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A friend reminded me that Coleridge says, "to understand a man's greatness, you have to understand his weakness." Recall that Paul Claudel was a misogynist, an anti-Semite and an Islamophobe. And that W. H. Auden wrote of him, in his "In Memory of W. B. Yeats":
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
That stanza echoed in my mind as I listened to the biography of John Cheever. Will we pardon Cheever for his mean-spiritedness, his alcoholism, his nasty treatment of family members, his unfaithfulness, his lies, etc. etc. -- pardon him because he writes well? I do not know, but after listening to this 28 hour biography (or reading the book) you will have to consider the puzzle of the relationship between the actor and the act, the dancer and the dance, the poet and the poem. As the Auden lines suggest we are more than willing to separate the agent from the act, to applaud the act in spite of the character and actions of the agent. We do so with celebrities of all sorts: actors, sports stars, writers, and even politicians. When I see Kobe Bryant sink a twenty foot pull-up shot with two defenders hanging on him, I can applaud the shot but detest the arrogance of the shooter. With the existentialists we want to say "you are what you do" and yet we are called upon to judge works of excellence even when those works are performed by less than savoury characters.
John Cheever (1912 - 1982), as we learn in this extensive and exhaustive biography, is one of those less than savoury characters, one who writes with power, control, and sensitivity, while living a life that makes it easy to dislike him as a person incapable of self-discipline and devoid of human kindness. Blake Bailey had an agreement with the Cheever estate that allows him to present a wide array of information which comes from psychiatrist's notes, extensive letters, interviews with family members, and the unpublished journals of the long time New Yorker short story writer, and novelist. Bailey explains in an interview: "We had a written agreement that was drawn up by the Wylie Agency, which handles Cheever's estate. It stated that the family could not cooperate with anyone else for ten years or whenever my book was finished, whichever came first. And they had to provide me with all materials they had: letters, manuscripts, photographs, etc. And they could not make any input of an interpretive nature. They could vet the manuscript for factual stuff---that didn't happen in 1962, it happened in 1961--that sort of thing. As a result the biography is "A triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal." [Source]
Cheever, known as the "Chekhov of the suburbs", walked toward the grave exhibiting every human weakness as an alcoholic, a raconteur, a bi-sexual philanderer hiding in the closet for much of his life, a person who admits he is "lonely and lost." Narcissistic, self-absorbed, deceptive, and disarmingly charming, Cheever spent a lifetime crafting a haughty persona and fighting his baser instincts. In search of a socially acceptable "sanctuary for [his] cock", he married Mary Winternitz and spent the rest of his life craving divorce. He never failed to let his children know they disappointed him. "I love you not for the person you are," he told his son Ben, "but for your possibilities." He seems constantly to nag his daughter about her weight. His appetite for approval was insatiable and he manifested insecurity. A complete egotist, Cheever, the man, is an example of the idea that an egotist is not a person with a huge ego, but a person lacking an ego.
Bailey emphasizes the gap between the man and his work, the man and his idea of himself, the man and his public persona complete with a phony accent, and the agent and the artist. Listening to the audio book gives one a sense of that accent as Hilgartner reads each Cheever quote with a special accent thus setting it off from the text. Like his fictional characters, John Cheever did not fit the image he so scrupulously cultivated. "In the morning," his daughter, Susan, wrote, "my father would put on his one good suit and his gray felt hat and ride down in the elevator with the other men on their way to the office. From the lobby he would walk down to the basement, to the windowless storage room that came with our apartment. That was where he worked. There, he hung up the suit and hat and wrote all morning in his boxer shorts, typing away at his portable Underwood set up on the folding table. At lunchtime he would put the suit back on and ride up in the elevator."
Bailey's book is a testament to Cheever's complex and convoluted life, and presents an exhaustive and honest picture of one of the twentieth century's important short story writers, who in his lifetime, published over one hundred twenty stories in the New Yorker. John Cheever, the inventive story teller, created a character: John Cheever the author, father, husband, and bi-sexual. As Cheever wrote, "I have been a storyteller since the beginning of my life, rearranging facts in order to make them more significant. I have improvised a background for myself--genteel, traditional--and it is generally accepted."--John Cheever, in his journal, 1961.
The Blackstone audio book is well produced, the reading professional, and the material always stimulating. All of the "damningly candid" sexual material from the Cheever journals is just boring. As his son Ben wrote, "He was at his best on the page."
Readers may enjoy watching Dick Cavett interview John Updike and John Cheever, courtesy of the New York Times.
© 2010 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.