Herzog in Venice


by Richard Stern
Harper & Row, 205 pp., $4.95

The opening sentence of Stitch tells us not only where we are but what to expect: “The vaporetto to the Giudecca which Edward usually caught at night left the San Zaccaria pier at 11:59, an odd lime which magnified his fear of missing it and having to hang around the Riva for another hour.” James and Corvo, Mann and Hemingway, have all been here before; but the fascination of Venice is inexhaustible, and the Venice-novel is one of the most solidly established genres of modern fiction. There is also something markedly generic about Mr. Stern’s hero, not the eponymons Stitch, but Edward Gunther, an American is Venice who runs formidably true to type. Edward is nearing middle age. Jewish, twice-married, rather overweight, and heavily in love with the idea of European culture. He has thrown over a steady copy-writing job and transported his wife and three children to Venice, where he lives in a palazzo and dreams of literary success; he writes thinly pretentions essays, and has large aims:

Perhaps he should expand more, write on a greater variety of subjects so that his Acknowledgements page will indicate uhiquitons expertise, thus subdue the brutal confidence of reviewers and succeed in getting him reviewed in a variety of journals, Art Bulletin Daedatus, Etlics, The Journal of the History of Ideas.

He sees himself as “the amateur scholar, the Emersonian ideal,” in an age of jealous professionalism.

In practice, however, Edward’s dreams remain no more than dreams. His marriage is flaking to pieces around him as he indulges in halfhearted philandering: he meeds his wife, but neglects her, and he has an intense love for his children (Mr. Stern screws down painfully hard on this point, underlining one of the cruelest of modern American dilemmas: a great devotion to children combined with a conviction of the infinite dissolubility of marriages.) Cressida, Edward’s wife, is oppressed by the thought of what they will do when their money runs out, but he harbors an entrancing vision of a plushy job with a high-powered cultural foundation in California: “There would be international conferences under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and he would cross an occasional sword with Jouvenal, Lukacs, Aron, Madariaga, Polanyi, Shils.” Edward has vast reserves, not merely of self-deception but of self-justification; he is, of course, weak, but he knows he is weak; and, after all, isn’t it all too human to be weak and to know that you are weak? So Edward sees himself, and this, most of the time, is the way we are encouraged to see him. But in a late chapter Mr. Stern shows him through the eyes of an embittered Cressida:

Europe had brought out the worst in him, culture-hunting, church-licking, you’d think he was on the verge of conversion to see him eating up the Madonnas, lecturing the kids on their inadequate grasp of Europe’s greatness, then exhibiting a behavior that had about as much to do with civilization and culture…

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