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BOOK REVIEW : A Homeward-Looking Spaceman : WHERE I FELL TO EARTH by Peter Conrad , Poseidon, $18.95, 205 pages

May 10, 1990|RICHARD EDER

Peter Conrad has small apartments in London and New York, lifetime use of six rooms at Christ Church in Oxford, where he teaches, and cousin status--also, seemingly, for a lifetime--at a friend's house in Lisbon. It is four homes, but he prefers to call them windows.

One way to know the world is to live in it. Another way is not to live in it. Nicholas Roeg made a haunting film called "The Man Who Fell to Earth," about a space traveler who landed here by mistake. Through the strangeness he experiences, we become friends with our own.

Conrad's title does not come from the film, but his book will recall it. The title comes from a remark by his friend's mother who decided, after a few visits, that he belonged to the family. Peter, she announced, was meant to fall to Earth in Lisbon, only there was a slip, and he landed in Tasmania.

That enormous island is Australia, and so far removed spatially from Europe and America that, by Einsteinian analogy, it seems removed in time. Conrad wrote an affecting memoir on growing up there. His new book is about being a Tasmanian visitor to the rest of the world.

He was "born" at 20, he tells us, when he walked across Waterloo Bridge from the boat-train, holder of a Rhodes Scholarship. London stretched out along the river. It was his world from then on; yet he retains a spaceman's tentativeness, as if he might be called back any time. Four homes, in a sense, are less than one, and just in case: call them windows.

"Where I Fell to Earth" looks through these four portholes, hovering. It is travel writing, in a sense; part observation and description, part self-examination, part musing. Its suggestion of removal doesn't quite give a new perspective on the four places the author has chosen, but it does give them an unaccustomed weight or, more accurately, weightlessness.

This doesn't work at all with New York; a tough place, in any case, and one about which so much has been written that there is a verbal carapace around it. A lot of imaginative intensity is needed to crack it, or a special grace. Conrad's writing has some of both, but not enough to do the trick. His descriptions of apartment-window exhibitionists, of a tenant found four weeks dead, of sex shows in a Hudson River pier, of a Greenwich Village Halloween parade, are distancing in a reductive way they become routine New York exotica.

Conrad's account of his London neighborhood is cursory and not particularly original. His reflective eye and his reporting eye are set at awkward angles, and tend to obstruct each other. He is better with his imagined London than his real one; a literary and Antipodean childhood has bestowed such anticipation on the place-names that the row houses in Clapham and the gas tanks behind King's Cross seem magical.

The passages on Oxford have more life; its eccentricities seem to nourish him. Pilfering lettuce from the Senior Common Room to feed a tortoise, he tells of the don who removed a bit of breakfast in a napkin each morning; when he died, his bureau and desk were full of toast.

He writes of the atmosphere of academic absorption and of the physical oddities it produces:

"Men trod the pavement like preying mantises on frail spindly legs. The women had disheveled birds' nests for hair. Everyone rode bicycles, with an air of elderly childishness. . . .

"Here in this moist, stifling labyrinth between two rivers and inside a circle of hills, people were turned inside out by thinking. Brains as squashy and unarmored and tentacular as jellyfish dodged in front of buses on the High Street or furiously pedaled those wobbling bikes." In defense, he soon acquired a limp.

The Lisbon sections are limited in scope, but a warmth enters when Conrad writes of his childlike comfort with his friend's family. And in a rather tentative visit to a tin-wall slum inhabited by African immigrants, his prose takes on a disquieting illumination. He describes the brilliant blue with which a Guinean couple have painted the walls of their shack; from there, he looks down to the Tagus River:

"The water, seen from this close, is brown. The sky in the afternoon haze looks livid. Blue is confined to the walls of the lane through the slum, where it cheats reality by representing nothing."

It is as if the spaceman had caught a glimpse of his forgotten home; suddenly, we are spacemen ourselves.

Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "Taking Shelter" by Jessica Anderson.

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