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Book Review : The Symmetrical Outlook From a Mid-Life Hilltop

June 15, 1989|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Forty-Seventeen by Frank Moorhouse (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $16.95; 175 pages)

Middle age is a hilltop from which the shapes of life past and life to come turn dismayingly visible. We name this dismay the mid-life crisis; a detonation like a star-shell that bathes the hilltop vantage in dead-white light.

"Forty-Seventeen" by the Australian novelist Frank Moorhouse is about one man's view from his shell-lit hill. It is a landscape of wreckage and hope, of breakdown and renewal, of lives and loves disintegrating and re-forming.

Such a theme is neither small nor unaffecting. But there is a high gloss to Moorhouse's writing and to the character of Sean, his protagonist, that works an oddly countervailing effect. Sean's encounters and attachments possess an ingenious complex symmetry, but the life seems to be more in the ingenuity than in the man himself.

The novel begins at a literary gathering that Sean attends. He is a failed writer who has become an official of a United Nations agency concerned with atomic power. It is a decline for him, and one of his many regrets.

The writers' banter, as much else in the book, is stylishly done. They joke with Philip Levine, a visiting American poet (he is one of several real figures whom Moorhouse introduces), about the drawbacks of Australia's recent literary prominence. In the old Meanjin days (an Aborigine word meaning "rejected by the New Yorker," Levine is gravely told), Australians could write "without the fear of being read."

Sean takes part in the banter, but his mind cuts back through a web of associations. A reference in a Levine poem to the Spanish anarchist leader Durruti suggests an image of Barcelona. This, in turn, recalls the Antonioni film "The Passenger," in which an American picks up a teen-age Spaniard and travels about the country with her until he is mysteriously murdered.

It is a key image for Sean. Four years earlier, he had picked up a 17-year-old Australian girl; they became lovers and met regularly until she reached 21, when she sent him a post card from London breaking off and asking him not to get in touch. Her memory burns over the assorted memories that make up the next section of the book.

Sean recalls Belle, another lover, who elaborated for him a theory of sluttishness and of herself as a "gutter-slut." This is "someone who seeks to be lost in the depths of their generalized sexualities." Thoughts of Belle lead to thoughts of a great-grandmother who worked as a prostitute in a now-decaying resort hotel.

Other memories include that of his former wife, dead from cancer, of his inability to love her, and of the letters she wrote him as a naive, serious-minded and boring schoolgirl. He recalls six months of swearing off alcohol and lists the symptoms of enforced sobriety. He recalls a year when he was obsessed to near-dementia by the Jonestown massacre in Guyana.

It is all rather clinical, particularly since Sean himself remains at a distance. His problems, his loves, his regrets, shrewdly described, are abstract insofar as they attach to no one we care about.

Up to this point, Sean's remembering has left him as a kind of flotsam from a chaotic history that has deposited him, stranded, in middle age. Then he begins to move ahead, and although he becomes no more interesting, the book does.

Traveling to a conference in Vienna, he meets Edith, a fellow delegate now in her 70s. They strike up a friendship that becomes something more. It is, in fact, the shadow of a love affair; unconsummated and undeclared, but possessing a genuine emotional and even erotic energy.

It is the book's most original achievement and its greatest success. Clearly, Edith's relationship with Sean suggests his own relationship with his lost nymphet. The fact that the former is genuine and meaningful, despite its oddity, gives him new courage.

He seeks out his former lover in London, where she has become a successful and elegant call girl. He had taught her, she tells him, how to please older men. The words are ironical but without bitterness; briefly they become lovers again.

The encounter gives Sean energy not simply to recall his past but to challenge it. He returns to Australia, gives up his job and moves into the broken-down hotel where his great-grandmother once worked.

He scavenges furniture and clothes dating back to her time. It is as if he were shopping for her, and as if, by so doing, he were making himself and his past whole. And finally his London lover, the former nymphet, sends for him so that they can marry and have a baby.

It possesses, as I said, a complex and ingenious symmetry, this weaving together and reconciling of past and future. It is far too ingenious and symmetrical to be real. Were Sean anything but an abstraction, "Forty-Seventeen" might be truly affecting. Instead, it is a mannered literary exercise; post- Meanjin , of course.

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