Richard G. Stern Essay - Stern, Richard G(ustave)

Stern, Richard G(ustave)

Stern, Richard G(ustave) 1928–

Stern is an American novelist, short story writer, and poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

All along the scale from "Moby Dick" to the Bugs Bunny factory, American imaginations have worked for more than a century at the Republic's craft, the arraying of particulars. "No ideas but in things," said William Carlos Williams, sensing that, like the view through a scanning electron microscope, our very sense of reality was growing ever more particulate. The corresponding art-form is the purposeful miscellany, like the list of names Fitzgerald put into "The Great Gatsby," allegedly copied from notes on an old timetable….

Richard Stern,… collecting old pieces, finds imperturbability alien to his nature. He takes for his title "The Books in Fred Hampton's Apartment" and evidently is most himself in his eager pursuit of diversities he can itemize. Fred Hampton was one of the young Black Panthers slain in a Chicago shootout….

You can see Mr. Stern's eye seizing on components, sorting effects and impressions into the elements that produced them. Hemingway thought young writers should learn to write down "what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced." The emotion, though, was Hemingway's starting-point, and there seemed not to be many shades of emotion. Mr. Stern is sufficiently post-Hemingway to welcome multiplicities and let emotion form as it will….

Always, knitting and linking variety, he's concerned with ways such actuality might expand a fictionist's domain. Judiciousness might recoil from "the new democracy of art, in which camera-owners think they are doing Leonardo's work, hi-fi possessors that they are fusions of Beethoven and Edison, 'candid-camera' characters that they are brilliant performers, the subjects of interviewers that they are dispensers of wisdom (and this while they step from the shattered store window, television sets in arm)," but none of this folk bravado depresses the miscellanist. Remembering how "the Cubists found new eyes in African sculpture and children's art," he glimpses new energies for the narrative artist. Which is how Mr. Stern differs from a Gay Talese or a Tom Wolfe, from a spray-can practitioner of fluorescent new journalism. His multiplicity of surface perceptions bespeaks the novelist's dedication to a deft economy, like Calder elaborating assemblages with an eye toward keeping them in moving balance, no detail simply for kicks. Devoted to the imagination's autonomies, he lets us sense what the boundary between fiction and journalism feels like. For it's false to suppose that fiction is being crushed these days by reportage, as false as it would have been in 1850 to predict that Mr. Melville's imagination was about to perish of cetacean statistics.

Hugh Kenner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1973, p. 6.

Despite Henry James's unshrill insistence that we must grant the artist his subject, his donnée, that we must not take the fearful responsibility of prescribing starting-points, it's difficult to imagine any sensitive reader not finding himself absolutely compelled to caution Richard Stern against the destructive folly of publishing a novel about a post-40-year-old Harvard physiologist abandoning his wife and four children for a carnal (and surely doomed) liaison with a 20-year-old summer session student from Swarthmore ["Other Men's Daughters"]….

Of course, this same overwary reader would have warned Tolstoy away from "Anna Karenina" and the Master himself from "The Golden Bowl," probably because it's still not easy to believe that execution is all: "The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as executant—no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes." Yes. And Richard Stern does execute wonders with his apparently hopelessly melodramatic subject.

Almost flawless technique and nearly impeccable taste—easy terms but entirely applicable to "Other Men's Daughters" (a most unfortunate, forgettable and misleading title)….

One of the miracles of this novel is how such comprehensiveness is achieved with so much economy, so many ellipses.

Occasionally [Stern's] insistence on compression and minimal detail threatens to [oversimplify], to reduce characterization to caricature….

Though not really experimental in structure, "Other Men's Daughters" makes use of some unusual time-patterns, with convolutions and overlays, flashbacks and flash-forwards. The end result is not obscurantism but enrichment.

James R. Frakes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1973, pp. 4-5.

Celebrations are due many a good writer languishing under an excess of obscurity, but few deserve them as much as Richard (G.) Stern. The author of five novels, two volumes of short stories—one of them, 1968, incorporating the dazzling novella Veni, Vidi … Wendt, which should be immediately hunted out and read by everyone who thinks he has learnt by heart the complete list of contemporary prose masters—and a revealing collection of journalistic pieces, Stern has been publishing for 14 years, getting stronger and more audacious with each new novel, inventing a distinctive and mature narrative style, and always following his own elegant hard-won line. The generosity and sophistication of his mind, those characteristics which emerge first in depth of style, evident in his first novel, Golk (1960), were fully present a year later in his second, Europe; or, Up and Down with Baggish and Schreiber, giving deep tones to that book's comedy—the bank he's been drawing on ever since. (Except, I should say, in his short stories: most of them seem to me honorable flops.)…

