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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

July 25, 1993|DICK RORABACK

WHAT'S CALLED LOVE: A Real Romance by Jim Paul (Villard Books: $19; 275 pp.) She is reading Colette; he is reading Proust, "rich as foie gras, dense as Latin." It's night in Paris, whose "darkness seemed perfumed." It seems awfully romantic. It isn't.

Poet Jim Paul and his girlfriend, called only L, have conned the French Tourist Office into a free month in France, posing as "travel writers." L, returning to the city she adores, is young, spirited, a receiver and transformer of impressions. Paul is a drag, a whiner, a solipsist. His sole aim (he arranged the trip) is to win the love of L, who's not playing. As for France, he is peevish. He feels left out in a country that obstinately insists on speaking only French.

Paul's presumption is that we care about him (and his admitted word artistry) enough to be fascinated by his moods, his pouts, the analysis of his feeling, even (in a flashback) how he furnished his San Francisco flat: "I had two towels, one set of sheets. . . ." Paul dislikes the Eiffel Tower, sidewalk art, plane trees, "the gooier Impressionists," "impenetrable streets awash with impenetrable language." What he does like is L, everything about her--the way she orders coffee, her clunky blue car. Puppy love. At 40.

"I hated you in Paris," says L. "It wasn't even Paris." While they travel to Avignon, Arles, the Loire Valley, Paul takes us on his own lengthy tours of a lovelorn Petrarch, a self-absorbed Stendahl and Akiba ben Joseph, who got the Godless "Song of Songs" into the Bible (worth a detour). There is a surprise ending on the last page that effectively renders moot most of the rest of the book (the joke's on us), but not before Paul's parting farewell: "France gone like a swallowed pill." Whatever, they'll always have Paris.

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