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Now in Paperback

August 30, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Stained Glass Elegies, Shusaku Endo (Dodd, Mead: $7.95). A 40-year-old man seeks out a "sorrowful myna bird" to help him through lung surgery; Japan's war generation finds itself unable to protest, unwilling to fight; the post-war generation feels isolated and alone--the struggles in these short stories leave little doubt about why Endo has acquired a reputation among many in the United States as a somber storyteller. The heart of these stories, however, is largely optimistic. And, unlike dark Western fiction, in which characters often languish amid indifferent landscapes, the few stories that are black point the way toward sources of light--honesty, friendship, sincere religious devotion, human understanding, even humor. In "Old Friends," the story about post-war isolation, human betrayal is assuaged by the benevolence of the individual; "A-40-Year-Old-Man," the most gripping of this lot, creates a priestly figure in the myna bird, which forgives rather than condemns; "Incredible Voyage" makes fun of superficial devotion, but in so doing emphasizes the importance of spiritual essence and human character.

Endo preaches responsibility--his principle moral message is that "the actions of a human being are never self-contained"--but doesn't demand perfection. In "A-40-Year-Old-Man," the protagonist (whose experience with surgery is modeled after Endo's own) is further encumbered by guilt over an affair he had with his wife's cousin; his wife smiles knowingly, but won't talk about it, and Endo remains sensitive both to the man's need for silence and his wife's need to engage in silent derision. Similarly, the protagonist of "My Belongings" becomes comfortable with values he has come to accept haphazardly; we need to embrace moments of chance and cling to them, Endo tells us, introducing a Buddhist vision into a work that also contemplates the relevance of Christian faith in Japan.

Originals: American Women Artists, Eleanor Munro (Simon & Schuster: $15.95). Visual artists might capture an image that suggests truth; through alabaster sculpture, plexiglass architecture or curled craft paper they might conjure up some clue to the Zeitgeist . But most are reluctant to let interpretation interfere with imagination. They pose questions without having answers. As Alice B. Toklas commented after a dinner party, "Gertrude (Stein) has said things tonight it will take her years to understand." In these sometimes scintillating portraits of women painters and sculptors in 20th-Century America, Eleanor Munro at first seems to share the artists' humility and lack of presumptuousness. Women in the visual arts have been far more conservative than their literary counterparts, Munro observes, not pioneering new forms as have, say, Stein and Virginia Woolf. Soon after a gracious preface, though, Munro posits that women visual artists are vital to society precisely because of their quiet conservatism. The "naturalist tradition" followed by most of the artists in this book, and exemplified in the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, has endured, Munro believes, while dynamic, male, "rational philosophies," such as Modernism in art and Darwinism in science, have been eroded by "global wars and the traumas of the mid-20th Century."

Because of their sensitivity to "process-in-nature," women artists thus have a special place in society, for, as Munro sees it, the museum has come to stand for the cathedral, the art gallery for the chapel and (lest Munro worry) the critic for the evangelist. "People pay their respect to art," she writes, "the way they once did to icons in their niches." Clearly, Munro has mistaken the constructively passionate convictions of the artists she interviews for those of most Americans. But, while these artists might not be situated at society's core, they are given a well-deserved place of honor in this rich book, which, while inaccurate as sociology, provides inspiring models for artists. As such, "Originals" is a decisive success, for Munro's stated goal in her more humble preface was to inspire: "To show with what inner-directed commitment and sacrifice women artists kept to their goal long before success was a factor, and so possibly to offer models for other people (female and male) who find many of our society's goals inadequate."

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