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Book Review : Spy, Confusing Plot Didn't Come in From the Cold

June 16, 1989|ELAINE KENDALL

A Woman of Singular Occupation by Penelope Gilliatt (Scribners: $17.95; 180 pages)

Known for her incisive New Yorker film reviews, the wry and worldly script for "Sunday Bloody Sunday," five distinguished short story collections, four prior novels and a variety of essays and criticism, Penelope Gilliatt appears here in another persona altogether. The easy and natural dialogue of her earlier fiction has been supplanted by sentences that yield their meaning only after the third re-reading, and then grudgingly.

Here's the heroine, Catherine, explaining the magic of the Orient Express to her lover, Thomas. "Oh dove, that train. It's stood for so great a change in us. All the way through the 19th Century it was something purely thought, something true, an expression of a real belief in the perfectibility of man. But now here we are, having proved ourselves to be so imperfect that the species has spawned the Nazis. The tonic fact is that a great many men and women haven't allowed themselves to be jaded"--and this is pillow talk; the heroine unrehearsed and at her most spontaneous.

Absolutely Impenetrable

Catherine in public can be absolutely impenetrable. "The discovery of the essential tuning solution that the seven semitones of a perfect fifth should not be tuned as 7 but as 7.109550008654. The brilliant tiny difference called the Pythagorean comma"--a mouthful calculated to challenge the verbal gifts of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Catherine, of course, is not only an extraordinarily gifted musician, but also a foreign agent. Still, a novel is meant to be read, not decoded.

The plot begins straightforwardly enough, but soon becomes so entangled, opaque and confused that it actually defies description. Though usually the reviewer must struggle to avoid giving away the resolution of an espionage novel, in this case the risks are negligible. Only the author knows what really happened, and she has apparently decided to keep some of the crucial secrets to herself.

Catherine de Rochefauld is the dazzlingly beautiful and formidably talented wife of the French ambassador to Turkey. The year is 1939, and the novel opens as she is traveling alone to Istanbul on the Orient Express. Her husband is an ardent supporter of the Vichy government. For some time now, Catherine has shared neither his politics nor his bed. Thomas Drake, a young American banker posted to Istanbul, sees Catherine on that most romantic of trains and is instantly smitten. Although a passionate affair immediately ensues, Thomas is disturbed by Catherine's mysterious errands, frequent disappearances and elliptical allusions to dark secrets.

Sympathetic Character

Only 28 years old, far from home and totally bewildered by events around him, Thomas is by far the most sympathetic character in the book. His predicament is at least perfectly understandable, while everyone else's remains obscure. Catherine has an American friend, Ann Wisner, who shares her fondness for elevated discourse and also seems to have come to a similar sort of understanding with her Turkish husband, Kemal.

The mysterious fortune teller, Hilda, is less easily definable; a pity, because she plays a pivotal role in the novel. Her profession entitles her to speak even more circumlocutiously than anyone else, which is saying a lot. Regardless of nationality or proficiency in English, everyone in the novel attempts to speak in Catherine's lofty style, a technical feat beyond them all.

Vital codes are hidden in shoes and transmitted by wireless to De Gaulle; people are exposed to terrible dangers, missions are accomplished and the war is finally over. Suddenly, we're in the 1980s, and Thomas Drake is a 74-year-old nuclear physicist. He has never forgotten Catherine and those wonderful years in Istanbul, and miracle of miracles, the last 2 1/2 pages are as clear and to the point as anything Gilliatt ever wrote for the New Yorker.

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