunder” (Herself [hereafter cited as H], 41). To try, then, to divorce the two is to misread Calisher. She is not a failed realist, an older generation’s would-be Anne Tyler; neither is she a second-rate post-modernist, stumbling in Joyce’s footsteps. Rather, she is an energetic observer of the phenomenal world, making that keenly self-conscious observing her primary subject matter. We are never under the illusion that the world she creates is comparable to an Andrew Wyeth painting, its curtains blowing photographically correct. Instead, throughout her work, the “monologuing eye” (False Entry [hereafter cited as FE], 360) tirelessly observes and articulates experience through the filter of a distinctive consciousness.
To grasp Calisher’s style it is essential to consider that angle of vision and that voice in direct relation to the theme of her life’s work. Just as Calisher’s characters, in so many variations, repudiate a predictably linear progression through life, come to reject dwarfing the world to a speciously manageable reality, so Calisher insists on “try[ing] for the life” (Saratoga, Hot). She leaves it to others to reaffirm a received reality, choosing instead to take soundings on a world that is always in flux. Calisher’s style is indeed oftentimes “convoluted,” “dense,” and “elliptical”—so, too, is her experience of the world. In “Short Note on a Long Subject: Henry James,” Calisher could just as easily be describing her own work—and its critical reception—when describing James’ “extraordinary affirmation of human consciousness. Here, James never for a moment underestimated the intelligence of his readers. There are some who will never forgive him for it.”2
In a recent Paris Review interview, Calisher reveals how deeply she is drawn to a nonlinear reality:
In Hugo is maybe where I learned the freedom to be discursive, to trust that there will be readers who can accept long sentences, and long meanings. … And also accept that a big novel can ramble structurally, and maybe should. It’s the run-of-the-mill jobs where you always know where you’re going. A big novel has a deeper directional sense.3
Indeed, the same can be said of Calisher’s shorter novels as well. None of them are dismissable as “run-of-the-mill jobs”; all of them, as Calisher said of Saratoga, Hot’s “little novels,” “try for more than the short moments of a life” in a deeper, multi-directional sense that leaves many reviewers stubbornly, petulantly, shore-bound.
Calisher’s first stories are richly detailed narratives that invariably culminate in an expressible epiphany. The narrator is usually identifiable as the grown protagonist who, possessing the necessary distance, evaluates and sums up a childhood experience. While Calisher’s word choice and metaphors are often startlingly and aptly out of the ordinary, there are no troubling lacunae. The opening paragraph of Calisher’s first published story, “The Middle Drawer,” in which the adult Hester steels herself to unlock her recently deceased mother’s drawer, is typical:
The drawer was always kept locked. In a household where the tangled rubbish of existence had collected on surfaces like a scurf … it had been a permanent cell—rather like, Hester thought wryly, the genre that is carried over from one generation to the other. Now, holding the small, square, indelibly known key in her hand, she shrank before it, reluctant to perform the blasphemy that the living must inevitably perpetrate on the possessions of the dead. There [was] … only the painful reiteration of her mother’s personality and the power it had held over her own, which would rise—an emanation, a mist, that she herself had long since shredded away, parted, and escaped.
(Collected Stories, 289)
In light of the narrative that follows, the paragraph clearly functions as both introduction and summation. The second sentence introduces an image that, slightly changed, dominates the ending. The closing sentence approaches a kind of thesis statement—with, however, one small but significant difference: Hester discovers, in the course of her reminiscence, that she has not escaped that powerful personality. There is also a compact framing of the narrative: in the first paragraph Hester holds the key to her mother’s locked drawer; in the closing paragraph she finally opens it.
It is not surprising that over an eight-year period The New Yorker published nine Calisher stories: each one expertly constructed and radiating a sensibility acutely attuned to nuances of scene and character. Calisher could certainly have continued to write many more such stories: her powers of observation and expression are formidable. But looking back from the perspective of her later fictions, it is equally clear why Calisher moved on, having clearly mastered the demands of the well-made short story, into deeper, murkier regions.
In Herself Calisher recalls a writer friend’s questioning her shortly after False Entry was published: “Was it necessary for it to be written through a man? ‘Oh yes—’ I flash back, from depths that surprise me, ‘you see—he had to be able to go anywhere’” (H, 117)—including, it would seem, far beyond the confines of Calisher’s childhood memories and the sedate architecture of a New Yorker short story. Calisher inaugurated a new decade, the sixties, with her first novel, False Entry. With its greater range of expression, its impressive structure, it embodies Calisher’s determination to travel on as a writer. She has not discarded the elegant phrasing so characteristic of the stories, as demonstrated in Pierre Goodman’s explication of his false entries:
In each little world I remained for a time, trailing my mists but warmed, always in the end moving on. There were times when I merely “visited” as it were for an evening, dipping into some environment that teased me to know it casually, satisfied to stay there like some tourist with a personal introduction he never disclosed. …
What most obviously distinguishes this from the style of the short stories is the dominance of metaphor. In the stories one would expect Calisher to then describe in concrete terms Pierre Goodman’s strategies of false entry. Instead, more metaphor-as-explanation follows:
For more complicated excursions … I rehearsed my disguises more thoroughly, sinking myself well in the role beforehand, like an actor with a two-hour makeup to apply. Such wigs and grease paints as I used were of course always “mental”; as I saw how, when skillfully applied, the barest hints furnished me by memory and predilection could turn into life-size effects, I began to appreciate, in the true spectrum of their possibilities, all the delicately japanned pigments of the mind.
