Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cheever's Uncle George

A few weeks ago I went looking for a funny quote I remembered from many years ago in The Stories of John Cheever. It was something about nude statues in Italy. I wasn’t sure if it was in the stories or in the journals. Anyway, I tried the Stories first. It’s a fat 819-page book, so I checked the contents for a likely-looking title, and found The Bella Lingua round about the middle of the book. Sure enough this was the right story and I soon had the quote I was looking for. However, on reaching the end of The Bella Lingua, I turned the page and went on to the next story, and then I kept on reading all the way to the end of the book, over many evenings. And after that I went back to the beginning and read the first half. How I enjoyed those stories! Some were tragic or horrifying but there was lots of humour too. I found pleasure on every page with unexpected and vivid descriptions, perceptions that are still fresh, and an absence of clichés. A surprising plus for me was that Cheever’s imagery reminded me very much of painting – not the images per se, but the kinds of details he chooses to reveal some sort of significance. The common ground between writing and painting became more clear.

I felt sad coming to the end of the book, or rather arriving back at the middle where I’d begun. But luckily I have Cheever’s Journal as well, so I’m reading that now.

As for the quote, the context is as follows: Uncle George is an American tourist in Italy. His purpose is to bring his widowed niece and her son back to America and to have his first vacation in over forty years. He’s something of a stereotype, saying loudly to the Italian waiter who brings him his continental breakfast, “You gotta no hamma? ... You gotta no eggsa?” He then goes on a sightseeing tour and gets conned by the guide. The guide lures him into a trap with a promise of seeing a special place:

“Very special,” the guide said. “For men only. Only for strong men. Such pictures. Very old.”

Uncle George takes the bait and gets mugged and robbed of four hundred dollars.

Later on while he’s having dinner with Kate, his niece, the story continues:

“It’s an immoral country,” Uncle George said, sitting down in one of the golden chairs. “First they rob me of four hundred dollars, and then, walking around the streets here, all I see is statues of men without any clothes on. Nothing.”

Kate rang for Assunta, and when the maid came in she ordered whiskey and ice, in very rapid Italian. “It’s just another way of looking at things, Uncle George,” she said.

“No, it isn’t,” Uncle George said. “It isn’t natural. Not even in locker rooms. There’s very few men who’d choose to parade around a locker room stark naked if a towel was handy. It’s not natural. Everywhere you look. Up on the roofs. At the main traffic intersections. When I was coming over here, I passed through a little garden -- playground, I guess you’d say -- and right in the middle of it, right in the middle of all these little children, is one of these men without anything on.”

“Will you have some whiskey?”

By John Cheever, from The Stories of John Cheever, Ballantyne Books, New York.

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