Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Brief Encounter: Richard Stern

In a career stretching over more than four decades, Richard Stern has produced some of the smartest and most civilized fiction in American letters. Faced with a single paragraph of his prose, early or late, the word that comes to mind is quick, in both its modern sense (speedy) and archaic one (luxuriously alive). It's a sad fact that even books of this caliber go out of print. But happily, Northwestern University Press has now republished three of Stern's gems. Stitch (1965) is a fictionalized portrait of Ezra Pound, butting heads with two aspiring American writers in Venice. Other Men's Daughters (1973) traces the disintegration of a Harvard professor's marriage and his affair with a younger woman--it is, says Philip Roth, "as if Chekhov had written Lolita." And Natural Shocks (1978) brings up the rear with a brisk, brilliant meditation on matters ephemeral (journalism) and eternal (death). From his summer home on Tybee Island, Georgia, Stern recently--and patiently!--answered our questions via email.

James Marcus: How did you and Northwestern decide to reprint these particular titles?

Richard Stern: Along with Europe, these were the out-of-print novels. One reason for going with Northwestern in the first place (with Pacific Tremors) was their willingness, even eagerness, to reprint the earlier books with fine new forewords, to do the collected stories, and so forth. The other novels are still available.

Marcus: Did you write Stitch, with its quasi-portrait of Ezra Pound, right on the heels of your own encounters with the poet in the early 1960s?

Stern: I was writing a novel with Gunther as the protagonist when I took up my Fulbright assignment in Venice and met the sculptress Joan Fitzgerald, then Pound and Olga Rudge. At that point the novel then took on the dimensions it has.

Marcus: But what initially moved you to turn Pound the poet into Stitch the sculptor?

Stern: I guess it was learning about sculpture from Joan Fitzgerald that had me do Stitch the sculptor. But novel writing teaches you that every departure from actuality spurs the inventive faculty which reportage stifles.

Marcus: Did you ever worry about how the book might be received by the Poundian ménage in Venice? Mary de Rachewiltz, Pound's daughter, certainly contributed a nice blurb.

Stern: Olga Rudge read the book when I returned to Venice in '65 and kept reading, lending and commenting about it, but would not let Ezra read it. (He read in any case and said a couple of unique things about it; don't know if he read anything else of mine.) Mary read it later and wrote the wonderful words which you read. She’s a most remarkable person. Discretions, her memoir about her parents, is a beautiful little book. (Her parents detested it.)

Marcus: I’m afraid you’ve whetted my curiosity. Would you mind sharing what Pound said about your book?

Stern: Pound told Joan Fitzgerald that he’d never read a modern novel which was so involved (wrong verb) with honor.

Marcus: Of your three protagonists, Edward Gunther has the most difficulty escaping the closed circuit of his own personality. "Self-study is a trap," he reflects, "when the self overshadows everything: the sundial eclipsing the sun." Does he ever break free? How about Stitch or your epic poetess, Nina?

Stern: Poor old Edward tries hard but hasn't the firepower to blast out of his own orbit, as both Stitch and Nina have done. They manage to see their own lives in a larger context and thus (I guess the cliche verb is) redeem them.

Marcus: Like the real Pound, the fictional Stitch sees himself as a transmitter of civilization. Are either of them correct?

Stern: Yes, I think both Pound and Stitch, despite making some of the stupidest personal/political decisions a person can make, have advanced/enriched civilization as well as culture. It's the underlying irony--let's say, the ironic fulcrum--of the novel.

Marcus: Before moving on to Other Men's Daughters, I wanted to follow up on your previous comment about actuality and invention. Where in your own work have you departed most dramatically from actuality? Where have you stuck--insofar as a novelist can--to just the facts?

Stern: This is the question most often asked, and it clearly springs from the essential interest in the origin of what's new, what's created. The answers are almost always inadequate. If I had time, I'd go through every sentence of a book and discuss its relationship to what happened to me or to someone I know. The initial invention is the isolation of a situation which has narrative interest. (Sometimes a writer will provoke such situations in his life.) The writer knows that transformation begins the moment such situations bend his temperament and evoke the words and narrative devices which render them.

Marcus: But it's the real-life situations that get the ball rolling?

Stern: I do think that the most moving situations are often at the heart of the most moving narrative moments--but not always. In my early years, I worked mostly from what I imagined. In Any Case derived from a book about the English espionage group S.O.E., but at its heart is the notion of treason, which had special meaning for me back then. (Don't ask.)

Marcus: And how did that process apply to Other Men's Daughters? How, for example, did your protagonist Robert Merriwether become an expert in the physiology of thirst?