The essential difference between the early stories and False Entry, as well as many subsequent novels and novellas, is the presence of a narrator/protagonist acting and analyzing in the present. The narrator of the autobiographical stories knows what to make of her past; each narrative generally focuses on one significant incident that results in Hester’s learning something about herself and the world. False Entry, in contrast, explores the process of making sense of oneself in the world and, more important, of self-consciously acting as both the narrator and the protagonist of one’s own necessarily inconclusive story. Permeating the novel is a vital dynamic between the self and the world, a dynamic that Calisher eloquently sums up in one of Pierre Goodman’s seemingly casual musings:
Now that the heat of the day was over, the caretaker was mowing the green space between this wall and his cottage. … This was all the mirror reflected when one drew near it—once again the world outside on at its passions and completions, once again the inner, monologuing eye.
Later in the narrative, Pierre Goodman comes to a climactic realization that, in subsequent works, is a given from the very outset:
Once I had prayed for the intercession of that feeling which wells from a heart that does not pause to know it has it. Now came to me … that the heart doomed to watch itself feel is not less worthy.
Considering the novels that Calisher would go on to write, one could argue that such a heart is demonstrably more worthy: more acutely attuned to the shiftiness of the self’s identity and the world’s, more expert at finding the metaphors and similes—as opposed to straightforward description or narration—to render faithfully the experience of that shiftiness. The main reason, surely, why Calisher’s second novel, Textures of Life, published three years later, is so uncharacteristically conventional and straightforward, stylistically and narratively, is the absence of such a consciousness.
The very mixed reviews of False Entry lead one to speculate that Calisher may have retreated to safer, higher ground, structurally and stylistically—only to strike out for the depths in her third novel, Journal from Ellipsia, published three years later. In his review of the novel, Anthony Burgess complains that the characters were “too Calisherianly articulate.”4 Burgess pinpoints what is one of Calisher’s great strengths as a novelist—unless, that is, the reader insists she adhere to an everyday, conversational level of sentence structure and diction she obviously eschews. Journal from Ellipsia is not only a parable of human development; it is also, given its narrator/protagonist’s double perspective, an extended, expansive meditation on the physical and the metaphysical, as evidenced in Eli’s first musings on the human condition. It is, appropriately, a meditation on quintessentially human movements:
On, on, on and on, on: and on, and on, on. The paradox about distance is that quite as much philosophy adheres to a short piece of it as to a long. A being capable of setting theoretical limits to its universe has already been caught in the act of extending it. The merest cherub in the streets here, provided he has a thumbnail—and he usually has ten—does this every day. He may grow up to be one of the fuzzicists, able to conceive that space is curved, but essentially—that is, elliptically—he does nothing about it. He lives on, in his rare, rectilinear world of north-south gardens, east-west religions, up-and-down monuments and explosions, plus a blindly variable sort of shifting about which he claims to have perfected through his centuries, thinks very highly of, and, is rather pretty in its way and even its name: free wall—a kind of generalized travel-bureaudom of “across.” It follows that most of his troubles are those of a partially yet imperfectly curved being who is still trying to keep to the straight-and-narrow—and most of his fantasies also. His highest aspiration is, quite naturally, “to get a-Round”; his newest, to get Out.
(Journal from Ellipsia [hereafter cited as JE], 89)
This is one of Eli’s more staid, essayistic monologues, despite the rhythmic play in the first sentence and the occasional, telling puns that reveal a distinctive, even contrary perspective: clear-headed, objective physicists emerge as “fuzzicists”; free will has its literal comeuppance in “free wall.” Throughout the novel, similar punning occurs when Eli’s experiences collide with his built-in computer’s input and, via puns, he merges two often conflicting versions of the world.
It is difficult to sum up the novel’s style—or, rather, since so much of it is related to Eli—his voice. Encompassing as it does modes and genres, from the most prosaic and abstract to the most poetic and incantatory, it could be termed “encyclopedic.” Journal from Ellipsia is the first of Calisher’s novels to which one can apply her 1969 assessment of Isabel Bolton and the Virginia Woolf of Between the Acts: “‘But isn’t this poetry?’ it was said, and the next instant—because a strong analytic intellect, prosaic enough when it wished, was working there—‘But isn’t this essay?’” (H, 297). One of the more difficult passages to label, stylistically, describes Eli’s first experience of falling—through a skylight. Not for the first time, Eli’s inner computer proves inadequate when processing physical realities but Eli uses all the newly-mastered symbols at his disposal:
How does one ever render the mise en scene here? By what dots........ or symbols … + - x - = X - + x - … by what loci, foci, axis transverse or conjugate can one describe and total it?
O Appolonius of Perga, who first named Our curve, O Great Geometer! How shall I render a what-where-who-how which is always happening all at the same different ONCE!
O pi in the sky - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -!
A superficial comparison between Journal from Ellipsia and The New Yorkers (published four years later) might lead one to conclude that Calisher beat a hasty retreat from the verbal antics that permeate Journal from Ellipsia. In many ways The New Yorkers hearkens back to its companion novel, False Entry, a similarly long, leisurely narrative. Structurally and stylistically, however, a “deeper directional sense” prevails in Calisher’s fourth novel. The earlier novel dramatizes one consciousness. Journal from Ellipsia contrasts without intermingling two consciousnesses, Eli’s and that of the resolutely earth-bound Jack Linhouse. The New Yorkers juxtaposes a far more contrasting, yet more deeply implicated, group: Judge and Ruth Mannix, Edwin Halecksy, and, from beyond the grave, Mirriam Mannix.
The novel opens in a deceptively traditional vein: a leisurely description of the Mannix house, followed by a post-banquet conversation between Judge Mannix and an old friend. The episode of Mirriam’s death rends both the fabric of her family’s life and any expectation of a conventional narrative. Following that violent death, the novel departs, structurally and stylistically, from an expectable pattern, straightforward chronology being the first to drop by the wayside. More important, as befitting the Judge’s retreat from public life, the language itself becomes more richly metaphoric as he attempts to grasp the radical change in his life:
The floors of his house were well tended. He watched, while a great tooth splintered the parquet and grew upward, then another and another, until he was surrounded by them entirely, and the house, utterly rent by them, hung on its own transfixion, curiously stable to the idling wind. Though he could see the house like that—as if from the air above the city—nothing of the city, or of men alone, had sown them. These were the stalagmites of pure accident, in whose unearthly air he now must learn to live.
