The Cliff (Magill Book Reviews)
The central figure of this novel, Jack Smith, is a failed novelist and father as well as a Prufrockian figure of an “adjunct assistant professor,” one of society’s more marginalized figures. Yet here is the hinge of the plot, for “our Jack Smith” is not “the Jack Smith,” a world-class historian whose acceptance by the Foundation for a stay at Villa Sfondrata in casually misdirected by campus mail (a fitting object of any academic’s satiric ire) into the possession of the wrong Jack Smith. To avoid the importunate annoyances of his former wife’s attorney for late alimony, Smith decides to accept the invitation. In due course, he is snugly ensconced, imposturing his way through days of writing, which is not, however, an account of the death of Mussolini, the stated project of Jack Smith the Historian. Instead, Jack Smith the failed-everything writes letters to various former friends, including his estranged daughter, and the subplot of his engagement or re-engagement with her provides one of the few tender elements of the novel. The essential intellectual posture of the novel is, however, provided by Smith’s being an imposter, an outsider who is also inside and thus witness to things without being taken in by them, a superb description of the satirist at work. That Slavitt wrote this novel under the auspices of a foundation similar to The Westchester Foundation and at a retreat rather like the Villa Sfondrata adds a bit of irony, which any reader...
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The Cliff (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The Cliff, David R. Slavitt’s fiftieth book, is a satiric look at the cosseted world of creative and scholarly retreats financed by foundations. In the case of Jack Smith’s stay at the Villa Sfondrata in Bellagio, Italy, the foundation in question is the Westchester Foundation, funded by “Baptist billionaires,” “their vast wealth . . . an outward sign of their spiritual good fortune, their heavenly election.” Headquartered in New York City in opulent digs, the foundation engages “in various programs throughout the world, some large and some small,” involving “the ecologies and economies of whole countries, as well as the psyches of scholars and artists.” Villa Sfondrata, where artists and scholars may reside for short periods of time insulated from the world, stands on a cliff above Lake Como. One would think that such an institution as this foundation, whose sponsorship is widely sought, might be immune from the satirist’s attack, especially given that Slavitt wrote the book under the auspices of just such a foundation at just such a location. Yet this small novel barely avoids being churlish, nibbling rather than biting the hand that feeds its author.
Indeed, the novel manages a wide array of satiric sorties, attacking the “arrogance” of the foundation’s founders and benefactors, their desire to find “talented youngsters . . . turning them into zombies,” the cooks, servants, and keepers of the Villa Sfondrata for...
(The entire section is 1910 words.)