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The Cliff

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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 will surely appreciate.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, July 1, 1994, p. 881.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 133.

Los Angeles Times. November 8, 1994, p. E4.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 30, 1994, p. 48.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 25, 1994, p. 34.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 25, 1994, p. 4.

The Cliff

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2,203 words.)