Baby Battle Essay By Susan Cheever
Almost twenty years ago, George Steiner suggested in these pages that doing philosophy was incompatible with domestic life. Speaking of the troubled French thinker Louis Althusser, Steiner proposed that sometimes it might be necessary for a philosopher to strangle his wife. (As, alas, Althusser did.) There is something vulgar and absurd, he continued, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato, a Madame Descartes. You cannot commit to taking out the garbage or doing the dishes while also solving the problem of the cogito or announcing the death of God. Being George Steiner, he charged his argument with bolts of existential electricity. In his reading, Zarathustra is at best a rough, undomesticated beast and at worst a murderous lunatic. Up on Olympus you feel free, not in the kitchen or the faculty lounge.
It is easy to mock Steiner’s romantic provocations. But, minus the murderousness (and the intense maleness of the proposition), perhaps Steiner is onto something. Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children? The novel may be the family’s ideal almanac, but only a handful of the great novelists of either gender had a successful family life. I have always liked Tolstoy’s diary entry from 1863: “Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.” Tolstoy is indeed the great novelist of family happiness, but delight is tempered by the vision of the father and husband he became—selfish, tyrannical, more faithful to his literary and religious followers than to his biological successors. Even gentle Chekhov joked that he would prefer a wife “who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day.” He contrived to marry late in his short life, and spent much of his marriage in Yalta, while Olga Knipper worked a thousand miles away, in Moscow.
Perhaps the storyteller is especially ill suited for happy family life. For even as the fiction writer tells humane stories about behavior and motive and family relations—what one might think of as a sympathetic skill—so he or she is also a little like the proverbial choirboy at the funeral: coldly observing, carefully pillaging, rearranging, impersonating, and re-voicing the very material that constitutes “family.” There is an eerie moment in “Home Before Dark,” Susan Cheever’s remarkable memoir of her father, John Cheever. She explains that Cheever, by the mid-nineteen-sixties, after years of struggle, had become an established success—a National Book Award, a reception at the White House, lots of money, a big house in Ossining, New York, and a flattering cover story in Time, entitled “Ovid in Ossining.” The family enjoyed the novelty, though later this success “took a big toll on my father and he became quite pompous about himself.” Susan Cheever then quotes a passage from her father’s journal, in which he imagines being his daughter, and writes up his success as her complaint about it:
After they put Daddy’s picture on the cover of Time, he seemed to lose something. . . . Once I lost my temper at him and said I don’t think anybody’s impressed by the fact that you had your face on Time magazine. . . . It hurt his feelings, you could see.
John Cheever belonged to a generation of (mostly male) American writers who held a romantic idea of what it meant to “be a writer.” But theirs was also a notably vulnerable time in American society: a moment of utmost domestic conventionality that coincided with the waning of American patriarchy. Great writer, paterfamilias, loyal husband, comfortable householder—unsurprisingly, the pressure of maintaining this royal conglomerate was often intolerable, and the breakage was visited on the courtiers. It is probably no accident that this era has produced not one but three memoirs by the daughters of literary fathers: in addition to “Home Before Dark,” which appeared in 1984, there is Janna Malamud Smith’s “My Father Is a Book” (2006), about the novelist Bernard Malamud, and Alexandra Styron’s memoir of William Styron, “Reading My Father,” which was published in 2011.
These are tender, scouring portraits, whose stories often overlap. All three intelligently analyze the asymmetries of growing up in a household dominated by the needs of a male creator, and the costs to the women who enabled that creativity. The men sounded the gong; the women managed the silence around the vibrations. William Styron and John Cheever were drinkers and depressives, and their lives were full of bravado and collapse. These histrionic undulations were exhausting. Both daughters confess to a certain fatigue; Styron says that she was relieved when her father died. Bernard Malamud was quieter, and was in many respects a devoted father, alive to the otherness of his intelligent daughter. Janna Malamud Smith conjures a cherishable intimacy: “My father and I were intensely attached, at ease with each other, deeply compatible.” Still, even she confesses to a “dreamlike vision” of her father as a hot-air balloon, “at once lifting the family and consuming all our heat to fire his updraft.”
