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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Story of Literary Dreams and Revenge : THE DEVIL'S OWN WORK by Alan Judd ; Knopf $17, 115 pages


Spare, elegant and haunting, "The Devil's Own Work" is a rarity in an era of overstuffed blockbusters. Told in the rueful voice of an aging academic, the novel begins just after the narrator and a university acquaintance have settled in London to begin what they hope will be literary careers.

Edward is the golden boy, exuding an aura of confidence and charm, an effect heightened by his blond hair and the azure eyes that "spoke of seas and skies, of friendship, of layers and depths, while all the time giving the appearance of being fascinated by whoever engaged him, a gaze that seemed to project his whole being upon you, while mine showed only a baffled striving."

Established early, the essential difference between the two men is maintained throughout the book. Bolstered by family funds, Edward is able to manage by writing occasional book reviews while working on his first novel. The narrator, less fortunate, is an English teacher, and we know from his ironic, self-deprecating tone that he's likely to remain one, resigned if not entirely content. He marries a French girl, leads a scholarly life on the fringes of the media world, and keeps in touch with Edward, whose star begins to rise almost at once.

When Edward publishes a scathing review of the latest novel by the venerated, elderly English writer O.M. Tyrell, he becomes an instant celebrity. Tyrell has been an institution for decades, virtually reviewer-proof, and when he's excoriated by a young upstart, the literary Establishment is astounded. Thoughtful and closely reasoned as well as clever, the review takes Tyrell to task for emphasizing style over content, castigating him for disguising hollow themes with flashy prose.

Instead of ignoring him, Tyrell invites Edward to his home in the south of France, an amazing gesture from a man known to be reclusive and unconcerned with the London literary scene. The date set for the meeting with Tyrell coincides with a trip that the narrator and his fiancee, Chantal, make to visit her parents in Antibes, and the three plan to meet on the Riviera.

Quite by chance, the narrator encounters Tyrell before Edward arrives--recognizing him in a cafe, accompanied by his much younger wife. Edward goes to Tyrell's house as planned and spends an apparently pleasant social evening with the couple. The next day, Tyrell's death is announced to the world.

When Edward fails to meet his friends for dinner that night to report on his evening with Tyrell, they drive to Tyrell's house, anxious and feeling as if they had been summoned. He stares at the windows, catching a glimpse of Tyrell's wife. But he dismisses his impression of a man standing behind her as a trick of the moonlight or of his own overheated imagination.

The next day, they catch up with Edward at a cafe, and learn that shortly after a pleasant dinner and a few hours of conversation, Tyrell suffered a fatal heart attack. To his friends' surprise, Edward says he has no intention of publishing his interview with the writer. He adds that Tyrell had given him a manuscript; virtually forced it upon him, saying that he must take it, that it was meant for him.

The three return to England, the teacher to his quiet life, Edward to fame and fortune. Novels pour from his pen in torrents, and he becomes even more celebrated than Tyrell in his heyday. Although the narrator has only glanced at the manuscript given to Edward, he is convinced that the book is clearly not the work of Tyrell. The volume seems ancient, and the fine, thin pen strokes covering the pages could almost be hieroglyphics for all the sense they make to him. He assumes that Edward has been given an antique souvenir culled from Tyrell's library.

The next time the two men meet, Edward casually tells his friend that he's been living with Tyrell's widow, Eudoxie, whom he seems to have inherited along with the old man's fame. Years pass, and the paths of the schoolmaster and the famous writer diverge.

One day, after his rancorous divorce, the narrator is in a small Yorkshire town being interviewed for a new post. To his astonishment, he sees Edward, unkempt and alcoholic, walking aimlessly around the town's chief attraction, a ruined castle. Edward, he remembers, had originally come from Yorkshire, so the coincidence was perhaps not so bizarre, certainly not a patch on the story Edward eventually tells.

Wry and insightful, "The Devil's Own Work" toys with the notion of demonic possession but becomes a thoroughly realistic and highly original story of revenge; a chilling cautionary tale for literary critics and an unalloyed delight for everyone else.

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