I’m currently reading Cheever’s stories (again), so I was very excited to read this excellent, long article on his recently published journals. (Particularly because it’s written by Geoff Dyer.)
Cheever constantly voiced doubts about his writing. Reading The Naked and the Dead made him despair of his own “confined talents”. He worshipped Bellow, admired and bitched about Updike, fretted that while Roth was “playing stink finger and grabarse I admire the beauty of the evening star”. Not surprisingly, these admissions of literary inadequacy were always tempered by a wounded defensiveness. Firmly rooted in “the genteel tradition”, his “old-fashioned fiction” about “the country-club set” served as a tacit rebuke to the unfettered excesses of “the California poets”. Actually, some of the fiction – the 1962 story “A Vision of the World”, for example – is stranger than one imagines it to be, or remembers it being, and often has the quality of “violet-flavoured nightmare” that Cheever admired in Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
The Journals reveal the germs of much that will eventually be transformed in the fiction. The reflections in “The Death of Justina” (1960) about how the soul might not leave the body but “lingers with it through every degrading stage of decomposition and neglect” is there, almost word for word, in a journal entry from the previous year. After you have read this passage in the starker context of the Journals – Cheever has run out of booze and is thinking of his dead mother while drying dishes – its force in the story is reduced by the knowledge that it has been craftily insinuated into the narrative. Time and again, things we admire in the fiction – the eye for “travelling acres of sunlight”, the telling psychological detail, exuberant lyricism tinged with a residue of the last (or anticipation of the next) hangover – are spilled straight on to the pages of his journal.
The Journals also contain numerous hints of a kind of writer we do not expect Cheever to be. It’s no surprise to find that he can do proto-Carver – “On Sunday afternoon my only brother comes to call. He is told that if he drinks again he will die, and he is drunk” – but we don’t expect him, reflecting on Shea Stadium in 1963, to anticipate the famous opening of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I think that the task of the American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball. This is ceremony . . . The sense of moral judgements embodied in a migratory vastness.”