All three are vibrant storytellers, alert to scene and detail, almost sickeningly sensitive to the way that large male egos stage themselves: they know that, in some odd combination of respect and revenge, they are turning their fathers into novelistic characters. We see William Styron, almost insanely ambitious to write the next Big Book, teasing his daughter with his rather sadistic humor, and bursting into petty rages: “Avoiding my father’s wrath was a complicated business. . . . His rage could be almost laughable—I once saw him curse, chew apart, and hurl across the room a pencil that had the gall to lose its point—or it could be unexpectedly frightening.” Styron notices that she became invisible during the day, while her father was working: “He might wander into the kitchen, or pass you while walking his dogs around West Chop”—on Martha’s Vineyard. “But he wasn’t exactly there. . . . In the evening hours, however, his humanity usually made a swim for the surface.” Malamud Smith writes, “Dad was not openly domineering in his requests, but he assumed a prerogative.” Her mother “rigorously downplayed her own abilities,” and acquiesced in the shared marital understanding that “my mother’s labors were necessary but inconsequent, while my father’s work mattered. He wrote; she typed his drafts.”
But the cold eye of these adult children is cast in the service of a warmer, more comprehensive vision. As writers themselves, they understand the necessities and the inequalities of talent. The men wrote the books, but it doesn’t follow that in doing so they stole unwritten books from their wives. All three write movingly about the holy centrality of writing in their fathers’ lives. Styron is devastatingly honest about it: “But if each creation is, in effect, an artist’s offspring, I think Daddy put his nonfiction in the category with his four, living, breathing children. There was affection for what he’d made and, frequently, pride. But the Novel owned his heart.”
The great scandal, you could say, is not that these men were writers first and husbands and fathers second but that they arranged their lives in such conventional ways that they kept on choosing, and ceaselessly inflicted that choosing on their familial audiences. How, really, could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity? For a man, creating a child—though certainly not raising one—is almost accidental, whereas writing a book takes years of thought and effort. Or put it another way: raising a child can seem as ordinary, as continuous, and as “easy” as life itself, while writing a book is like staying up all night. Or yet another way: few sixteen-year-old boys dream of being a father, yet every good writer spent his or her teen-age years dreaming of being a writer, plotting how to become one, rehearsing and practicing, fantasizing and preparing. It is part of the poignancy and psychic healthiness of these memoirs that each writer understands this about her father. “Each phase of my youth is joined in my mind to the novel my father was writing at the time,” Styron writes. Malamud Smith recalls, as a little girl, hearing her father shaving in the bathroom, and “announcing to all within range, firmly, audibly, ‘Someday I’m going to win.’ ” More simply, Susan Cheever seems to measure the effort of will involved in any serious creative act, when she writes, “It had taken my father twenty-five years to publish a novel and two collections of short stories.”
For a number of reasons, Greg Bellow’s book, “Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir” (Bloomsbury), does not belong in the same company as the portraits by Styron, Cheever, and Malamud Smith. (This despite the fact that Bellow tells us that he gained the courage to write his book after talking to Malamud Smith.) It covers similar terrain but dies amid the difficult landscape. It is a hard book to read, and even harder to write about, because it is really a child’s complaint, with much unfinished business. It is less a memoir than a speaking wound—and understandably, because Greg Bellow was eight years old when his father told him that he and Greg’s mother were separating. After that, Greg seems to have been only fitfully involved in his father’s life. Father and son were sitting on a bench in Central Park when the news was delivered. It is one of the most affecting scenes in the book:
I responded by making a snowball and letting fly at a nearby pigeon. What I really wished for was the courage to hit my father with the snowball. Under the childhood anger my father expected and hoped to see was sadness born of losing the parent who understood me best. At eight, I felt like a deep-sea diver cut off from my air supply. At sixty-nine, Greg Bellow is still the drowning deep-sea diver; this book is his flailing. The tone is sometimes determinedly wistful, as if he were convincing himself of the special bond that existed between father and son, and sometimes angry, because his father’s behavior put that bond into question:
Every other weekend and for one summer month I had emotionally sustaining visits with Saul that I tried desperately to prolong but that ended in sadness at being away from the person who was essentially my best friend. . . . He was often late and sometimes did not show up at all.
