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Eclipse: A Nightmare by Hughes de Montalembert; translated by David Noakes (Viking: $15.95; 238 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Ingrid Rimland | Rimland is the author of "The Furies and the Flame" (Arena ), the story of the accidental crippling of her son

Having been blinded by a senseless mugging in New York, a young, internationally known artist turns the awesome brilliance of his talent to another medium: the sensations of an inexhaustible anguish now flow through his pen.

" . . . It's as if my inner eyelids have been torn out. There is nothing that can interrupt this face-to-face confrontation with myself. . . . I am released from the hospital two months later, with six stitches in each eye, blind, handicapped, feeling a nausea for life, for the rest of my life. . . . I am between death and birth.

"I am dead to my past life and not yet reborn to this new one. This whole period is merely an extraordinary labor through which I am giving birth to myself. . . . "

In this vehement autobiography, already a best seller in France, kaleidoscopic feelings are the only subject matter. All else is stripped away. Nothing else counts. We learn little about the author's past, about his friends, his family, his sources of income that permit him to change his surroundings from drab and dull to rich and exotic at will. It's all in the background, made utterly irrelevant in that one wanton moment when acid was thrown in his eyes by a thug. Torment is all, torment with the fire of diamonds.

Two sea urchins, the author tells us quietly, have settled in his eye sockets. The butterflies are mourning. Love has vanished. The night is so black, he could gather it up and give it to you. He listens to his mounting panic. He hears questions lurking in the silences that never seem to end. Deep within him, says this man, " . . . is the stench of stagnant waters in which the current of my life has been lost."

His heart has turned into a cat; it can see at night. What it sees is an undeserved, incomprehensible sentence:

" . . . No future attracts me. I see a long gray road on which I may advance if courage is there, but what about joy and adventure, the source of all my energy until now? Images cross my mind--I see myself creeping down a street, feeling my way along a wall, dragging my feet.

"Horror! I was thirty-five, in the prime of manhood, young and slim, and now I see myself a bloated body, a package of darkness, a crawling locust. I am afraid. I am afraid to get out, to collect all my courage and still to end up like that."

"Eclipse" is an uncompromising book--uncompromising in that the author refuses conventional comfort:

"On this terrace hit by the July sun, which inundates my tired brain with gold as soon as I remove my blindfold, gusts of wind bring the smell of the ocean. At the end of the terrace, a door leads into the chapel. Like all chapels in the world, it smells of wax and incense. . . . The chapel is empty, and so am I. All I feel is a void. I ask for a bit of courage. The religious temptation awakens no echo in my soul; this silence suits me for the time being. . . . "

Here is the hubris of a genuine talent that will never feel obliged to declare itself "ennobled" by a senseless tragedy. It is contemptuous. Icy. Cutting. Grieving. Bleeding. Blasphemous. Reader identification is total. This man will be forgiven anything he says.

"I am trying to explain as best I can," he says at one point, "the fear and mental anguish of those who, like me, have been stabbed in the heart of life. . . . I can almost feel a begging bowl growing in my hand. . . . I listen to this hellish sound of the damned. . . . "

Sheer poetry, this book! A major new writer, this author! The blind beast sitting on his shoulder stares into our own eyes.

"I had been intensely, passionately visual," the author writes. "Out of this devastation, out of these ashes, no flower can ever bloom again. . . . "

He's wrong. Sight may be gone, but the luminous power of talent has merely traded its medium. This man still paints. He paints words with the surest of strokes, using his sable brush on the canvas of a universal grief.

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