Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How I Met John Cheever

Toward the end of college, I posted on this blog a reminiscence about Eudora Welty, whom Prof. Waid made me read often and whom I had previously only known about from The Simpsons — from that one crossover episode with The Critic, in fact, in which she’s revealed to be a champion belcher. Eudora Welty was still alive at the time. She could have seen the episode, I suppose, or at least had one of her nurses could have related to her the gist of it.

At the moment, I’m reading John Cheever, who entered my life similarly: an episode of Seinfeld, “The Cheever Letters,” which people today probably remember as the one with the line “the panties your mother laid out for you.” It’s also the episode where George has to tell Susan’s parents that Kramer burned down their cabin, but the matter worsens considerably when the sole surviving item from the Ross family getaway turns out to be a cache of love notes that John Cheever wrote over the course of an affair with Susan’s father. (Sample line, from Mr. Cheever to Mr. Ross: “I fear my orgasm has left me a cripple.”) Cheever was not alive at the time the episode aired, and knowing what I know about his life now, it’s strange that his predilection for dudes would be my only takeaway, since Cheever kept quiet about it during his life. As for Seinfeld, it’s also strange that the matter never arose later, when George drove Susan to lesbianism, but only temporarily, proving that bisexuality runs in the Ross family. The Rosses recur throughout the series, and their marriage seems none the worse for the Cheever revelation, but perhaps their union is built the unshakable foundation of hating George Constanza.

But back to literary matters.

Now I know more, and I can respect Cheever as a writer and not just as the butt of a joke on Seinfeld. Of the short stories I’ve read so far, my favorite is “Metamorphoses,” a series of four short(er) stories that riff on Greek mythology — or at least seem to. The fourth one, featuring a man who quits smoking and then loses his mind, doesn’t seem to work in conjunction with any myth I know. Anyone got a thought about what mythological character Mr. Bradish is supposed to be?

The third story spends one long paragraph describing Nerissa, the daughter of a glamorous, high society woman who has inherited none of her mother’s graces, and I can’t remember a passage that more beautifully details someone so unattractive. Cheever’s words introduce the character with equal amounts of disdain and affection, and I like it so much that I’m now sharing it with you. And you should read it.
Enter Nerissa then, into her mother’s drawing room. She is a thin and wasted spinster of thirty. Her hair is gray. Her slip shows. Her shoes are caked with mud. She is plainly one of those children who, without bitterness or rancor, seem burdened with the graceless facts of life. It is their destiny to point out that the elegance and chic of the world their mothers have mastered is not, as it might appear to be, the end of bewilderment and pain. They are a truly pure and innocent breed, and it would never cross their minds or their hearts to upset or contravene the plans, the dreams, the worldly triumphs that their elders hold out for them. It seems indeed to be the hand of God that leads them to take a pratfall during the tableaux at the debutante cotillion. Stepping from a gondola to the water stairs of some palace in Venice where they are expected for dinner, they will lose their balance and fall into the Grand Canal. They spill food and wine, they knock over vases, they step into dog manure, they shake hands with butlers, they have coughing fits during the chamber music, their taste for disreputable friends is unerring, and yet they are like the Franciscans in their goodness and simplicity. Thus, enter Nerissa. In the process of being introduced, she savages an end table with her hipbone, tracks mud onto the rug, and drops a lighted cigarette into a chair. By the time the fire is extinguished, she seems to have satisfactorily ruffled the still waters of her mother’s creation. But this is not perversity; it is not even awkwardness. It is her nearly sacred call to restate the pathos and clumsiness of mankind.
I transcribed it myself. I actually couldn’t find this text anywhere online, aside from the not-especially-copy-and-pastable scan of the original article, as it ran in The New Yorker on March 2, 1963.

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