Authors: Daniel Stern
Twice Told Tales
This book is for Melissa, Joshua, Beverly and Eric.
And it goes to them with love.
There is a kind of stimulus for a writer which is more important than the stimulus of admiring another writer…. This relation is a feeling of profound kinship, or rather of a peculiar personal intimacy, with another, probably a dead author … it is something more than encouragement to you. It is a cause of development, like personal relations in life. Like personal intimacies in life, it may and probably will pass, but it will be ineffaceable.
ITH NINE NOVELS TO
his name, Daniel Stern was no novice when he turned to short story writing. By the time he did so, there were many other occupations at which he was no novice. He has been a professional cellist and a top advertising man. He knows, because his job required him to know, Los Angeles, but he is an
New Yorker. He has lived in that rowdily seductive city as Verlaine told Yeats he lived in Paris, like a fly in a honeypot. Stern, as it happens, also knew his way around Paris, fortunately rather less undiscriminatingly than Verlaine. Cities, like novels, are full of surprises, full of dialogue, full of pains and pleasures.
I could mention other cities which he has enjoyed and looked upon with a charitably observant eye. One of his novels was called
Happiness in Cities
until an unimaginative publisher ruinously changed the title to
An Urban Affair.
Stern seems, without discounting pain, to be a happy man himself, and is certainly the cause there is happiness in others, and in the cities where he encounters them. In the twenty-five years I have known him, I have rarely been in his company without laughing, or without feeling his wit as a personal gift: without feeling happier when I left than when I arrived. He is always convivial, always generous, and that goes for his writing as well as his style of living. Unlike some people, amusing no doubt, but lacking that generous spirit, he makes you feel it’s his business to make you feel good, even if that occasionally involves making you feel sad.
His jokes aren’t formal or prefabricated; they occur when (to borrow an expression of Henry James’s) he picks on some particle floating in the stream of talk, and sees, what nobody else has noticed, its comic potential. This conversational skill is worth mentioning because it is a reflex of the more important skills he brings to story writing; in that art he shows a related control of timing, and of exploring what is vital—and often comic—in the
the Jamesian “single small seed” which here blows in from a bookshelf, from Trilling, Freud, Hemingway, E. M. Forster and Henry James himself.
People who heard Oscar Wilde in full dinnertable flow testified that no report could give much idea of how exquisitely and shatteringly funny he was—so that people had to leave the table exhausted with laughter. We believe this because we can accept that Wilde was doing spontaneously in conversation what he did with more deliberation at his desk. My point in mentioning Stern’s conversation is to suggest that it also hints, for the benefit of those who hear it, at the powers displayed in his writing: powers that enable him to imagine and develop the implications, sad or farcical, of a casual remark, an odd situation, or the chance presence of a particular book at a particular moment. Comparison with Wilde is of course extravagant, and Stern would certainly condemn it as such, and probably make a joke (or a story) of it (“
The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde by Daniel Stern”) but my point is just that he also, though without that incomparable and imperious camp, can transform a story as he does a conversation, seizing on what can give it gaiety and glitter but also humanity.
In a foreword to a second collection,
Twice Upon A Time
(1992), Stern explains how he developed the idea of seizing on an existing book, a book that had meant much to him in the past, and building a story round it. From this notion, which you might expect to be a one-off, there grew the first story in this volume, “
The Liberal Imagination
by Lionel Trilling by Daniel Stern.” “It took a small leap of nerve, not to mention faith,” he writes, “but what got my pulses racing was this idea: that a text by a writer of the past whom I loved, even a non-fiction work, could be basic to a fiction, as basic as a love affair, a trauma, a mother, a landscape, a lover, a job, or a sexual passion.” The trick was to set this title in a live context, the young man and his young woman walking a hundred blocks from the Village to Claremont Avenue and back, identifying or guessing the identities of the grand writing folk at the Trilling soirée; supplying the sharp and odd but authentic dialogue, and the detail: the midwest girl with her passion for Jewish intellectuals, her talent, soon to be defeated; the typewriter wobbling symbolically (if you like) by the bed, the blindfold. Trilling’s book is triumphantly kidnapped for use in a context he could never have dreamed of, yet one which truly represents an aspect of the culture which so fascinated him.
And if it worked once, why should it not work again? Why couldn’t there be a whole series of such tales, collected under a title “borrowed, immodestly, from Hawthorne”? Hence this book. Freud’s
The Interpretation of Dreams
for a serious, complicated tale that starts with a Washington Square squirrel, potentially wicked and dangerous like the city itself (the peanut-loving girl from Georgia has to be told “You don’t feed New York squirrels from your hand”) and, delicately driven by modulated Freudian chat, trivial enough in tone but suggestive of obsessions that may not be trivial, reaches a complex and moving conclusion. “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” taking its cue from Hemingway’s story, moves its hero into restaurants and bars in many cities—New York, Los Angeles, Madrid, Rome, Florence, Paris—cities which provide neither simple happiness nor Hemingway’s
but a certain complicated sadness lying in between.
