The Journals of John Cheever


London: Vintage.

When the calendar rolls into November and it’s cold enough for me to wear my luxuriant winter coats again, I always turn to John Cheever’s Journals. I have read them about four times and this year will be my fifth. Returning home from the cold I pour coffee to drink with some hot muffins or crumpets and put my feet up by a fire and let his captivating melancholia envelop me. It could be that they evoke the season or that I first read them at this time of year but, to me, everything about Cheever; Journals; Letters; and the brilliant short stories of American suburbia; strikes a certain autumnal chord. I think of him, wrapped up, walking in upstate New York, his cheeks reddened by the wind, leaves blowing over his brogues.

There is a certain patrician elegance to the bobbled sweater Cheever is pictured wearing on the front of Blake Bailey’s biography of the writer. For me it seems to evoke everything about Cheever’s faded suburbia, a culture that I, by virtue of being born on the other side of the Atlantic, could never truly be part of.

However, as I am quite suggestible, there is one danger to the Journals: I’m sorely tempted to drink gin or mix a martini every time he mentions the hard stuff – which is often (drink-along-a-Cheever, anyone?) – but this isn’t so bad, it just means that I, like him, wake up on the couch and then clamber through the cold dark into bed.

“I am a solitary drunkard… At four or half past four or sometimes five I stir up a martini, thinking that a great many men who can’t write as well as I can will already have set themselves down at barstools.”

– 1958

Of course there are other perils to reading Cheever, he is a paragon of the self-involved writer, a serial adulterer and he propounds a speciously tempting religious faith of adoration and thanksgiving:

“What am I doing here on my knees, shaking with alcohol and the cold? I do not pray, but I hope that my children will know much happiness. I believe that there was a Christ, that he spoke the Beatitudes, cured the sick, and died on the Cross, and it seems marvellous to me that men should, for two thousand years, have repeated this story as a means of expressing their deepest feelings and intuitions about life. My only noticeable experience is a pleasant sense of humility.”

– Palm Sunday, 1967

Cheever chiefly enjoyed the liturgy and there is admittedly something attractive about ritual but surely he was just saving face – and his aforementioned drinking and philandering must have put him at odds with his faith.

In spite of, or because of, all of his virtues and vices I would recommend Cheever’s reflective Journals to anyone and expect that they would find them a rewarding exercise of time. (Particularly as a Christmas gift for any reflective writers in your life.)