Issue 128, Fall 1993
Selections from the
John Cheever Journals
My father had a black Remington portable. He hit the keys so ardently that he wore their letters off. He ’d sit at that machine and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee and make the most ferocious sound, not like a typewriter at all, more like a machine gun.
He wrote novels, letters and, of course, stories. He also kept a journal This was typed on lined paper and collected in miniature loose-leaf notebooks. There were twenty-eight of these notebooks when he died.
No, he didn’t write in his journals with the idea that they would be read by anybody else. We weren’t even supposed to peek. But yes, ultimately he wanted them published, although he didn’t make that decision until quite late in life. These were workbooks, a place to take notes, to practice and to fume.
The entries were not dated. Nor was there any attempt to bring order. He’d take up a lined page, type on it until he was done, and then he d put it aside. Add to this the fact that my father was a fiction machine. Give him a screwdriver, have him walk across the room, and he ’dbe holding a hammer. Often, in the course of a paragraph, he’d jump from fact to fiction and back to fact.
Line up these obstacles, and you see what a miracle Robert Gottlieb performed in excerpting a sort of memoir from the mass of words. This was published by Knopf in 1991.
The magnificent thing about the journals is that they present the writer at his most candid, nasty and depressed. For those of us who perform our wretched lives against the glowing and imaginary world that advertisers, TV producers, and— to a lesser extent —movie directors throw up at us, it can be a relief to see such unhappiness in a man of some stature.
The trouble with the journals is that they present one strand of a relatively complex piece of tapestry. They give the impression that my father spent his entire life sitting around feeling worthless. Of course he did spend a lot of time sitting around feeling worthless. But that time was recorded disproportionately in his journals, which probably took him about fifteen minutes a day to write.
The Paris Review has now gone back to the original notebooks and unearthed a good deal of fascinating and previously unpublished material on writing and other writers. It makes a great read. But the distortion is even more pronounced. He’s not just sitting around feeling worthless, now he’s sitting around feeling worthless and fretting about his place in the literary sweeps. Please remember that this is just one piece of the man. An interesting piece, I think: diverting, instructive, candid and intimate. But not the whole guy.
So read it, but remember also the stones, the novels, and the man whom friends and neighbors were always so happy to see. I liked to hear the rattle of that old Remington. He was working, and it was hard, it was deadly work. But that wasn’t all of it. I could be wrong, of course, but it seemed to me, to his son, that John Cheever was also having the time of his life.
— Benjamin Cheever
It is still, even in writing for The New Yorker, a question of feeling strongly, of being alive. It can be the first thing you see in the morning; a wet roof reflecting the bleak light, the suspicion that your wife’s legs under the table may be touching the legs of someone else, the happiness of burning up the road between New Haven and Sturbridge on your way home. In signing a contract with The New Yorker there are certain apprehensions as if writing were a mystery, something as chancy as a long shot on a wet track with mud all over the silks and the bums crowded in under the grandstand out of the rain. I have twelve stories to write and they’ll be good.
To bring out a collection of short stories this fall: “Torch Song,” “City of Broken Dreams,” “Percy,” “The Day the Pig Fell into the Well,” “The Enormous Radio,” ’The Season of Divorce,” “The Sutton Place Story,” “The Pot of Gold,” perhaps, “The Radio Man,” I mean “The Elevator Man” and to write a couple of stories to complement the collection, a couple of long pieces with no dying fall. Read at the office yesterday most of the stories I’ve written in the last five years and was, quite incidentally, exhilarated and happy to leave the office for the open streets at five. The stories didn’t seem too good. The war stories are spoiled with chauvinism, a legitimate weakness, I also found pitiful evidences of poorly informed snobbism, an exaggerated wish to impress my knowledge of army prose upon the reader and associated with this a tendency to use verbatim conversation rather than the remarks that should be made by my characters. Some of the best of it seems to be the set descriptions of character: Emma Boulanger had the soul of a housemaid, etc. This I picked up from Flaubert and it is showing signs of turning into a bad characteristic of generalization. I can use these set pieces if they are integrated into a crisis. My interim narrative style needs a lot of work. Love of sorts is reasonably well described. There are too many scornful and fine phrases. These should be characters of the imagination.
After reading his [John Updike’s] prose, any of it, a line here and there, I have to go through a long reassessment of my own aims, with what is limpid in my style, with my distaste for the vernacular, my exactitude, my long twilights, my scenes, my confinement, in expressing love and death, to the genteel symbols of the middle class. Despair is a shirt without any buttons; joy is a surplus in the checking account. In other people’s fiction —in my own feelings — there is a hunger for richness, for the renaissance, for the blue rivers that come down from the Alps, for the girls with round breasts and pearls, for gold, for silver and the smell of salt water in the churches of Venice. It seems to be a partly inhibited craving. I don’t express it well. I have looked at these riches for so long with restraint.
I think continually of travel; of the customs shed in Genoa, the distant noise of traffic, a third-rate hotel room with a red plush canopy over the bed, the directress of the English school in Florence, reading an Italian grammar on a deck chair in rough weather and giving it up at eleven to go down to the bar for a drink. Telling dirty jokes on the gravel driveway just before dark. I think continually of travel.
I dream that I am walking with Updike. The landscape seems out of my childhood. A familiar dog barks at us. I see friends and neighbors in their lighted windows. Updike juggles a tennis ball that is both my living and my dying. When he drops the ball I cannot move until it is recovered and yet I feel, painfully, that he is going to murder me with the ball. He seems murderous and self-possessed. I must try to escape. There is a museum with a turnstile, a marble staircase and statuary. In the end I do escape.
Three stories back from the NY’er and I’m glad to have them all back they are all so poor, so trivial, so much in them is wrong. At least I can see this far; perhaps I can see how to extend them. This internecine climate makes considerable assaults on my virility. And damages my powers of perception, compassion, love. How good it is to have the senses open again; to overcome the sense of fundamental damage.
I think today of a burning glass; these clear green trees standing in the deep grass, covered with white flowers, from some happier time. And I wonder if these wild excursions into self-discovery might not damage my interest in fictions and contrivances; but this cannot be so since I believe that writing is an account of the powers of extrication. And I must say this in “West Farm.”
