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Richard Eder

The House on Moon Lake by Francesca Duranti; translated by Stephen Saltarelli (Random House: $15.95; 187 pp.)

September 28, 1986|Richard Eder

First, the good news. "The House on Moon Lake" is wise, funny, bewitching and short. There is no bad news.

In principle, I think it is a mistake to begin a review this way. The adjectives are so general that they snub the book's particular virtues. It is like saying "Oh, wow!" to an especially successful sunset. On the other hand, what do you say to a sunset?

As long as I am to hang for an exclamatory sheep, let me throw in a cow. The word short . The 187 pages of Francesca Duranti's novel are like one of those dreams that seem to contain an epic amount of color and emotion when it has only occupied about three minutes of sleep.

"The House on Moon Lake" is a fable, of a sort, about a refined and attenuated intellectual who disappears out of life into his own imagination. This, despite the efforts of his splendidly alive lover--one of the most enchanting fictional women to come along in years--to drag him back.

But fable is a discouraging word, when not qualified. This is an Italian fable, with the earthy, specific quality of DeSica's "Miracle in Milan," say; or of Giulietta Masina's puzzled and transparent eyes in Fellini's "La Strada."

The Italian genius lies in its perfect fusing of two antithetical kinds of art: the pointed, eternally recurring message of the fable, and realism's abundant, one-time-only humanity. Fra Angelico gave sweetness to the icon without weakening it in the least; Piero della Francesca infused it with human solitude. The commedia dell'arte cuts Harlequin's heartless celebration with Pierrot's tear. A sublime sense of comfort distinguishes Italian cooking from the breathtaking perfection of the French. Italian art is breath-giving.

Duranti, with the first of her novels to be published here, makes the story of Fabrizio and Fulvia partly a sardonic parable, partly a ghost story, and throughout, an absurd and touching story of a man who craves and rejects the only thing that can keep him alive.

Fabrizio is an impoverished aristocrat who works at the margins of literature as a translator. The work depresses him; and his only solace is self pity, which he administers regularly to himself as if it were a tonic.

More than the work, what depresses him is modern life; its bustle, its vulgarity, its appetites. "He had always seen himself as the unhappy incarnation of all the historic defeats of the 20th Century," Duranti writes. Fabrizio's adversaries seem to him as numerous as the Chinese and as unstoppable: women with a mind of their own, growing-room radicals, noisy motorcycles, chiseling grocers, rude teen-agers and arrogant 30-year-olds.

But, and this as much as anything is the theme of the book, if you start out by rejecting the vulgarity of modern life, you may end up rejecting life altogether. For a while, at least, Fabrizio doesn't want to drift off totally, and he has found two anchors.

One is Fulvia; short, honey-colored, energetic and unashamedly fond of her Gucci belts, her Pringle cashmeres, her sky-blue Fiat. Fabrizio loves the way she reaches out for life; at the same time, he shrinks at any hint that she may reach out for himself.

"He would have liked to be able simply to linger at love's doorstep, without ever going forward or back. . . . He was prepared to resort to any means necessary--phony excuses, feigned illness, genuine rudeness--to keep his meetings with Fulvia, whom he saw every day, with rare exception, in a state of permanent incoherence."

It is a wonderfully loony relationship. Their inconclusive discussion about a possible joint vacation, for example, is a masterpiece of ridiculous complications. Fulvia puts up with all this for a while, hoping things will improve. Meanwhile, she takes another lover now and then.

It is a practical thing to do, assuaging, as it does, the opposite needs of this solar-lunar couple. On the other hand, it drives Mario, Fabrizio's best friend, to distraction.

Mario is the other anchor. He was the son of the caretaker on Fabrizio's family estate. They grew up together; with Mario as a tireless No. 2, playing with Fabrizio's toys and sharing his automobiles. As adults, Mario's energy and hunger have pushed him ahead. He becomes Fabrizio's publisher and patron; still resentful, still bedazzled by the old glamour, and always eager to take over Fabrizio's possessions.

Consequently, he is in love with Fulvia; particularly with her profile. "What is a profile," Duranti writes, neatly delineating the nature of Mario's passion, "if not the face of someone looking at someone else?"

Out of this beguilingly torn-up ground grows the tale of Fabrizio's fatal obsession. In an old book, he spots a reference to a lost masterpiece by an obscure Austrian writer, Fritz Oberhofer. An unfamiliar ambition grips him: He will find the book, translate it and become famous.

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