Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Intimate Reading: The Journals of John Cheever

When The Journals of John Cheever were published by Knopf in the fall of 1991, I had been keeping my own journal for a little less than two years, starting it in January 1990 as an assignment in a college English course. It became a habit that I continued after the course concluded, and in time it grew into an essential part of my daily life. As someone once said, the unexamined life is not worth living. Of course, the life examined in detail may amount to a life lacking anything to examine except for one’s own thoughts, but so be it. When Cheever’s journals appeared, I checked them out of the local public library and continually renewed them for a year until another patron’s request meant I had to give them up.

What is the attraction of reading a journal?

Is it because a journal or diary is generally thought to be private, writing hidden from eyes other than those of the author and, therefore, appealing because to read them is to discover secrets, to come in closer contact with another’s soul than is possible in a work of fiction?

I don’t know, but Cheever’s fiction - all those acclaimed short stories and well-regarded novels - interest me less than these journals. In re-reading reviews of the book from when it first appeared, it’s interesting how shallow some critics can be. The book is not worth reading, some claimed, and should not have been published. Why? Well, by golly, it’s depressing. A similar charge was made against Kenneth Tynan’s diaries when they were published a decade after Cheever’s journal reached the shelves. What kind of lives do such people lead that they want only sunshine and smiles, and are repelled by cloudy skies and frowns? Life is life. It is what it is, and how dreary the lives must be of those who seek only laughter.

Cheever’s journals are no more “depressing” than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is racist. Just as Mark Twain depicted racism in his novel, Cheever describes his despair, his anxieties, and disappointments in his journals. It’s a downer, for sure, but like anything deemed “depressing,” such as a Leonard Cohen ballad, it has about it a healing quality. As C. S. Lewis was quoted as saying in Shadowlands, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

Maybe those who can’t appreciate Cheever’s frequently grim accounts of life have never been alone, or felt alone, and have never felt sad, or, if they have, flee from that feeling, suppressing it because they fear the vulnerability that usually results. How many people tell others to cheer up, look at the bright side, or in some way recommend masking or avoiding the grief, tears, and depression that are the natural and completely sane reaction to tragedy? After 9/11, some callers to radio talk shows complained about the round-the-clock television coverage of the tragedy’s aftermath - the search for survivors and the sight of the rubble that had once been the World Trade Center. They did not want to face it, and complained that sporting events had been cancelled because a basketball game might cheer them up. As the Bible says, “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning. The mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.”

The wise mind is likely to respond positively to Cheever’s journals. The mostly downbeat content is only part of their allure. It’s the writing - Cheever’s gift for making sentences - that the reader will treasure. That those sentences describe an often sad and sometimes bitter life is, I suppose, beside the point, or maybe it isn’t. I don’t know, but The Journals of John Cheever is one of a handful of books I return to again and again.

From 1966: “I cut the grass, hoping to improve my spirits, but then I hit the bottle with such vehemence that nothing is gained, much is lost, and this morning I feel sick. I read a biography of Dylan Thomas thinking that I am like Dylan, alcoholic, hopelessly married to a destructive woman, etc. The resemblance stops with alcohol.”

It’s not always despairing.

Also from 1966: “Someone had written something in the fresh snow. Who could it have been - the milkman, a boy, some stranger? And what would he have written - an obscenity, a calumny? What the stranger had written was ‘Hello World!’”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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