Again; this is what I want to do; to write something that describes the growth of a personality. For Coverly this process of growth would be so painful that he might be tempted. He seemed to be changing his form; to be putting off an old skin. His apprehensions about the success of this metamorphosis; his excitement at the happiness it promised, and the mental and physical anguish of reforming so many deeply rooted habits seemed to tax his strength. He found himself torn by the generation of nearly unbearable tensions. And mingled with this triumph was a bitter sense of loss. He would remember coming back from a trout stream in the northern woods late in the day, following tiredly with his eyes the path that would take him back to where his boat was moored and where he would cross the lake to the camp where there would be dry fire-wood and a bed to sleep in. He had stayed at the stream too late; the woods were getting dark. Just before dark the path he had followed with so much good cheer and confidence dwindled into a narrow animal track — a thread — and vanished in a bed of ferns. He was lost. Coverly drank nearly a pint of whiskey before lunch.
Reading some S.B. [Saul Bellow], early S.B. last night. His mastery of the descriptive set piece is admirable. So is his intellectual vigor; his determination to seek and hold an emotional and a philosophical point of view, he makes it a passionate and an erudite search; and yet for reasons that I don’t know I felt that I was looking into something less than I aimed for; that I was looking down.
Having met Katherine Anne [Porter] on the street and acting, to the best of my intelligence in consideration of my curiosity, her gifts and her loneliness, I asked her for dinner and drank too much. We are not good friends; we are not sympathetic. I feel that she is old and perhaps vain and I do not feel that I can honor her as an old woman or delight in her as a young one. She ceaselessly kneads her face with her hands, drawing it back into the smoothness that it has lost. She spoke of poetry with information and passion.
Still in a slump. V.W. [Virginia Woolf ] reads Shakespeare and the lesser-known Elizabethans, but I don’t have this culture or this intelligence. Still sitting around, waiting to be complimented. Read some V.W. and some R.P.W. [Robert Penn Warren]; be patient.
I have written to myself imaginary letters of praise from Auden, Bellow, Trilling, and have imagined a complimentary telephone call from Red [Robert Penn Warren] and Eleanor [Clark]. I have also imagined opportunities from Hollywood and Broadway. In fact I have received one letter from a man in a rest home.
The trouble with the Hackers is that I can’t write very well about the rich. In the summer months the Atlantic coast, north from Long Island up into Maine and including all the sea islands seems to become a kind of social clearing house and as you sit on the sand, watching and listening to the heavy furniture of the North Atlantic, figures from your past appear in the surf like the plums in a pudding. A wave takes form, accelerates its cocksure ride over the shallow, boils and breaks,
The Journal stinks;try the house-breaker;I have a second take on the country Husband. It doesn't seem any good and I sit here waiting to be complimented. This seems to be a kind of gotohell day. So far as l know equan- amity and patience are mostly what I nee. My mind seems idle and sordid. Half-wrote a letter to Malcolam, played a little chopin, oh to get back to work.
Still in a slump. VW reads Shakespear and the lesser-known Elizabethans,but I don't have this culture or this Intelligence. Still sitting around,waitlng to be complimented. Read some VW and some RPW;be patient.
Still this low comedy of waiting to be complimented on the CH. Half asleep I saw letters so numerous that they had to be tied into bundles;but nothing this morning at the PO (which I visited twiee) but a belltin from the League of Women Voters, Up at three Am to snok a cigaret in the dark livingroom and think of the houaebreaker, but it still is not appealing.
A beautiful day,opalescent—the river,the sky,the. deep coloring of the shadows,the mosemonds green fields,the children on their way to school,the pearly skies and many kinds of strong blue in the water (And Saturday on the golf links a small tree without a leaf left on it, black with rain but on the ground beneath it in a nearly perfect circle,all its leaves lay thickly babababgbabad around the trunk, shinning like yellow fire on this dour,wet,morning.
To make writing—my kind of writing—have any value—one oust moge with the greatest possible candor—and in this connection I must fit in sonewhere the nature of these arbitrary depressions.. sitting in the balcony of the colonial Theatre in Boston I suffer a desdear
revealing Consuelo Roosevelt and Mr. and Mrs. Dundas Vanderbilt and the children of both their marriages. Then a wave comes in from the right like a cavalry charge, bearing landwards on a rubber raft Lathrope Macy with Emerson Crane’s second wife, followed by the Bishop of Pittsburgh, in an inner tube. Then a wave breaks at your feet, an earth-shaking noise and there are the Hackers, Pete and Alfreda. How nice to see you, how very nice.
In reading Isak Dinesen’s self-designated Gothic tales, loaded down as they are with diamonds and emeralds, great halls, miles of plush and best of all, forests and oceans, the old proposition that the love of beauty and the love of death are allied, reappears. What troubles me perhaps is a trace of inflexibility in my own point of view; the feeling that I may be guarded and nervous when there is no need for this. This can be wrong; it can be like Coverly’s microscope. “Death in Venice” is the champion of this kind of Gothic sentiment. This seems to me close to false emotion. That it was something else yesterday is unimportant; we defend ourselves. Decay plainly has its charms — the faded rose, etc. — but so does good health and its loves and these days that begin with a swelling of dark red and orange lights in the east that are swiftly extinguished by a sky colored like sailcloth and that will not change its dark grey until the light is drawn off it.
It seems that writers should have some part-time job like rerouting trains on the New York, New Haven and Hartford. I cannot work the day after a party, I cannot refuse all invitations and I cannot account for dim days like yesterday. The sky heavily overcast, the air wet and cool. The looks of snow, but too warm.
I would like a more muscular vocabulary. And I must be careful about my cultivated accent. When this gets into my prose my prose is at its worst.
I read the Salinger story three times and don’t know what to make of it. His prose is excellent and supple but he seems very close to crazy. I am reminded of the bitterness in my own work, that bitterness that is not an but that is its opposite. So I would like to write a story that is all yellow, yellow, yellow, the brightest yellow.
I am less concerned with the scope of my prose style than I am with the scope of my imagination. A surrogate prose stymie loses velocity and a swift prose style loses elegance and penetration. I can hit a sour note. I am interested in language but my gifts may not lie there.
