I have a day in London tomorrow; work sponsored no less (I’m en route to training on Wednesday). I’m pretty chuffed about it as it’s rare to find myself alone in London and with time to make whatever plans I like so I’m going to make the most of it, which will inevitably involve some book shopping, but for a change I have a few other places I want to explore – foody sightseeing and a hunt for cake decorating accessories (very inspired by ‘Bake and Decorate’). I’m also very excited at the prospect of meeting a book group friend for the first time – jobs really aren’t all bad after all.
The book wish list at the moment seems to be sponsored by Vintage; I don’t have A.S Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’ yet, I’ve been meaning to get Isherwood’s ‘A Single Man’ for months and most of all I’ve just discovered John Cheever and want more. I came across John Cheever when I was browsing Waterstone’s for John O’Hara, they had no O’Hara but the red backed books started to jump out (visually not actually) at me and I ended up intrigued by a Cheever. Further browsing on amazon increased my interest and since then I’ve acquired and read ‘The Wapshot Chronicle’.
Male American writers, even from the fifties, are normally right on the edge of my comfort zone but so far Vintage have come up trumps for me every time. I think I was sold on ‘The Wapshot Chronicle’ from the first line of blurb “Meet the Wapshots of St Botolphs. There is Captain Leander Wapshot, venerable sea-dog and would be suicide...” but if that hadn’t done it I really fell in love on page 11 with this description
“The attic was a fitting place for these papers, for this barny summit of the house – as big as a hayloft – with its trunks and oars and tillers and torn sails and broken furniture and crooked chimneys and hornets and wasps and obsolete lamps spread out at one’s feet like the ruins of a vanished civilisation and with an extraordinary spiciness in the air as if some eighteenth century Wapshot, drinking Madeira and eating nuts on a sunny beach and thinking about the passing of the season, had tried to capture the heat and light in a flask or hamper and had released his treasure in the attic...”
What Cheever does which feels new to me, and I suspect that this is a fundamental difference between the sort of women writers I read and male writers generally, is describe the world around his characters. I’m used to reading about what women think and see, but here I’m reading about what men feel, and physically feel. How things smell, the way that sand crunches underfoot, or grass feels against skin, the taste of a storm in the air – it’s all on the page and every time it’s something I recognise it takes me there. Plot wise it’s a family chronicle along suitably eccentric and gothic New England lines – I was strongly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived In The Castle’ in places, but it’s not so much about what happens as the people it happens to and the way they experience the world.
It’s a great feeling to know I’m one book in to Cheever with plenty more to come as well as journals and letters. I’m also particularly pleased to have started with his first book – I rarely manage to do that and it’s pure serendipity this time. If I’m organised (big if) I can follow how his writing develops, which as he won a Pulitzer for it should be a project worth following.
For a first novel it’s a really remarkable bit of writing. Partly based on his own youth in New England, which also inspires me to find out more about Cheever, it’s just so wonderfully rich; characters who should be ridiculous are made real by detail and affection, every landscape and room as real to me as anything as I can remember. The whole affect is almost intoxicating; so perfectly tempered with a sense of loneliness pathos and loss that any danger of nostalgic self indulgence or over indulgence in eccentricity is well and truly avoided. Really good stuff.