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FICTION : IN THE DARK by R. M. Lamming (Atheneum: $13.95; 230 pp.).

July 06, 1986|Merle Rubin

R. M. Lamming's first novel, "The Notebook of Gismondo Cavalletti," published last year and set in 16th-Century Florence, marked the debut of a writer clearly intent upon using her imagination to enter a world distant from her own experience and to re-create that world as it might have seemed to the eye of someone--superficially at least--unlike herself. Her second novel, "In the Dark," confirms her imaginative gift and her artistic commitment to extending her imagination into new territories.

Lamming has taken for her subject a contentious, querulous, still "stylish" 84-year-old recluse, dyspeptic, asthmatic, misanthropic, misogynistic and convinced above all of his own superiority to humanity at large.

Arnold Lawson is a self-made man, born in a house where there wasn't a single book except the Bible. Through his hardheaded business dealings, he has reached the heights of material comfort and a finicky, yet oddly genuine refinement. Lawson's multitude of valuable books, his handsome new house and grounds and his strange routine of rising at 11, lunching at dinner time, supping near midnight and not retiring till dawn are parts of his carefully constructed regime to fend off the darkness he feels descending on him.

When Moira Gelling, a lively middle-age matron, sails unasked into his life, Lawson, against his better judgment, begins to respond to her attentions.

"In the Dark" derives its strength from its themes as well as from its author's style and technique. In it, we watch with fascination a mind at work, struggling amid a thousand tiny warnings of its own defeat to hold fast to the vitality of life and consciousness within the lengthening shadows of anticipated death. With keen curiosity and growing respect, we wait to discover where Lamming's understated, tenacious and ambitious talent will take her next.

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