(The New Yorkers, 59)
Just as the language becomes more complex, so, too, does the narrative perspective. The third person point of view, often centering on, sometimes hovering above, the Judge’s consciousness and, briefly, on Edwin Halecksy’s, is twice supplanted by impassioned first person narratives: the dead Mirriam as she lives in the Judge’s imagination—“I am the daughter, rampant. Built for the sensual light. Seen in it, often by the unsensual” (NY, 155)—and Ruth, once she finds her voice. Even the Judge speaks briefly in the first person—in a silent, internalized monologue directed at Edwin.
In False Entry Pierre Goodman, by reason of his prodigious memory, bridges past and present and, like Eli, savors a double perspective; the many, disparate perspectives in The New Yorkers demonstrate Calisher’s avidity for even more angles of vision on the world. And yet, no sooner did Calisher produce her most socially and psychologically expansive novel—one reviewer aptly entitled his review “A Reach for Totality in The New Yorkers”—than she published, in quick succession, three relatively short and quintessentially seventies novels—Queenie, Eagle Eye, and Standard Dreaming—each with a single, isolated point of view. It is not that the world beyond the confines of the self disappears or even recedes in importance; rather, the individual consciousness as primary arbiter of the reality it inhabits comes to the foreground. As a result, style, more than ever before in Calisher’s fiction, equals consciousness.
Queenie and Bunty, both New Yorkers, are of the same generation and social class, but the worlds of their novels are as different as Ellipsia and Earth. Queenie’s voice cannot but generate a comic universe in which recitatives—“So, no more La Pasionaria for me? Thaats pop!” (Queenie, 268)—are the order of the day; Bunty’s voice, in contrast, falls into more somber rhythms: “What are we here for, here for, if not to see each other’s lines of force? And see them, see them pitiful?” (Eagle Eye, 248).
Just one year after the publication of Eagle Eye, Calisher takes that somber, deeply meditative mode a level deeper in Standard Dreaming. The title clues the reader into the distinctiveness of the novel, in which thought takes precedence over action. There is nothing linear about this novel; rather, Berners’ thoughts, continuously and painfully revolving around his son, cannot rest in one image, one metaphor, that fixes his son. Instead, he images Raoul in various ways: he is, alternately, a “plummet of stone in the grave of his chest” (Standard Dreaming [hereafter cited as SD], 16); a cadaver (21); his “still beloved saint” (36); a place to be left alone, “uncollected” (124); and, finally, a priest annointing him as he begins the surgery. In his “Afterward” to Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, John Halperin discusses briefly the tendency of James’s characters to think metaphorically; his conclusion rings true for many of Calisher’s protagonists as well:
Perhaps such an indirect mode of thought is appropriate for people who shrink from direct physical encounters as well as personal and private revelations, people who on the one hand rarely exhibit sensual passion and on the other arrive at knowledge of themselves only after tortuous psychic struggle.5
Berners’ character is certainly in the throes of a “tortuous psychic struggle.” And, in keeping with Berners’ obsessional thought and emotion, the prose is more incantatory than in other works:
We are that animal, which whether it is entering the sea of death or the ark of hope, turns equally to look back on itself. Berners and his son both have dreamed this, that they might run beneath the ark of life and see how it was moving. Along. And many a median man like him. There are always some who are enchanted with the ministries of life. He calls our attention to them. The Society of the Hand.
Calisher ended the seventies with yet another novel of “psychic struggle”; Lexie in On Keeping Women also “dream[s] through all the conscious past” (On Keeping Women [hereafter cited as OKW], 278) and wakes to chart a new course. Unlike Berners, however, Lexie—in search of her own language—is continuously fusing, metaphorically, thought and action in a “body which acts like mind” (OKW, 321)—and vice versa. The interpenetration of body and mind most characterizes Lexie’s musings:
What had these last months been but the greatest of her sullen times? Prison thoughts. … Tainted ones. But in the thinking, the prison has disappeared. Glorious thought-careers have surged from behind bars—and oh sages: O Socrates, O Monte Cristo, and who’s that female flamenco-politico—O La Pasionaria—I understand how.
They sprout from the black, barring stripes, in the bright air-float between. Martyrs at their martyrdom have only being—a noose, a fire, a gallows, a blade. Saints at the height of sainthood have only grace. But prison-thought is mortal—boiling headily with all the bloody flux.
Throughout, On Keeping Women illustrates the truth of Terence Hawkes’ assertion that “Metaphor is not a fanciful embroidery of the facts. It is a way of experiencing the facts”6 and of giving shape and a kind of permanence to the flits of consciousness that tend to disappear
down that grotto which is not dream, or sleep or even mind, but existence-as-record. Which if you persist there will link you honorably to the lives of others. Not merely as one more mortal born to die. … In a marriage of record with the world—while you both so do live.
Calisher’s most recent novels, Mysteries of Motion, The Bobby-Soxer and Age likewise chronicle “marriage[s] of record with the world” in flux. Gilpin’s log records the life histories of a group almost as diverse as the bobby-soxer’s extended family—while Age’s journals project a “single, slightly damaged persona. … the Rupert half and the Gemma half” (Age [hereafter cited as A], 119). All three works are about gravitational attractions—and repulsions—and about the absolute imperative to remain in motion.
