Saturday, March 22, 2014

`A Sort of Dessert Special'

I began following the work of the late Richard G. Stern in “real time” about a third of the way into his career, in the mid-seventies, a few years before he published my favorite among his novels, Natural Shocks (1978). As much as any fiction writer can be, Stern seemed like an omni-competent polymath who knew everyone and read everything. His work was seldom less than intelligent and entertaining, and he knew a lot about human beings (once a prerequisite for novelists). In 2006, when already in his late seventies, Stern started blogging for the New Republic, and continued doing so until 2009.  I launched Anecdotal Evidence in February 2006, and for a few years enjoyed practicing the same trade as Stern. I admired him for trying something new at a time in his life when many writers retire or conclude they have nothing left to say (or continue saying the same old nothing). In 2010, the University of Michigan Press published Still on Call, his sixth collection of what he called “orderly miscellanies. The book’s middle section, “Posting,” included a selection of his blog posts. Of them he writes: 

“…my blogging eye was never far off the actualities which engendered them. Blogs are getting increased attention, read by campaign workers and reporters, cited in newspapers and by TV commentators. That one collects them now is, I hope, a way of aligning them with the short pieces which writers since, say, the seventeenth-century character writers or essayists considered forms of mental play. They are closer, say, to diary entries than to the intricate and touching `try-outs’ of a Montaigne, but the hope is that some will be enjoyed despite their ever-increasing distance from the news events which prompted them.” 

The first thing to admire is Stern’s gracefully conversational translation of the French infinitive essayer, usually rendered “to try” or “attempt.” He refers to the form pioneered by Montaigne  as a “try-out.” This suggests a dress rehearsal, prototype or experiment. The outcome isn’t known in advance. You start with a hypothesis and test it. The best essays and blog posts should not be confused with science. They may suggest truths, but they don’t mathematically define Truth. Given all of that, I’ve always favored blog posts (and tried accordingly to write them) closer to essays than a diary. Diaries, like recitations of our dreams, are rather dreary affairs, useful as therapy but too tiresome for public consumption. 

Stern’s posts have their longueurs. Like many writers, he’s excessively interested in politics and devotes too much time to tennis. But then you come upon a sentence like this: “I like to compare what’s happening on Tuesday, June 18th, with what I’ve been reading or what I remember from the past.” That’s a mental tic I can get behind. Stern’s is the sort of mind that’s moves seamlessly from Lewis “Scooter” Libby to a story by Borges. His final post, dated Feb. 3, 2009, is dedicated to John Updike, who had died a week earlier. He’s not an unqualified admirer and says, rightly, only three or four of Updike’s fifty-some books “hold a reader from line one to the finish in such a way that he is shaken to the point of tears.” Stern suggests Rabbit at Rest. I would counter with the early story collections, and none of the novels. Then Stern cinches the true nature of Updike’s gift: 

“Seldom has sheer intelligence been coupled with great narrative or dramatic gift. Shakespeare is the acme of such fusion; Tolstoy, Proust and Joyce are the closest novelists have gotten to it. Updike’s novels may not have it, but his remarkable literary criticism does. It is as masterful as it is in part because Updike can summarize and even energize other people’s narratives in such a way that they don’t merely illustrate the critical points he’s making about their work but add a narrative dimension to the criticism, a sort of dessert special.” 

Stern’s praise for a fellow novelist, a “competitor,”is a deeply touching lesson in generosity: 

“I don’t believe any country has ever had a writer who brought depth of understanding, often beautiful and uproarious understanding, to so much. What a national, what an international resource this man was.” 

So too, Richard G. Stern (1928-2013).

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