Burgher King

Richard Stern is the best American fiction writer of whom you have never heard. After more than five decades of dogged obscurity — despite nine novels, five story collections, a half-dozen non-fictional “miscellanies,” and a memoir — he has become “famous for not being famous,” in a reviewer’s apt phrase, a “has-been without ever having been a been,” in Stern’s own. He has been gracious about oblivion the way other writers are gracious about fame.

Fiction-writing is unremunerative toil, but such nullity — the search engine LexisNexis calls up only three reviews of Almonds to Zhoof, Stern’s recently released collected stories — seems sadistic. His enthusiasts, after all, have included Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, John Cheever, Norman Mailer, and Anthony Burgess. (The culture of celebrity endorsement has met its match.) Perhaps the mainstream literary establishment snubs Stern to avoid catching the hex.

Stern’s unrepentant transgression has been to be difficult–a “writer’s writer,” that euphemism for alleged inaccessibility — which may explain his high marks with the masters named above. Stern is Bellow’s equal in erudition. In his stories, catalogues of references to everything from plant senescence to Dante come in digressive torrents. His characters — usually academics and intellectuals, and, when not, army grunts who quote Greek philosophy and fundraisers who wonder about things like whether “the whole universe [is] a sensorium”–live lives mediated by Ideas. They deconstruct words like “blow job.” (“‘Not blow job,’ she early corrected. ‘If it’s work, don’t do it.'”) The stories, in a riff on Pascal (“the last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first”), typically begin three-quarters into their intricate plots before backing up for exposition, the reader wading foggily for the first several pages. Stern proceeds by omission–a story will lay bare a character’s inner life, but we won’t learn his first name until its final pages.

Stern writes what he knows. The German-Austro-Hungarian-Jewish son of an Upper West Side dentist and his deferential wife, Stern settled in Chicago in the mid-1950s, after several years in Europe teaching French kids and illiterate GIs how to read English. The University of Chicago supplied Stern with the financial security to write fiction uncompelled by the market, but his family life was less reassuring: he divorced his wife of twenty-two years for a younger woman and has had a notoriously (well, for his followers) tempestuous relationship with a son, the eldest of his four children. These are the cornerstones of Stern’s heavily autobiographical fiction: the routines of the late-middle-age “burgher” (Stern’s favorite word) disheveled by domestic drama; the failure of erudition to make sense of the chaos; making do with the fallout.

The opening story of Almonds to Zhoof, the revealingly titled “The Illegibility of This World,” is as good an introduction as any. Larry Biel is a Chicago retiree negotiating the quiet rituals of the gloaming years between bouts of bafflement at family friction, such as his son Peter’s resentment, and his tenaciously distant relationship with his wife Ellen. His musings are typical of Stern’s male characters:

I recover from the small dislocation of Ellen’s return. Spend so many years with a person, seeing her again even after a brief absence is like seeing her in close-up. Many unnoticed things are noticed, lines in the face, white in the hair, a rawness in the voice, dents and discoloration in the body. The least strange person in the world is, for an hour or two, a stranger. Perplexing, a little frightening.

Then the indispensability of the familiar returns, feelings of reliance, confidence, the identity and accepted disparity of views. There are habits of self-restraint as well as self-expression …

I’ve been a bystander, done nothing memorable. I’ve had no real trouble, have lasted six and a half decades, raised–whatever that means–what will live after me, and live in my paid-up house with someone I love. I’m lucky. Still, now and then, it comes to me that I don’t understand anything … Fear gets so loud I can’t sleep. Once in a while, I … hold on to Ellen. Sometimes this helps–like finding a dictionary–but sometimes it doesn’t.

Stern’s second favorite word is “fixity,” the self-possessed decorum–and rigidity–of the burgher’s routinized life. Stern’s male protagonists begin his stories as creatures of composure and order. In “Gaps,” “What William [William McCoshan, assistant manager of a regional American Express travel department] appeared to care about was schedules…. Beyond human contrivance lay terrible blanks.” The conjugal flame burns feebly, if at all, but there is dignity in “self-restraint,” in making the most of the available garden, as the narrator of “Story Making” insists after seeing a self-absorbed writer friend: “I am timid, inhibited, and orderly (though inwardly, of course, fierce and disorderly) … The minor, low-living burgher, with difficulty still married to the same wife, deprived of fifty-dollar-an-hour self-revelations, never penis-threatened with a knife, never easing the needy wand in the family steak, fantasist but not solipsist.”