From her 1970s novels on, Calisher has couched her transportational theme in language determined to bridge mind and body, the self and the world. In one of Gilpin’s earliest addresses to the reader, Calisher reveals, in large part, her gravitation toward Mysteries of Motion’s subject matter:
In the movements we make toward one another’s mystery, surely there is where life most is. Those ever-shadowy movements—who does not make them, and who is exempt from studying them? But on the Courier I would be closest to the nature of motion itself. This is why I and the others, and a great nation, are being drawn there, and why history is. For when people are in thrall to a certain physical motion, then life appears to them to be at its height. Meanwhile, swung like an undercarriage below any large vehicle is that other continuous movement—small, rotor, and fatal—between the people themselves.
(Mysteries of Motion, 44)
In a small-town context, though not on a smaller scale, Calisher’s bobby-soxer endeavors to master those “ever-shadowy movements”:
Externalize. All the beginning world of it was in my lap and at my eyes, pure and hard in its physical manifestation, only waiting to be sorted and skeined by me, and given back again. What I would be doing with my body and my voice would be a recognition of the world.
(The Bobby-Soxer [hereafter cited as BS], 93)
And in Age Gema and Rupert, “side by side in [their] delicately fading pleasure-harness” (1), contemplate life on the move. Queenie’s vitally ambiguous “Ciao” echoes in one of Rupert’s last journal entries:
… [A]ge isn’t at all as I thought it; a menopause of the life principle, a general decline. Or a birthing—by the bodily pain Gemma and I haven’t had much of yet—back into the general delivery.
It’s like life. A total disease. Or parade … Whatever it is, it’s worthy of being spoken of every day.
And in terms as contradictory and various as possible. How else to render faithfully what Judge Mannix realizes at the close of The New Yorkers, not for the first or last time in Calisher’s fiction: “‘life moves’” (NY, 549).
Calisher has always savored contradictions and dualities. Hester Elkin of the autobiographical stories is the first of many protagonists to experience the necessarily painful pull between mutually exclusive ways of being in the world. In False Entry, Pierre Goodman, standing between literal doorways, contemplates, with a pleasure at once intellectual and sensual, “that outdoors-indoors blend which always excited him … like the heady admixture of life itself” (FE, 261). To be in-between is to be in motion and, thus, fully alive, capable of changes in direction.
On one level, Calisher’s own sense of in-betweenness is reflected in her characters’ names: her own French first name and Jewish surname that she duplicates, early and late in her fiction—from Hester Elkin and Pierre Goodman through Rachel (“pronounced the French way” (JE, 44)) Sinsheimer, one of the three women in Journal from Ellipsia to consciously mutate from human to Elliptoid, to Jacques Cohen (like Pierre Goodman, self-christened) of Mysteries of Motion. All share their creator’s enjoyment, at once aesthetic, intellectual, and sensual, of dualities that keep them in motion.
That same delight with dualities exists at deeper, lingistic and stylistic levels. In her Paris Review interview, Calisher talks briefly about
the wonder of the English language. That its words can alternate between rough and soft, harsh and sweet. And, best of all maybe, short and long. Saxon and Latin. Beowulf and Spenser7
—or, in other terms, “convoluted” and “elliptical.”
On the one hand, Calisher seems bent on explaining and encompassing the self and the world in elegantly attentuated sentences reminiscent of James, Hugo, the Bible. On the other hand, equally representative sentence fragments bespeak a resolutely modern consciousness that is always (literally, it would seem) brought up short by the impossibility of ever really articulating and communicating experience. This distinctive blend of old and new worlds results in an “intimate majesty”—Calisher’s characterization of the style of the English novelist, Christina Stead.8 The style is as paradoxically vital, as inconclusively conclusive, as Calisher’s theme.
The “outdoors-indoors blend” that Calisher has known and savored since childhood, from an early awareness of her household’s encompassing eras and temperaments, may, in part, explain why it is so difficult to securely “place” her in a literary context. Her subjects—but not her theme—reflect the times she lives in. Her style may straddle eras and genres, yet her voice is distinctly her own. Like Eli’s in Journal from Ellipsia, it energetically questions what it is to be human:
What is humane? The small distance. What is wild? The mortal weight. Wherever there is difference, there—is morality. Where there is brute death, here love flits, the shy observer. … The wilderness was all before me—and I was glad that I had come.
Just as her protagonists are grounded in the family, in their pasts, even as they journey forth, spinning out new legends, so Calisher’s home base has been that transportational theme, “rising always the same, yet never quite” (BS, 150), for “the legend never stops, or waits to huddle in one place. … It’s we who tour” (BS, 150). For the reader, as for the two Jims of The Last Trolley Ride about to embark on a journey purely for its own sake, “It’s all transport. … In the first things are the last things; this is the roll of the wheel. Wheel and sail, horse and wing, we are going round—fa la la—the world” (The Last Trolley Ride, 248).
Time 93 (16 May 1969): 116.
Hortense Calisher, “Short Note on a Long Subject: Henry James,” Texas Quarterly 10 (Summer 1967): 59.
Gurganus (see introduction, n. 1), 182.
Anthony Burgess, New York Times Book Review 7 (November 1965): 62.
John Halperin, “Afterward,” The Golden Bowl, by Henry James (New York: World Publishing, 1972): 553.
Terence Hawkes, Metaphor (London: Methuen, 1977): 39.
Hortense Calisher, “Seeking out Christina Stead,” in Encounters, ed. Kai Erikson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989): 91.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915
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.
Gonchev, an itinerant emigre, was born in Russia, escaped with his parents to Harbin and then touched down in Kyoto. Fine, but then he chooses of his own free will to live with his wife, Vuksica, and to raise their children, Laura and Klement, in Albania: Why? Presumably by now he’s famous—and of all the arts, film depends on distribution—and yet he chooses to live in this cranky, closed-off country. But sometimes reading a novel is like dancing with a difficult partner. The author wants a world where everyone smuggles and everyone spies, and the whole ambiance of “Europe” is everywhere, in hand-washed linens and little country houses and outdoor ovens, so if she wants Albania, she can have it. Why be picky?
