Richard G. Stern Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Bellow has been known to wonder aloud why Richard Stern’s work is not more popular. Like many other discerning reviewers, Bellow notes the excellence of Stern’s novels and short stories and their lack of readers. The answer to Bellow’s question probably lies in the kinds of demands that Stern makes on his readers. According to Stern, his early writing was done under the influence of Understanding Fiction (1945), a highly influential textbook-anthology edited by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. Under the influence of Brooks and Warren, Stern tried to achieve what he calls a polished style, to integrate the materials in his stories, and “to suspend the meaning of the story in action as ‘naturally’ as orange bits in jello.” Between 1952 and 1954, he said, he wrote about ten stories following these principles, but he became dissatisfied with what he was producing and, in 1957, stopped working on short stories, interrupted work on what became his second published novel, Europe: Or, Up and Down with Schreiber and Baggish (1961), and started working on what became his first published novel, Golk.

Like Bellow’s writing, Stern’s tends to be highly erudite and allusive. In fact, it tends to be even more erudite and allusive than Bellow’s. To understand Stern’s stories fully, readers must be familiar with a large body of Western literature. They must also be at least slightly familiar with several languages, including French, German, and Italian. In some stories, he demands that his readers be familiar with such topics as Eastern and Western European history, anatomy, and the history of philosophy. Stern is at his best as a humorist. He is sometimes classified as a black humorist and even a satirist, but his works tend to reflect more love for humankind than those of most black humorists and satirists. Stern’s short stories provide a mirror of the absurdity of the human situation at the same time that they display not only a tolerance of human foibles but also a love for humankind. A consummate craftsman, he admits to polishing his works by revising them again and again. The resulting stories are worth the time and effort he puts into them, and they are certainly worth the time and effort the reader must expend to appreciate them.

“Good Morrow, Swine”

Even in many of his short works of humorous fiction, Stern makes inordinate demands on his readers. Most of his best short works are collected in Noble Rot, a book that can serve as an excellent introduction to Stern’s techniques as a story writer. His extremely short story “Good Morrow, Swine,” for example, is included in the collection. This early work is hilarious, yet to comprehend the jokes in it one must recognize the allusions in the title and be able to understand at least a bit of French, since most of the jokes within the story depend on recognizing French mistranslations of English phrases. In the story, Mr. Perkins constantly misinforms his young male students about the meanings of English words, quotations, and everyday expressions.

“Veni, Vidi Wendt”

Similarly, in “Veni, Vidi Wendt,” a long short story that Stern calls a short novel, which was collected in 1968, he writes a comic study of Jeffrey Charles Wendt, a composer of operas to which no one listens and who desires to have his operas listened to by no one. This story, not collected in Noble Rot, is set in the same year as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy and the Democratic Convention in Chicago that nominated Hubert H. Humphrey while young people rioted in the streets. Yet Wendt, who has been called a modern Nero, although aware of these events, largely ignores them, concentrating instead on writing an opera based on the life of Horace Walpole and trying to satisfy his own sexual lust and desire in order to show his superiority to his colleagues. Wendt and his wife and children are spending the summer in Santa Barbara, California. In the course of the story, he rediscovers his love for his wife and children.

Still, to understand the humor in “Veni, Vidi Wendt,” the reader must bring something to the story. The title itself alludes to Julius Caesar’s famous words “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”), which he used to report to the Roman Senate about his Pontic victory. Wendt, however, does not conquer. He came, he saw, and through a terrible pun, he left (Wendt-went). Even the Latin pronunciation of the letter “v” as “w” and the German pronunciation of the letter “w” as “v” seem part of the joke involved in the story’s title.

The irony of comparing Wendt to Caesar becomes greater when one compares Caesar’s amorous conquests to Wendt’s. In his Egyptian conquest, achieved shortly before his Pontic one, Caesar also won Cleopatra. Comparing Caesar’s conquest to Wendt’s one amorous conquest in “Veni, Vidi Wendt” produces more humor. Unlike Caesar, Wendt finds that he can ultimately take no pride in his dalliance, even though the woman with whom he has an affair is Patricia Davidov, the beautiful wife of a musicologist whom Wendt abhors. In the course of his first assignation with Patricia, he wonders whether there is no mouthwash in the Davidov household. Shortly thereafter, he finds himself exhausted by his extramarital affair and extremely anxious for it to end. No Caesar, Wendt runs from the affair back to his home in Chicago, feeling only relief that he has escaped from the demanding Patricia. The writing throughout the story is similarly allusive and erudite.

For a reader able or willing to make a way through Stern’s short stories, the rewards are great. At his best, he is wildly comic, illustrating the absurdity of the human situation in humorous scene after humorous scene in stories such as “Good Morrow, Swine,” “Veni, Vidi Wendt,” “Packages,” “Milius and Melanie,” and “A Recital for the Pope.”

“Arrangements at the Gulf”

In fact, Stern is often classified as a writer of the absurd. He can write...

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