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BOOK REVIEW : Historical Tale of Missed Connections : THE INVENTION OF TRUTH by Marta Morazzoni ; Translated from the Italian by M.J. Fitzgerald ; Alfred A. Knopf $18, 100 pages

July 26, 1993|MICHAEL HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Virginia Woolf once considered writing a novel about two people living separate lives; everything we learned about them we would imagine them bringing to each other when they met. But they wouldn't meet. Not quite. They would move closer and closer, and finally sit at opposite sides of the same room at a crowded dinner party, but never exchange a significant glance, never speak, never touch. All the potentialities of their relationship would be lost.

An intriguing idea in the abstract, but it would have been an unsatisfying story. Woolf was wise not to write it. And Italy's Marta Morazzoni might have been advised not to come so near to writing the same story in her first novel, "The Invention of Truth."

In the 11th Century, "a young queen with a ringing name" in northern France summons 300 needlewomen to her court to embroider the Bayeux Tapestry, that 19 1/2-inch-wide, 231-foot-long graphic history of the Norman Conquest of England. They work in a circle in a great hall of the castle, and the queen sews in their midst. The commoner who happens to sit beside her, Anne Elisabeth, has come from the city of Amiens.

In 1879, the eminent English art critic John Ruskin, fighting off bouts of madness, visits Amiens on his last trip to the Continent. His observations of the 13th-Century cathedral there prove to be raw material for his book, "The Bible of Amiens." In the meantime, however, Ruskin wanders off into the city, and his valet, George, has to go in search of him.

Where do the two stories connect? Ruskin did much to revive interest in Gothic art, but in this novel he doesn't see the Bayeux Tapestry. The cathedral hadn't yet been built in Anne Elisabeth's time. A young woman who may be her spiritual descendant picks up Ruskin's walking stick and returns it to him without a word. He compares the outside of the cathedral to the back of a piece of fabric, "in which you find how the threads go that produce the inside or the right-side pattern."

That's about it.

So Morazzoni forces us to look not for correspondences, but for ways in which the stories differ.

The medieval story is a triumphant one. The queen, Morazzoni says, may be Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, or another Matilda, wife of Geoffrey Plantagenet. Whoever she is, her motives are egalitarian and feminist.

She conceives of the tapestry as a "universal book," a way of communicating with the educated and the illiterate alike. The Latin text supplements scenes of ships and battles, "a writing comprehensible to everyone." She likens her project to "the boldness of a man when he builds palaces and towers or when he ventures into . . . war."

Far from stressing the backwardness of the Dark Ages, Morazzoni infuses light and color into this creative moment, which, for Anne Elisabeth, is also a moment of unprecedented freedom. The climax comes when she daringly asks to embroider the waves on which the queen has been working. The queen assents (though she sneaks back in and stitches a minor error into Anne Elisabeth's section). A relationship briefly exists between the two women "born for the same art and the same passion."

The 19th-Century story, in contrast, emphasizes the industrial ugliness of Amiens, which has "turned its back" on the past represented by the cathedral. And, like the novel as a whole, it lacks a climax.

Ruskin tugs at various threads. Some lead him back to his own childhood, others to the origins of Western culture. The young woman he sees in Amiens resembles a statue of the Virgin Mary, the "new Ariadne," who evokes the myth of Theseus holding Ariadne's thread of hope as he penetrates the Cretan labyrinth to battle the Minotaur. The aging critic slips into the cathedral at night and traces the marble labyrinth on its floor as if seeking some ultimate answer.

What does he find? That the West is about to shrug off even more of the heritage he has spent a lifetime interpreting in stones and paintings? That even the most learned and sympathetic observer of art must live in the shadows cast by the brilliance of its creation?

Hard to say.

It isn't that Morazzoni (whose debut story collection, "Girl in a Turban," was highly praised) can't clothe ideas in flesh as well as anyone. The medieval sections prove that. She has a solid and sensuous style, a gift for making the abstract concrete. It's rather that, almost perversely, she has brought us close, like Woolf's hypothetical characters or Ruskin's valet, and chosen to leave us frustrated.

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