The press materials then state that “an enthusiastic band of would-be producers invites him to America to discuss a possible project—his life story on film.” To my knowledge, that never happens. His wife arranges to have Gonchev abducted to Paris, but the arrangements get mixed up, so he lands in America. The filmmaker has gotten a concussion during his kidnapping, so all he can speak is Japanese. This means he requires a beautiful Asian translator, named Roko, who soon becomes his mistress.
Gonchev is billed as a “dissident,” and he’s aware of the irony. He doesn’t seem to be dissenting from anything much and was happy enough in Albania. However, he’s sent out by a U.S. agency to pontificate about world events, and the novel jogs on for a long time in this venue, sometimes in middle America, sometimes in New York.
The author seems preoccupied with matters of language and translation: In a motel in “Ohio—or is it Illinois?” Gonchev muses, “One slept without a pajama top in this warm cage of a room that comes to meet one no matter how many miles on, in faithful rendezvous.” Later, when Gonchev makes it to the California coast—either La Jolla or Laguna—he meets a girl, “an angular woman in high-heeled red shoes not suited to the territory, sporting a long bag of frizzed hair that must endear her to the rock musicians whose favorite video-aide Malkoff had told him she is—and wearing the sullen silence that so often enfolds the female photographer.” Is this English or not? Later on, still on the coast, Gonchev thinks: “Those imposed in the Sunbelt are like everything there—geared to light and air, and to the body’s competence in sport-space.”
Mighty fancy, but what does it mean? By this time, the reader, who has accepted Albania and spies and amnesia that lets Gonchev speak only in Japanese and digressions of every stamp, has been treated to a California earthquake where the earth turns fiery hot and yellow, and Malkoff has disappeared into a crevasse. Also, Gonchev and his companions have been forbidden to leave their cars: California Civil Defense patrols, seen here as analogous to their Albanian counterparts, won’t let them walk. (Since Californians are encouraged to keep walking shoes in their cars in the event of an earthquake, this long passage makes you rethink Calisher’s vision of Albania.)
The reader could ask, with some good reason: What’s the story here? Is there a plot at all? Why is a silent-filmmaker from Albania world-famous? Why does so much of this novel read as though it’s been translated from Albanian or Inuit? How can a character disappear into an earthquake crevasse and the other characters just keep ruminating?
But there is a final, telling piece of public relations copy here. This novel is described as “a masterwork … by one of America’s most revered serious novelists.” This may be the literary equivalent of the initials C.S. (con safos!), cryptic West Coast Chicano slang that you sometimes see sprayed next to graffiti. Keep your hands off this! Approach with caution. Give this novel the benefit of every doubt. Just keep walking up that down escalator. You’ll get to the top and be a better person for it. Maybe.
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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 state (of mind) is duplicitous, uncertain, sleep-driven. Thus we have a novel that probes the idea of a novel, the meaning of a meaning. It is no wonder that Hamlet is mentioned at several points. Isn’t Hamlet unsure of kingship, hierarchies, language, “reality” itself? Isn’t it, finally, an extensive interrogation?
Every line in a Calisher novel has to be read twice. The words, which at first appear obvious, are transformed by continual metaphorical developments so that they carry added weight. A simple word such as slide becomes double, suggesting falling—and solidity, as in an art slide. One of the questions raised in the process of sentence movement is whether or not Gonchev can really direct the flow. (Of course, Gonchev as artist is a twin of Calisher; both create or are created by their formal structures.) Conversations are always cryptic. Gonchev speaks Japanese, English, Serbian, and Russian. And he says in a strange way the following: “Evenings, we chose which of the other languages to speak. While my mother sewed. She sewed for our living, you see. And she claimed to be bored. Or sometime she joked that a certain language went with a certain dress. ‘I am going to botch this dress,’ she once said. ‘It requires Czech—and I don’t know Czech.’” The disruptive associations—language as dress—become almost surrealistic. And, of course, Gonchev “went for pictures,” not language.
The novel ends with a decision of Gonchev (and his wife newly arrived from the Balkans) to live in America. He is at last catching on to the weird “ups and downs here.” Calisher understands that the weird “ups and downs,” the “verges,” the quakes—there is a wonderful description of the California quake—are what characterizes our landscapes, our perceptions, our politics, and our living syntaxes.
Although Calisher has written at least twenty books, she has not, as I noted earlier, received the critical attention she deserves. Her thematic and metaphoric concerns have not been clearly charted. I am grateful, therefore, that Snodgrass’s brief study [The Fiction of Hortense Calisher] establishes the unity of Calisher’s textual world. Snodgrass recognizes that Calisher’s distinctive style—a tense, elliptical, moving mystery—is an incarnation of her epistemological explorations, her need to understand how and why we perceive things, her recognition that language and perception are central. We need look only at Snodgrass’s chapter titles to understand that she is an admirable guide. She thinks metaphorically: she gives us such titles as “Bridging the Gulf,” “False Entries,” “Solo Flights,” “Reentries,” “Fellow Travellers.” She suggests the “transportational interest” as the figure in Calisher’s carpet. She does more—she forces us to turn our eyes to Calisher’s canon, to see it as one of the significant achievements in contemporary American literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1089
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 and metaphorical remove from Communist Party functionaries’ interference. He is happily married to a beautiful Serb who abandoned a successful acting career for life with him in Albania; with their two teenaged children they enjoy certain perks usually allotted only to important Party members. Even the fundamental constrictions of Albanian life suit his nature and his craft: “Space confined—to the grown man this was what has been adventure. As in the fierce backwater of a country that had made travel a sin—and was craving it. On film.” Significantly, it’s not his “travel” films’ realism that Western audiences applaud: “What they had loved in his ‘cities’ was his fantasy of them—the improbable edge of truth, from a bibliographer who had never seen the books. Fantasies that showed the free world what it was to be free.”
