Interviews

Hortense Calisher, The Art of Fiction No. 100

Interviewed by Allan Gurganus, Pamela McCorduck, Mona Simpson

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 partylike 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 Fifty-seventh 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?

            HORTENSE CALISHER

Not quite.

INTERVIEWER

It’s not a conventional autobiography.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

CALISHER

Because what I have written—and how I came to write it—is most powerfully what I am.

INTERVIEWER

What was its genesis?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

And the title?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

How do you mean?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You were thirty-seven when you first published—in The New Yorker. Did that seem late?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

How do you?

CALISHER

You begin.

INTERVIEWER

What had held you back?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Then what was there to fear?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You wanted to compete with the best, is that it?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Your family?

CALISHER

I couldn’t write those first stories about them until they were all dead. That’s when I began.

INTERVIEWER

It was an unusual family.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You say your father’s education suffered from the Civil War. Surely not our Civil War?

 

CALISHER

Yes. He was born during the siege of Richmond, and married late, a much younger woman. So did his British émigré 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.

INTERVIEWER

How would that affect your work?

CALISHER

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 belle epoque 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.

INTERVIEWER

You really felt you had been there in those eras?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Then what is this strange sense you speak of?

CALISHER

As a writer, I began to feel I could venture anywhere, could write of any society by analogous experience.

INTERVIEWER

Even outer space, as you have done.

CALISHER

As long as there are people there, yes.

INTERVIEWER

What about the ethnic strains in that childhood of yours? Weren’t they pretty mixed?

CALISHER

I felt rather as if those had fused in me.

INTERVIEWER

What were they?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

And Jewish?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

What did you feel you were most?

CALISHER

Jewish. And, of course, American.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Then where does that leave you as a writer? Doesn’t it bewilder you?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Weren’t all the languages in the household confusing?

CALISHER

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 were 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.

INTERVIEWER

And was it?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Yes. In Herself you pay some moving tributes to that. What does bollux mean, by the way?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

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?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

How do you trace that?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

And a rapist, if I remember correctly.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Yet that’s the book you have said is about the middle class. You like to crisscross worlds, don’t you?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Your novella, The Railway Police, is about a young woman who chooses to be a vagrant. Living under bridges, and so forth.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that impulse to wander is more usual in male writers?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

But you are a feminist, aren’t you?

CALISHER

Born. But not orthodox. And the writer part comes first. I’d never write propaganda.

INTERVIEWER

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?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You like rough words, don’t you? Anglo-Saxon ones. Yet you’re thought of sometimes as having a “poetic” style.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

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.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Before we leave The Railway Police, was it any way autobiographical, as that comment you quoted seemed to imply?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Actually you have a lot of hair, don’t you?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

The way I heard it you tugged at your hair yourself to demonstrate.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

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?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve described your life in those cities—no intellectual company, babies, not much money, new territory.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve often written in the persona of a man. In False Entry, your first novel, the narrator is a man. Why?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

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?

CALISHER

I’m not sure. I was so pleased he admired it. And I knew better than to ask what he meant.

INTERVIEWER

What other expertises would you say you have? You trained as a dancer.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You used sailmaking in Saratoga, Hot. How about The Last Trolley-Ride?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

There’s also a character in it obsessed with his toy trolley system. And one of the buddies grew up on the barge canals.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Transportation is a very American theme.

CALISHER

A planetary one now.

INTERVIEWER

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.

CALISHER

No. It’s the mode by which the real themes travel, this time.

INTERVIEWER

It’s not science fiction.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You must have researched.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Have others?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

But your shuttle doesn’t fall.

CALISHER

No. It has another fate.

INTERVIEWER

Would you talk about the technique in that novel?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Although in everything you write there are passages that take off.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Each of your works seems impelled by its own rhythm, or voice.

CALISHER

Always.

INTERVIEWER

Is that conscious?

CALISHER

The subject dictates the approach. I don’t consult with myself beforehand. It happens.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give a name to that novel’s form?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard that when you first published in The New Yorker, many publishers asked to sign you up, but you wouldn’t.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a well-known letter in Herself stating your independence. Are you against editors, the editorial process?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

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?

CALISHER

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’s 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.

INTERVIEWER

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.”

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

People did laugh, though?

CALISHER

Yes, lots. But also took it seriously, as he’d said. Even the sedate Library Journal, which surprised me.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your own attitude toward Queenie?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You think of the human animal first?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

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?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

As a writer who is a woman do you now feel you can go anywhere, achieve anything equally with writers who are men?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

But you don’t function in the world of the “woman writer.”

 

CALISHER

I think it’s ultimately foolish of us to resegregate 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.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote a novel called On Keeping Women . . .

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Like what?

CALISHER

Like in a passage beginning—“How is the word beauty like a capon basting?”

INTERVIEWER

That’s pretty metaphysical.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You function as a critic also, don’t you?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Does what critics say about literature affect you?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Would you name some?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Critics over here usually compare you to James, or to Proust.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

But some see Dickens in you.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

What about the French?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

But you also write “short.” Short books, short sentences.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

The French write notably both long and short. Balzac did.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t think we have that?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

What’s been your ambition as a writer?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

That seemed to preoccupy you in Herself.

CALISHER

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 theater 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.

INTERVIEWER

Do the books fulfill all your ambitions?

CALISHER

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?

INTERVIEWER

What’s the sensation of writing?

CALISHER

A sense of power and surprise when it’s going well. But always obsessive hope, as you pace an almost familiar terrain.

INTERVIEWER

Surprise at what?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

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.

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

I think you unnerve a lot of people who want to categorize because you won’t be categorized.

CALISHER

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 lifelong. 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. 

INTERVIEWER

So you think you mirror the diversity of our age in a particularly American way?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that your range, and your idiosyncrasies of style are less tolerated because you are a woman?

CALISHER

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.

INTERVIEWER

In Herself you 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?

CALISHER

Intimately. The page isn’t all of my life. It’s what I offer from it.

INTERVIEWER

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?

CALISHER

There it is, yes. That’s what’s there.


Author photograph by Marion Ettlinger.