Sunday, January 04, 2009

`Meticulous Humanity'

In June of 2000 my very pregnant wife and I drove to Concord, Mass., to attend a reunion at her prep school. I went to public school and had a dim notion that prep schools entailed snobbery and sodomy. I was prepared to feel uncomfortable but enjoyed myself immensely, thanks largely to two of my wife’s former teachers. She had always said prep school was a more significant part of her education than Georgetown but I was skeptical. When I met her former history teacher, he wanted to talk about the Civil War, particularly Walt Whitman’s involvement as a nurse in the Union field hospitals. So that’s what we did for an hour or so – former students and their spouses, including several well-informed Civil War buffs, seated at desks in a classroom, swapping stories. My self-imposed outsiderness quietly evaporated.

Her English teacher read aloud John Cheever’s story “Reunion,” published in The New Yorker in 1978. I’ve always admired its concision – two lives anatomized in three pages – its mingling of humor and sadness, and the way Cheever captures the stifling embarrassment we feel when someone we love does something foolish and embarrassing. Everyone present participated. Most seemed personally involved in the story, recognizing in it some aspect of their lives. For me it was a rare communal appreciation of a literary work. When the narrator reunites with his divorced father in New York City for the first time in three years, he writes:

“He put his arm around me, and I smelled my father the way my mother sniffs a rose. It was a rich compound of whiskey, after-shave lotion, shoe polish, woolens, and the rankness of a mature male. I hoped that someone would see us together. I wished that we could be photographed. I wanted some record of our having been together.”

Of course, the story we were reading was precisely that record, which becomes piercingly poignant when we come to the story’s final sentence:

“`Goodbye, Daddy,’ I said, and I went down the stairs and got my train, and that was the last time I saw my father.”

I remember people agreeing that the emotional impact of “Reunion” was made more powerful by its brevity. It was the length of a story you might tell an intimate friend. By the end of the session in my wife’s old classroom, I felt benignly tired, as one does after any meeting that engages the emotions. Later in the day, as we ran into others who had been there, we smiled like old friends, though we’d never met before. The prep school story came back to me as I’ve been rereading Cynthia Ozick’s essays. In “A Short Note on `Chekovian,’” for instance:

“[Chekhov] is not reticent, and his people are often charged with conviction, sometimes ludicrously, sometimes with the serious nobility of Chekhov himself. But even when his characters strike us as unwholesome, or exasperating, or enervated, or only perverse (especially then), we feel Chekhov’s patience, his clarity – his meticulous humanity, lacking so much as a grain of malevolence or spite.”

Of course, many readers, writers and critics would deny the possibility of “meticulous humanity” in so ephemeral and artificial a thing as a story. In a footnote to the title essay in Metaphor & Memory, Ozick charmingly nails such tiresome readers to the wall:

“Certain novelists claim that fiction must express a pure autonomy – must become a self-sufficient language-machine – in order to be innovative; others strip language bare of any nuance. These aestheticians and reductionists, seeming opposites, both end inevitably at the gates of nihilism. A certain style of poetry is so far committed to the exquisitely self-contained that it has long since given up on that incandescent dream we call criticism of life. Abandoning attachments, annihilating society, the airless verse of self-scrutiny ends, paradoxically, in loss of the self. A certain style of criticism becomes a series of overlapping solipsisms…”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another great thing about "Reunion" is that it ends with the same words with which it begins, but how our understanding of "the last time I saw my father" changes in the space of three pages!

I use the story while teaching High School English to Japanese ex-pat students in Westchester County, NY, most recently on an end-of-term exam last November. It's short enough and simple enough that students can process and respond to it with very little preparation (they need to be told what a Gibson Beefeater is, that's about all). The characters and situation are easily grasped (my students have all been to GCS), and it's a great way to introduce young people to Cheever. I myself enjoy re-encountering the story on what is becoming an annual event.