Monday, September 5, 2011
Cheever: A Life
by Blake Bailey
A late bloomer in nearly every respect, I have learned to over-compensate in the present for time lost in the past.
I married, for example, at the age of thirty-eight, picking up two children (then aged three and seven) in the process.
This enabled me to skip the early child rearing stages of sleep deprivation and diapers, while providing a strong masculine presence during later pivotal evolutionary moments of bed-wetting and night terrors, not to forget story time.
Similarly, I was well past the age of thirteen when I first slipped someone the noodle, but married life (when one isn't changing sheets or the dishwasher or napping) provides multiple opportunities for … um … yawn … what were we talking abou -- ?
Oh, yes. Hanky panky.
Which brings me to John Cheever. Short story writer. Novelist. Punch line for an episode of Seinfeld. And subject of Cheever: A Life (2009).
Hanky panky? Oh, me, oh, my.
First, though, the short stories. The reason Cheever is the subject of such an expansive (770 pages) and invasive (wait for it) biography, is because he is one of the best short story writers on the past century. Nach, ever.
The Stories of John Cheever (1978) is essential reading. To the extent to which Cheever: A Life brings us into better relationship with the stories, it is interesting. To the extent that it alienates us from the stories (and novels), it risks being anti-literature.
Put another way, I intend to review the biography here, not Cheever's life. The biography is a shaped, created, curated thing; the life is the wild process of lived experience. I have no intention of judging or interpreting Cheever's life.
In 1995-96, I was a graduate student of English at the University of Toronto and for half-a-semester I was part of a seminar studying literary biography. We read Boswell on Johnson, the whole thing, unabridged (1,492 pages with index). We read Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians and The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read two biography's of W.H. Auden for my term paper, Elspeth Cameron's take on Irving Layton, Rosemary Sullivan on Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Julian Barne's Flaubert's Parrot. We also read some of Freud's dream analyses (patient biographies) and speculated on whether biography itself could be an act of literature.
Writing the life of a writer is more complicated than it seems, we concluded. It is rife with temptation. Can you separate your response to the work from your response to the life, and vice versa? What connection is there, really, between the life and the work? Does your interpretation of the work colour your interpretation of the life? Does the life story have meaning apart from the work? Does our engagement with the work require any understanding of the life? If something is seen as negative in the life does that contradict things pleasurable in the work? Are we obliged to take new (possibly disturbing) information from the life into account in our analysis of the work?
And so on.
Ultimately, Cheever would become known as the bard of suburbia, a chronicler of the social mores of the post-WWII new American bourgeoisie. Stories such as "The Swimmer," "Goodbye, My Brother" and "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" are classics secure among the deep roots of the American canon, ensuring Cheever an eternal reputation as a Great Writer.
That is, until he was reduced on an episode of Seinfeld to "a writer who was gay."
Gay? Cheever's biographer is clear that the writer never would have used the term. Yes, he had sexual (and romantic) relationships with men throughout his adult life. He also married young (and for life), raised a family, had sexual and romantic affairs with women. He made out, according to this biography, with his son's teenage girlfriend. He also had sex with a young man in his hospital bed as he lay dying (not the only male sexual relationship he was involved with at the time).
This hanky panky, the biography strongly suggests, began when Cheever and his brother shared a bed as teenagers. The suggestion is that the two boys mutually masturbated each other, and that Cheever's brother was the great love of his life, a man-bond that Cheever repeatedly tried to re-create.
The Seinfeld episode was called "The Cheever Letters," and it revolved around a box of love letters supposedly written by Cheever to his male lover. (Read the script for the episode).
ELAINE: (Turns to George, he is now reading a book) Hey, what are you reading
GEORGE: Oh, uh, "The Falconer" by John Cheever. It's really excellent.
ELAINE: (To Jerry) John Cheever, you ever read any of his stuff?
JERRY: Uh, yeah, I'm familiar with some of his writing. (George shoots Jerry a smirk, then returns to his book) Alright, (Hand the check to Elaine) look, we gotta get back to work. We just had a big breakthrough here.
ELAINE: (Folding up the check) Ok, I'll leave you two alone.
Interviewed for the biography, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David said the show used Cheever as the letter writer because "he was a well-known writer who was gay" (672).
Which brings us back to the question of the life versus the work. And the question of the biography itself is a work of literature.
No, I would argue. This one is not. Though it is a remarkable work of research. (For the record, I believe the graduate class would have concluded that most biographies of writers are not literature either; many are not even decently written and contain bad criticism. Bailey's book is free of those latter two complaints.)
Boswell is read over and over because (a) through him we have a Johnson we would never have had otherwise (true of all biographies that are more than derivative), but also because (b) it is a Johnson worth knowing, an expansive, rollicking, self-contradicting, complicated mass of a human life. In other words, Johnson becomes a literary character within a literary narrative created by an author. It is not merely reporting or interpreting; it is creating. Sophisticated creating.
The biography of Cheever is arguably a sophisticated creation also, and the Cheever presented is a self-contradicting complicated mass of a human life, but in years (i.e., centuries) ahead readers will not return to the biography to encounter the literary Cheever (as they do with Boswell and Johnson); they will go to Cheever's short stories.
Because it is in the stories (and novels) where the self-mythologizing Cheever emerges, or rather disappears into the deepest mysteries. There is no doubt that the biography illuminates certain aspects of the fiction. The hints of homosexuality, for example, can no longer be read as ambiguous.
The details of Cheever's sexual adventurism, however, is altogether too much. For one, it encourages the reduction of Cheever's oeuvre to a Seinfeldian conclusion: he was a writer who was gay. Yes, gay. Let's use that word. And then? Does it matter? Do we care? We are not literary if we do not take our analysis or aesthetic discussion beyond that point.
Cheever was a man who cloaked his sexual identiti(es); yes, this is relevant. However, he was also a man of New England with a mythic sense of self and formal, proto Edwardian ideals about proper behaviour. He was, in other words, a man of many personal contradictions, and his self-analysis of his contractions is on display in the stories and novels. And, again, the stories and novels soar to the level of creation above mere reporting. They are infused with imagination and conveyed through a unique rich use of language.
A John Cheever story is a John Cheever story.
In art, he achieved a singularity of voice and purpose (a distinction) and, for this, he will be remembered. Forever.
In the quest for penile stimulation, he started early, and he finished strong. So what.