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Hemingway on the Hudson : TWICE TOLD TALES by Daniel Stern (Paris Review Edition: $18.95; 224 pp.)

July 02, 1989|Scott Mahler | Mahler is Humanities editor at the University of California Press in Los Angeles. and

Long before John Keats wrote his famous sonnet, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," and long after, people have found ways to remember the books that have influenced their lives. In this cleverly designed collection of stories, Daniel Stern takes six works by several well-known modern masters--E. M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel," Sigmund Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" and "Psychopathology of Everyday Life," Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean Well Lighted Place," Henry James' "Brooksmith," and Lionel Trilling's "The Liberal Imagination"--and "retells" them to the comic and sorrowful rhythm of contemporary literary life in New York City. Stern's stories return these works to the human situations they reflect and create, suggesting not least of all that there are no real boundaries between books and life.

Most of the characters in these stories belong to a distinctly New York milieu of students and professors, artists and writers, film makers and publishers, and Stern himself has worked in the realm of New York intellectual life for many years. The author of nine previous novels, including "The Rose Rabbi," "The Suicide Academy," and "An Urban Affair," he is director of humanities at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York. These tales twice told, like Stern's novels, are filled with the kind of intelligence, humor and sharp insight into the lives of the realm's inhabitants that have earned him praise as one of the most original and accomplished writers of what at least some call the "New York School."

In Stern's retelling of Henry James' "Brooksmith," called "Brooksmith by Henry James," we meet Celia Morris, the recent widow of a popular attorney for the arts. Celia inherited a fate "common to the widows of artists and scientists, she was broke," and has to go back to teaching English at City University. One of her students, a black woman taking her class to satisfy the requirements for a degree in nursing, and whose very presence and lack of education at first unnerve Celia, produces an awkwardly written but nonetheless sensitive paper on Henry James' "Brooksmith." As the narrator of the story reminds us, the original is "the tale of a butler at one of those Jamesian salons of the imagination, so spoiled by the quality of the discourse at his master's evenings that he cannot survive the man's death and all that vanishes with it."

Suddenly moved by her student's empathetic understanding of the tale, Celia tries to help her through school. Eventually they lose track of each other, until, years later, Celia goes to a hospital for treatment. Zoe Lee, her former student, now a nurse in great demand, comes to care for her. At the end of the story, we're given an entry from one of James' notebooks which appears to hold the seed for his original story. Stern's retelling leaves us thinking about the ways a writer works with raw material, but especially about one of Zoe's earlier exclamations: "I am Brooksmith."

Hemingway's wonderful "A Clean Well Lighted Place" is a point of both departure and return for the story "A Clean Well Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway," and here as elsewhere Stern illustrates the inevitable commingling of books and lives. In Hemingway's story, two waiters in a cafe talk about whether they should let an old deaf man drink another brandy and so keep them from closing up. The younger waiter has a wife and wants to leave. The older man explains that he's one of "those who like to stay late at the cafe . . . with all those who need a light for the night. . . ." A personal sense of order, cleanliness and light helps to hold his cipherous world at bay.

In the beginning of Stern's story, we find the narrator remembering the bars he used to visit. As his story unfolds, we learn that he's making a film of Hemingway's "A Clean Well Lighted Place." We follow him and his mad friend Noah through various famous bars in several cities and a memorable episode at L.A.'s own Chasen's. His thoughts keep returning to Hemingway's story, and at one point he thinks that perhaps even the old waiter's sense of place would break down under the vast empty weight of his world, that we might altogether "have lost our places and are drifting about, unmoored, into time." The story ends with the character realizing what most of us have known all along: ". . . what we spend in bars, clean, well-lighted, or otherwise is . . . ourselves."

In retelling these and the other works by Forster, Freud and Trilling, Stern reveals his intimacies with earlier writers. But "Twice Told Tales" is not only an inventive collection of stories within stories and about stories; its characters and their situations bring the book to life. That they lead back to the original writings offers double satisfaction to the reader wondering just how Stern's tales interweave and differ from their sources. Some of this work has been anthologized in "O. Henry Prize Stories" and "Best American Short Stories." "Twice Told Tales" is Stern's first collection of short fiction. One hopes it's not the last.

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