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The Cliff

A Novel

by David R. Slavitt

154 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / None

Fiction

  Hardcover / 9780807117811 / August 1994

John Smith is an imminent historian, secure in his well-paid position as an endowed professor at a major university. Any day he expects a favorable reply to his application for a residency at the Villa Sfrondata, a foundation-supported colony for artists and intellectuals on the banks of Italy’s Lake Como, where he hopes to finish work on a study of Mussolini

.John Smith—the other John Smith—is a bitter and failed novelist, an adjunct assistant professor of English at the same university. Suffering from writer’s block, ignored by his daughter, hounded by his former wife’s attorney for back alimony, and about to lose his job, his prospects could no be dimmer—that is, until the day the Villa Sfrondata’s invitation to the eminent historian is delivered to him by mistake. Before you know it, the down-and-out-how-can-things-get-worse-what-have-I-got-to-lose John Smith is in Italy, ensconced, imposter though he is, in a room at the centuries-old villa.

But what had promised to be a blissful if ill-gotten idyll quickly sours. The villa is drafty and decaying, the staffs are surly and incompetent, and the other residents—among them a Nigerian economist, a Washington lawyer, a book designer, an art historian, and a feminist poet from California—are a motley and eccentric group whom Smith finds all but insufferable. He seizes every opportunity to deflate their overblown pretensions with a razor-sharp wit, which he possesses in astonishing abundance. At the same time, he must take care that some misstep does not reveal him as a fraud. His life is further complicated when one of the guest—the despised feminist poet—mysteriously disappears.

After passing through what he calls “a cloudy afternoon of the soul,” including the very real fear that he will be implicated in the disappearance of the poet, Smith contrives in the end to amend his life and even to revive his all but abandoned literary career.

This devastatingly satiric and funny book, David R. Slavitt’s fiftieth, is a complicated burlesque that turns out to be a moving story of human frailty and spiritual rebirth. It is a feat of literary legerdemain that will dazzle even admirers of Slavitt’s Turkish Delights, Lives of the Saints, Salazar Blinks, and The Hussar.

David R. Slavitt has published more than one hundred books, including The Seven Deadly Sins and Other Poems, Change of Address, and William Henry Harrison and Other Poems. Born in White Plains, New York, and educated at Andover, Yale, and Columbia, Slavitt has worked at Newsweek and has taught at Temple University, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Bennington College.

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