The blonde on the train. Around thirty-five, nicely boned, slender, but attractively upholstered. Oh very attractive. She has some elegance but nothing, I think, to do with class or money. She carries her striking shoulders as if they were naked. She chats, she handles her cigarette as if it weighed ten pounds, she touches her pretty hair, she coughs (she has a terrible gin-cum-cigarette cough) and throws back her head to laugh. She’s married of course (who isn’t) perhaps for the second time and will be an excellent wife. She seems to know what men want. She’s been loved by eight men, no more no less. She may tangle with a few more before it’s over. But the sense is that she’s taking it on the lam, that she’s spending more than comes in. The whole thing, even the cigarette cough, looks dissipated, and why? Because at bottom there is some profound discontent, some infection, some unrequited taste, some flair, some extravagance, some fondness for the light that drives her to spend it all more quickly than it can renew itself — a charming quality, really the thing beneath her desirability, and for her a cruel grave.
[John] O’Hara in The New Yorker. I think of him scornfully until I read it and then I admire him. It is a very long-winded account of the comings and goings, the affairs and fortunes of some pretty dull people but it is all imbued with a strength of character, some kind of self-knowledge and an extraordinary ability to take his world seriously, its cars, barbers, shoe-laces, fashions, etc. I have never taken it seriously, never been able to. You won’t find any descriptions of rainwinds here —visions of lost youth, but the prose is muscular, pedestrian, expensively dressed, never brilliant, but it has qualities I admire.
And another story by O’Hara who is, I think, coming into some bitter twilight of late middle age where full-breasted girls of nineteen throw themselves at grey-beards, where, when he hears the whistling of a train in the distance he thinks only of the venereal possibilities of travel, who is reminded by the milkman of adulterous housewives and who, seeing the gentle lights of a cottage late at night, thinks that somebody is tying a can on.
I stuff the last O’Hara novel into the garbage pail. Well says M. [Mary Cheever], you certainly enjoyed it. What there is to learn is his slogging along, not so much like an infantryman as an old-fashioned mail carrier. He writes with the confidence, the boorishness of a man who knows that his audience is enslaved. Enslaved they are because as a pornographer he is successful. He generates and belabors an atmosphere of venery that will stir the weariest cock. Now and then he brings off a scene but the drama is mostly dependent upon sexual commerce. But there is the slogging to observe.
Work, although I am distracted by the family’s departure for the beach and think that I bet O’Hara never let himself be distracted this way.
I would like to avoid indecency, but to overlook the fact that we have, after a long struggle, achieved a practical degree of sexual candor would be like perching on a stool and writing with a quill pen by candle light. We have the freedom to describe erotic experience and it seems irresistible.
Trouble with the magazine [The New Yorker] in which I first agree to a substantial cut, read a foolish and laudatory magazine article on Salinger, go into a slow burn that turns to a drunken rage where I call Bill [William Maxwell] and refuse to make the cut. I am troubled. In the morning, inhaling deeply, I go into town to repair the story. The whole incident seems senseless and indigestible, perhaps because I cannot accept the degree of my dependence upon the tastes of others and in general my lack of success.
First I want a landscape that corresponds to the landscapes of our dreams. It can be anything —frame houses, palaces, farms, fishing shacks but it must have the fitness of those houses we walk through, those beaches we swim on while we sleep. And I would like a narrative pace that has the quality of story-telling, that lost an.
Hemingway shot himself yesterday morning. There was a great man. I remember walking down a street in Boston after reading a book of his and finding the color of the sky, the faces of strangers and the smell of the city heightened and dramatized. The most important thing he did for me was to legitimize manly courage, a quality that I had heard, until I came on his work, extolled by scout-masters and others who made it seem a fraud. He put down an immense vision of love and friendship, swallows and the sound of rain. There was never, in my time, anyone to compare with him.
I move slowly and painfully, like an old man. Pain seems like a rivet put through my chest into my back. Then I think that I shall not live to see the spring; I shall soon die. John is dead, he died quite suddenly. Do try to get to the church early. We are so afraid there won’t be room. My muffled voice rises from the casket: “But I haven’t finished my work. My seven novels, my two plays and the libretto for an opera. It isn’t done.” The priest tells me to be still. Preparations are made for a crowd but on the big day the telephone begins to ring: It’s Binxie’s only chance to play golf. We’re sure John would understand. He was always so carefree. It’s Mable’s only chance to go shopping, etc. In the end no one comes. I see the disgusting morbidity of all this. I try to cleanse my mind. If we do not taste death, how will we know the winter from the spring. I paint shutters, cut a little wood, light a fire. The clear light of the fire is appealing, this and the sound of water is what I want. How far away from X’s underwear, lying on the floor in a heap. I will have love tonight, I think, fire and water, and I drink to still my anxieties and misgivings, but I fail. I have been in this poor place before and I shall find my way out.
The foolish hours I spend sitting in my library. I think that a writer, my kind of writer, shouldn’t have too much impedimenta and what do I mean by this: chairs and tables, carpets and views of Rome. I mean either this, or that since the possibilities of luck and disaster are always vivid for my kind of writer, it may be that it takes me longer to accustom myself to an environment. All of this will change; so will everything else, but now I like to think of the house and its contents as belonging to M. and the children, I like to feel that this bare room with its chair and table is all I possess. Anxiety, from which I am suffering, strikes directly at my scrotum.
I read some [John] Marquand, furtively, and yet I have more to learn from him than from [Gregor] von Rezzori. It all seems very old-fashioned like a Staffordshire castle or cottage, all covered with dust and I think the itemized furnishing, paintings and silver, are vulgar but they are, after all, something to think about before you go to sleep. The line is broad and clear, he is a story-teller. In the opening paragraphs a trip to a strange milieu is announced. So is the passion of ambition. People from the west are introduced to the New England haut monde, their diamonds and sapphires flashing in the twilight. But here is a whole range of familiar emotion, ambition, home-coming, a bulky and likeable hero with bluff manners and yet the old man, with considerable cunning, makes us wonder if he isn’t drinking too much, if this won’t be his downfall. There is nothing penetrating but the facts are straight. There is a clash of manners, a world of great possibilities is spread out before a boy of fifteen who has the shrewdness to mind his manners and who is liked by everyone. This is Little Lord Fauntleroy all over again and yet Lord Fauntleroy is not too far from our dreams. Another splendid day and I think I will walk to Cascada.
