Sour Plums

John Lanchester

  • The Letters of John Cheever edited by Benjamin Cheever
    Cape, 397 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 224 02689 5
  • Mary McCarthy by Carol Gelderman
    Sidgwick, 430 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 283 99797 4
  • The company she keeps by Mary McCarthy
    Weidenfeld, 246 pp, £4.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79649 6

In 1964, Time published a profile of John Cheever which, in a sub-heading, described him as ‘The Monogamist’. Subsequent events have proved that not to have been the fact-checkers’ finest hour. In 1984, two years after his death, Susan Cheever published Home before Dark, a memoir which portrayed her father, whose public image was that of an impeccably upper-middle-class monogamist suburban WASP, as a promiscuously bisexual alcoholic. One memorable scene had John Updike, a friend and rival – Norman Mailer called Cheever and him ‘the Old Pretender and the Young Pretender of the New Yorker’ – ringing the doorbell and being answered by Cheever, bombed out of his mind and stark naked. Home before Dark struck some people as devotedly filial, sensitive and moving etc, and struck others as an upmarket Mommy Dearest. But Cheever’s children hadn’t finished with him, and now The Letters of John Cheever, edited by the writer’s son Benjamin, means that he has become the victim of a familial double whammy.

Susan Cheever’s book is oddly neutral and matter-of-fact in manner; which could not be said of the book her brother has edited. ‘Ned Rorem took the time to shed light on the complex riddle of my father’s sexual nature. He told me, among other things, that for my father, orgasm was always accompanied by a vision of sunshine, or flowers.’ This is from the acknowledgments page, an indisputable classic of the form, in which Benjamin Cheever thanks, among others, his father’s correspondents (‘to me his entire personal and professional life seems to have been a brilliant demonstration of loyalty and charity’), his own agent (‘despite his carefully nurtured reputation for toughness, I have known him only as a good and gentle friend’), Saul Bellow and Adam Bellow: ‘The long walks we took together taught me a good deal about what it means to be the son of a well-known writer, and what it doesn’t mean.’

All this is refreshingly dippy, and as an editorial demeanour it certainly makes a change from bet-hedging academic careerism. The element of comedy – sometimes intentional, sometimes not – in Benjamin Cheever’s interventions is curiously appropriate to the letters, especially at the moments when they would be expected to be most anguished and difficult. Susan Cheever depicted the central difficulty of her father’s life as being alcoholism, and made it sound grim: Benjamin Cheever depicts it as homosexuality, and by including a series of rhapsodically erotic letters to a young man with whom Cheever had an affair at the end of his life, makes it sound like a comedy of self-delusion.

‘Have you ever had a homosexual experience?’ Susan Cheever asked her father, in an interview which was published by Newsweek. ‘My answer to that is, well, I have had many, Susie, and all between the ages of nine and eleven,’ Cheever bizarrely answered. ‘To hold your nice ass in my hands and feel your cock against mine seems to be a part of this astonishing pilgrimage,’ he wrote to one young lover: the ‘astonishing pilgrimage’ is life. ‘Neither of us is homosexual,’ he wrote to the same correspondent, ‘and yet neither of us are foolish enough to worry about the matter.’ In one of his journals he wrote: ‘I was for years and years afraid that I might be homosexual. I can’t think of a more legitimate source of fear.’

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