by Eric Byrd
Having nothing better to do…I read two old journals. High spirits and weather reports recede into the background, and what emerges are two astonishing contests, one with alcohol and one with my wife. (1968)
That sounds like what I read. Until Cheever gets sober – 1975 – the entries of this 5% selection seem to alternate between marital standoffs in an atmosphere of alcoholic cafard, and lyrical-libidinous celebration of life, love, nature and consciousness. The gin-soaked husband and the leaping faun are always overtaking one another:
An unseasonably warm day: fevers in the blood. I walk with Frederico. The sense of odors, exhalations, escaping from the earth is volcanic. The country stirs like a crater. The imperative impulse is to take off my clothes, scamper like a goat through the forest, swim in the pools. The struggle to sustain a romantic impulse through the confusions of supper, the disputes, the television, the baby's bath, the ringing of the telephone, the stales of the dishpan, but I have in the end what I want and I want this very much. (1960)
John and Mary will end the night in separate rooms, before different TVs, solipsistic screens, imprisoned in “ennui and meaningless suspense,” she determinedly aloof, he mired in whiskey and Seconal; but come morning he'll feel the rush of resumed consciousness, he'll be very horny, he'll be primed to write a story or chop firewood or ski the mountains in the morning light — until, of course, the bottles in the pantry begin to sing; and another night comes on, and with it “the struggle to recoup some acuteness of feeling,” and he will awake again haunted by “the feeling that some margin of hopefulness has been debauched.”
Though it is a tender and intelligent reminiscence of Cheever, Updike's review of the Journals misses the point. He says the four hundred pages of undated, unannotated entries frazzle the brain, and the emotional circularity “depresses the spirit.” Behind Updike I see the ghost of Henry James, frowning over the Goncourt Journal: “It may be an inevitable, or it may even for certain sorts of production be an indispensable, thing to be a névrose; but in what particular juncture is it a communicable thing?”
Reading the Journals after decades of admiring the stories, Updike found only rawness and repetition, and missed, I think, the daring thing Cheever made: a confessional voice, candid yet solipsistic, and spooked by itself. The voice of an isolated, amnesiac or unreliable narrator — but autobiographical. With Humbert Cheever might say, “This then is my story…At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe.” What Cheever did not care to probe is the relational context of his life. Mary Cheever appears as a totally enigmatic figure, a stranger who shares his house; and because her habits and moods, her comings and goings, are only externally described, they make an artfully irreducible mystery. Cheever's older brother Fred — perhaps the most significant relationship on his life — was trying to drink himself to death in the same years. Their parallel paths of slow suicide intersect here and there, and Fred is suggestively, memorably glimpsed, though never examined in any depth. I thought the vagueness of Mary and Fred, and their enigmatic histories with Cheever, might be creations of the editing; but this morning I read Colm Tóibín on Cheever's novels —
in his stories he could create a tragic, trapped individual in a single scene or moment; he had a deep knowledge of what that was like…but he struggled so much with the novels simply because there were vast areas of himself that he could not use as a basis for a character dramatized over time.
— and I said aha!
The Journals are powerful because Cheever was the site of intense contests — between spleen and ideal, responsiveness and ennui, “between what I dream and what life has made me” (Pessoa, whose Book of Disquiet shares with these journals a cultivated monotony, a speculative temper ruled by tedium); between straight and gay, although “straight” doesn't convey the nearly religious ideal of conventional domesticity fashioned and worshiped by this surplus son of Depression-broken gentility, no more than “gay” captures the utter loss of status and identity, the submersion of self in a troglodytic carnality, that Cheever's hateful and paranoid society taught him to associate with men loving men. The Journals also show a great writer watching his world. From start to finish the prose is chiseled and luminous. Cheever described writing as the “bridge of language, metaphor, anecdote, and imagination that I build each morning to cross the incongruities of my life” — and his journals were a mode of writing impervious to hangovers. They were thus the daily exercise of his devotion. The saddest entries are the last, as they taper toward death. “For the first time in forty years I have failed to keep this journal with any care. I am sick. That seems to be my only message.” “I have climbed from a bed on the second floor to reach this typewriter. This was an achievement.” Accepting the National Medal for Literature two months before his death, Cheever affirmed that “a page of good prose remains invincible.” “All the literary acolytes assembled there,” Updike writes, “fell quite silent, astonished by such faith.”
There is no baroque foolishness about the organ, no liquid and nostalgic reach. It is straightforward, wrathful, and thunderous, and has in its fainter ranges an echo like some sweetness of remorse. (1960)
A Viennese waltz plays in the supermarket; on the wall of the laundromat there is an English hunting scene; in the bowling alley there is a mural of some Indians, canoeing over the crystal waters of a mountain lake. (1954)
Thunderstorms, polished air; the light seems honed, buffed, and, late in the day, strikes from a low angle. I swim at around four, but the poignance of a swimming pool in September seems to have lost its legitimacy for me. The pool is real enough and the crux, the truth of a humid afternoon. There are leaves in the water these days. I am the last swimmer. The wind in the leaves is highly vocal. The light is pure and very elegiac. I enjoy swimming at this time of year. The water is in the sixties. The stones are warm and I lie naked on them. Happy, happy. (1970)