Stern: In the summer of 1969, while teaching at Harvard, I read a fascinating technical book on thirst. (I made a point of reading pretty widely, especially when I could follow a subject with an interesting vocabulary.) So Merriwether becomes a Harvard dipsologist. Meanwhile, that same summer, I met the woman to whom I’m now married. Parts of Other Men's Daughters reflect this turnabout in my life (and wife).

Marcus: I don't think I've ever read a better, richer description of the woe that is in marriage--at least in its terminal phase.

Stern: Thank you.

Marcus: I find the portrait of Sarah Merriwether especially impressive: she's hateful to the protagonist in some ways, yet still an object of intermittent respect and even love.

Stern: The novel tries very hard to give every character his or her own say. (I was very pleased that the reviewer for Ms. magazine said this was one of the few books by a man that seemed to her fair to women.)

Marcus: Did you ever worry that Sarah might come off as no more than a conjugal millstone around Merriwether's neck?

Stern: No. I knew that would ruin the book. And the underlying reality had some of the complexity the novel examines. Also, I was impressed by Bellow's telling me that writing fiction made you more equitable. I'm not sure that the originals of some of his characters--or mine, for that matter--would agree.

Marcus: Merriwether, contemplating an American-style vita nuova with Cynthia, has his doubts about whether the past can truly be put behind. "The deepest feelings grew down where the nerve foliage reddened, the dendrite thickened," he reflects, in a typically physiological mode. "No new relationship could ever have that."

Stern: The use of your character’s special vocabulary is a great spur to invention.

Marcus: But is he right or wrong about relationships?

Stern: Yes and then no. Every situation is so rich, it's difficult for the writer--as opposed to his character--to generalize this way.

Marcus: A similar question, perhaps: when Merriwether walks up that ravine toward his new life on the last page of Other Men's Daughters, does that constitute a happy ending?

Stern: Again, it's yes and no. Sure, Merriwether is climbing up toward a shining Cynthia, but that doesn’t erase his feelings for the children. The scene in which he embraces his son George is as strong as any in the book--or so I think. But again, the writer does not have a privileged position as his own book's critic. And "happy" is a word that may be too simple for works of art. Music isn't fiction, but does Beethoven’s C-sharp minor quartet have a happy ending?

Marcus: Let's move on to Natural Shocks. Unlike some of the earlier novels, this one seems almost concentric in design: the focus whirls outward from the journalist Frederick Wursup to include Jimmy Doyle, Cicia and her household, Tommy Buell, and so forth. Was that your intention from the beginning, or did this chambered Nautilus of a novel find its own form as it went along?

Stern: A very interesting insight, new to me. One aim was to give the impression if not the weight of a long novel in many fewer pages. (I’m just now suffering the tedium of extra pages in John Irving's A Widow for One Year, which elsewhere has wonderful narrative stretches.) Speculation about what's going on today--set against the element which defines all human life, death--is, I suppose, the basic structure.

Marcus: Wursup is hardly the hack he sometimes makes himself out to be, yet his brand of freewheeling journalism does have voyeuristic or even cannibalistic overtones.

Stern: I think of him as a first-rate journalist, a combination of Halberstam and Lippmann.

Marcus: Where exactly is the dividing line between what a first-rate journalist does and what a first-rate novelist does?

Stern: A journalist is in my view tethered to and bound by what's actually happened. Also, he doesn't have the temporal generosity of an historian or biographer or, for that matter, other social or physical scientists. A novelist has the freedom to do anything which doesn't violate the terms--structure, pace, reality quotient, tone--he's selected for his story.

Marcus: You have, of course, published several volumes of occasional journalism and commentary.

Stern: I’ve enjoyed writing some journalism; it requires very different sorts of alertness, deference, knowledge, responsibility.

Marcus: One last question. Your protagonist Wursup has "goofy storms of feeling," and wonders whether these emotional seizures represent "some passage of soul." He's a materialist to his fingertips, yet he still asks himself whether the material world might fall short in explaining these moments of intensity: "Might there be some quarkish particulate foaming between grosser substances?" I’d like to pose you the same question.

Stern: The material universe is more amazing the more you know about it. But no human mind can possibly answer the ultimate questions it raises. Can flies understand Hamlet?

Marcus: It seems to me that the best novels are devices meant to capture that particulate foaming, the way Franklin trapped electrical charges in his Leyden jar.

Stern: A beautiful image. I suppose the novel is one of the great human attempts to make beautiful sense out of the intricacies, difficulties and paradoxes of human experience, especially of its emotional heights and depths.

I never would have found Richard Stern without this. Thanks--I'm intrigued and excited to have a new writer to add to my list. (And Pound anecdotes are always welcome!)
I found Richard Stern, literally, on a library book sale table. Other Men's Daughters is quite beautiful; I've just finished rereading it without regret. Now I'm off to find these other two.
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