I read a Hawthorne story and the prose seems to me bad, stale. He writes of Secret Sins and I do not know what he means. I suspect that he jerked off in the wardrobe a few times and this is what is meant. In a sense great literature illuminates the fields of wisdom that are to be opened. There is nothing in Dostoyevsky or Flaubert, to pick two men at random, that is made obsolete by Freud. However, as I see it, Hawthorne’s sense of secret vice has become puerile.
Read the Updike book and this elsewhere. I have to do the revision on “Melissa,” “The Lost Girl,” the speech, the scientists, the Capri thing, the institute letter, and yet I accomplish nothing. Reading about Mailer I feel, humorously, that here is the kind of literary personality whose most inconsequential tastes and mistakes are interesting and I feel the threat of failure, old age, my inability to meet the mortgage payments, to write well, to give strength and counsel to my sons. I seem to partake, half asleep, of my mother’s infectious social discouragements, the heavy, the naked, the nearly animal resentment at being outcast. Second-hand clothes that didn’t fit, lost friends, athletic incompetence, poor marks, no pocket money, bad food in a dark lunch-room where nobody much wanted to sit with me, the sense of being deposed, the member of a deposed family.
The dog days go on. I read the Hemingway book [A Move able Feast]. This arouses those mixed feelings we endure when some intact part of adolescence clashes with the men we have become. As a young man my absorption in his work was complete. I imitated his person and his style. He writes with the galvanic distortion that gives the illusion of a particular vision; that is he breaks and reforms the habitual rhythms of introspection. I think I think his remarks about [F.] Scott [Fitzgerald ]’s cock are in bad taste as may be the quarrel between [Gertrude] Stein and her friend. I am for some reason embarrassed by his references to walking home on the dry snow and making love.
Saul Bellow blows in at half-past eleven. The fine, pale face the uncommonly large eyes with their startling show of white and for me, as often for a stranger on a train, a deep and sometimes troubling sense of kinship as if we had, somewhere between Montreal and Chicago, between Quincy and Rome, shared the burdens of a self-destructive uncle. This is not a friendship or an acquaintance; but when he comes across the hall to say goodbye my instinct is to hold him back, to plead with him to stay although I never seem to have much to say to him. He has nearly finished another novel; and I have not.
I write fond and witless letters, drive here, drive there, make a simple airplane model for my youngest son. It is getting dark. Will the glue dry in time for us to fly the plane? It does, just. I don’t drink until four but then I belt it in. Call the Updikes, unsober. He is unyielding, really inscrutable. Can it be that he dislikes me. How could such a thing come to pass! Czechoslovakia is worth a good two or three weeks, he says, talking like a travel agent. He seems impenetrable. I think he may be both proud and jealous. He may be intensely competitive. And I think of those men, men in their fifties who feel that their indispensability has never been appreciated; that they’ve been taken for granted. The attitude itself implies colorlessness, petulance. One must have the vigor to bear one’s disappointments lightly, Mary Updike says she is homesick for Russia.
I sit at a large desk on which there is a polished brass stamp box, scales, paper weights, letter openers and so forth. On my right is a pile of clean yellow paper and on my left a pile of manuscript. I write in a small clear hand with a lead pencil and the words flow without interruption. As I watch myself I cover six or seven pages. My prose is somber and manly, the story I write is simple and compelling and nowhere eccentric. I seem to have recaptured the gift of narrative. I don’t know what my subject is —love and death —but it is the extraordinary steadiness with which I work. The work seems to cost me nothing in energy or peace of mind. When I have covered twelve or fifteen pages I ring a bell. A pleasant manservant enters with an ice bucket which he places on the bar. He then removes the manuscript. I pour four or five fingers of gin over some ice, flavor this with a little vermouth and walk around my warm, well appointed study contentedly. It is a very large house.
On the Salinger thing I do feel, especially in the later stories, that while he writes with gentleness and grace there is underlying much of what he has to say a deep and bitter quality of resentment at discovering that there are other passengers on this ship and that, for all the brilliance of his gifts he sometimes moves, in spite of himself, with the sullenness of someone hogging a seat in the subway. But this is a characteristic he shares with Cummings who could never admit the existence of a colleague who hid himself in the old house at Silver Lake; the slum in the village. I am mature enough to escape any sort of resentment but it does give me some insight into the feelings of those who are or feel themselves to be unlucky.
The night wind is fresh and moves cursively through these old rooms; but at three when I wake it is hot and I wonder why can’t I transform the love I feel for my youngest son, for them all into the energies I need for this work. This is their only inheritance from me and how, under the circumstances, can I piss away an hour, a day.
I drink gin and read [Henry] James. Fm not sure of my motives in reading him, beyond passing time, and I’m not at all sure of his motives in putting down the tribulations of Hyacinth Robinson. One must scrupulously avoid in fiction the feeling that the author is wasting his time; that his occupation is idle and undignified, rather like nose picking.
I think of Yaddo. There is a stretch of lawn between the pool and the clothesline where we are supposed to hang our trunks that seems to represent high spirits, work done or progressing, stout friendships and spry loves; but I think of the big house with distaste. One tries to track down melancholy in terms of color, smell, not faces, not things heard. I am miserable, it seems because of the thick coats of varnish on the imitation Renaissance furniture; I am sad because of the faded Turkish rugs. I grieve because of the bitter incompatibility set up by a brass candelabra and a Florentine chair.
It seems to me that one of the most critical problems faced today by a young writer of fiction is the emphasis on explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse. [. . .] The change, mutations and flow of literature, painting and music seem not to be organic. [. . .] For a writer of my generation to claim that explicit descriptions of fucking, etc. will reach a saturation point and that readers will presently long for accounts of family life, storms at sea —the usual paraphernalia of fiction may be equally mistaken. One has two images. One of a lovely woman in a chair —perhaps a rocking chair —sewing blue cloth. The second is of the same woman, naked, with “fuck me” written on her back side. Both images are persuasive and full of meaning but it seems to me that the second is irresistible. My feeling is that one of your problems, perhaps your principal problem, is how to manage this irresistibility.