Aspects of the Novel
uses E. M. Forster’s still remarkable little book as the vehicle for a story, which, like so many of Henry James’s, is subtly about writing stories, fiction about the art of fiction; and “Brooksmith” is, appropriately, a New York transformation of a Henry James story set in London.
I find myself alluding rather often to Henry James, and perhaps not everybody will find this appropriate; yet Stern has at least these characteristics in common with the master, that he recognizes those floating seeds and knows how to make them grow; that he treats his fiction as a game, a subtle but also a serious game; and that a story can be a huge joke, like James’s “The Figure in the Carpet,” yet treat of a complex and important subject, no less than the relationship of art and its practitioners to life.
The collection reaches a splendid climax in the last and longest story “
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
by Sigmund Freud.” Katherine Eudemie, who will be remembered from that inaugural tale “The Liberal Imagination,” turns up again, very differently circumstanced and not perfectly stable. Now she has a child which, in a series of tragicomic Freudian forgettings, she repeatedly leaves in the coat room of a West 57th Street restaurant here called the Russian Rendezvous, a name that may cause habitués of Carnegie Hall and its environs to wonder where they have heard it before.
Despite its manifest debt to Freud, there is something about this tale that reminds one even more strongly of Henry James. You can just imagine an entry in one of his Notebooks: a young woman writer walks out of a New York restaurant and inadvertently leaves her little girl with the hatcheck woman. Voyons, voyons, mon bon. What can be made of that? Well, the first thing she inadvertently left in the coat room was Freud’s book about everyday forgetting and inadvertency. Why was she carrying such a book? Because she was planning to become a psychotherapist. So why did she forget it, leave it behind? And then do the same with her daughter? It’s just credible that she might do it once, but can we get away with supposing she did so not once but over and over again? What would be the reaction of the woman in whose care the child was left? And what about the child herself, subjected to this strange education? She might do very well, be happy, learn a lot that schools don’t teach. And she might become one of the principle attractions of the establishment, so that the restaurant, recently suffering a decline in fortunes (why? Because the owner is an artist manqué, in love with failure) begins to pack them in again.
To give this fable reality, the staff of the restaurant have to be presented to us with all their Russian and East European memories, habits, and locutions, their troubles and disagreements; and there has to be a clientele of enviable losers. The texture grows dense, the plot thickens, the dialogue is always impeccably rich. And although according to one character “everything begins in passion and hunger” it turns out to be true, as another says to conclude the story, that “everything ends in comedy.”
In this, as in the other stories, it is the imaginative heightening of the familiar, the sharpening of observed detail and overhead talk, the elaborate germination and coming to flower of the originating seed, that are so striking. To make such fictions, the mind of the author surveys what it already lovingly knows—that kind of restaurant, those special sorts of people, all
New York—and then drops the slightly absurd catalytic
—no more absurd than many of Henry James’s—into the mixture, to find out what happens. The plot thickens, or deepens. The story grows long, as so many of James’s did, because it develops its own rich complexities, makes its own self-generated demands. The end may be as comic as the
is extravagant, the elaborated means may even be farcical, but this, as James taught, is one of the ways fictions find out truth. It is, as we see from his two story collections, a method Daniel Stern has made his own.
OES ANYONE HERE KNOW
the precise meaning of the word
Come on: you’re all word people.
Does any one of you know the exact meaning of the word
No, for God’s sake, don’t raise your hands. This isn’t a classroom. Don’t you have a sense of the fitness of things? Look at you: editors, novelists, publishers, poets, publicity people (I see at least one concert pianist and one cellist), advertising executives, professors. And you don’t know any better?
It occurs to me, as I look around at this group, that you can be divided into two groups: the central and the peripheral. And I wonder how you see—or saw—poor Katherine Eudemie—her one novel, fourteen poems, six book reviews, and several hundred grant applications. Don’t get restless or nervous. I won’t be any worse than the conventional choice for this situation; a minister or rabbi. I name two since Katherine was born Protestant but so many of you are Jewish—and she loved you for your Jewishness. Came to New York seeking it, your Jewishness, her fortune; they seemed somehow intertwined. Well, I have been attacked, challenged, provoked, as the “shadow-Jew” of Katherine’s early years, by her husband Jackson—all to convince me to speak at the funeral of his wife. The question is: Does Jackson Eudemie know that on a magnificent spring night, years, yes decades ago, I desecrated his beloved wife, Katherine? Of course she wasn’t his beloved wife yet. In fact it was on that night that they first met: at the home of Lionel Trilling, author of
The Liberal Imagination,
a party after which took place the shameful incident of the blindfold, the desecration of Katherine Eudemie. She was drunk on gin—this was before vodka—and submitted to me under strange circumstances.