Still, as any long-time reader of Calisher must suspect early on, such a settled and manageable existence will always be undermined. Gonchev is the latest in a long line of Calisher protagonists—beginning with Pierre Goodman of her first novel, False Entry—who leaves a safe enclosure to face the world’s “treacherous glare.” As always in Calisher’s fiction, stasis is a false god, a sterile substitute for a vital life in motion. The French slang for a motion picture camera’s dolly—“le traveling”—occurs at the novel’s beginning and very end: an important thematic tag that reminds us of what, in Calisher’s fiction, lies at the heart of the authentic life.
Gonchev’s wife arranges for her unsuspecting husband to be kidnapped and forcibly taken out of the country. The destination she intends for him is Paris but he ends up in America, where he undergoes often bewildering initiations into American life; they are so many and so various that his near-demise in a California earthquake doesn’t register significantly on this novel’s Richter scale.
Of all of Calisher’s novels, this is one of the richest in incident and encounters. Gonchev has several American guides: an irritatingly enigmatic government man, a hard-drinking New York Irish newspaperman, and a beautiful, preternaturally self-possessed young Korean woman—Gonchev’s interpreter and lover. Each of his guides leaves Gonchev feeling “agreeably lost and about to be enlightened.” That “about to be” is an essential component: Calisher has always shied away from the conveniently illuminating epiphany. Throughout the novel, Gonchev refuses to be pigeonholed as a “dissident-at-large,” “a professional émigré” always at the ready to supply “talk-talk.” Already a curious hybrid before his forced emigration, the Russian-born, Japanese-trained, Albanian-adopted movie king works hard at maintaining a provisional status: “A visitor, vowing to remain one in spite of the role laid on him.” It’s fitting that his first American home should be a houseboat. Like so many Calisher protagonists, he relishes an in-between existence, neither fish nor fowl.
Calisher has dedicated the novel to “My Country—on the verge.” “Of what?” remains a question for reader and protagonist alike. What strikes Gonchev about America is that “this country is a palace the natives don’t see. Falling apart, but with such grandeur. … These streets alone will be my salvation—but first my studio. And how else would I study, except with that traveling box camera I was born with?” What he yearns for, in life and in work, is what he once tried to accomplish in his early films: “to give shape to … that inner fairy tale of vision that comes naturally to a child continuously moving on.”
For a novelist known for her wonderfully idiosyncratic style—the long sinuous line so often juxtaposed with the abrupt fragment, the flat and slangy voice jostling the cultured and elegant—it may seem curious, at first, that the novel’s protagonist continually devalues language. This, however, is in keeping with one of the strongest threads in Calisher’s long career: a deep mistrust in language’s ability to do justice to our many-sensed apprehension of the world. Calisher imbues the protagonist of her first novel, False Entry, with a “monologuing eye,” a surprising syncretism that applies as well to Gonchev the film-maker and the hero of the moving picture that is his life. For him, the visual will always take precedence over the verbal.
At novel’s end Gonchev’s life seems enviably secure. He has been reunited with his wife, his daughter is enjoying a crash course in Americanization, and his son (all too chillingly at home in Albania) stays behind. Thanks to an art-loving billionaire, Gonchev can look forward to five generously subsidized years of film-making. At the same time, the novel ends with a directive against complacency and stasis: “When he has students again he will instruct them never to dream any city wholly, but to record wherever one is, while standing by the river of flux.”
In her twenty-first book, Calisher demonstrates once again an astonishing imaginative range. In earlier novels—notably, Journal from Ellipsia and Mysteries of Motion—she has written of marvelous journeyings but never before has she charted such an engrossing odyssey through so many varied worlds. This novel is yet another confirmation of Calisher’s intellectual and imaginative fearlessness.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871
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 increasing isolation in a comfortable Greenwich Village apartment, among some valuable pieces of furniture and some even more valuable pictures. Since, like any couple, they cannot hope to die in absolute yoke, they decide each to keep what they call ‘an almanac’—the ultimate survivor eventually to read what his or her partner has written. Most of the book is taken up with these parallel records. It is in their uniformity of style that Calisher’s novella suffers from its one major flaw.
Admittedly when people have lived in close proximity for the best part of a long lifetime, they tend to adopt not merely each other’s mannerisms but also each other’s manners of speech. But here there is absolutely nothing to distinguish the voice of the male poet from that of the female architect. Calisher more than once attempts to forestall this criticism—when her poet writes of the ‘fine aping which spins its thread between those who share time, sperm and interest,’ and goes on, ‘Open our skull, and you might find blood-thickets identical.’ But she never quite convinces one.
The old tend to be preoccupied with illness and death, and Gemma and Rupert, though in comparatively good health, are no exceptions. A key event for them is the joint suicide of two English acquaintances, Arthur Koestler, old and mortally ill, and his wife, so much his junior and in robust health. For either Rupert or Gemma to live on without the love and support of the other is something which they contemplate with horror.
Both Rupert and Gemma have been married before, he to a woman whose garish, self-absorbed life has consisted of a series of brief marriages and liaisons, and she to an Italian aristocrat, by whom she has had two daughters. One of these daughters, mentally erratic and emotionally unstable, has been mysteriously murdered in Germany before the book opens.
Rupert’s former wife returns, dying of a multiplicity of illnesses, from England to New York in order, with the financial help of a former lover. to set up a hospice modelled on the one in England in which she has been eking out her final months. Accompanying her are two nuns, complacent in their skill in conducting people over the threshold. Rupert and Gemma reluctantly visit her in her suite at the Plaza Hotel, and so, by coincidence, are present at her death. Calisher conveys the gruesomeness of all this with an overpowering economy that makes one wish that some other American writers of fiction, so remorselessly prolix, would learn from her example.