Styron, Cheever, and Malamud Smith wrote books about complicated, sometimes monstrously selfish fathers who stuck around. “They stayed married for more than forty years—a constancy that seemed alternately noble and ludicrous,” Susan Cheever writes of her parents. Greg Bellow, a psychotherapist, has written a book about a complicated father who left, and the difference is indeed wounding. The children whose fathers remained married to their mothers have learned, paradoxically, how to let go of their dead fathers; they understand that their fathers had literary existences that were religiously absorbing, selfishly independent. To bestow on one’s parents their independence is also to announce one’s own independence from them. (It is a signal strength of “Experience,” Martin Amis’s vivacious memoir of Kingsley Amis: the son, confident in his own literary powers, grants his father an equivalent liberty.) Greg Bellow, by contrast, is still clutching his father, and clutching for his father. He seems to struggle with resentment at the very idea of Saul Bellow’s having an independent literary existence; which is to say that he finds it hard to credit that his father was a writer at all. Terribly, he appears not quite to know this about himself. So he constructs narratives that are plausible only to him. The unconvincing arc of the book is that he had been carrying a lot of anger toward his father; that this was stirred up again by his father’s death and the insensitive way that the literary world claimed its champion; but that in rereading all of Bellow’s novels (“in temporal sequence as my way to sit shivah”), and in writing his book, he has moved through what one of his generous blurbs calls “his passage from pain to acceptance.” He’s at peace, has achieved closure. [cartoon id="a17537"]
In fact, despite several gentle and illuminating reminiscences of Saul Bellow as a young man and a loving young father, the book is raw and lividly unclosed, the pain bubbling up every few pages. His father was selfish; he compartmentalized his life (so as “to behave as he wished without palpable guilt, and to deceive”). As he became well known, he became enamored of vulgarly “lavish tastes” and his “newly acquired wealth”; after the publication of “Herzog,” in 1964, and throughout the late nineteen-sixties and seventies, he was corrupted by his love of literary fame. (“A long line of admirers now flocked to my father’s door.”) The ardent father, whom Greg Bellow dubs “young Saul” (full of optimism, hope, humane idealism), slowly became the “old Saul” of later public renown—conservative, cranky, sexist (“buried under anger, bitterness, intolerance, and preoccupations with evil and with his death, which lasted for the rest of his life”). He was a lousy grandfather, evincing a notable lack of interest in his eldest son’s family, and as he got older he “lost the ability to laugh at himself or at the comic side of life’s contradictions.” A good deal of his art involved worldly theft, which wounded the real-life models he pillaged for his characters. (“Such literary license can and often does bleed into blatant thievery. And stealing someone’s personhood is not a victimless crime.”) He “chose a life of singular literary purpose and a lifelong pattern of selfish conduct that he could neither deny nor completely bury.” His apparently pleasant fifth wife, Janis Freedman, soon became less pleasant, and essentially “kidnapped” Greg’s father. (“Over the next five years, Janis gradually broadened her control over every aspect of my father’s life.”) After his death, what should have been intimate memorial events were turned into marketing opportunities. (“I remember thinking that Saul Bellow, who was being promoted even in death, was now clearly in the grip of the Philistines, people who emphasized money rather than culture.”) And on and on.
Although I knew Bellow somewhat in the last years of his life (and taught a class with him at Boston University), I cannot claim to judge the accuracy of these very intimate complaints. But the literary assessments are so wrongheaded as to give the book a migraine of unreliability. “Saul Bellow’s Heart” ends pretty much where it begins, with Greg Bellow complaining about the literary reception of his father’s death. At the funeral, he feels that Bellow’s numerous literary children, eager for a piece of the famous corpse, displace the three actual, grieving sons. The obituaries and literary tributes seem to him “distinctly filial,” and he irritatedly asks himself, “What is it with all these filial narratives? After all, he was my father! Did they all have such lousy fathers that they needed to co-opt mine?” He grew up, he says, in a household that valued culture, “which included the quiet solitude that my father thought essential to writing. His study door was firmly closed every morning, a sign of the barrier Saul drew between writing and living.” For decades, he says, he had “ferociously protected” his father’s “privacy, literary and personal, which both of us connected with those hours of his writing day.” He goes on, “As a child I learned not to disturb him. As an adult I turned a blind eye to the literary persona and to the public furor over his fame, which reached an apex in Stockholm. After 1976 I boycotted all events held in his honor.” (Bellow received the Nobel Prize in Literature that year.) “Saul became offended, but I felt the limelight contaminated the private bond I was trying to protect.”
Greg’s son, Andrew, exclaims to his father, “What was all the fuss about Grandpa changing American literature? He was just a grouchy old man.” Instead of pointing out that his grandfather could have been both a great writer and a grouchy old man, Greg Bellow comments, “Andrew’s response succinctly captured a distinction between the private man and the literary lion that was just beginning to dawn on me.”
What can he mean by this? The distinction is not a meaningful one, and it cannot just have begun to dawn on him, since he has already told us that he had been boycotting his father’s public literary events since 1976. Perhaps what really dawned on him only after his father’s death was that Saul Bellow was a great writer, not just a terrible dad. That indeed appears to be the engine for the book’s fake narrative of psychic closure. Bellow informs us that he has written his memoir for a number of reasons—but one of them is that continuing to ignore his father’s literary fame “would also be to ignore lessons I learned right after my father’s death: that writing was his raison d’être.” One can only imagine how much the son has had invested, for so long, in the hope that he was his father’s raison d’être.
