Throughout the long days - thirty-nine in all - of what was optimistically, if erroneously, called a "brownout" that followed a cataclysmic typhoon here in the heart of the Philippine archipelago last November, I had alot of time on my hands and I managed to find great pleasure reading The Stories of John Cheever. Considering all of the marvelous qualities of his writing to celebrate (like his love for words like "probity" or how so many of his characters "lighted a cigarette"), I thought I should devote a post to Cheever's inimitably loving evocations of time and place.
While some claims have been made for Cheever's moralistic side, his confidence in universalities, his faith in what he himself (in his story "The Jewels of the Cabots") called "discernible moral truths," I prefer to think of him as a humanist, a writer who, long before he ever committed a word to paper, had chosen man over God, this world over the next. You can see it, hear it, and almost feel it in his celebration of the sun, the sky, the trees, the rain and snow, the falling leaves, the grass. He once said: "One always knows reading Fitzgerald what time it is, precisely where you are, the kind of country. No writer has ever been so true in placing the scene." Cheever was too modest to admit that he was talking about his own writing. One can sense the turning of the earth in his stories, the exact angle of the sun giving one the time of the year as well as of the day. And he could do it in one or two sentences.
But Cheever was always acutely aware of how his exteriors seemed to mirror the interiors of his characters, how the world in his stories somehow reflected or reinforced the moods of his people. And the way in which Cheever ties memory in with a sudden awareness of the season is one of the ways he gave his people a place all their own in the world.
The following are a few of my favorites.
"Snow lies under the apple trees. We picked very few of the apples, enough for jelly, and now the remaining fruit, withered and golden, lies on the white snow. It seems to be what I expected to see, what I had hoped for, what I remembered. Sanding the driveway with my son, I see, from the top of the hill, the color of the sky and what a paradise it seems to be this morning - the sky sapphire, a show of clouds, the sense of the world in these, its shortest days, as cornered." Oh What a Paradise it Seems
"The afternoon sun was clement and pure, and only the colored shadows made me remember that it was midwinter, that the cruise ships were returning, and that in another week jonquils would be twenty-five cents a bunch." "The Season of Divorce"
"Then it is a summer night, a wonderful summer night. . . . Up on the hill, the ladies say to one another, 'Smell the grass! Smell the trees!'" "O Youth and Beauty!"
"I took the regular train home, looking out of the window at a peaceable landscape and a spring evening, and it seemed to me fishermen and lone bathers and grade-crossing watchmen and sand-lot ball players and lovers unashamed of their sport and the owners of small sailing craft and old men playing pinochle in firehouses were the people who stitched up the big holes in the world that were made by men like me." "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill"
"For lovers, touch is metamorphosis. All the parts of their bodies seem to change, and they seem to become something different and better. That part of their experience that is distinct and separate, the totality of the years before they met, is changed, is redirected toward this moment. They feel they have reached an identical point of intensity, an ecstasy of rightness that they command in every part, and any recollection that occurs to them takes on this final clarity, whether it be a sweep hand on an airport clock, a snow owl, a Chicago railroad station on Christmas Eve, or anchoring a yawl in a strange harbor while all along the stormy coast strangers are blowing their horns for the yacht-club tender, or running a ski trail at that hour when, although the sun is still in the sky, the north face of every mountain lies in the dark." "The Bus to St. James's"
"The peculiar excitement with which the air of the city seems charged after midnight, when its life falls into the hands of watchmen and drunks, had always pleased him. He knew intimately the sounds of the night street: the bus brakes, the remote sirens, and the sound of water turning high in the air - the sound of water turning a mill wheel - the sum, he supposed, of many echoes, although, often as he had heard the sound, he had never decided on its source." "The Pot of Gold"
"It was nice driving home after parties in the snow, I thought. The snow flies into the headlights and made it seem as if we were going a hundred miles an hour. It was nice driving home in the snow after parties." "The Fourth Alarm"
"He walked in his garden at half past three or four. There was a quarter moon, the air was soft and the light vaporous, the clouds formed like a beach and the stars were strewn among them like shells and moraine. Some flower that blooms in July - phlox or nicotiana - had scented the air, and the meaning of the vaporous light had not much changed since he was an adolescent; it now, as it had then, seemed to hold out the opportunities of romantic love." "Marito in Citta"
"It all began on an autumn afternoon - and who, after all these centuries, can describe the fineness of an autumn day? One ought to pretend never to have seen one before, or, to more purpose, that there would never be another like it. The clear and searching sweep of sun on the lawns was like a climax of the year's lights. Leaves were burning somewhere and the smoke smelled, for all its ammoniac acidity, of beginnings. The boundless blue air was stretched over the zenith like the skin of a drum." "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow"
"It had just begun to snow. It was a little while after lunch. What an old fool your mother is but as old as I am I never cease to thrill at the miracle of a snowstorm. I had a lot of work to do but I decided to let it go and stand by the window awhile and watch it snow. The sky was very dark. It was a fine, dry snow and covered everything quickly like a spread of light." "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow"
"It was an evening in the fall. Bellevue Avenue . . . was declining, but it was declining gracefully; its decay was luxuriant, and in the back yeards roses bloomed in profusion, and cardinals sang in the fir trees. A few householders were still raking their lawns. . . . The sun was setting - there was a show of red light at the footof the street." "The Music Teacher"