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Delmore Schwartz Was a Fan : TESTIMONIES, By Patrick O'Brian (W. W. Norton: $20.95; 224 pp.)

January 02, 1994|Thomas McGonigle | Thomas McGonigle is the author two novels, "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

Questions are being asked as "Testimonies" opens. Something terrible must have happened. Questions do not get asked when something good has happened. Does one believe the testimony that is given? Well, that depends on the telling, on the sense of veracity that the author creates within the voice of the character.

"Testimonies," published more than 40 years ago to mostly very good reviews, has been returned to print because of Patrick O'Brian's recent great success as the author of a series of, to this moment, 16 novels devoted to the adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin during the period of the Napoleonic wars. These novels have been hailed as being among the greatest historical novels ever written.

When a novel is being revived it is thought that it serves the novel well if those original reviews are prominently quoted and thus new reviewers and readers will be intimidated against daring to question the judgment of those authorities who usually have gone on to much greater fame. It is to be wondered if O'Brian's current fans will be interested in this intensely literary novel. In any case Delmore Schwartz does yeoman duty and a section from his compilation review of novels originally published in 1952 in the Partisan Review is used as a preface to the novel.

After slighting recent novels by Steinbeck, Angus Wilson, Evelyn Waugh and Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," Schwartz concludes in his notice of "Testimonies": "The reader, drawn forward by lyric eloquence and the story's fascination, discovers in the end that he has encountered in a new way the sphinx and the riddle of existence itself. What O'Brian has accomplished is literally and exactly the equivalent of some of the lyrics in Yeats' 'The Tower' and 'The Winding Stair' where within the colloquial and formal framework of the folk poem or story the greatest sophistication, consciousness and meaning become articulate. In O'Brian, as in Yeats, the most studied literary cultivation and knowledge bring into being works which read as if they were prior to literature and conscious literary technique."

Never identified, the questioner who opens the novel is an insistent and tolerant presence. By framing the novel into a series of testimonies O'Brian allows the reader the maximum freedom in coming to grips with the moral difficulties of the story.

The central character and whose story this mostly is, Joseph Aubrey Pugh, comes from Oxford fed up with the repetitious futility of academic life to stay in a Welsh village. He wants to work on his book, "The Bestiary before Isidore of Seville."

The novel is full of wonderful evocations of the Welsh landscape and the village of 21 houses plus school and chapel where Pugh takes up residence. O'Brian allows Pugh to testify fully to the outsider's fascination with The Other, as represented by all the Welsh-speaking people he comes in contact with. Some of this description borders on the quaint, and represents the romantic search for a more passionate alternative to English life. There is a sort of desperate giving in to the fantasy that people who speak an obscure language, have bad plumbing and sleep in close proximity to their farm animals are somehow both more compassionate and closer to nature.

Pugh falls ill and is taken in by a family living on a nearby farm. He describes well his fascination with the family and his growing passion for Bronwen, the farmer's wife. He is made uneasy by both the farmer and the visiting preacher. As readers, we know that the farmer is a sadist and the preacher a sexual voyeur.

But this is no graphic "Lady Chatterly's Lover" as the love between Pugh and Bronwen is both passionate and chaste: "I was very simple I suppose. I had no idea that I was there at all until I was in love so deep that it was a pain in my heart. I had thought it was the pleasure of looking at her, the pleasure of joining that good and kind family circle (good in spite of the bad undercurrent that I suspected) and talking about country things to Emyr and the old man. Then one day it was upon me. I knew then what was the matter, and why nothing had seemed profitable but the evenings I spent there; she came in, just as I had seen her the first time, and my heart leaped up and I knew that Emyr was talking but I could not link his words together. . . . There may be things more absurd than a middle-aged man in the grip of a high-flung romantic passion: a boy can behave more foolishly, but at least in him it is natural."

This love and the gossip it engenders circulates through the village precipitating the action and the subsequent need for the questions that in turn call forth the testimonies from Pugh, Bronwen and a neighbor. If the act is revealed the suspense and the foreboding sense in which the novel is read would be broken. Let it be said that once known the act scars the reader's imagination with the knowledge of love's terrible and desperate cost.

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