Thursday, January 15, 2009

Calisher dead at 97

The novelist and story writer Hortense Calisher has died in her beloved New York at the age of ninety-seven. As the Times obituary notes, critics tended to split into two camps—those who preferred the novels and those “who found her prose style and approach to narrative better suited to short stories.” I belong to the latter camp. Here, for instance, is the opening of “In the Absence of Angels,” the title story of her first collection (1951), a story set in a women’s prison:

Before cockcrow tomorrow morning, I must remember everything I can about Hilda Kantrowitz. It is not at all strange that I should use the word “cockcrow,” for, like most of the others here, I have only a literary knowledge of prisons. If someone among us were to take a poll—that lax, almost laughable device of a world now past—we would all come up with about the same stereotypes: Dickens’ Newgate, no doubt, full of those dropsical grotesques of his, under which the sharp shape of liberty was almost lost; or, from the limp-leather books of our teens, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” that period piece of a time when imprisonment could still be such a personal affair. I myself recall, from a grade-school of thirty years ago, a piece named “Piccola,” called so after a flower that pushed its way up through a crevice in a stone courtyard and solaced the man immured there—a general, of God knows what political coloration.The voice was quirky, but it could be a little tiring to listen to; and the occasion retreated into literature. “I've begun to think that any art form is avant-garde to begin with,” she wrote in the preface to her Collected Stories (1975), “by having hurtled itself over and through our animal and psychic barriers to become—itself.” And that is the impression even her best stories give—as if she were trying to reinvent the form at each go. “In literature one need never say farewell,” she added. She never did. Her last novel, Sunday Jews, was published when she was ninety-one. Calisher’s fiction will always be there for those who admire the courage of her continual fresh starts.