A pall of decency settled over English literature after the death of Chaucer and with a few exceptions remained intact until the publication of Ulysses fifty years ago. We have nothing more brilliant, explicit and lovely than Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. But this, as is the case with extreme brilliance, produced no imitators. However some forty years later we had Henry Miller, Mailer, Updike, Roth and hundreds, literally hundreds of novelists who assumed that once the fields of masturbation, buggery and cocksucking were open they had only to appear there to be acclaimed; but to carry on the image of a playing field they were men who could neither throw nor catch the ball. I know a man who, on an institutional grant, wrote a novel about a bowel movement. It was factual; it had, he claimed, an Aristotelian unity since it was confined to toilets and it dealt with life and death. It was bad. So it is not so much the raw materials we deal with as it is, at times, the mastery of them that matters. And then I want to bring up that characteristic of the attention span of Americans. This is not to say that the ability to concentrate has been lost or damaged but to say that it has changed radically. It may be that the American reader can no longer, because of a variety of circumstances, concern himself with anything but fucking and espionage.
[Frederick] Exley calls collect from Florida where, having demolished a bar-room, he needs two hundred dollars bail.
In reading Nabokov I think I see, in the use of detail, a particular Russian idiom that cannot be imitated. I mean the use of signs, park benches, umbrella stands and mounted antlers, those things that seem to fly at the consciousness of a madman.
I have a letter from an editor at Doubleday who suggested that I title my next book: “Cultured Pearls and Other Imitations.” How strange and angular that someone unknown to me should go to the trouble of writing such a letter.
I have a sore bum and slight indigestion which I garnish liberally with gin. 3 P.M. I read Camus and admire the set-piece landscapes as I do in Bellow, O’Connor, etc. There is a kind of brotherhood, it seems, in our love of the world and our determination to celebrate its shapes, reaches and colors.
Some arcane book-keeping at The New Yorker wherein I get eighty-three dollars for my last story.
An accounting from The New Yorker, three years after the fact, in which, through a simple misunderstanding, I lose seven thousand five hundred dollars.
Waking in the middle of the night I say: God Bless Hart Crane, God Bless Jim Agee, God Bless Virginia Woolf, God Bless Ernest Hemingway and God Bless William Faulkner.
Updike’s cover story and I quite sensibly envy his gifts. I defend myself by saying that he has developed an impractical degree of sensibility and that my own stubborn and sometimes idle prose has more usefulness. One does not ask, skating on a pond, how the dark sky carries its burden of starlight. I don’t, in any case.
I read a novel on Saturday about a man whose wife keeps him in a cage. This extention of emotional reality into factual reality is persuasive but the cage is for me too much of a good thing.
I am entertained by a novel about Hollywood that lacks, I think, resonance. A history professor, a spry cocksman, takes his neurotic wife to Los Angeles. The lights, sounds and customs of that pan of the world are put down directly and effectively but with nothing lyric or penetrating. His wife barely tolerates fucking and he picks up a waitress who lives in Venice. There is a well researched and interesting account of life there; and this brings up the importance of research and my inability to travel. Enter a psychiatrist, married to a movie actress. The historian screws the waitress all over the place. When the wife discovers this she gets screwed by the psychiatrist. The historian then screws the starlet. The wife, liberated by the psychiatrist’s fucking —she comes three times to his once — dyes her hair orange and wears California clothes. The husband returns to the academic world of the east while she settles down in sin city.
He was the kind of writer who wrote for magazines and was, as a consequence, famous in doctors* and dentists’ waiting rooms and barber shops.
I read [Thornton] Wilder’s novel [The Eighth Day] and while it is a pleasure to find someone his age in full possession of his faculties, I’m not quite sure what the value of his faculties is.
I read the Solzhenitsyn with pleasure and think that I will read until dawn as I did with Tolstoy forty years ago. Fortunately I have enough common sense to go to bed. It is forty years later. The book is not only an exhaustive indictment of Stalin’s tyranny, his hired torturers and murderers, it seems to be an indictment of the backwardness of the Russian people. This is, I think, because Russian literature, in spite of the fifty year struggle for change, shows less organic growth and change than any other literature. We do not find characters out of [Laurence] Sterne and Trollope wandering into contemporary English literature but in this book the cruel and stupid bureaucrats are the same men we met in Pushkin and Gogol. That woman, writing with her finger on a steamy window, first appeared in [Mikhail] Lermontov. It is an intensely national literature, you might say provincial, literature so that descriptions of drunkenness and stupidity go beyond the character into the national character, the Russian people and the race. Some European sophistication seems to have rubbed off onto the aristocracy but today’s Russians seem not only backwards, they seem determinedly so.
Independence day. I read, for the grants, some stories by a woman named [Joyce Carol] Oates who is extremely gifted and not terribly interesting.
In a review of Cocteau, prefaced by Ned [Rorem], there is a vigorous attack on the mirror image, so vigorous that I wonder if the writer isn’t or wasn’t a sufferer himself. I think of [Harold] Brodkey in St. Louis, falling in love with himself because there was no one else so intelligent handsome and rich in the neighborhood; and how bitter this marriage was. With what anger and disappointment he studied his face in the mirror like a man who sees across the dinner table that his wife’s eyes are small and set too close, that her lips are thin and her teeth discolored. But I don’t want to write this story.
In Mrs. Oates’s novel the heroine takes a look at a gas pumper and begins to heave. They run off into the woods where she moans; Put it in way in, deeper, deeper, etc. I like to think of heterosexual love as a more complicated act.
I glance at a novel, published by Bernie about homosexual love. It is, like most of Bernie’s books in no way provocative or pornographic. The incidence of homosexual intercourse is very high and the geography is explicit but it is very dull. Some practices that have mystified me are made clear. Excepting for the size of their cocks the two lovers have no traits at all. I can’t tell one from the other. They are constantly unbuttoning one another’s trousers which dates the book comically. Trouser buttons went out twenty years ago. They also travel on double-deck buses which went out with trouser buttons. I suppose the book was written that long ago. I think the ending was meant to be happy but I tossed the book into the incinerator so I can’t check this morning.
A novel by a young man, the climax of which comes when he screws his mother-in-law while his wife is in labor. He also, now and then yanks his cock. Since Phil Roth has opened up these fields of athletics I suppose it will soon be crowded with young and old men with open flies, beating their wan-colored bones and squirting various quantities of juice onto the wallpaper. But candor is, of course, not all that is needed. Phil’s self-abuse is brilliant. Yesterday’s young man might just as well describe in detail the blowing of his nose. Is there anything to be said for euphemism.
