When James Stern died in 1993 at the age of 88, most of his obituaries acknowledged him as a writer but noted that he was better known as a friend to the famous. An early acquaintance of W. H. Auden, he went on to break bread and knock back whiskies with a fair share of the good writers of the Anglo-American world of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm Cowley once remarked to Stern, “My God, you’ve known everybody, his wife, his boyfriend, and his natural issue!”
The Stories of James Stern actually represents four fifths of his output, since it collects the best stories from his earlier collections (The Heartless Land (1932); Something Wrong (1938); and The Man Who Was Loved (1952)), along with a few new ones. By the time it was published, Stern had pretty much given up writing, aside from letters to his friends.
Those letters were somewhat legendary. He wrote as many as eight a day, in fine, precise handwriting. His correspondents included Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, David Garnett, Brian Howard, Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, Sonia Orwell, William Plomer, Katherine Anne Porter, V. S. Pritchett, and Patrick White. His one and only biographer, Miles Huddleston, was able to draw heavily upon them in his 2002 book, James Stern: A Life in Letters.
And he was a very well-traveled man. Born in County Meath, Ireland, to a Anglo-Irish banking family with an estate, servants, horses, and annual fox hunting parties, Stern attended Eton and Oxford, tried his hand at farming in Rhodesia, worked in the family bank in London and Frankfurt, then quit and went to Paris to try his hand at writing. “That I ever published a page of prose,” he once wrote, “was due primarily to the dread prospect of spending the rest of my days in a bank.” His first book, The Heartless Land, was touted by Auden and Christopher Isherwood as one of the great works of fiction of the Thirties.
In Paris, he met and married the German physical therapist and writer, Tania Kurella, and they moved to New York City just before the start of World War Two. Stern worked as a journalist in New York, and in late 1944, he was approached with an offer to join the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of Allied bombing on Germany. This experience led him to write his only book to be republished, The Hidden Damage (1947). Although some critics felt the book demonstrated remarkable sympathy for the plight of the Germans but was, overall, shapeless and unclear in its ultimate message.
This capacity for empathy is evident throughout The Stories of James Stern. With settings ranging from the Rhodesian bush to Welsh mines, Irish estates, Manhattan apartments, and a graveyard in Germany, these stories demonstrate a confident grasp of setting and a fine ear for the words of his characters.
“You bin down t’pit?”
“Which one’s that’ bin down?”
“Five! he shouts. “Why, tha’s seen best conditions in t’colliery. Who sent thee down, lad?”
“Ah!,” and his eyes narrow and he clenches his fists. “Down ‘ere, lad,” he suddenly bursts out, “in Pit One–four hundred yards under where ah’m standin’, is men an’ boys workin’ on theer stomachs, on theer backs, in two-an’-‘alf-foot seams. They can’t kneel, lad–t’ain’t ‘igh ‘nough. Seven-an-‘alf-hour shifts–roof may fall in an’ kill ’em tomorrow–fifty shillin’s a wik w’en lucky….”
This comes from “A Stranger Among Miners,” which Stern notes is actually a piece of non-fiction drawn from his visit to Welsh and English coal mining communities in the early 1930s. Also non-fiction are the last two pieces in the book, which are taken from The Hidden Damage. In “A Peaceful Place,” Stern recalls a graveyard he would often visit while stationed near Kempten in Bavaria:
Reading the fringe of the cemetery, I stood still and found myself admiring the good sense and taste of the man who had chosen such a spot to bury the dead. In a large, protected circle cut out of the pines, hundreds upon hundreds of crosses–all identical except for an occasional, surprising Star of David–gleamed white against a background of beautifully mown, very green grass. It was the first clean, orderly, peaceful place I had encountered in bomb-battered Bavaria. I stood for several minutes in the intense evening silence and though: If I should die tomorrow, I suppose this is where my bones, if not my dog-tags, would lie for ever….
Although the remainder of the pieces in the book are fiction, it’s clearly fiction that never stretches too far from Stern’s own experiences. In “The Broken Leg,” for example, he seems to be working through long-standing conflicts with his parents, who were avid fox-hunters and, apparently, quite intolerant of anyone who wasn’t–especially their son. Max, the younger son riding off with great trepidation to his first hunt, soon embarrasses himself and his parents by falling clumsily from his horse:
He felt that nothing he did in the future could ever atone for the humiliating performance his mother, father, and brother had just witnessed. He knew, moreover, that he had committed a great sin, two sins: he had shown fear while on a horse, and he had ‘cried before he was hurt.’ In the great hollow abyss of misery that only a child can know, he felt utterly, terribly alone; the whole of his tiny world was against him; there was none to whom he could turn; he was doomed.
It’s no wonder that one of his later friends, the novelist David Hughes, described Stern’s stories as “reports on his traumas lightly disguised as fiction.”
Yet Stern’s thin skin also made him extraordinarily sensitive to the hurts of others. In “The Woman Who Was Loved,” an ever-so-sophisticated socialite, struggles when she has to perform in the one role in which she can gain no notice in the columns: “The periods between governesses–the family averaged two a year–were not easy days for Mrs. Turnbull, for then she had to take charge of her children, a task for which she knew herself to be unfit and which embarrassed both her and them.” Stern himself provided perhaps the most accurate assessment of his work in an obituary he drafted in the early 1960s: “He is to be judged by the highest standards; but his art remains a probing of wounds and somehow, lacking as it is in power of invention and ultimate detachment, fails to achieve its own release from pain.”
Whether it was the growing rawness of his nerves after too many years of laying them bare to the sufferings of the people and characters he observed or struggles with drink or simply a decision to pursue translation (from German, of works by Mann, Kafka, and others) instead, Stern decided to give up writing for publication about the time he penned his own obituary. One assumes it was a decision he was content with. Stern’s literary executor, John Byrne, said that he “was not reticent about his friendships with writers better known that himself. In a way it was a compensation for not writing other things.” As Alan Ross wrote in Stern’s obituary in The Independent, “… if the gift for friendship is one of the most precious gifts of all, then Jimmy Stern was more blessed than as if he had written 15 books instead of five.”