One of the pleasures of reading fiction that takes itself at all seriously is the way in which whatever you are reading now will go caroming off of what you were reading yesterday to collide with what you end up reading tomorrow, which you would not have known you were going to read tomorrow if it had not been for the chain of reactions, spins and reflections that were started by what you were reading two years ago, which -- well, you probably get the idea by now, don't you? Sometimes, the connections that disclose themselves will lead to some flavor of Deeper Understanding. On other occasions, the simple joy of unanticipated connections and propinquities is quite enough in itself.
Mark Helprin's new novel, Freddy and Fredericka is out at last, and the copy I pre-ordered arrived last week. It has been sitting on the bedside table while I finished the first volume of the Library of America's three-deep collection of the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
In conjunction with the new novel, Harvard magazine published a long profile of Helprin, full of lovely details for those who enjoy his fiction. He has never consumed a cup of coffee in his life, for instance, which perhaps explains why the mysterious protagonist in Memoir From Antproof Case wants to drive that beverage from the face of the earth. His own favorite of his novels is A Soldier of the Great War, which would probably be my choice as well. (Whatever came in second -- probably -- would be a very close second.)
In his youth, Helprin lived in Ossining, New York, where his ambulatory habits are rumored (by Helprin himself) to have influenced another respected writer:
Helprin does not like it smooth, and never has. Ever since he was a
small boy he has practiced what he calls 'straight-line walking,' i.e.,
walking from one point to another as the crow flies, heedless of
whatever obstacles may intervene — 'through houses, ponds, and streams,
trespassing, going through barns and places you shouldn’t be. I’d crawl
through brambles and over rocks, slog through muddy, disgusting marshes
and reeds, over railroad tracks and dams,' he says.
people adjust their course to take the easy way,' he explains. 'Something appealed to me to take the harder way. The reward would be
that you have tremendous friction and texture; if you have to encounter
all these things, you get wet, cold, muddy, and scraped. You learn, you
feel, and you see —you do things you wouldn’t have done.' He says this
straight-line walking may have given John Cheever, a neighbor in
Ossining, the idea for his short story 'The Swimmer,' in which a
suburban husband returns to his house by swimming across the backyard
pools of his neighbors.
Bang! What choice did I have after reading that? I simply had to pull down my collected Cheever to re-read "The Swimmer," which I last looked at nearly 20 years ago. Some will claim it is Cheever's very best story. I would need to work through them all again (as perhaps I will) to come to a conclusion on that, but wherever it ranks in the Cheevre ouevre, it is a very fine story. Here is the first paragraph, planting us squarely in Cheever country:
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying 'I drank too much last night.' You might have heard it whispered by parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. 'I drank too much,' said Donald Westerhazy. 'We all drank too much,' said Lucinda Merrill. 'It must have been the wine,' said Helen Westerhazy. 'I drank too much of that claret.'
Midway through the second paragraph, Cheever shifts to a voice resembling Fitzgerald's so that he can introduce Neddy Merrill lolling, like Gatsby, beside the pool:
Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin. He was a slender man -- he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth -- and while he was far from young he had slid down the banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the scent of coffee in his dining room. He might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket on a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather. He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure. It all seemed to flow into his chest.
Whereupon, Neddy "realizes that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water." He decides to cover the eight miles home by swimming all the pools in between, and the story veers by near-imperceptible degrees toward strangeness and sorrow.
When I was reading large quantities of the stories of Henry James a few years back, I discovered that you can never be certain that a James tale won't suddenly turn into a ghost story. The ones that proclaim themselves to be ghost stories - "The Turn of the Screw" being the most prominent example - generally aren't. "The Swimmer" is not a ghost story, exactly, but it certainly enters the realm of the uncanny before it is done, and leaves as many questions unanswered as not. I had read Singer's story, "A Wedding in Brownsville," a few days before revisiting "The Swimmer." and was struck by similarities between the two. Both stories start solidly in the observed and verifiable world, but end somewhere else altogether. While it did not call attention to itself on the first reading, it is not difficult to go back in Singer's story and find the point where things skew off the realist track. It is one of Cheever's accomplishments in "The Swimmer" that the seams are well nigh invisible and that a literal explanation of what just happened so believably is so hard to come by.
Now I really need to start on that new novel, eh?
For further reading: Google discloses that way way back in September 1996, you could have navigated your steam-driven Turing machine to read an appreciation of "The Swimmer" by some fellow named Michael Chabon at a "Web site" called "Salon." Wonder whatever happened to them.