I read Burroughs. I do not want to be self-righteous but this is, it seems to me, a venereal obsession close to madness. The street boy undresses, folding his clothes, and blows smoke into his pubic hair. A gluey substance drips from his swollen muscle. But I smell the bitter sweat that would fill the room; the stink of socks, nervousness and dirty underwear.
Great progress in this kind of writing has been made in the last few years while I persevere in trying to write a novel without a four-letter word. How much easier it could be. Donleavy, Miller, Mailer, Ginsberg, Roth, Updike, etc. some of the most important men we have are all writing about cocks and cunts and arseholes while I describe the summer dawn. The mystique of pornography is what I claim to be interested in —the sense that a prick drawn clumsily on a wall is a sign of great cheer. The intensity of sexual candor must be irresistible to most of us and I have, by way of footnotes, reveries, etc. described plenty of cocks but there is some dead end here —the great difference between a fantasy and a robust fuck or suck and I might, idly on this sunny morning, claim that I mean to declare this difference.
That the exploration of candor in writing does not seem to me a universal domain. There are in literature turning points or feats of discovery —Flaubert and Joyce — that seem universal, but sexual candor I think not. It is the mastery of men like Miller, Roth and Mailer that gives their work its power. These seem to be intimate and singular accomplishments. Now that Roth, not without assistance, has opened up the playing fields of masturbation we find the field thronged with incompetents who feel that self-abuse is, in itself, adventurous, comical and visionary. Phil’s self-abuse is brilliant.
O’Hara, it seems, has written a story about a man, a general, who wears women’s underwear and makes his wife dress like a sailor so that he can unbutton and screw her. Why? Because a fact is known and provable does not give it any moral reality or significance. This may be hypercritical and self-righteous.
In the interview they ask why all my women characters are predatory sexual cranks and I might reply that this has been my experience; but much of the fault is mine. Why should I have engaged myself in such a relationship and have endured it for thirty-five years. Goodnight, I say. Goodnight, says she and by letting her voice trail manages to make this simple wish seem despairing and contemptuous.
I think I do not like the poetry of John Betjeman, a decision based on the knowledge of a half dozen poems and a newspaper article. I think he is unserious, uncommitted, I have ignoble suspicions about his virility, I think he is too much like Lear, without Lear’s especial melancholy But hearing the fine sound of the wind in the leaves I think that when I am cured I will write in a lighter and more natural way about the sound of the night wind in the leaves and damp country churches and bursts of light and the sound of bells; of things received easily. That I will escape the feeling of lining in the center of a house whose rooms, one after the other, are being closed and locked to me.
A letter from Bill [William Maxwell], asking me to cut a story by two galleys. I go into a lasting rage. A short story is as precise as a poem and it cannot be slashed.
The two stories in the current New Yorker might be called surrealist. A man with diamond cufflinks and a ruby tiepin is frozen into a glacier. The narrator, a glider pilot, sees a woman running across a field in a wedding dress, holding her train, etc. In the second. Mummy is a doctor and something of a nut, a little like Oxencroft. There seems to be no other turn for them, the editors to take, publishing fiction in a magazine, so packed with distractions. I remember feeling that you had to show your bag of tricks in the opening paragraph, to hold the reader’s attention. You come in half-dressed, holding a grand piano in one hand. How far they’ve gone from the dry accounts of the suburban husband pushing the screen door open at dusk and putting his wife’s anniversary present on the kitchen table. Edith Wilcox stood at the door of their summer cottage, waiting for the children to return from their picnic. She drew a strand of light brown hair off her forehead, etc.
I read some Flaubert, hoping that this will get me back onto course as it may. I find the description of furnishings and women’s clothing static but much of it is lambent, witty and beautiful. It is the sense, in every way, of a vision of life put down with an authority that makes it appear to be a force of comprehension. One seems for the length of the book not only to understand these lives but to understand as well the room where one sits, the telephone calls, the hash for supper.
Updike mentions me fleetingly and I am pleased.
The poet we have come to hear is, I guess, about forty. He seems to have lost an eye. His hair is long, newly-washed and it gleams in the light. He keeps it off his brow every few minutes by combing it upwards with his fingers. This is a variation of the horizontal gesture of Ben [Cheever]’s generation. His voice is not strong but his manner is easy, collected, he might be in his own living room, chain smoking, running his fingers upwards through his hair. I like some of the poetry although I, drunk and excitable, get impatient after an hour. It seems to me that he is given to listing names, to summoning a literary community. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, John Barth, Leslie Fiedler. Etc. On the way home I give an emotional and perhaps drunken description of the effect of the academic community on literature. They work, I say, within a community, writing prefaces for one another, reviewing one another’s books, reading aloud to one another from the work in hand; and because of this (say I) they lack the tension and urgency that a writer (like me) must suffer and exploit. The note of desperation, loneliness, is never heard, etc. M. disputes this and when we get home Ben says that we are having a domestic quarrel, disguised as a literary discussion. It still snows and I wash down two Miltowns with a glass of whiskey.
Donleavy’s new novel is reviewed as sad, beautiful, bawdy and I worry about my own product. In fact I am jealous. I would like some financial and critical security; but then who wouldn’t.
Three days in town for interviews.
A woman reporter tries to seduce me. I hope and pray that she won’t be vindictive.
The usual Thursday collapse. 9:20. I read in the evening paper that DTs are precipitated when the alcoholic is denied his hootch. Brrr. [Robert] Gottlieb calls at four to say the first printing [of The Stories of John Cheever] is upped to forty-five thousand, fifty-five rather and that the B.O.M.C. advance is fifty thousand. So I am thirty thousand richer. Celebrate, he says, and I want to but M. takes the dog out for a walk and I don’t seem to have any chums. I call S. but she is returning a wallpaper sample to a friend. I call S. but she is on her way to the shrink. I speed F. [Fred Cheever] into town where we buy two records. In the record store a negress is dancing and I am about to dance with her but I refrain. Good. Good.
