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The Private Life of Our Century : Pain inflicted by people upon each other and upon themselves is soaked through this poetic history : HISTORY: The Home Movie, By Craig Raine (Doubleday: $22; 326 pp.)

March 12, 1995|Tom Clark | Tom Clark is the author of the verse novel "Junkets on a Sad Planet: Scenes From the Life of John Keats" (Black Sparrow)

This challenging, innovative, unsettling novel in verse relates the history of 20th-Century Europe through the interlocking private lives of two families--the author's own English family of Raines, and the Russian family of Pasternaks, to which the Raines are linked by accident of intermarriage. Poet Craig Raine here brilliantly melds the tonal authenticity of autobiographical memoir with novelistic modes of structuring, historical scoping and character-building, fleshing out fact with imaginative speculation of a most vivid, graphically immediate and intense kind.

No less distinctly contemporary in method than in subject matter, "History: The Home Movie" revives and updates the lost art of verse narrative to fit an age trained to think in images.

"History" is not just a serial poem (those are common enough these days), but a serious, full-scale philosophical novel, "modern" in the post--Joycean sense. Raine's montage technique reveals a spectacle of history as largely pointless suffering. Viewing through the peephole of private experience the true facts of a century of war, totalitarian terror and death camps, Craig Raine takes the only course open to a conscientious modern novelist, sacrificing the false "public" order of events (history as "progress) for the uncomfortable, disturbing chaos of what is.

His narrative proceeds via a chain of sharply focused movie-like vignettes. Each stanzaic "chapter" recaptures some telling lost moment from the life of a family member; each of those moments is fraught with both obscure personal significance and oblique, surprising "public"--historical points of contact.

The three generations of English Raines chronicled here descend from Henry Raine, a sergeant of the Oxfordshire Hussars whom we encounter in a regimental tack-room amid shell-shocked trenches of the Western Front, and his wife Queenie, a music hall artiste, raffishly performing at Victoria Palace before the King in an early chapter.

The Russian line is introduced with the painter Leonid Pasternak and his wife the pianist Rosa nee Kaufman, members of the Moscow middle-class Jewish intelligentsia under the Czarist regime of the turn of the century; the Pasternaks first appear here at their dacha by the Black Sea in 1905, their tranquillity overshadowed, when their older son, Boris, spots the red flag of a naval squadron far out to sea, by ominous premonitions of upheavals and trials to come.

In keeping with "History's" highlighting of the role of accidents of desire in the course of human events, the poet Boris Pasternaks' sexual dalliances and curiosity receive as much attention here as his better-known literary achievements and frustrations. An "excitement almost sexual," provoked by the sudden proximity of power, overcomes him when he's phoned by Stalin from the Kremlin to be interrogated about his fellow poet, Osip Mandelstam. Distracted by a peephole vision through the collective apartment wall of a young neighbor girl bathing, Boris stumbles into the well-meant but insufficiently cautious comments that inadvertently seal Mandelstam's awful fate exile.

In the confusing, entropic unfolding of Raine's "History," tragic destinies are more often than not enacted by the commonplace, and large-scale consequences repeatedly spring from little embarrassments, apparently inconsequential failures to communicate and all-too-human personal misunderstandings. The ancient burden to which the flesh is heir, Raine seems to be saying, fosters far more of history than we might at first glance care to acknowledge.

The novel's corollary figure to Boris on the English side is the author's uncle Eliot Raine. Eliot, with his inquiring, artistic temperament, his bizarrely diversified sexual pursuits, and the checkered medical career that brings him to Germany and marriage with Boris's exiled sister Lydia Pasternak, is perhaps the most complicated and compelling character in "History." (One suspects Eliot's private journals provided this project an invaluable research source.)

Less developed dramatically, Eliot's brother Jimmy, an amiable, rather simple-minded itinerant sign painter, serves as a useful onlooker, providing fleeting glimpses of several of the large-scale political figures who pass like flickering newsreel images through the novel's chapters on the '30s and '40s.

It's through Jimmy's eyes that poet-novelist Raine often manipulates his zoom-lens-like ironic technique of exploding scale. Bringing us up close to discern the large through the small, Jimmy's mute, unwitting witnessing produces some of "History's" cleverest comic touches.

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