Calisher is the bridesmaid of contemporary American fiction: for more than 50 years an imposingly brilliant stylist whose densely declarative and analytical, richly woven fiction has never achieved the canonical status awarded to many writers far less accomplished.
Calisher has skirted obscurity (in her ebullient “space opera” Journal from Ellipsia, 1965, and In the Palace of the Movie King, 1994), but at her best (Standard Dreaming, 1972, and Mysteries of Motion, 1983, her complex, luminous short stories), she has surveyed the recently concluded century at all its personal, familial, social, and global levels with a verbal eloquence and intensity of observation that make her writing mandatory, if demanding, reading. Sunday Jews, her 15th novel, published in her 91st year, is a summa, and a triumph. Its tower-of-strength central figure is Zipporah Zangwill, an eminent anthropologist and the 60ish Manhattan matriarch of an extended family of intellectuals and activists who define themselves, and are defined by others, by both their adherence to Zipporah’s Jewish heritage and the degrees to which they have fulfilled, or failed to fulfill, their various potentials. When Zipporah’s beloved husband, philosophy professor Peter Duffy, begins a slow decline into senility, she decides to sell their townhouse and stimulate Peter’s enfeebled faculties by touring all the exotic places she had visited and studied. This decision triggers a seamless interweaving of memory, meditation, and narrative, as Zipporah’s plans resolve themselves into a patient, courageous vigil that also becomes an almost unbearably moving celebration of a long and happy marriage. Interpolated stories depicting the conflicted lives of the Zangwill-Duffy children (the most interesting of them is Nell, a world-weary attorney who has borne two illegitimate children) are amply and interestingly developed, but really only secondary. The fulcrum of this rich tale is the love that bonds Zipporah to her husband and also to her splendid grandson Bert, the unlikely vessel through whom all that she cares for will be preserved.
This incandescent elegy to age, change, and acceptance burns with an urgency that seems to have pared Calisher’s often-reviled ornate style down to a taut, focused simplicity and purity. She has often before written as fervently, even as generously, but she has never written better.