For, despite his admission, Bellow still displays an unconscious hostility toward his father’s writing. Throughout the book, he divides his father into private man and public writer. “My deep respect for Saul and his writer friends fueled the fierce way I tried to protect his privacy and my acceptance of the line he drew between art and life. As a result, I was predisposed to react negatively to Saul’s fame, and it got worse when it spilled over onto me.” According to Greg, the media circus in Stockholm, when Bellow received his Nobel Prize, was outrageous, and reinforced his determination to “keep my relationship with my father strictly private from then on.” Near the end of his memoir, he says that rereading all his father’s novels—the proffered closure narrative—“became an opportunity to appreciate his public side.”
But, when Greg Bellow talks about protecting his father’s privacy, it should be obvious that he really means denying his father’s publicity, as a way to keep his father to himself. Humanly, this is utterly forgivable. In literary terms, it is incoherent. Really protecting his father’s privacy would mean acknowledging that Saul Bellow’s most private self was expressed in writing, not in paternity. For any serious writer, the private self is the writing self. That closed study door, which Greg Bellow imagines as a symbolic frontier between “writing” and “living,” was no such thing; for Saul Bellow, the writing was the living. And to write means turning privacy outward. Writing fiction is a kind of publicized privacy; you feel, in the greatest novels, the ghost of the author’s soul rustle into life. “When you open a novel—and I mean of course the real thing—you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer,” Saul Bellow wrote:
You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul.
Bellow wrote these beautiful words in 1990, which perhaps gives the lie to Greg Bellow’s easy Biblical conceit that sometime around 1964 sweet young Saul turned into hideous old Saul. Saul the father may well have become bitter and vain; Saul the writer did not. But Greg Bellow pays Saul Bellow’s writing little serious literary attention in this book. He summarizes the content of the major novels, picking through them for autobiographical residues. He almost never quotes from them in praise.
A small but telling example: in 1977, Saul Bellow gave the Jefferson Lectures in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, which Greg characterizes as “two stern lectures about the uneasy balance between the fragility of art and the fate of the artist in a materialist American culture.” Later, in “The Dean’s December” (1982), Bellow apparently used the protagonist, an academic who has written a series of controversial articles about contemporary Chicago, to indirectly chastise himself, Greg says, “for falling victim to the seductions of fame by making pronouncements in his Jefferson Lectures that went well beyond literature.” Yet, far from being “stern,” the Jefferson Lectures are among the loveliest things that Bellow wrote. They are jewelled with details, not plump with “pronouncements.” In them, he pays lavish tribute to Chicago, to its muscle and mess, while anxiously returning again and again to the question of how the young writer and intellectual grew up in, and also outgrew, this domineering city:
On winter afternoons when the soil was frozen to a depth of five feet and the Chicago cold seemed to have the headhunter’s power of shrinking your face, you felt in the salt-whitened streets and amid the spattered car bodies the characteristic mixture of tedium and excitement, of narrowness of life together with a strong intimation of scope, a simultaneous expansion and constriction in the soul, a clumsy sense of inadequacy, poverty of means, desperate limitation, and, at the same time, a craving for more, which demanded that “impractical” measures be taken. Bellow dwells on his literary anxieties, on the fundamental deviancy (as he puts it) of the American writer. This great brutal rich city—and, by extension, modern capitalist America—has very little interest in the writer, and seems to make no space for him. The vulnerable, uninsured novelist seems like a footling flâneur, a daydreamer in danger of being coöpted by the big salaried reality of American life:
So you sat in your three-dollar room, which you had anxiously civilized with books (your principal support in life) and with a few prints from the Art Institute: a Velázquez Job who said Noli Me Condemnare, a Daumier Don Quixote riding featureless over the Castilian wasteland; and in this dusty cubicle you recognized that you were out of line, you were a strange deviant. With the steelmaking dinosaurs just to the south, and the stockyards, the slaughter rooms blazing with aereated blood where Croat or Negro workers sloshed in rubber boots, right at your back, and the great farm-machinery works and the automobile assembly lines and mail order houses, and the endless railyards and the gloomy Roman pillars of the downtown banks, this was a powerful place, but the power was something felt, not shared. And what had these labors or these transactions to do with you and your books?
