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Through the Wrong End of a Telescope

November 27, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

A Glimpse of Sion's Glory and Other Stories by Isabel Colegate (Viking: $14.95)

The three short stories in Isabel Colegate's "A Glimpse of Sion's Glory" reach us with the effect of a telescope reversed: removed and distinct. Elegantly written, they are essentially romantic. They are also self-denying to a fault, and I think, past one.

The glimpse of glory in the title piece comes up in the other two as well, though in different forms. It refers to the portion of radiance, a kind of ritual overdrive, that may seize people for a time, before it is extinguished in the grittiness of everyday human needs.

One of the stories not only survives the filtering effect of Colegate's sensibility but benefits from it. The other two seem to lack the timbre to resonate across the distance at which they are held.

"The Girl Who Lived Next Door" is the most winning. It is a tragicomedy, echoing glee and regret in equal measure. It takes familiar elements and turns them a notch, imparting the kind of distinct individuality a particular piano player may give to an often-played piece.

Nancy, a ravishing waif, comes to live with Carley, a truck driver, and Vere, a bicycle mechanic, in their lodging-house basement in the town of Bath. She was a painter's mistress and learned from him the power of art to remake life.

Nancy's art is in her sexual aura, her sense of the moment and her cooking. As a nurse administers health, she administers euphoria. The euphoria spreads from Carley, her lover, to the younger and enthralled Vere, and bit by bit to the staid landlady upstairs, her repressed daughter and a German lodger and his wife.

Before long, everyone in the house is counting on Nancy's flame, and floundering when it goes out and she takes to her bed, refusing to speak. Art, radiance or Sion's glory must be paid for, and is dangerous besides.

Nancy's flame all but literally incinerates. Carley, though free-spirited, can't reconcile himself to the abandon with which she gives herself to Vere, to the German lodger whom she commends for his tiny hands and even to the landlady's daughter. Carley takes poison, the polymorphous idyll breaks up, and Vere and Nancy depart in different directions.

Flame as Essence of Life

Vere renounces flames of all kinds and becomes a prosaic gym instructor. Nancy marries a rich Greek and settles down to a life of shopping. The flame is the essence of life, consumes life, and is consumed by it.

The controlled grace and irony of "The Girl Who Lived Next Door" do not survive in the other two. "Distant Cousins" tells of an English scientist who is invited by a Soviet colleague to help him study an odd community discovered in a remote part of Siberia. What he finds, in fact, is a different species; descended not from Homo sapiens but from Homo erectus.

These new people have a higher order of intelligence than human beings, no spirit of aggression at all, and virtually no defenses. They are visions of glory but highly vulnerable: the cameras and tape recorders of the explorers drive them mad and they burn themselves up in a fire. Colegate's vision of her Erectus people has a certain charm, but she bogs down in the strained mechanics of getting them discovered and destroyed.

The title story presents Alison, a solidly placed ambassador's wife who is restless, nonetheless, and who is suddenly faced with the memory of Raymond, a golden lad whom she has always secretly loved. Raymond writes her a long confessional memoir.

He was top boy at his school. At Oxford, he not only got a First but led his fashionably debauched set and broke the heart of the college belle. Successively, he wrote an admired novel in the style of Evelyn Waugh, produced a boldly unconventional study of the 17th Century, and ran a popular but worthwhile TV show, while also going to medical school. None of this satisfied him. He joined a commune, ran off with a parson's wife out of sheer compassion, and finally ended up back at Oxford where he drank a lot, and became a devil-may-care role model for the brighter students.

It is all ashes in his mouth, he writes Alison, and announces a momentous action. Naturally, she telephones around to see if he's killed himself. What he has done, in fact, is defect to Moscow.

Why Moscow would want him is not clear. Not much else is clear either, except for Colegate's intention. She means to give us a fading glory, seen through Alison's eyes. But there is not a bit of glory about Raymond; he is a superannuated beautiful--and--damned cliche.

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