Stern, a novelist who began by writing poetry, was always concerned with, and fiercely delighted by, the possibilities within language and narrative technique, and shares with the best American prose its self-awareness and daring. All of Stern's work boils along on a high verbal head of steam, full of energy and finesse, with constant inversions and surprises of diction…. Writing like Stern's derives from a root sense that to give expression is to give life, that the world cannot be taken as given, that verbal awareness, artifice, accuracy and strategy are the incarnations of insight and feeling. Stern was clearly influenced by Bellow, encouraged by both his style and his regal example, and learned from him that fiction might seek large rich freedoms discouraged by the American academic ideas of discreet literary perfection; influence is a loaded issue, but Bellow's work, beginning with The Adventures of Augie March, taught many writers in America and England how to escape the strictures of the too modestly 'well-made' novel. If the word 'mandarin' can be stripped of its more precious connotations and allowed to represent the sort of sensibility in which morality and aesthetics make a dense, lively unity, it fits Richard Stern. The novel of his which shows this best is probably In Any Case. Every chapter is packed with know-how and knowingness, a hundred different kinds of sentence, stunning usages, metaphorically apt information, brilliant speculation and question.

Peter Straub, in New Statesman, May 10, 1974, pp. 668-69.

The plot of Other Men's Daughters may be the old, old story, but it is Stern's telling that counts. His writing achieves at times the compressed strength of a Tacitus, and you read a sentence twice not because it is obscure but because you want to make sure you are extracting every nuance. The comment (e.g. on MacBundy- and Kissingerstyle whizz-kids at Harvard) is caustic. The dialogue glitters but remains credible conversation. The lovers' shared humour, and their inevitable misunderstandings, make their relationship convincing…. All the minor characters—Merriwether's Harvard colleagues, his children's friends—are three-dimensional. Also, Stern takes infinite trouble with his hero's work background: Dr Merriwether really does come over as a learned, but not quite top-flight, physiologist….

[This] is a book to restore one's faith in academic if not political America, in its tolerance of nonconformism and its recognition that knowledge, intelligence and intellectual honesty and tenacity are virtues to be cultivated and defended. Henry James would have approved of Stern's Bostonians.

John Mellors, in The Listener, May 16, 1974, p. 641.

Ten years ago, on the strength of his first two novels, Golk and Europe; or, Up and Down with Baggish and Schreiber, [Richard Stern] looked like a savage and resourceful joker, unafraid of meddling with the world or of being in bad taste. His new book [Other Men's Daughters] is tame, well-groomed, and strenuously inoffensive. It comes worryingly close to being the thinking man's Love Story; a routinely ironic account of a Harvard professor's affair with a peachy Southern blonde who comes up for summer school and stays to change his life—a little. There's not a page on which Stern does not display his considerable technical accomplishments: his ear for lightly-pointed, studiedly self-aware academic dialogue; his eye for small exactitudes of place and person; his sprightly control of interior monologue which enables him to shift, most convincingly, from character to character at the turn of a paragraph. But by the end of the book I didn't feel that he had established a single particularly good reason for putting these enviable attainments to use.

The trouble is that he is so thoroughly of a piece with his characters that we are expected to take them all at their own valuations of themselves. So cultivated, so unruffled, so anxious to understand each other's motives, they move through Cambridge, as they move through the novels, like painted figurines, made out of some finer clay than flesh. With such paragons for characters, it's hard to precipitate any action more violent than conversation…. They are simply too urbane for fiction….

As a nightmare prophecy about a new breed of perfectible humans now being distilled in some laboratory off Harvard Square (Merriwether does teach physiology), Other Men's Daughters is rich in dark possibilities. After all, Swift's feelings about the Houyhnhnms were none too clear, either, and Stern's irony has an uncertain, conceivably dangerous, depth. But the novel seems softly approving, easily shockable, oddly unwilling to follow its own insights through beyond a certain cautious point. It exudes a simple faith in the mildest of all forms of irony—the value of being able to smile wryly at your own actions, as if that alone put them beyond censure.

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter, July, 1974, pp. 75-6.

Richard Stern is a good American novelist, not quite of the first rank, less obsessed and stylistically less bold than his best-selling contemporaries—Bellow, Mailer and Malamud—whose influence on his own writing is evident. But Golk (1960) and Stitch (1965) have excellent things in them, the writing is always intelligent and strongly shaped … and his dedication to the craft an honourable one. Intelligence and stylistic energy is also observable throughout this miscellany [The Books in Fred Hampton's Apartment], though its overall effect is less than overwhelming. Stern has seemingly tracked down every bit of nonfictional utterance he's committed in the last twenty years or so….

Pretty miscellaneous stuff it is, but this … collection will justify itself if it shakes us into taking another look at Stern's novels which will still be around when ninety-five percent of post-1965 absurdist fiction is judged to be in fact absurd.

William Pritchard, in London Magazine, August/September, 1974, pp. 147-49.