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The Freshness of First Impressions : LANDSCAPE: Memory By Matthew Stadler (Charles Scribner's Sons: $19.95; 301 pp.)

December 23, 1990|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a frequent contributor to Book Review. and

Sometimes life seems to unfold like a prearranged story whose plot we've heard before we've experienced it. Other times, experience seems to elude or overwhelm any attempt to pin it down in story or theory, pictures or words.

A writer's first novel often is an attempt to strike a balance between evoking the freshness of undigested experience and finding a pattern or meaning to give form to inchoate feeling.

Maxwell Kosegarten, the hero/narrator of Matthew Stadler's first novel, is a 16-year-old boy adrift in a sea of feelings, memories and sensations, who is attempting to paint a landscape of a scene he remembers and at the same time is keeping a diary. Max also is facing the break-up of his parents' marriage, memories of a disastrous earthquake, the threat of a distant war, and the blossoming of erotic love between himself and a half-Persian boy called Duncan Taqdir, who has been his closest friend since both boys were 7.

This, then, is a novel about adolescence, a diary of a young man on the verge of forging his erotic and artistic identity. Indeed, Max seems less concerned with how to cope with experience than with finding a way to preserve his perceptions in words or in paint. Entries from Max's diary are interspersed with sketches of the landscape he is trying to draw from memory.

Apart from the illustrations, however, what distinguishes this first novel from others treating similar themes is Stadler's decision to set it in the early years of this century. Thus, Max is keeping his diary between 1914 and 1916, as echoes of World War I reverberate across an ocean and a continent in the form of letters from Max's Uncle Maury (an American who joins up as a medic with the British forces) and in the fascination Max feels for the erotic undercurrents of war as embodied in the poems of Rupert Brooke.

Looming in the background are Max's memories of the great San Francisco earthquake, which happened when he was 7. Around him in the present, the city is staging its mammoth World's Fair, the Panama Pacific International Exhibition. Max's mother, a charming suffragist who is introducing Max to Ruskin's technique of landscape drawing, is herself posing for the fair's statue of Winged Victory. Mr. Taqdir, the father of Max's best friend, is sculpting her. Max's father, an ornithologist whose interest in nature's freaks and disasters has been passed on to his son, disapproves of the fair and everything about it.

One feels somehow that by setting his story in the San Francisco of 1914-1916, Stadler is trying to provide added context and resonance. But his re-creation of that time seems inauthentic, the characters and their attitudes as modern as today. The scene in which the parents announce their impending separation, for example, has a sound that is distinctly post-1960s:

" 'Your father and I, dearest,' she began again. 'Your father and I have agreed that it would be healthy for me to explore my feelings for Mr. Taqdir in a less encumbered atmosphere.' She smiled, as if this were a gift she'd given me.

"I still didn't understand, but couldn't find the words to say so. I looked at my father and he shrugged a little shrug, nodding his head from side to side and brushing the crumbs from off his hands.

" 'They're sleeping together, Max,' he said. 'They're lovers. I'd rather not stick around for it.' Mother wrinkled her brow at him. 'Anyway, it's a beautiful time of year to be in Bolinas. I can get a lot done up there.' "

Later, when Max and Duncan embark on their love affair, no one, including the boys themselves, raises an eyebrow. True, the story is set in bohemian San Francisco among people who consider themselves modern. And in some sense, it may be fair to say that the suffragists and other "moderns" of that era were more truly avant-garde than those who followed in their wake.

However, one feels a lack of historical texture in this book; it's not so much that the author has got things wrong as it is that he seems to lack any sense of historicity whatsoever. This is a prevalent lack in American fiction (as Henry James complained long ago), but it's all the more surprising in a novel that makes such a point of being set in a historical period that is meant (one suspects) to form a not-too-distant mirror of our own era.

This lack of historicity finds a parallel, surely more than coincidental, in the shadow of the novel's characters. They are not portrayed as particular persons shaped by--and responding to--particular circumstances, but rather as figures at the edge of the youthful narrator's consciousness. All of which is simply to say that "Landscape: Memory" is less a traditional social novel than a Romantic lyrical novel, a kind of meditation on memory, art and the nature of subjectivity itself. Stadler's use of the historical setting is an understandable attempt to impose a kind of form on the hazy vicissitudes of adolescent emotion, but it is a form that doesn't quite fit.

The strengths of "Landscape: Memory," however, are finally more basic than its flaws. It's a novel that tries to recover a sense of the freshness of first impressions and the primal innocence of sexuality (in this case, homosexuality) by portraying feeling itself, removed from historical, social or psychological conditioning. The only contingencies in this book are disaster, war and death. And as depicted here, they are less contingencies than eternal verities.

There's something rather breathtaking, as well as uneasy-making, about the ambition and naivete of a novel like this one.

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