What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cheever's Exhilarating, Self-excoriating, Disheveling Journals

Parul Sehgal, in her wonderful “Remains of the Day” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, July 30, 2017), a review of Christa Wolf’s diary One Day a Year: 2001-2011, writes,

For Wolf, time is fugitive (“History often seems to me like a funnel, down which our lives swirl, never to be seen again”), but her book is a sieve, a way to snare what can be caught, those strings of seeming banalities — that gherkin, an odd detail from a dream, how her husband learns to roll up her surgical stockings for her when she falls asleep in front of the television, that she suddenly needs surgical stockings in the first place.

I like Sehgal’s image of Wolf’s diary as a sieve, “a way to snare what can be caught.” Diary-writing is an undervalued literary form. Sehgal is one of the few critics who appreciate it. A few years ago, she wrote a memorable piece on The Journals of John Cheever (1991), calling it a “disheveling, debauching book,” “even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate — even embrace — your corruption” (“A Year in Reading,” The Millions, December 16, 2011). She says,

I love this Cheever, so lust-worn, fatigued, wise. The Cheever who observes, “I prayed for some degree of sexual continence, although the very nature of sexuality is incontinence.” But I love him more when he’s cross, crass, and ornery. When he’s querulous and moaning for “a more muscular vocabulary,” his face on a postage stamp, a more reliable erection. When he carps about his contemporaries (Calvino: “cute,” Nabokov: “all those sugared violets”). But Cheever the ecstatic, who merges with the mountain air and streams, who finds in writing and sex a bridge between the sacred and the profane and is as spontaneous and easy as a child — he is indispensable.

Geoff Dyer, in his “John Cheever: The Journals” (included in his excellent 2011 essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition), suggests that The Journals of John Cheever “represents Cheever’s greatest achievement, his principal claim to literary survival.” I agree. Excerpts from Cheever’s journals appeared in The New Yorker (“From the Late Forties and Fifties,” August 6 & 13, 1990; “From the Sixties,” January 21 & 28, 1991; “From the Seventies and Early Eighties,” August 12 & 19, 1991). They’re among the magazine’s most inspired writings. Someday, I’ll post a more detailed appreciation of them.

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