David Slavitt's 50th book--yes, 50th--is a savage sendup of the literary life, a novel to keep away from those innocents entering MFA programs who don't yet know about things like agents, slush piles, writer's block, book tours, bad reviews, university tenure, writers colonies and grants.
The premise of "The Cliff" is deceptively hilarious. John Smith is a failed writer taking refuge in teaching at an obscure college. Out of the blue, he receives a letter from The Foundation inviting him to spend some time, all expenses paid, at the legendary Villa Sfondrata in Bellagio, Italy, so he can finish his project on the death of Mussolini in peace and quiet, surrounded by lakes, Alps and fresh air. The letter, however, was meant for the respected historian John Smith, on the other side of campus. This John Smith is more interested in mostaccioli than in Mussolini--and he's about to be sacked by the English department.
He carries the letter around in his pocket for a few days, fully intending to deliver it to the real John Smith. But time passes. Then the real John Smith has a heart attack and is attached to various life-support systems.
Our John Smith figures the real John Smith has more important things on his mind--like staying alive--than worrying about responding to The Foundation about some grant. So, with no job prospects, no income, soon no place to live and nobody to go visit, John Smith goes to the Villa Sfondrata pretending he is the John Smith who is writing about the death of Mussolini.
Having seen too many Peter Sellers and Woody Allen movies, I went into this story fully expecting a sidesplitting escapade of mismatched identities, a silly love story, lots of slapstick entrances and exits (maybe a few guys dressed in gorilla suits) and a colorful cast of solipsistic, pseudo-intellectual literary characters exchanging witty dialogue. Wrong.
"The Cliff," although smart, doesn't turn out to be quite as hilarious as the premise implies. Slavitt is not so much telling a story as using his narrative to spoof everything he's probably come across in his distinguished and, let's face it, long academic career. He's jousting with philosophy and ethics ("It would be agreeable to go to the Italian Alps . . . But surely unethical! Outrageous to take advantage in that way of someone's innocent error. . . . But by now I was thinking what Freud had taught me to think, that there is no such thing as an error").
There are some wondrously funny moments. Our brilliant, moody, schlemiel of a narrator, a guy who can't even make his rent, is highly critical of the food served at this historic villa.
Our John Smith, the impostor, lives in daily terror of being exposed as a fake. His biggest worry are the evenings when the resident musicians, statesmen, poets or scientists discuss their works in progress. The guests--who come and go--and there are lots of them--seem amusing enough, like the publisher who twirls, skips and hops down the halls when he thinks he is alone.
The problem here is that the characters are described, and Slavitt lets it go at that: There they are and well, isn't it amusing? Then one guest disappears. Slavitt's now turned it into a mystery, sort of Agatha Christie-style. But as the narrator, and reader, suspects: it's hardly a mystery at all.
Slavitt is brilliant and he writes with grace, passion and humor. The narrator's sincere attempts to reconcile with his alienated daughter are touching and not at all sentimental. The highlight of the book must be the narrator's scathing letter to the manager about the villa's terrible service and dismissive treatment of its guests.
And there is, inevitably, the ersatz historian John Smith's version of the death of Mussolini, a sendup of why the Italians could never win a war: The partisans have captured Il Duce but don't know what to do with him. "In Menaggio, however, the phone was out of order. They pushed on farther south to Mezzegra, another tiny village just below Tremezzo, where a prominent partisan chieftain lived, or anyway his mother did, in a farmhouse in the hills. They figured they could ask him what to do. Or at least to use the phone. Or if not the phone, then the bathroom . . . ."
"The Cliff" unfortunately is too self-consciously satirical to pass as a real novel. It is an academic exercise in how the writing life works--but the book fails, ironically, as fiction.