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 their penury, poor larder, and poorer wine cellar, and the scholars, artists, and poets who are the recipients of the foundation’s largess. Jack Smith, the central figure in the novel, a failed novelist and Prufrockian figure of an “adjunct assistant professor,” does not escape either.
Here, exactly, is the hinge of the plot, for this Jack Smith is not “the Jack Smith,” a world-class historian whose letter from the foundation offering a stay at Villa Sfondrata is casually misdirected by campus mail into the possession of the wrong Jack Smith. To avoid his former wife’s attorney’s requests for late alimony, Smith decides to accept the invitation. In due course he is snugly ensconced, imposturing his way through days of writing either in his “studio in the woods” or “often in the library, where I can be observed at my labors,” which are not, however, an account of the death of Benito Mussolini, the stated project of Jack Smith the historian. Instead, Jack Smith the failed-everything writes “long and all but insane letters to various former friends, my former agent, the people I love and have hurt . . . and the manager of the villa.” Among the people he has loved and hurt is his estranged daughter, and the subplot of his engagement or reengagement with her provides one of the few tender elements of the novel. The essential intellectual posture of the novel is, however, provided by his being an impostor, “an outsider who is also inside and is therefore privileged to witness things without being taken in by them.”
What, beside foundations and their staffs, does Slavitt satirize? If one looks at his cast of characters (his “ship of fools”), one might be excused for thinking that his targets include all manner of artists and scholars. “So here we are, a Korean agronomist and his wife; a Nigerian economist and his wife . . . ; a lady poet from California . . . ; an antitrust lawyer from Washington, D.C., and his clothes-horse wife; a book designer and his free-spirited ‘significant other,’ an art historian specializing in garden follies . . . ; and a couple of medical historians, the Drs. Glickstein,” and, to be sure, Jack Smith himself.
Each of the temporary residents at Villa Sfondrata is an easy target for the satirist’s pen. Yet Slavitt is successful in portraying Smith as attacking more out of a desire to hide his own imposture than out of a moral certainty of his own superiority. Morally, Smith is suspect. Professionally, he cannot get his writing career back on track except, ironically, as a result of the leisure provided through his appropriation of the foundation’s grant. His teaching as an “adjunct assistant professor,” one of academe’s legion of cannon fodder for whom security and pride of place are equally foreign, is not in any way distinguished. He is estranged from his teenage daughter, a situation that is also being rectified as a direct result of the introspection he is forced to undertake as a resident of the villa. Other residents of the villa (and readers of the novel) do not find Smith an easy conversationalist, a respectful friend, or anything but a defensive, if deft, duelist with words.