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Hortense Calisher

By Richard Howard

When she died at 97 last January, Hortense Calisher had had a couple of marriages and a couple of children, had traveled, as they say, extensively (indeed she married Curtis Harnack in Greece, of which nuptials more later), and had written about 24 novels (including at least one under what we frivolously call a pen name), as well as a collection of all her short stories, another of all her novellas, and several works brilliantly if not clearly autobiographical. She had served as president of American PEN and, of course, of this Academy, on ulterior meetings of which I miss her fiercely, as I do on the occasions of my own life, which she had illuminated and embellished since 1962, causing a certain distress only in those instances when she described, to me, her abundant poetry as “never to be shown.”

I deliberately blur the number of Hortense’s novels (“about two dozen”) because she does so herself, experimenting with notions of genre as severely as she does with those of character and plot and even her own identity therein and…therefrom. As she says of what she did and does: “in so much of my life, the saying is the act. In varying shades of distinctness, it is my public life. No matter how private it seems.”

In any and all of these doings of Calisher’s, the saying is immensely complex, rich in grammatical demands as well as thematic consistency (it has been remarked how much of her writing is concerned with the Journey, the Voyage, the Transfer, the Movement, the Change), and in this wealth of itinerant conception and execution this grandest of our living novelists, until last January, was altogether willing only to differ: she was a different novelist, as she was, certainly, a different woman, eager to insist that, as Andre Gidé wailed to his mother after a bad day at the playground, je ne suis pas comme les autres.

How different is what Calisher is concerned, is obsessed to tell, and her enormous oeuvre clarifies the unlikelihood, the contrariety, the opposition. At the memorial for Hortense, Curtis told an illustrative story I am compelled to repeat: they decided—each had been traveling in exotic places, Hortense in Pakistan, Curtis in what was then often referred to, still, as Persia—to marry one another in Greece, God knows why, and after much poking around they found a Presbyterian minister in Athens who would perform. This man of the cloth, however, upon discovering that the couple before him consisted of two writers, found it necessary to compose, on the spot, a little homily about the duty of spiritual meditation (“just a few moments, a few lines a day”) as a guide to a happy connubial existence. Whereupon Hortense broke in upon the minister’s lucubration: “I don’t believe you understand what it is we do. When you urge upon us spiritual meditation, I think you fail to realize…” at which point Curtis told us that he elbowed his bride-to-be rather fiercely and whispered, “Honey, shut up, or he’s not going to marry us.”

It was Curtis who retailed this instructive episode, not Hortense who wrote it. But differences seem to be implicit even at the outset of one of the most interesting unions I have ever had occasion, over many lustra, to observe. I prefer to end with a revealing anecdote of my own, but first I want to commend to your attention three of Hortense Calisher’s finest works: her first novel, False Entry, published when she was 50; Mysteries of Motion published in 1983, and from 1997 The Novellas of Hortense Calisher.

Now for my telling intimerie: as I suspect I have indicated, there was a lot that was sibylline about Hortense, and not only in her works; I frequently needed the sibyl’s advice, and back in 1992 I was especially needy because my editor, not a notably homophobic man, had just told me that one of the most ambitious of my new poems “would not do,” and I came sniveling to my private sibyl, who “comforted” me thus:

I do not see why or on what this poem should be objected to. One can hazard a guess, though rather foolishly, and without any knowledge of the objector: Is taking inspiration from a newspaper account a “low” thing to do, too literal, etc. Should such a subject be treated only in “high” poetic style? whatever that is. (I leave the current clichés about “high” and “low” to the curators at MoMA.) You’ve certainly written knottier, less immediately accessible poetry—is that where the line should be drawn, on sexual material? Not for me—nor is any subject inherently “cheap” or sensation-seeking—indeed this poem is the obverse of that. The woman’s voice is at first markedly simple and humdrum, but as the vernacular often is. The other part of the dialogue utterly redeems that, taking flight from it. Finally: were you being asked to move on from the subject altogether?—in ordinary times the equivalent would be “Can’t you stop talking about Death?” Maybe it was none of that, but the climax of whatever else was simmering in a long relationship?

So much for sibylline comfort. To conclude: what is best said, in tribute, is merely—merely!—that Hortense Calisher is a great figure in American fiction, indeed in American writing of the late twentieth century, and if I were to be sibylline myself, I should apply that description of the author to the woman herself, a great American figure.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2009.

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