Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with Richard Stern

Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with Richard Stern

Article excerpt

Richard Stern was born in New York City in 1928, and led a peripatetic existence until his early thirties; he studied at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Harvard, and the University of Iowa, lived in Europe, taught at the University of Heidelberg and Connecticut College. But his writing life over the last thirty-four years [*] has been indelibly associated with Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, where he arrived in 1955 as a young instructor and has remained ever since. By now, Stern is part of the neighborhood's cultural landscape, a figure of some local renown. Mark Harris, on the trail of Stern's friend and colleague Saul Bellow, describes him in Drumlin Woodchuck: "Stem is a large man, tall and sturdy. To some extent he lumbers, rolls, or sways as he walks. He has bulk, and a gaze of distraction optical and cerebral, laughing into space, a well-functioning citizen, open, responsible, capable of useful motion within society in spite of ideas probably too exotic for neighborhood civic action."

A prolific writer, Stern is the author of eight novels, three volumes of short stories and three of essays; and a prodigious amount of journalism. [**] Other Men 's Daughters, about the disintegration of a long and weathered marriage, is his most widely known work; Stitch, a fictional portrait of Ezra Pound in Venice, perhaps his most admired. (John Cheever, Karl Shapiro, and John Berryman praised it.) His books are crammed with literary lore, references to Plato, Spinoza, Nietzsche, spontaneous discourse on European history. His characters are brainy types: poets, academics, editors of newsletters, free-

(*.) 1999: Forty-four years

(**.) 1999: Ten novels, five volumes of stories; four books of essays; one memoirlance intellectuals. Stern himself is bookish in a Hyde Park way, a Great Books man, suffused with the Chicago hunger for knowledge that you find in Bellow's heroes. Not that he gives off a library pallor. Six feet tall, an avid tennis player, he radiates a kind of awkward energy as he walks the streets of Hyde Park, pointing out the houses of his illustrious neighbors: the Nobel-prize winning physicist, the best-selling philosopher, the celebrated novelist.

For all his erudition, his ability to discourse with equal assurance on Modernism and the novel or Toynbee's History, Stern pursues his vocation with an amateur's fresh enthusiasm. He's written about Vince Lombardi, Marilyn Monroe, George McGovern; tried his hand at plays and poetry; theorized about translation. Defending the inclusivity of his miscellanies in The Position of the Body, Stern offered a sensible credo: "What I've seen, thought and written about somehow counts."

This interview was conducted on a late spring afternoon in 1989. Noble Rot, a hefty collection of stories, had just been published (adorned with blurbs from Roth and Bellow) and acclaimed by Sven Birkerts in The New Republic, who called Stern the Chekhov of Chicago. We talked in the study of Stern's modest house on a street of two-story bungalows--designed, Stern explained, for the workers who built the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Stern lives there with his second wife, the poet Alane Rollings; his four children are grown. (His first marriage ended in divorce.) In the living room was a bronze bust of Pound. After a few hours, we went out for dinner, strolled through the lovely park by Lake Michigan known as the Point--and dropped in on a friend of Stern's, a professor of mathematical physics and a great reader who lives in one of the Mies van der Rohe apartment houses overlooking the lake; the walls of his living room were lined floor-to-ceiling with books. (Returning from New York to his old Hyde Park neigh borhood, Moses Herzog notes the "spacious, comfortable, dowdy apartments where liberal, benevolent people lived...") It was an evening out of a Stern novel.

JAMES ATLAS: What I'd like to begin with, the main thing that strikes a reader of your work, is how unfashionable it is. …

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