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May 15, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

ENIGMA The Life of Knut Hamsun by Robert Ferguson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $14.95)

Ernest Hemingway "tried to write like him"; Henry Miller called him "the Dickens of my generation"; Thomas Mann wrote that "never has the Nobel Prize been awarded to one worthier of it." Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian novelist, journalist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, wrote novels that changed European and American literature. And yet, as the fair-minded writer of this excellent biography writes, his reputation will always be compromised both as a writer and as a man for his sympathies for Nazism (he gave his Nobel Prize medal as a gift to Goebbels).

Ferguson attempts to understand the man and his work without prejudice and offers his appreciation for the novels apart from the horrendous ideology that he later espoused. Ferguson makes no excuse for Hamsun's Nazism, as the Norwegian government felt the need to do: Two psychiatrists who examined Hamsun at the government's request concluded that he was suffering from senile dementia. But Ferguson writes that this judgment was demonstrably not the case in the 1930s and early '40s. He concludes that "Hamsun's Fascism was a genuinely held political conviction."

"Enigma" is the first full-length biography in English of this complex, controversial man whom Isaac Bashevis Singer called "the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect--his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism."

THE LAUNCHING OF MODERN AMERICAN SCIENCE, 1846-1876 by Robert V. Bruce (Cornell University Press: $12.95)

Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in History, "The Launching of Modern American Science" traces the evolution of scientific research in the United States from "a small-scale, spare-time indulgence of individual curiosity" to an established profession of specialized disciplines supported by national scientific institutions.

Based on manuscript sources and contemporary newspapers and periodicals, Robert Bruce presents a fascinating survey of American scientific development between the years 1846 and 1876. In the early 19th Century, Americans looked to European universities in Germany and France for scientific innovation. But, by the middle of the century, "the unblinkable fact of European scientific superiority inspired not humility and resignation but appeals to national honor and calls to action."

"This is a book to be sampled and savored," Lee Dembart wrote in these pages. "It is chockablock with details and stories of experimenters and scientists whose long-forgotten contributions deserve to be recalled. . . . (Bruce) is also a superb writer."

STORMING THE MAGIC KINGDOM by John Taylor (Ballantine Books: $9.95)

The story of the attempted takeover of Walt Disney Productions in 1984 by Saul Steinberg, the New York financier, his plan to sell off the studio, ravage the corporation, and keep only the theme parks--which, at the time, were Disney's lone profitable division--and the struggle by Disney's so-called "brain trust" to fend off the aggressor, which brought about Disney's rebirth and emergence today as Hollywood's most successful film studio. As such, the story centers as much in New York's financial markets as it does in Hollywood.

SATISFACTION by Rae Lawrence (Pocket Books: $4.95)

A self-conscious pulp novel about four Radcliffe women (the New York rich girl, the Southern belle, the gangster's daughter and the working-class beauty, December Dunne, herself the daughter of a mass murderer), following their careers in college and after, with particular emphasis on their respective love affairs with one man, Schuyler Smith, who graduates ahead of them from Harvard and goes on to become a celebrated "cowboy journalist."

Author Lawrence (a.k.a. Ruth Liebmann, Radcliffe '77) has studied the classics of the genre (and doubtless the precursor of them all, Mary McCarthy's Vassar novel, "The Group"), but the result is oddly lifeless and reads more like Jacqueline Susann (which may have been her intention). Her characters never become more than stick figures of class origin. One is left with a sense of the author's talent, facility and disappointment that she chose not to set her sights higher.

DESERT SOLITAIRE by Edward Abbey (The University of Arizona Press: $24.95, cloth)

Reissued this month as a 20th-anniversary edition, illustrated with lithographs and etchings by Lawrence Ormsby, Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire" was inspired by "two seamless perfect seasons" on his tour of duty with the Archer Park Service in Utah. Written 32 years ago "among the hoodoo rocks and voodoo silence of the Utah wilderness," Abbey invites his reader to "enjoy this gracious Earth of ours while you can." His beloved Arches National Park has met the chain of "change and progress" and is covered with acres of asphalt, numbered parking spaces, rules and regulations, permits and penalties. He concludes his new preface with an invocation: "May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your rivers . . . meander through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets' towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl. . . ."

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