Obituary: James Stern

Click to follow
The Independent Online
James Stern, writer: born 26 December 1904; author of The Heartless Land 1932, Something Wrong 1938, The Hidden Damage 1947, The Man Who was Loved 1952, The Stories of James Stern 1968; married 1935 Constanze Kurella; died Tisbury, Wiltshire 22 November 1993.

IN HIS 1920s and 1930s heyday Jimmy Stern - I never heard anyone call him James - appeared to know everyone. Like his friend William Plomer he began his literary career in Africa. His first book of short stories, The Heartless Land (1932), was the result of his experiences on a farm in Rhodesia. It was highly praised by the writer Arthur Calder-Marshall and Stern was off to a good start. He could say goodbye to being a bank clerk, a farmhand and a barman.

He was not a prolific writer. Two further volumes of stories followed, Something Wrong (1938, winner of the first Arts Council award for short stories) and The Man Who was Loved (1952), the best of these appearing under the title The Stories of James Stern in 1968. There were only 19 of them. The only other book he wrote - and it was a very good one - was The Hidden Damage (1947), an account of pre- and post-war experiences in Germany. As in all Stern's work his feeling for place and, more importantly, for political and social undercurrents gave what he wrote an extra dimension. The least showy of writers, he was a master of understatement.

Five books may not seem a lot for a long life, but Jimmy was a fastidious writer and always felt he had to struggle against a very non-literary background. Born in Ireland, he was brought up among horses, other members of his family being in banking and similar financial activites. Another Stern owned a famous chalk garden in Sussex.

An adventurous traveller, Stern put his observations round the world to good effect in his stories. In Something Wrong, stories are set in the English hunting field, in Germany and on a freighter in the South Seas. He spent real time in places, France, Germany, the United States, so he was able to write as an inhabitant not a tourist. In collaboration with his beautiful wife Tania he became an accomplished translator from the German. Together they put into English works by many leading writers of the time, Kafka, Brecht, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig among many others.

The creative zest may have dwindled in later years, though when not engaged in translating he worked on and off at his memoirs. During the 1970s I managed to extract - and that is the right word - a number of vignettes about his early life to publish in the London Magazine. They were short, pithy, entertaining, and much admired. But for one so superficially ferocious in his domestic dealing - and Tania, always apparently unruffled, had much to put up with - Stern was curiously timid when it came to publication. There was scarcely one of his pieces about which he did not have second or third thoughts, alarmed at the idea that some octogenarian relative might see it and die of shock. They were in fact always quite harmless, but it took a lot of persuasion to reassure him.

There can be few people alive now who knew Jimmy before the War, in his best writing and travelling days. His present friends saw only the gradual running down of a lovable character and a singular talent. From his Tisbury house the immaculate writing that filled every inch of a postcard continued to wing its way, but these were only substitutes for the earlier thing. Yet 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.

Comments