Two of the couple’s friends do, in fact, emulate the Koestlers. The wife is mortally ill with cancer, the husband cannot face a life of diminishing powers without her. They are an unappealing pair, their literary partnership not unlike that of C. P. Snow and Pamela Hansford-Johnson in its relentless striving not merely for excellence but for power. One can guess the identity of the real-life prototypes of these two characters, just as one guesses that the Leonard Bernsteins are ‘the famous conductor and his wife who opened their door to the kind of benefit rally for a radical cause at which only the well-heeled can safely appear’. In writing of such people, Calisher demonstrates that the years have in no way blunted her scorn for humbug and vanity.
It is interesting that Gemma—whom inevitably but perhaps mistakenly one takes, in part at least, for Calisher herself—should be an architect. It is above all in the architecture of her novels and stories, so immaculately constructed, each brick set in place with inconspicuous artistry, that Calisher has always excelled. This all too small book is no exception.
It is heartening news that Calisher has just completed a full-length novel, shortly to be published over here.
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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 her sixteen novels and novellas and fifty-something short stories make it difficult to classify her, she deserves respect for her incomparable verbal ingenuity—in her preface to the Collected Stories, Calisher defined the short story as “an apocalypse, served in a very small cup”—even from those impatient with her fiction’s leisurely pacing and byzantine complexity.
Calisher’s most imaginative novels—such as her hilarious interplanetary jeux on the reversibility of male and female social and sexual roles (Journal From Ellipsia, 1965) and her visionary portrayal of a European-born doctor whose experience of post-sixties America convinces him that the human race is moribund (Standard Dreaming, 1972)—feature arresting conceptions shrouded in dense folds of clotted rhetoric that sometimes prevents a reader from understanding who is talking to whom or what is being described.
Nor have Calisher’s recent novels moved her any closer to the mainstream. The ambitious Mysteries of Motion (1983) explores in distractingly meticulous detail the past lives and present interrelationships of six passengers aboard the first civilian space shuttle headed for a habitat Out There in the stars. In the Palace of the Movie King (1993), unfortunately failing to live up to its lovely title, offers an incomprehensibly attenuated portrayal of a gifted film director who escapes a European Communist state (recognizably Albania) for the imperfectly fulfilled promise of artistic and romantic freedom in the West. (A single exception was The Bobby-Soxer, a charming 1986 fictional reminiscence of growing up virginal and not at all pleased about it in the fifties, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and may be her most accessible book.)
These estimable works indeed contain multitudes, but only the most disciplined and diligent reader is likely to tolerate the intricately layered analyses of personality, motivation and memory that complicate and impede the progress of Calisher’s narratives. Such is the case, alas, with the novel she published earlier this year, In the Slammer With Carol Smith—a thinly dramatized portrayal of its protagonist twenty years after her naïve involvement with a radical student group altered the course of her life and left her—middle-aged, unskilled and reluctant to communicate with her exhausted “SW” (social worker)—a creature of the New York City streets, resigned to solidarity with the denizens of a condemned storefront.
In the Slammer frustrates with its abrupt shifts from first-person to omniscient narration and profusion of imperfectly realized scenes. But the novel is not without rude wit and feisty compassion, and it really is rather remarkable that a writer who will turn 86 this year once again proves herself to be so interested in and alertly attuned to the details and rhythms of contemporary life.
This is one of Calisher’s distinctive strengths: not just the ability but, one infers, the need to imagine the quality of lives that are categorically, dangerously, seductively different from one’s own. This exploratory sensibility emerges even in her early stories depicting a sheltered Southern-Jewish childhood troubled by intuitions of nearby social and racial unrest; figures prominently in the choice of unfamiliar “worlds” examined in her major novels; and reaches a crescendo in what is for me her single most artful and powerful story, “The Scream on Fifty-seventh Street,” in which a reclusive widow is shocked out of the protective enclosure of her city apartment by an indistinct wail from the mean streets below: a cry of fear and confusion from a voice that she knows in her bones is an echo of her own.
Calisher is at her best in the shorter forms, which she expertly distinguishes (in the Modern Library’s new collection of her Novellas) from the long novel’s tendency to “ramble the world’s scenery, seductive with digression. … [and, when imperfectly executed,] suffer from ideas made to walk like people.” “Something in a novella,” she declares, “says Stop. Leaving the people … in hiding, but On View.”
It’s a persuasive aesthetic, even if it doesn’t altogether apply to her own short novels, seven of which are included in this welcome if curiously assembled collection. It opens, most promisingly, with Tale for the Mirror (1962), a gently ironic study of cultural and ethnic misunderstanding set (as is the bulk of Calisher’s fiction) in upstate New York. The specific locale is an old-moneyed, ingrown village on the Hudson River that is disturbed by the arrival of a Hindu “neurologist” and celebrity, Dr. Bhatta, who has obtained possession of a lavish estate by means presumed suspect by the wary neighbors, who wonder what to do about his entourage of subservient females, the grateful client-disciples who “when they are grateful … give gifts,” and the apparent madwoman living in his summer house. It’s a deliciously observed, neatly plotted story very effectively told from the viewpoint of a thoughtful lawyer who never does decide whether his exotic new townsman is a “swindler” or only, like the lawyer himself, a man who arranges the facts of his life into a story he can tell to the face he must confront in the mirror.
The “Something” that should say “Stop” doesn’t say it quickly enough in Extreme Magic (1964), a talky portrayal, reminiscent of Henry James at his most over-elaborate, of Guy Callendar, who has lost his family in an automobile accident and tries to reconstruct his life as a small-town antiques dealer. Guy is drawn into a flirtation with a dangerously forthright young girl, and finds the understanding that she cannot give him with a neighbor woman burdened with a suicidal husband. But the story fails to engage us, because Calisher gives too much weight to its extraneous supporting details and too little to a central character, whom we don’t know well enough to feel any real sympathy for.