But Stern’s men are not great at being good. Typically, a deus ex machina thunderbolt clears the way for long-deferred self-indulgence. In “Gaps,” William’s bloodless wife Elsa–“a true listener, no debater, no echo” — is unceremoniously dispatched “one winter day when [she] drove their 1961 Pontiac into a low retaining wall and was decapitated by the windshield. This death, whatever it was, pricked bubble.” Loosed from his obligations, once-temperate William embarks on a road trip through France, which climaxes when he deflowers a teenage Belgian hitchhiker. In “Ins and Outs,” originally published in the 1960s, Holleb, the business manager of a Chicago weekly, falters after his wife of twenty years absconds to find a lesbian lover. But, soon, he realizes “it was relief to be away from that tongue which grew rougher each year. In a long marriage, what is unthinkable at the beginning may come to seem a caress.” A pummeling by “a young Negro in a blue dashiki … ‘collecting for Biafra'” shocks Holleb into ambivalent rumination about whether to pursue the police case. The catalyst — black-power politics overruns Holleb’s Hyde Park tranquility — feels predictable, but it occasions Holleb’s liberation from the automatic reactions of married life.

Stories such as “Gaps” may carry a whiff of middle-age male fantasy, but Stern is generally more interesting than that, and the collected stories confirm him as one of American fiction’s greatest seismologists of upper-middle-class life. The giving way of familiar structures is not always a blessing; unsettled by his Belgian adventure, William turns back early. But sometimes, Stern is unafraid to suggest, it is a blessing, indeed, deserved even if unearned. In Stern’s fiction, that great terror of hardworking marriages — their end — often turns out to have been a cipher. Male mid-life crisis, on the other hand, is every bit as serious as red Porsche jokes wish it weren’t.

In virtually all the stories, liberations occur thanks to sudden shifts in circumstance, rather than as a result of incremental enlightenment of lived years, which at best bestow tolerance for a partner’s idiosyncrasies. The status quo is always self-denying; only freakish windfalls of fortune liberate. Children die “bolt-out-of-the-blue” deaths; wives disappear to mental institutions; freed from responsibility, the men contemplate newly available vistas.

This preoccupation with the male side of marital ennui, Stern’s attention even to men who use pre-women’s-lib phrases like “the slit in the slot” to refer to female advancement to higher academic positions, surely seemed anachronistic in the more equitable age when he matured as a writer. (Stern has held on long enough for such chauvinist remarks to acquire kitsch appeal as women’s T-shirt slogans.) But his insistence that only lucky breaks can free these men seems like an implicit criticism: earlier suppressions of discontent have opened such distance between them and their wives that the relationships have spoiled beyond gradual repair. How did things come to this? Stern wonders. And what happens now?

Stern glories in elaborate conceits, what the critic James Schiffer has called “image clusters.” In “Dying,” Dorfman Dreben contracts Leon Bly, an occasional poet and plant physiologist researching mortality, to write an ode to Dreben’s dying mother. “In Return” finds the career diplomat Walters negotiating the diplomacies of Japanese culture during a trip with his wife Dorothy, “the habitual diplomacy of their long marriage” complicating the matrix. Stern frequently over-reaches, as in the story “East, West … Midwest,” a strained effort to contrive linkages between a historian’s obsession with Genghis Khan and an assistant’s obsession with him. But the device reveals a compellingly desperate search for connections in a suddenly unraveled world.

Stern’s main construct imagines American burgherdom as a hierarchy of limitations, a negotiation between fixity and release. Unleashed husbands leave behind wives leashed by their betrayals. (“I had never existed before. He created me,” the spouse of a deceased novelist, posthumously revealed as a philanderer, confesses in “Gardiner’s Legacy.”) Involuntary inheritances from inattentive fathers — who tend to see their sons and daughters as restraints on the husband yearning to break free — paralyze children. As Cy Riemer, unhappy Jack’s father in Stern’s novel A Father’s Words, puts it, “Sometimes, I feel I’m nothing but my bonds.” For the fathers, the relationship is frequently purely biological: in “Riordan’s Fiftieth,” the eponymous bus driver’s kids are “ten years of Riordan spunk” and not much more. In “The Degradation of Tenderness,” the psychoanalyst Charlie Grasmuck publicly “dismantle[s] his children” in the study “The Father as Clinical Observer,” only to be mystified by their resentment. (The story can be read as penance for Stern’s fictionalization of his affair in his novel Other Men’s Daughters.)

