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The Last Dance : PSALM AT JOURNEY'S END. By Erik Fosnes Hansen , translated by Joan Tate (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $24, 371 pp.)

August 18, 1996|RICHARD EDER

Seven characters converge at a fatal rendezvous. In "Psalm at Journey's End," they are the ship's orchestra hired for the maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912. The book relates the lives that brought each of them aboard from different countries in a Europe about to be ripped apart. Interspersed are daily accounts of the ship, crew and passengers during the five days between Southampton and the Newfoundland icebergs that ripped the Titanic apart.

Ship and civilization, both of them pridefully unsinkable and destined for sinking--the parallel could easily be a cliche. It manages not to be. The Norwegian novelist Erik Fosnes Hansen uses it with transforming conviction, though often very heavily.

The technique of counterpointing a celebrated disaster with a handful of characters caught up in it has become a formula. It grew out of such well-wrought American models as "Is Paris Burning?" and "A Bridge Too Far" and, of course, Walter Lord's Titanic epic, "A Night to Remember" (and Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," long before that). Hansen, who notes the Lord book in a postscript, employs the formula in a different way and to a largely different purpose.

For one thing, it is not a matter of using the characters to make the disaster vivid. Instead, the disaster serves as a final commentary on the characters or, more exactly, on their fate and their time.

The Titanic scenes are told delicately, with restrained though absorbing detail, and at a poetic, almost offhand distance. The sinking and the helpless chaos of passengers and crew occupy only the last 16 pages of a 373-page book. There is no climactic "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship goes down; instead, the musicians play for a while (Hansen chooses Handel's Largo among several disputed historical versions) and disperse haphazardly as the lights go out.

As a finale, it is a diminuendo, not a fortissimo. If "Psalm" were a film instead of human dramas in febrile close-up, there would be a sustained long shot of a tiny ship foundering in a vast, indifferent sea.

The human dramas are reserved for the musicians' earlier stories, and they tend to founder in the ponderous late-romantic cast that the author gives them. Perhaps it is deliberate.

If the English Jason, the Russian Alex, the German Leo, the Austrian David and the Italian Petronio--the five principals--board the Titanic as symbols of the demise of 19th century Europe, it may be appropriate that they display ornate variations on a fin-de-siecle sensibility. There are suggestions of Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks" and "Tonio Kroger," of George Gissing's late-Victorian squalor, of Robert Musil's prewar Viennese decadence, of Maurice Maeterlinck's overripe symbolism.

Appropriate does not mean successful, though. The musicians' stories, evoking an atmosphere, inhale a good deal of it and leave the reader wanting to break a window for fresh air. There are luminous moments, moments when the travails of a character catch the sickly unease of the era. But there is quite a bit of posturing claptrap in between.

The story of Jason, the orchestra leader, is the darkest. His happy English childhood, with a father who is a doctor and an artistic mother, is cut short when both parents die on a medical mission to India.

The shock breaks the boy. At boarding school he turns rebellious and indifferent. Partway through medical school he is expelled for drunken carousing among the cadavers, and he sinks into shiftless penury. A young prostitute, whom he finds freezing in a gutter and rescues, tells him of her ship-musician father and encourages him to take up the violin his mother gave him. He plays in the streets and makes his way up to playing aboard ocean liners. Of course, it is a comedown from his comfortable bourgeois heritage; several of the other stories tell of similar individual falls, harbingers of a society's crash.

The story of Leo, the child-prodigy son of a German military martinet, begins with intriguing if high-flown promise. The child wants only to compose; his father insists that he continue to perform. There is more respectability, not to mention money, in playing dead composers than in becoming a live one. The struggle saps the boy, and Hansen depicts his pain with magical tenderness. The magic clots as he writes of Leo growing older, going to Paris to study and finding that his talent for playing and composing falls well short of genius. There are pages and pages of prosy anguish--the duller reaches of Mann's "Dr. Faustus" come to mind--and a descent into drug hell before Leo settles for shipboard piano.

The story of David, youngest of the musicians, also begins alluringly before stiffening into ornate romanticism. He is the scion of a prosperous Viennese Jewish family; his cultivated father owns a music store and firmly believes in his security as a loyal subject of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. When the shop window is shattered by vandals, the father takes it as an aberration, not a presage.

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