The Man Who Spat Silver (1986) makes mountainous molehills out of the coy exchanges between a professional translator who escapes her daily “solitude” by taking long walks through New York’s streets and a salesman who attracts her attention by the unremarkable expedient of spitting on the sidewalk. The conception is trivial, and neither character is sufficiently believable to sustain our interest in a story whose expectorations, one might say, are not fulfilled.
Women Men Don’t Talk About, previously unpublished, offers an amusing composite portrait of an Irish-American family transplanted to Southern California, and contains an ingenious plot twist: The middle-aged poet that Ailsa McCoy brings home after hearing his public reading turns out to be her mother’s old acquaintance and just possibly Ailsa’s long-absent father. But Calisher subsumes the agreeable comic particulars in a fog of sexual recombinations that, finally, conceals from us precisely who has been faithful or unfaithful to whomever and to what degree. This is the frustrating torso of what might have been a fine novella.
Saratoga, Hot (1985) is much better. In following the fortunes and obsessions of a married couple who are passionate devotees of horse racing, Calisher creates both a psychologically rich portrayal of its protagonist, a woman painter crippled in an accident and healed, as it were, by her fascination with the variously criminal types she and her husband encounter, and a vivid tableau populated by Damon Runyonesque touts, jockeys, aficionados and mafiosi. It’s one of the best examples of Calisher’s ability to enter a totally unfamiliar world and render it with generous specificity.
Though it’s less successfully realized, The Last Trolley Ride (1966) is one of her most interestingly conceived novellas, and has the virtue of being written in clear, straightforward prose. It’s set in the village of Sand Spring, New York, in the late twenties, and concerns the relations among two unmarried sisters, Emily and Lottie Pardee, and the two “mates” (both named Jim: It seems no Calisher story can forgo a central complication set forth to challenge the reader’s patience) who court and marry them. The story is graced by a wonderfully replete picture of the life of a hamlet in transition to the modern age (thanks to the coming of a trolley line, an enterprise in which both Jims are crucially involved), but succumbs to needless puzzlings as what ought to be its resolution draws near, and, after more than a hundred pages, the reader is still unable to answer conclusively several teasing questions: Did one Jim father one or more of the other’s children, and why; and which is telling the story (forty years afterward, to “their” grand-children), or are they telling it together in a single compound voice?
One turns with relief to the novella originally published as its companion piece, The Railway Police (1966). This is the dazzling story, told in her own wry first-person voice, of a social worker’s frustrated progression through a series of admiring men attracted by the colorful wigs she wears, then repelled by the fact of her baldness (from a hereditary disease). One day, upon seeing an obviously homeless man ejected from a train, she throws away her piles of fake hair, gives all her money to her indigent clients and goes forth to sleep in the streets, embracing the anonymity of those who have been discarded, as she now discards herself (“I wasn’t out to be a heroine. … I just wanted to be ordinary”).
Here, surely, is the tension that animates—and, all too often, encumbers—Hortense Calisher’s ambitious, provocative, exasperating fiction. This is a writer who wants to sleep in the skins of the denizens of the streets and beasts of the field; to go everywhere, be Everyman and understand everything. Her apocalypses don’t always fit snugly inside the teacups of her short stories, or even the eccentrically constructed china closets of her novellas and longer novels, but at their best they take us far beyond the confines of our own imaginations and deep within the convoluted and courageous mysteries of their own artful motions.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
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 Age, by Hortense Calisher. The Lancet (7 September 1996): 669.
Offers a positive evaluation of Age.
Fisher, Ann H. Review of In the Slammer with Carol Smith, by Hortense Calisher. Library Journal (1 April 1997): 122.
Offers a positive assessment of In the Slammer with Carol Smith.
Geeslin, Campbell. Review of Saratoga, Hot, by Hortense Calisher. People Weekly (5 August 1985): 10.
Offers a positive assessment of Saratoga, Hot.
Longley, Edna. “Pilgrim Mothers.” Partisan Review XLVII, No. 2 (1980): 308–13.
Longley offers an unfavorable assessment of On Keeping Women, finding fault in Calisher's “overreaching and overwriting.”
Review of In the Palace of the Movie King, by Hortense Calisher. Publishers Weekly (11 October 1993): 69.
Provides an unfavorable assessment of In the Palace of the Movie King.
Review of In the Slammer with Carol Smith, by Hortense Calisher. Publishers Weekly (17 March 1997): 74.
Offers a positive assessment of In the Slammer with Carol Smith.
Review of The Novellas of Hortense Calisher, by Hortense Calisher. Publishers Weekly (27 October 1997): 54.
Offers a positive assessment of Calisher's collected novellas.
Ozick, Cynthia. “Against Prophets with Honor.” The New Criterion 1, No. 6 (February 1983): 33–7.
Ozick responds to Calisher's essay “The Long, Shining Table,” commenting on totalitarianism, and the differences between Western and East European literature.
Seaman, Donna. Review of In the Slammer with Carol Smith, by Hortense Calisher. Booklist (1 June 1997): 1654.
Offers a favorable evaluation of In the Slammer with Carol Smith.
Snodgrass, Kathleen. The Fiction of Hortense Calisher. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993, 136 p.
A book-length critical study of Calisher's short stories and novels.
Wilbur, Richard. “At a Certain Remove.” The New Criterion 1, No. 6 (February 1983): 37–9.
Wilbur discusses Calisher's essay “The Long, Shining Table” and the perception of “serious” writers in America and Eastern Europe.
Additional coverage of Calisher's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 22, 67; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 15.
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