In thinking of Eleanor [Clark] I could begin with the Rocca but I seem lazy, unenthusiastic and my mind keeps straying downstairs to the bottles in the pantry. I could do the splendor of the ruin, the grandeurs or grandness of the landscape and the rigorous life within the moats and walls. There was no running water and no potable water at all. You bathed out of a Renaissance well, hauling the water up in a marmalade tin. Beside the well was a pair of Roman columns. Fig trees and azaleas grew sometimes in the rooms and around the walls were lookouts of a Moorish cast. The setting was not romantic —it was much too deeply rooted in fact, much too massive and irreducible for this. The fortress in a sense belonged to Eleanor Clark. She had made the place habitable and summered there for many years, later with her husband and children. The combination of massive beauty and simplicity, the moorish lookouts and the cliffs of Ansedonia was Eleanor’s setting. There are many others —of course —Rome, the Vermont ski trails, Normandy and Connecticut. The tranquility and the smallness of Porto Ercole ended with the arrival of the Queen of Holland followed by a large delegation of Italian nobility and presently Charlie Chaplin and the Radziwills. This was not Eleanor’s setting and she left the Rocca for good.
During the summers there she wrote her book Rome and a Villa. In the masses of books written about Rome this remains a classic. Her scholarship is exacting, her knowledge of the city lyrical and intimate and grown, hard-headed men on finishing the book have been known to take the next plane to Fiumicino. These qualities of scholarship, lyricism and humor and deep intelligence characterize all of Eleanor’s work. Eleanor is an exceptionally beautiful woman —a graceful athlete, a formidable linguist and a pleasant mother. I once, skiing with her in Italy, was so put out by her competence that I sulked in the bar. She now lives between her house in Fairfield and her house in Vermont. What else, what else. What else.
I’ve never been quite sure of my relationship here. He [Yevgeny Yevtushenko] is a prime celebrity and it sometimes seems, to a childish degree, that I’m trying to achieve some sort of fame at the end of his coattails. I’ve had fantasies in which we are photographed, traveling together, the Russian poet and the American writer —but I claim to be genuinely disinterested in this sort of thing. It is perhaps that I have never known anyone so conspicuously famous. And I sometimes think my love tor him, my pleasure in his company, may be more ticklish than I have been willing to admit. When we embrace I am aware of the fact that we are being observed by a hundred people; that I am the one man in the room he will embrace; that I am the closest friend of the famous poet. This is all lamentable. I love him because he is brilliant, I also seem to love him because he is famous. There is the appalling possibility that this is narcissism. Oh well, I’ll see him tomorrow and try to see it clearly.
Why must I tolerate so much odium in my affairs; meaningless of sexual antagonism. Oh why?
The club meets for lunch. T. is in one of his uncouth humors spar and parry. It’s very funny. I do not mention Yevtushenko; after half an hour he turns to me and says angrily: All right, tell us all about Yevtushenko. So we walk in the woods.
Drive in town at five. Dinner at the Croyden. Another residential hotel. Mostly Europeans. Crowds around the Y. Maoists passing out anti-Yevtushenko pamphlets. Then Zhenya blows in, he wants to be alone. As he performs I find his face nearly indescribable. He seems tired, hungover, a little haggard. In the lights of the stage his yellow hair might be gray. There is the sharp, triangular nose, the wide blue eyes, the immense diversity of expression, anger and pleasure, the full use of his voice, his arms and his trunk. He is a great performer and I am as excited as a child. I do observe that, like [Yvor] Winters, he plays X against Y. Reavey says: I spent three hours with him this afternoon, but Reavey is not invited to the green room for a drink. With the exception of one night in Moscow when he turned it on full force I have never been sure of where I stand. I remain excited on the way home, sit in the diningroom waiting for my excitement to subside. I seem to have been overwhelmed. Then suddenly I suffer a paroxysm, drunken perhaps, of despair. I am nothing, I will never amount to anything. Make out in the morning, cook the breakfast, a brilliant day, all is well.
I declare a day of rest and rest. Reading Updike’s autobiographical stories I admire their coherence and wonder why I can’t face my own past calmly. Am I embarrassed by the soiled underpants hung from a nail driven into the bathroom door. When I complained about this I was slapped down. The gaslight on the backstairs, the unclean kitchen. It was a scene full of conflicts that I seem unable to resolve. How aristocratic you are Mrs. C, said our neighbor who could have bought and sold us with ease. Mother’s sigh would be tremulous and her reply: There must be at least a drop of plebian blood in my veins. Do you know how I can tell. Because I love to wash dishes. A summer night. But it bores me.
Read Roth whose perspective I envy but I cannot imitate a Yiddish conversation style. He can slam broadly at his archetypal parents — push, ridicule — howl — but what can I do with an old lady in a three-cornered hat sitting in an ornate acolyte’s chair lifted from the chancery of some abandoned church. At her feet there was a small suitcase and in the dark hallway — her own hung with her pictures —one keenly felt the anguish of travel, uprootedness. She seemed a refugee. I’m all ready, she said. That was obvious. She had probably been ready since dawn. Would you like a drink, she asked. I know what would happen if I said yes, please. She would go into a pantry for a moment and then return, smiling sadly. Your brother, she would say, has drunk all the whiskey.
Roth, towards the end, lets it run. M. [Mary] dislikes this and I keep my mouth shut. Here there is the beauty of an utter falsehood, that quality of belief that transcends disbelief. The house, the street where it stands, the characters of the two men who meet in the hall are all inventions and this is their power.
I think of George Orwell on waking.
Indian summer and these days come like prizes, seven in a row. Fog at dawn, and then the light, pure and angled, pours into the draw. I said to R. [Roth] that we have no vocabulary for a maple tree that has turned from green into orange and yellow. We stand before this simple phenomenon with our metaphors and similes, our spectrum, down around our knees like some embarrassing condition of undress. So we walk on towards the firs which we are better equipped to admire, description being nothing else.
Mailer’s book is praised and I remember thinking, years ago, that his line was more sinewy than mine, his intelligence much better informed and more comprehensive. That Mailer is alive and working is a provocation, a challenge, an excitement; but there is room for all kinds of fiction. I wish my work were more passionate, and I can struggle for this, but I am not intensely discontented with my limitations.
Reading my own stories is like some intensely unhappy relationship with a mirror. The work is done and to return to it seems idle in the strongest sense of the word —a demeaning sense of time squandered, of letting a splendid afternoon parade across the lawns without doing any work, without participating or celebrating in this parade.
I think I can mail this chapter today; so it will be today or tomorrow. If it turns out to be rubbish I would not be crushed. Nothing of any importance, really. I must remember not, like a drunk, to exploit these highs.
