HORTENSE CALISHER has written, at one time or another, from the viewpoint of a young girl reared expressly to be a kept woman, a man who compulsively slips into the disguises of other people's lives, and a twirling, humming, multicolored machine from outer space. Her settings are almost always New York, but sometimes it's New York's Fifth Avenue and sometimes the seedy, lead-colored warehouse district way, way downtown. And at still other times, it's the closed world of those transplants to the city who have managed, somehow, to bring their natural habitats with them intact, like the envelopes of scent in which certain perfumed ladies move.
You can lose yourself in one of her short stories - brief though it may be, a thin little scurry of pages. For the usual drawbacks of the short story as a form (its suddenness, the artificial compactness of its events, the effort required by the reader to become involved with its characters, only to be abandoned by them some 15 minutes later) are neatly circumvented by Hortense Calisher.
Reading the fine new paperback edition of her Collected Stories , we are over and over again drawn into her situations by a certain thoroughness of tone - the leisurely, patient voice of a narrator who is willing to spend infinite time giving us an almost tangible picture to hold in our minds. An offended hostess' face "retained its smile with only a slight shift, as if she had quickly substituted a spare." A middle-aged woman mourns "the mapped crease, fine leather too long folded, that forms between the breasts." A cabinetmaker comes to oil the gargoyle-covered, lion-footed furniture, untroubled by "any fantasy that he might do as well by placing his supplies in the center of the arena and quickly taking his leave."
It's tempting to ascribe this leisureliness to the particular scenes of time that Calisher must have inherited from her father's side of the family. In the semi-autobiographical "Hester stories" - here grouped together in a section of their own - she shows the contrast between an elderly, southern gentleman's easygoing pace and his younger, brisker wife's. While the husband makes his way graciously through the day, stopping for extended conversations with every chance passer-by from the bootlegger to the elevator boy, the wife dashes about the house in a frenzy of schedules and appointments. Yet the husband has never in his life missed a train. "While his long view of life is so deliberate," his daughter says, "he is not at all dilatory about its detail . . . my father's naive trust in [Time] works for him as pragmatically as some people's trust in God."
Clearly, it's working as well for Hortense Calisher. For her method is to entrench her characters in details of time and place as painstakingly as if she were setting out to write a trilogy nothing will rush her. Each of her people lives in a sort of mosaic background that defines him wholly. The doddering old company retainer has covered his walls with the laces, china souvenirs, and perfume vials manufactured by the various employers in his life. The aging belle has built herself a '20s-style nightclub deep in the woods, complete with red leather lounges and a chandelier that flashes bubbles of light across the dancers. And the dour, ambitious immigrant family, intent upon acquiring a restaurant of their own, lives in an apartment choked with the bundt pans and graduated copper molds that they exchange instead of personal gifts at birthdays and Christmases.
Embedded in these backgrounds, the characters possess a depth and texture that few other writers can put across. The details are so precise, and the voice so perceptive and intelligent, that we're willing to flow with the story; we begin to trust that Hortense Calisher knows exactly where she's leading us. And she does. She draws to the end of her gracious tale, pauses, and then stabs. We never guessed that she would do us in so thoroughly.
Some of the stories are simply funny, but even they have a way of lingering; it turns out that they may not be so simple after all. There's "The Rehabilitation of Ginevra Leake," in which a southern spinster transplanted to New York finds in the Communist Party a substitute for the tea-party circuits of down home. Or "Songs My Mother Taught Me," in which a dutiful daughter manages to draw upon two childhood coventions (never let a guest feel he's committed a faux pas ; always wear decent-looking underwear) in making the very unconventional decision to take off her blouse in public.
Most of these stories, however, end with a small, true pang - a sort of ache of recognition that comes about without contrivance. Watch, for instance, the daughter in "The Middle Drawer" delicately tracing her mother's mastectomy scar, and reflecting on the deeper scars that mothers leave on their daughters. "The living carry, she thought, perhaps not one tangible wound but the burden of the innumerable small cicatrices imposed on us by our beginnings; we carry them with us always, and from these, from this agony, we are not absolved."
In her introduction, Hortense Calisher says that "a story is an apocalypse, served in a very small cup." Certainly her stories are, and each of them manages to alter, in some indefinable way, our perceptions of the world around us.