"The Journals of John Cheever" -- Painful Truths as Enlightenment
My fascination with John Cheever's work and life began with a photograph of the author in "The Writers' Desk" by Jill Krementz. The photograph shows Cheever at his typewriter and is taken at a strange angle, as if the photographer was standing above the writer perhaps taking leave from him. At any rate, the photographs in the book by Krementz come with a little blurb by the writers regarding their writing habits and desks. John Cheever's words impressed me and since I first read them I haven't been able to shake them off. I later went on to read Blake Bailey's biography "Cheever: A Life" while visiting Japan in 2012. It wasn't a cheerful book to read, but Bailey's style and amazing capability for the facts made it an excellent biography and introduction to a complex subject.
I began "The Journals of John Cheever" as an experiment of sorts. "The Stories of John Cheever" was a lengthy masterpiece; a book that ranks far above anything Cheever's contemporaries put out. I knew that ahead of me were "The Wapshot Chronicle" and "The Wapshop Scandal" but these days are full of time-constraints and personal issues and the luxury of really delving into a book as these two volumes deserve seems like a distant memory. So I "tackled" the journals instead expecting an entertaining and inspiring experience, sort of what I felt reading all three volumes of Christopher Isherwood's diaries. The complexity of John Cheever "the man," far overshadows "the writer" throughout the journals. It is not a book for the faint of heart, or even for someone with a propensity for melancholy or depression. I do not say so in a negative way; rather, it is a sort of warning that this is a book to be approached seriously and with iron-like nerves. It is inevitable to feel sympathy for the man. Cheever's personality comes through not only because of the sincerity of his words but also because there is no way one could tackle the subjects he did, the way he did, while at the same time darkening and shadowing and covering up the "unpleasant" things of every day life. I came to the journals hoping to learn something about the writing process of this magnificent genius, only to walk away thinking I sort of violated some mental health ethics principle by reading Cheever's psychologist/therapist's files on him.
John Cheever's son, Benjamin writes an extraordinary introduction in which he explains the process of how these journals were published. He recounts the moment his father addressed him about the issue of publishing the journals after his death. Candidly, Benjamin writes about the first reading of sections his father gave to him, and the tearful moments that followed. "The Journals of John Cheever" explicitly follow the development of Cheever as a complex personality--not exactly from his youth (although he relates and philosophizes a great deal about how his past shaped him) but from the mature man struggling with his sexuality; with a marriage that was as complex as the two individuals involved; with the menacing presence of alcohol and his slow spiral towards alcoholism. Throughout the journals Cheever tackles his sexual attraction toward men referring to it as homosexuality, despite many instances where he explicitly declares his preference for women. He writes about sexual encounters with both men and women often times in great detail, and feels that generally his infidelity appears justified by his wife's coldness. I don't really know what to make of this part of the journals because I don't have his wife's position on the matter. A lot of these passages strike me so full of emotional pain that it makes me wonder why Cheever did not end up like Hemingway (a topic he refers to lightly as an enigma to be solved). Of all the difficult passages to read regarding this matter, the one that moved me or reached me the most (in a painful way) was this one: "I am the immoralist, and my failure has been the toleration of an intolerable marriage. My fondness for pleasant interiors and the voices of children has destroyed me. I should have breached this contract years ago and run off with some healthy-minded beauty. I must go, I must go, but then I see my son in the orchard and know that I have no freedom from him." I don't believe Cheever means anything negatively about his son in this passage; it's more like an acceptance of his own shortcomings more than an indictment of others. There is another passage in which he compares his advances towards his wife in the marriage bed as trying to breach a castle under siege; a far more painful passage that I neglected to underline and cannot find presently. It is difficult to point to Cheever's unhappiness in his marriage but the clues he gives are that of a man who is unhappy with the lack of intimacy in his marriage. Whether it is because of Cheever's demands of his wife, or because his complex management of his bisexuality might remain unknown forever. Of course this unhappiness, when combined to the demands of the writing life, leads to a painful alcoholism that robs Cheever of a great deal.
Then of the writing process there is very little. John Cheever seems to have kept his writing process private, and whatever was left there by the editor of the journals (Robert Gottlieb with the assistance of the Cheever family) appears limited in scope. There's more about "Falconer" in terms of the writing process and germinating of ideas, but even that is very limited. What is on full display are Cheever's amazing powers of observation with the sharp writer's eye: "At the table on my right is a family. The woman must have been pretty and is pretty no more, but she carries herself well and has her self-possession. He is perhaps fifty, and there is no trace of what he must have been as a young man. They order a moderately priced meal. They have either agreed or been taught not to ask for the filet mignon. Spaghetti and meatballs; the tuna-fish casserole. They say almost nothing to each other during the meal, but they seem not in the least uncomfortable. The daughter is pretty, but I can't see the fourth member, a son, until they leave the table, and when they do leave I see a cruelly crippled spastic whose smile is broad and maybe convulsive or maybe genuine. Make him twenty. Many of the other customers are women with children. Does daddy teach a seven o'clock class?" What we see here are the seminal moments of a story, a kaleidoscope turning and turning until it becomes the desired random design. I got so much from this passage in terms of how one must approach observation and imagination and the creation of fiction that I wish I could find a way to train my eye in the same way. But there is not methodology to this type of genius--you either have it or you don't.
"The Journals of John Cheever" are not for everyone. If you are a literary history buff, you're better off with Blake Bailey's book. If you are looking for the inside view of a complicated genius, for the way the mind of a tormented soul is able to operate and be fully productive despite its struggles, then the journals are for you. Be mindful, however, that where the journals resonate with echoes of your own experience, the pages might become nearly unreadable. I think that most of all the journals were a "literary experience" for me--a way of connecting with a man who, above all, fought for his artistic and human survival and won.