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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Tale of Two Cities--and Two Centuries : THE LOST DIARIES OF FRANS HALS by Michael Kernan St. Martin's $23.95, Ill., 316 pages


New York in the 1990s and the Dutch town of Haarlem in the early years of the 17th Century coexist in this novel, unified by the powerful presence of the painter Frans Hals and the author's uncommon ease in two widely divergent worlds. Effectively using the classic device of setting a contemporary scholar to work on ancient journals, Michael Kernan introduces the reader to Peter Van Overloop, a bilingual graduate student stalled on his doctoral dissertation and eager to take on the job of translating a quartet of old diaries found in a Long Island hayloft.

Heavily wrapped and sealed, the moldering books bear the name Hals on the wrapping and seem to have been undisturbed since their arrival in New York a century ago, addressed to a long-vanished art gallery. If the cache is genuine, the owners have an immensely valuable treasure on their hands.

Fooled before by skillful hoaxes, art experts are vulnerable and wary. While Peter is translating the books from Dutch to English, the art dealer who hired him is having the volumes studied and analyzed by scientists and academics, none of whom are willing to risk ignominy by hasty judgments.

Peter's personal story is a contemporary metropolitan saga, an almost archetypal tale of transient relationships, temporary jobs and haphazard living arrangements; the familiar tribulations of a young man in no particular hurry to find himself but aware that he should be. The Hals project is exactly what he needs--a respectable excuse to postpone his thesis a bit longer; a diversion but not a complete tangent. He tackles the diaries with gusto, immediately drawn into the world of a gifted but underappreciated artist, identifying at once with his subject.

Kernan has thoroughly researched the relatively skimpy material available on Hals, assisted by the detailed catalogue prepared by the National Gallery of Art for its Hals exhibition in 1989. Although the purported diary entries are fictional, the names, places and events are historically accurate, drawn from the actual Haarlem town archives. While Kernan credits Simon Schama's definitive book "The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age" for much of the absorbing minutiae of daily life in 17th-Century Holland, the vibrant personalities of Hals and the other central characters are essentially the author's invention.

Wisely, he has his translator, Peter, decide to turn the archaic diction into colloquial English, a decision that not only makes Hals immediately accessible to the reader, but reinforces the emotional connection between the contemporary art historian and the Renaissance painter.

Hals lived during a tumultuous social and political era, forever scrambling for the commissions that would enable him to provide for his enormous family, enduring the death of a beloved first wife and child, fathering nine children with his second wife, and finally achieving a modest prosperity only to see it all vanish when he allowed himself to be drawn into a widely speculative tulip scheme. He survived the plague that swept Europe during his lifetime, living to the then-rare age of 85 and working until the end with his loyal Lysbeth still at his side.

Wonderfully imagined and meticulously described, the story throbs with vitality and warmth, the mundane background details providing perspective to precisely the sort of candid, revealing portraits that Hals himself painted. We meet Hals in taverns, join the family for meals, accompany him on his frequent appearances in court, feel his guilty passion for a beautiful, talented student, share his anguish at the misfortunes of his children, and revel in his hard-won triumphs.

Although perfectly satisfactory, the denouement to the modern story seems almost anticlimactic. As far as the reader is concerned, the diaries are genuine. Reading them, we're transported 300 years back in time, to the Golden Age of Dutch painting, and it doesn't matter much what the expert analysts say about the paper, the ink or the existence of some lost Hals landscapes.

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