Noble Rot: Stories 1949-1988 by Richard Stern (Grove Press: $19.95; 352 pages)
Strong and substantial, even the earliest of these 32 stories shows a remarkable maturity of style, form and content. Though the settings range all over the globe, there's a solid Midwestern feel even to those that take place thousands of miles from Stern's Chicago home; a down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to the fundamentals of life. Often actually coming from the heartland and speaking from the heart, Stern's characters are involved with the basic questions of love, death, work and family.
Even without ever leaving the United States, they're often seen as innocents abroad in an unfamiliar world, manipulated and victimized by people and forces beyond their control. Placed in Japan, France, Italy or Indonesia, they struggle to live by home-grown principles; their failures and successes equally absorbing. Though they can be as bewildered and confused as any other personalities in contemporary fiction, they seldom lose sight of their elusive goals.
One way and another, the title story, "La Pourriture Noble," sets the tone for the entire collection. A quixotic term to all but oenologists and botanists, "noble rot" refers to a particular fungus that affects certain grapes; a crucial mold that determines the flavor of the wine. Too much, and the crop is ruined; too little, and the pressing will lack character. Here, "noble rot" becomes the metaphor describing the complex relationships among a family of Franco-American vintners.
Up From Modest Beginnings
Mottram, the protagonist, is an Englishman who has risen from modest beginnings to prosperity through his work for the Sellibon wine firm. Once their employee, he has invested his money carefully, while Denis Sellibon, the heir apparent, has become a lost soul, wandering from one monastery or commune to the next, seeking refuge from a world he never made. Though the Sellibons avoid the explicit word, Denis is quite mad, his moods swings so extreme that he has never been able to live in society. By default of those nearer and dearer, Mottram has become Denis' reluctant but conscientious guardian. "You go to Derek Mottram," his mother tells Denis as she flies off on vacation. "He owes your father everything." And so he does, providing material for a subtle and poignant examination of responsibility in several guises. Though the most explicit example of the title at work and play, "La Pourriture Noble" is by no means the only place where the imagery applies.
"Troubles" is one of the few stories told from a woman's perspective. Hanna met her husband when they were both in the Peace Corps, serving in Indonesia. Now they've returned as graduate students to Chicago, impoverished not only financially, which goes with the territory, but emotionally and spiritually, which needn't. Away from the steamy jungle, no longer buoyed by idealism and a sense of mission, Hanna and Jay find they have little in common; that they're hardly different from a couple who met on vacation at Club Med. In its way, their encounter was every bit as artificial.
"Teeth" elevates the least romantic of plots into a remarkably affecting account of a lonely woman professor's infatuation with her dentist; a man who seems to need her as much as she needs him, but who in the end turns out to be completely self-sufficient. Wryly humorous when Miss Wilmott is regaling Dr. Hobbie with gifts of dental lore she's culled from her history books, the story finally becomes a genuinely affecting study of unrequited love.
Staying Within the Boundaries
A writer can cover a tremendous amount of intellectual, emotional and geographical ground in 40 years, and there is hardly an aspect of human experience not confronted in one of another of these remarkably succinct and disciplined stories. Always remaining well within the strict boundaries of short fiction, Stern frequently manages to investigate several major issues within the confines of a single piece. Only 12 pages long, "In Return" delicately examines the anatomy of an enduring marriage while simultaneously clarifying the mysteries of the Japanese national character.
Though a miracle of compression, Stern deals with each theme so thoroughly that the reader is left with the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that usually comes only on the last page of a long novel. However the botanists define it, "Noble Rot" is vintage Stern in which every year produced a spectacular crop.