Praise be to thee Oh Lord. Of Thine own have we given Thee. I say this often and often feel it. I am a medium; and I mean to avoid the agony of Prometheus, Orpheus and Marsyas by closing my song with a pratfall. I think this is correct. I can discourse on my method or lack of method or what I know of my method but I do not do anything so scientific as play by ear. I merely strum. I think of Mrs. Trask with her numerous, white upright pianos being moved into whatever room she wished to fill with music. She must have been a great pianist, I said. Oh no, said Mr. Paul. All she could do was strum. By which I guess he meant that she would fumble for chords and resolutions that pleased her uneducated and I guess vulgar ear. This is very like me. I seem to have a little perspective on the affectation of prodigality, but not much. The piece in hand seems, at this moment, to be the heart of the book. But I’m not sure what the book is. I cannot state it in a sentence. So I would like to play by ear, to strum for another hundred pages. So today is a holiday. Do the tires, spade the garden.
I do prune the grapes and will today paint the iron and do the wisteria and the roses. I suffer an inconsequential interview and, after dinner, lacking TV, read Updike on Borges and Nabokov. I am grateful to John for having presented the masters so splendidly. I have not liked Borges but the quotation John gives leaves me feeling that the blind old man has an extraordinarily beautiful tone, a tone so beautiful that it can, quite gracefully, encompass death. And there is Nabokov who can be better than one thinks possible. This then is the thrill of writing, of playing on this team, the truly thrilling sense of this as an adventure, the hair, the grain of sand in one’s mouth, the importance, but not at all selfishly, of this exploration—the density of the rain forest, the shyness of the venomous serpents, the resounding conviction that one will, tomorrow, find the dugout and the paddle and the river that Hows past the delta to the sea. He also holds Proust up into the light.
On waking I do not quarrel, for a change, with the family, but quarrel with the world for the chance that John’s novel may be celebrated and that mine may be an estimable failure or perhaps a flop. So I can bicycle and scythe my fields. While Mary and I danced in Leningrad she told me that he could not endure having a book of mine in his room; and Jean told me that Salinger could not eat if there was, in the room, the book of an estimable contemporary. So one has this to deal with and perhaps I knew it twenty years ago with Saul. I think I know it no more.
The telephone rings at four. This is CBS. John Updike has been in a fatal automobile accident. Do you care to comment. I am crying. I cannot sleep again. I think of joining Mar\^ in bed but I am afraid she will send me away. I think I am right. When there is a little light I feed the dogs. I hope they don’t expect to be fed this early ever}’ morning, she says. I do not point out that John will not die ever)’ morning and that in any case it is I who feeds them. The restraint costs me nothing. When I go into the kitchen for another cup of coffee she empties the pot into my cup and says: I was just about to have some myself. When I insist on sharing the coffee I am unsuccessful. I do not say that the pain of death is nothing compared to the pain of sharing a coffee pot with a peevish woman. This costs me nothing. And I see that what she seeks, much more than a cup of coffee — is to gratify a sense of denial and neglect —and that we so often, all of us, put our cranky and our emotional demands so far ahead of our hunger and thirst.
As for John he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince. I think it not difficult to kiss him goodbye —I can think of no other way of parting from him although he would, in my case, have been embarrassed. As a writer of his generation I think him peerless; and his gifts of communicating, to millions of strangers, his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd. Mercifully there is no consolation in thinking that his extraordinary brilliance prophesied a cruel, untimely and unnatural death. His common sense would have dismissed this as repulsive and vulgar. One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring —and I definitely do not mean immortal —to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelation.
So the call about John’s untimely death was a fraud. I have decided, says my daughter, that it was an overambitious stringer who saw the name on a police blotter and tried to cash in.
Lying in bed, quite itchy, I see my work at its worst. I have been asking for this. I use light words like very and terribly, I find a sentence with four hyphens, I close a paragraph with a mousetrap declarative, my surface is greater than my depth. All this penetration is lost on waking.
So that lump is done and I read it to Jane and Paul [Bowles]. I could stay here and wrestle with the end but I get tense at twilight and haven’t found a way out of this. At breakfast Tad speaks of my cough; a rich combination of alcohol, tobacco and old age. I write letters to one crippled youth, one ardent Christian, one student, one friend, one fan and one lover. I may have sold Dillon’s book at the stable.
I read some stories of mine. Their precision galls me; I seem always to be plugging at small targets. I hit them all right but why don’t you get a 12-gauge double-barrel and go after bigger game. And the lack of genuine climax galls me too. I have been racked by a big orgasm as often as there are stars in heaven but I don’t seem to get this down. However I think the stories an accomplishment.
Reading, I think that my work will provoke severe criticism and this seems (this morning) to be a mercy. I feel myself truly unloved. I am quite happy about this.
The thing about cummings and Yevtushenko and hundreds of other people whose names would mean nothing to you is that in their company—running for a bus or getting drunk — I have the excitement of participating in something meteoric — the pleasure of seeing a trace of white fire arc into the darkness with a grace and daring that had never before and would never again be seen. It is the thrill of risk and darkness and an arc or trajectory^ drawn in fire that will fade before the pursuit is consummated.
Mr. [Harold] Ross insisted on a degree of decorum. One could not, of course, use a word like fuck. One complained of course and published stories elsewhere but I, it seems, had my own concept of decorum and when Mr. Ross used the word fuck at the lunch table I would jump. Having noticed this Mr. Ross would, at lunch, throw a fuck in my direction now and then to watch me jump. He was, himself, not a decorous man, but he taught me that decorum can be a mode of language in our need to speak with one another and a language that having been learned was in no way constraining.
My lower intestine is dubious, but I feel much better. I go to Caldor to autograph books and think this morning that I feel better. The people are truly pleasant and I am reminded of the encyclopedia salesman in Saratoga. I sit at my table with my ashtray and my four felt pens and the strangers approach me shyly. The music has been discontinued and a voice announces that John Cheever, the famous best-seller is in the book department. I play the same role as those people who advertise hair-straighteners and magic silver polish. The customers and I are utter strangers. We smile wildly at one another and they ask if I think they will like the book. I say that I can’t answer that but that it has been well-liked in this country as well as in Europe. We laugh. We blush. I sign a book. Here is that experience of intimacy I try so hard to explain. We are, in short, not alone. We are spiritually miles from the priest with his ciborium but the ritual is similar. The customer and I both hope he will