Stern’s collection of 49 tales, published between 1949 and 2002, ranging from short stories to novellas with titled episodic mini-chapters, should appeal to a discriminating audience attuned to high luxurious culture, and to a general audience interested in the raw nitty-gritty of ordinary life. A lifelong academic (attached to the University of Chicago), Stern covers a broad territory in his narratives. Anything goes, given his fondness for the esoteric and the exotic. The novella “Veni, Vidi…Wendt” contains a musical fragment of an operatic score. The cultural details informing his treatment of art history, classical music, architectural relics, and distant locales (European particularly) sometimes seem thrown in primarily for their effect. Asmall number of stories are quite incoherent, lacking adequate explanation. But Stern’s playing off of the familiar and the strange or outlandish makes for a fascinating reading experience.
The stories with significant Jewish content involve insults, slights and exclusions. “Wanderers” features an aged hotel clerk who considered the Jewish tenants wanderers, however far they traveled, unlike the (superior) gentiles, with their long experience in America. In “Zhoof,” the Jewish victim of discouraging words realizes that the sound, uttered disparagingly, is a mangled version of juif, the French word for Jew. Contrasting with stories of the badmouthing or threatening of Jews is “Dr. Cahn’s Visit,” wherein two aged domestic partners, one hospitalized, face the end of days together— but just for a moment. Stern’s stories, overall, are difficult but quite compelling.