Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Birthday: "If you listen too hard to the technology, your ear goes deaf to its implications."

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Hortense Calisher (1911-2009)
Writer


Hortense Calisher said she grew up with an extraordinarily elongated sense of time. At 76, she told The Paris Review her father


was born during the siege of Richmond, and married late, a much younger woman. So did his British √©migr√© father, who is on record as an elder of the synagogue there in 1832 yet who didn’t marry my grandmother until 1854. When I was growing up I had a seventy-year-old father, a ninetyish grandmother and a late-thirtiesish mother, with relatives interspersed all down the decades.


Her family had done well in trade- her father- who read the Torah on holy days with his Virginia accent intact- made his money in perfumes and high-end soaps. Then came the Depression; he found himself looking for work at seventy, and the family downsized from ten rooms to four in New York City.


Calisher finished college in 1932, and had to get work for herself. She was, variously, a sales clerk, a social worker, and a model. In 1935 she married an engineer and became a housewife. They moved from one of his projects to another before settling in the Hudson River Valley, where, bored, Calisher took some writing courses.


She’d always longed to write, she later said, but didn’t feel up to the standards of the great writers whose works she had devoured in childhood. And, in those days, married women with children didn’t decide to be writers.


“It was a lack of self-confidence,” she recalled in a 1972 interview in The Times. “I’d been fed on the best of literature, and I wanted to reach the summit. I had the history of many intellectual women — and men — who get to college and then have to cope with a living, with a marriage, with children. I got to be quite sick, since I wasn’t doing what I was fitted for and craved.” She added: “Though I was a candidate for psychiatry, I always felt I had to fight it out alone, on the battlefield of myself. Finally I had something that was so important to me that I had to say it.”


So she took the writing course, and from it came six stories. However implausibly, The New Yorker bought one, then another, then another: five, all told.


Publishers sought her out. They wanted a novel. She put them off. She wasn’t ready for that, and, though highly disciplined in her ways, she was a painfully slow writer. Her first collection of stories came out in 1951, she won Guggenheim Fellowships in 1952 and 1955. Finally, at fifty, she published her first novel. False Entry won praise for its multiple perspectives presenting the life of a man who used his prodigious memory and a certain gift for dissembling to insert himself into the lives of strangers. John Cheever called it the only American metaphysical novel he knew, and Calisher told The Guardian that, while she was delighted he enjoyed it, she had no idea what he meant, “and I knew better than to ask.”


Critics never doubted her writing chops, but to many she seemed out of place. Her complex plots and rightly-described characters didn’t fit the vogue for the stripped-down, minimalist preferences of the Mad Men age. She drew comparisons- aptly- to Wharton, Dickens and Henry James.


Despite that, Calisher proved able to span all manner of styles and topics: long novels, short stories, novellas. She wrote a science fiction novel, and another set on a space station orbiting the earth. The New York Times’ science editor called her work technically flawless, but she thought people are much the same, irrespective of time or location:


Actually as I talk about it to you, I’m thinking—outer space, in its basics, is very like a household. And astronauts often act as if they are in one.


The children grown, Calisher divorced the engineer in 1958, and married an author who ran the Yaddo writers colony. Though the shunned the rather quarrelsome- not to mention booze-soaked- circles of New York’s intellectual set, she increasingly moved in the top circles of her art; serving as President of PEN in 1986-87, then at the American Association of Arts & Letters from 1987 to 1990. She was a National Book Award finalist three times; won an O. Henry Award, and taught at several universities.


One measure of Calisher’s skill is found in The Paris Review’s 1987 interview:


When we test out our own insights on how other people might feel, the testing ground is ourselves. Our views on anything from politics to landscape are tinctured with our personality. But all that’s a mile away from autobiography. Either the kind that serious biographers and readers crave—to help them interpret the work, and the author—or like The National Enquirer in the “real” and possibly outlandish details. So I’ll tell you a story. In The Railway Police the heroine, who is beautiful and bald, wears wigs. In college I had a friend who came from a family all of whom lost their hair at puberty. Probably gene connected and medically well documented. In the end the woman in The Railway Police reveals this to her lover and goes off to confront the world bald. That’s commonplace now—we have to show our honesty in other ways. But not then. And the gossip ran—in the media and out—that I too was bald.


INTERVIEWER


Actually you have a lot of hair, don’t you?


CALISHER


For the record—yes. But that year, some column reported that people were calling wigs “Calishers.” When I was on a television show in Hollywood the emcee alluded to it. So I bent my head and said, “Pull.” He turned green, and wouldn’t. An opportunity lost—by both of us.


INTERVIEWER


The way I heard it you tugged at your hair yourself to demonstrate.


CALISHER


Sure did. But I’m not sure they believed me. Sometimes critics tell you kindly what you “meant” in a story or a novel. I used sometimes to deny that, or say what I did intend if they were wrong. Whereupon they would look at me pityingly. So now I just tug at my hair.


In person, George Plimpton wrote of her,


Calisher seems always ready to enjoy herself. Her memory is that of a tale-teller. She made of this interview a casual, almost partylike occasion. A raconteuse of considerable presence, she is a tall woman whose motions still recall her days as a Barnard dance student. The interview took place in her Fifty-seventh Street apartment shared with her husband, the writer, Curtis Harnack. Their front room has twenty-foot ceilings, parquet floors, Persian tribal rugs, and is lined with books. Over the 1840 pianoforte (still in relative tune) hangs a large inherited needlepoint Biblical scene, Moses Found Among The Rushes, a work mentioned at least once in Calisher’s fiction. There are chaises, chinoiserie, family photos, Victorian artifacts, Liberty prints, Japanese woodcuts, anatomy texts. Tiles bordering a brassbound fireplace display enameled raspberries, wildflowers, birds. The apartment—like Calisher’s fertile conversational style, like her own dense yet lucent prose—suggests a point of view: diverse, adorned, amused, and inclusive.


In all, she produced 25 books, the last-Sunday Jews- when she was ninety. When she was 97, old age claimed her. She was the tortoise who won the race.


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