For Charlotte Trowbridge, in the story “In a Word, Trowbridge,” being the daughter of “The Great American Painter of His Time” means being reduced to a negative capacity, the power to sully the dignity of the name; Charlotte’s potential never occurs to her parents. The other shoe finally drops–Charlotte gets mugged and the surname is all she can whisper to a policeman — but, as with Holleb in “Ins and Outs,” she realizes that life goes on, and she cuts loose from her parents’ diminutions.

In the wonderfully layered “The Girl Who Loves Schubert,” longtime friends Ed Scharf (“orderly, finicky, conservative”) and Sidney Yntema (“erratic, flighty, a lover of disorder”) animate Stern’s poles of male destiny. Yntema changes women yearly, while envious Scharf has responsibly married (Yntema’s college girlfriend, no less, as if he’s taken the beast of burden off Yntema’s hands.) Yntema deprecates Scharf’s “steadiness,” but turns out to be equally unfree. Enraged by the sight of his father with one of his own ex-girlfriends, Yntema trashes his latest girlfriend Apple’s shrine to Schubert. Apple leaves, after administering a trashing of her own. Stern gradually reveals Yntema, his philandering “traceable of course to the paternal freebooter,” as a creature of compulsion rather than indulgence. “Am I just a continuation of that pig?” Yntema wonders, beholden to repeat his ways?

In “Assessment of an Amateur,” Stern animates the conceit by juxtaposing a young American musicologist in Paris on a Fulbright–a scramble of Stern’s own experience–with Higgins, a moody pianist who mooches off the narrator while disparaging his musical skills, brawls with his own wife, and clashes with the European musical establishment. The more collected narrator decides his subsidy of Higgins is “a fair price for an education” about the volatilities of the artistic temperament. The transports of mid-life rebellion and artistic genius fascinate Stern, but, as a scholar who taught the classics for half a century and an artist confined to the second echelon of post-war American fiction, he has equal curiosity about the handmaidens who facilitate and suffer the visionaries–the husbands’ wives, the fathers’ children, the amateurs beside the auteurs.

Postwar Europe freed Bellow — who was there around the same time as Stern, though they did not meet for another decade — to write about America, but it seems to have made Stern want to write about Europe. For many of his characters, Europe harbors the gravitas of a long history, a release from the relativities of American self-reinvention. “There was some in-drawn, hard-knot quality in that face,” Powdermaker, an American photographer’s model and a nice animation of American superficiality, observes about a French passenger on a train through Italy in “Zhoof.” “[It] said: ‘This is what we are, what we’ve been, what we’ll be.'” This fixity, though, has had murderous consequences, especially for that other eternal identity and involuntary inheritance: Jewishness.

Stern has resisted associations with “Jewish” fiction. His family life was only nominally Jewish. For his thirteenth birthday, he hid out in New York’s Paramount Theater, later pretending that he had been bar mitzvahed. At the University of North Carolina, he claimed to be only half-Jewish. Perhaps most tellingly, Stern realized that the Hondorps, the father-and-son duo at the heart of his madcap debut novel Golk, were probably Jewish only after completing the book.

And yet Stern’s “Jewish” stories have elicited some of his finest, subtlest performances. In “Zhoof,” Powdermaker’s trip begins in Nuremberg, “the ancestral land of the Powdermakers.” The Nuremberg tourist pamphlet features a curiously selective recollection of the city’s history: “Certain thoughts always spring to mind when Nuremberg is mentioned: bratwurst, Lebkuchen, toys, Durer, the Christmas Fair, and the famous soccer team.” “These were not the thoughts that sprang to Powdermaker’s mind,” Stern parries dryly, and the reader leans in for the over-compensating American Jew’s evisceration of Europe’s unchastened indifference to Jewish suffering. But Powdermaker is not that kind of guy. “Son and grandson of assimilated German-Jewish burghers, his slogans were theirs: Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t cry over spilled milk.” Powdermaker’s disagreements with the pamphlet are purely intellectual: “His thought was the album of Die Meistersinger, a print of the walls, towers, spires, castle, the Virtue Fountain and Pegnitz River of medieval Nuremberg.”

In “The Good European,” Harry — born Heinz — Pfeiffer, a German-Jewish refugee in America, must return to Europe after Weber, his firm’s executive there, suffers a mental crack-up. “For fourteen years, [Pfeiffer] had listened to the stories told about Weber without being at all amused; as a German refugee, he had had enough of eccentricity in power” [italics added]. The understatement is sublime, a triumph of economy. Pfeiffer despises the Germans — “he never wanted to see Hamburg again, not even stone detached from stone” — but he communicates this with typically German composure.