How to be a bohemian in the United States? Bellow’s self-questioning is profoundly American. In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the preface to “The Scarlet Letter,” bemoaned the peculiar difficulty of proclaiming oneself a writer in practical-minded America: “What is he?” Hawthorne imagines his disapproving Puritan ancestors asking of his career. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life . . . may that be?” Henry James understood Hawthorne’s shrinking apologias. As he put it in his little book on Hawthorne, “It is not too much to say that even to the present day it is a considerable discomfort in the United States not to be ‘in business.’ ”
Bellow dramatized this discomfort in “Seize the Day” (1956), which makes a distinction between the world’s business—that of the New York stock markets—and the “real business,” the business of the soul. Bellow enacted this struggle in his own life, and the true story of Greg Bellow’s memoir, the narrative that briefly comes alive in his book, is another lifelong battle between father and son—between Saul and his father, Abraham, an abusive patriarch who appears to have held his son’s vocation in contempt. Saul remained touchy about his family’s incomprehension of his achievements. When his sister fell asleep during his Nobel Lecture, Saul “complained bitterly on the way back to the hotel that she typified the family’s attitude toward his devotion.” Perhaps, in this case, there is no great distinction between being rendered invisible, as a writer, by American “business,” and being rendered invisible, as a writer, by the all-consuming business of one’s own family. Bellow’s fiction is ambivalent, at best, about family life, tending to see it as tragicomic theatre, in which tender sentiment gets crowded out by distortion, avarice, and humiliating pettiness. In “A Father-to-Be” (1955), an unsettling early story wisely passed over by Greg Bellow, Rogin, a young chemist, imagines the “curse” of having a “dull son” who disappoints him. Rogin anxiously anticipates an empty relationship between two people who have nothing in common, a state in which “father and son had no sign to make to each other.” Readers of Greg Bellow’s memoir can’t help but notice that Saul replicated, in his apparent indifference toward Greg’s career, Abraham’s lack of interest in his own.
What is he? Hawthorne’s uncertainty is visible in William Styron’s slightly unstable parody of the angry male novelist, pacing around the house, always hunting the Big Book; it can be detected in the exaggerated air of privilege that John Cheever bestowed on his fairly modest social origins, and the purchase of his large house in Ossining. (According to Susan Cheever, The New Yorker’s lawyer at the time said, “What makes John think a writer can live in a house like that?”) It is there when Bernard Malamud, behind the bathroom door, announced that someday “I’m going to win.” And it was there when Saul Bellow, at the height of his success, was hurt by his sister’s sleepy indifference in Stockholm. Each of these writers struggled to create something out of nothing, and had to justify that scandalous magic in conventional, unmagical, mid-century America. This justification expressed itself all too often as self-justification, and the storm of assertion cleared a brutal path. The history of that private destruction is briefly alluring, sometimes appalling. In two or three generations, that story will have faded from memory, outlived by what it enabled. ♦
Essay My little bit of country
891 WordsNov 26th, 20134 Pages
My Little Bit of Country
What would the ideal lifestyle contain? Would it be a busy life, surrounded by tall buildings and lots of people or would it be on the country, enveloped in the uncontrolled nature and with a small society? Some would argue for the city-life, while others would argue for the country-life. It might be impossible to conclude which lifestyle is really the best, but there is definitely both cons and pros to each of the two lifestyles. In an article called My Little Bit of Country, posted in Central Park by Susan Cheever, Susan Cheever argues her view of living respectively in the city and on the country.
Susan Cheever's preferred place to live is the city. When she was a baby and as a very young child, she…show more content…
Cheever also points to the privileges following a life in the city. The possibilities, as she describes them, are much more numerous than on the country. While the city still offers playgrounds, parks and pools, it also provides cafés, lively people and flashing lights everywhere. The clean environment simply attracts her more than the dirty country.
For children, Cheever thinks that the ideal place to live is also the city. She thinks it's safer for children to grow up in the city and that it's easier for the children to live in the city. She uses an example to support this. She compares the 'living country pony' and the 'carousel city pony' to each other and concludes that the carousel pony is better than the living pony, because it's clean and easy to handle. However, this example might not be very strong, as many people would point out that the carousel pony lacks just exactly the work and experience that the living pony can bring to the children. Also, the bond that the child would create between the pony and itself isn't present with the carousel pony.
Later in her text, we learn that Cheever has an apparent fear of living in the country. She explains that one of the most important things for her is to be surrounded by civilization at almost all times. She feels safer when she can hear the buzzing of the traffic outside her apartment and see the flashing lights on the wall