Stern sketches Pfeiffer’s ambivalent return with equal nuance. In Frankfurt, Pfeiffer becomes tyrannical: “The German office turned out to be in fairly good shape, but not so good that within a week everyone in it didn’t tremble when Herr Pfeiffer sounded the buzzer, for, though he was always polite, he harrowed the tiniest error and lashed the least culpable of its perpetrators.” He storms out of a movie theater showing a comedy: “Why should they laugh?”

But Pfeiffer is German at heart. The informalities and the indiscretions of his Frankfurt secretary — “The Germans were really finished; he saw the laughter and smut as the marks of their uneasy presentiment of the end” — wound him. “His country’s misery was a version of his own; he saw in her looseness and silly posturing the awkward attempts to atone for the misery she had madly inflicted in her fifteen-year exile from European sanity.” In a masochistic moment, even this thoroughly imperfect reconciliation is taken away when Weber rallies and Pfeiffer is returned to New York.

Stern has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Roth and Bellow, but he has neither Bellow’s easy distance from Jewishness nor Roth’s histrionic obsession with it. Rather, he borrows from both — the Jewishness of his protagonists features the simultaneous urgency and faintness of willed neglect. The Jewish stories in Almonds to Zhoof benefit from this tension. Stern’s other stories tend to rank high in cerebral drollery, but they frequently fail to cohere from patchworks of reflection and apercu into full-fledged art held together by drama. Stern, who has argued that novelty is critical to art, strains to make extraordinary men out of his burghers, but he overreaches in making the point.

Even his characters’ names — Dorfman Dreben, Vernon Bowersock, Mervyn Kiest, June Bug Venerdy — aim to contrive a sense of displacement, but such obvious gimmickry tends to push the narratives into farce, which is unnatural territory for Stern’s otherwise ponderous, brow-furrowed prose. Presumably with similar intentions–and resulting in similar problems — Stern constantly gets cute. This is the kind of writer who cannot use “tumble” without bringing up “rumble.” Metaphors are stretched to absurdity: “Trouble, Hanna knew, seldom came labeled. And her trouble was not simple sexual confusion. Everyone she knew slid up and down the sexual shaft, getting off first at this floor, then at that one. She herself was one of the straightest of straight arrows. (If there were sexual continents to explore, she was no sexual Captain Cook.)” His factories belch “cafe au lait” mist; responses take “a while getting said”; makeup is “the creation of the dust and syrup of five hundred plants and animal bladders.” Knowing when to keep invisible is an essential element of good prose; Stern’s calls attention to itself with such grating self-importance that it eclipses the fictional world entirely.

Stern — like his idol Ezra Pound, an encounter with whom he fictionalized in the novel Stitch in 1965–is a kind of minimalist, but when a writer asks half the words to do twice the work, they must be surgically precise. Stern knows how to lay open a life in half a sentence — “[Binswanger] turned his father into a little vaudeville act, a comic handle that lets him carry the hot pan around”–but frequently the focus dissipates into abstraction. Take these early lines from Other Men’s Daughters, a brilliant telegraphing of family estrangement: “The Merriwether House … rises three stories behind a large acacia tree set in a tiny oval lawn whose few feet of renewable earth stuff supplied a large proportion of ordinary Merriwether exchanges: ‘The tree’s leafing out.’ ‘Time to mow again …’ ‘Your bicycle’s on the lawn.'” And then: “A resident of Manhattan might think of Cambridge as ‘country,’ but it is urban in marrow, which is to say that whatever grows there bears the mark of human toleration or display.” Huh? Or: “Merriwether had complained for years that his wife Sarah hadn’t rejuvenated Aunt Aggie’s house. The reason, he believed, was a form of Cambridge indolence disguised as ascetic contempt for body comfort.” And then: “For years such Cambridge platonism brought the rear ends of Merriwethers against the coils of what should ease them.” What?

The reader’s heart half-breaks at such insight spoiled, as he is sprung from reverie by incoherence. Stern’s delight in language has drawn critical comparisons to Bellow, but the better juxtaposition would be with Paula Fox, whose own novel of bourgeois disintegration, the 156-page Desperate Characters, should enter creative-writing curricula as a model of spare but piercingly clear prose. The major ingredients of Stern’s fiction — expansive language, compressed content, erudition as a means to emotional liberation — co-exist uneasily, his own internal argument between fixity and release. “One has feelings, one keeps them to oneself,” Stern wrote in A Sistermony, a memoir of his sister’s death. Too bad. One wishes for less restraint and more control. Stern brilliantly celebrates the abruptly liberated life, but his own fiction shows that constraint may not be such a bad thing once in a while.

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