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June 07, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

MY VENICE. By Harold Brodkey (Metropolitan Books: 112 pp., $20)

"I am dying. . . . Venice is dying. . . . The century is dying," writes Harold Brodkey, patron saint of dilettantes, in this posthumous volume. These meditations on Venice are the fallout, the background cut from his 1994 novel "Profane Friendship." They are part memoir (Brodkey's childhood and adolescence were spent in Venice) and part self-conscious cry of loneliness from a man who died in 1996 and wandered his final days through Venice, wanting, yes, to actually speak to his readers.

Brodkey elegantly aligns his body with Venice, opening his language to include its watery essence with words like "paddlingly," with descriptions like: "The moment of arrival is mist and damp warm air, a lingering and uneven warmth from the leftover summer, a dank coolness here and there." He admits to a "certain stale frenzy of stilled hysteria locked inside" himself that very accurately describes the feel of this very little, innocent, near-death book. "I have not been serious in my life," he admits without a shred of regret. "I have not seriously devoted myself to a cause. Or dedicated myself to an idea. My life has been largely in my keeping--a selfish, Venetian sort of life."

SHAME. By Annie Ernaux (Seven Stories Press: 106 pp., $16.95)

When Annie Ernaux was 11, her father tried to kill her mother with a scythe in the cellar of their home. "Afterward," she writes, "the three of us went for a bicycle ride in the countryside nearby." The pressure of normalcy, so very strong in adolescence, made a thin skin over the breach. "From then on, that Sunday was like a veil that came between me and everything I did. . . . Everything had become artificial." To write this, 46 years later, Ernaux must return to the ultimate practicality of an intelligent and threatened 12-year-old girl. It is a voice that comes naturally to Ernaux, who is oddly analytical and precise in all of her books about herself: "A Simple Passion," "A Woman's Story," "A Man's Place" and "Exteriors." It's not that she's oddly analytical for a woman, it's that she's oddly analytical for an adult--as though she stepped from the pages of Camus' "L'Etranger" to write her own life.

"This can be said about shame," she writes. "Those who experience it feel that anything can happen to them, that the shame will never cease and that it will only be followed by more shame." Ernaux writes without beginnings or endings. Her stories have no "arc." But they tend to sit down next to you on that commuter train and will not leave, no matter how politely you ask them.

DEFIANCE. By Carole Maso (Dutton: 272 pp., $23.95)

"Love, if one could feel it, would be a kind of defiance." Bernadette O'Brien, a professor of physics at Harvard, is on trial for the murder of two of her male students. She carries the child conceived during the second murder. Bernadette was a child prodigy, the daughter of a compulsive adulterer and a mother who was forced to have humiliating sex with her boss at the phone company. When Bernadette was 5, her mother, with no baby-sitter, took her daughter to work, where children were not allowed. Bernadette had to hide all day under her mother's desk and witnessed the gruesome ritual. "This is what happens," she says to her favorite victim, "to anyone who wants to hurt women."

Carole Maso has a fast, furious mind. She writes in a free-associative style that is irritating at first but works to merge memories and their effects on the present. When the author coddles her character, the book breaks down into self-indulgence. Her sarcasm is merciless. None of Maso's characters is unscarred. She writes with all of the fury of Jeanette Winterson and almost none of the playfulness.

JUSTINE. By Alice Thompson (Counterpoint: 240 pp., $18)

There's a big metaphor lurking, looming over this little novel--something to do with the act of writing, of creating characters who are plainly aspects of one's self. It is a book about obsession, a play on the Marquis de Sade's novel of the same name. In its best moments, it is diverting; in its worst, it resembles a Calvin Klein Obsession ad. A man, already obsessed with beauty, falls in love with a painting, titled "Justine." Lo! He sees the woman in a crowd one day, but No! it is her slovenly twin, Juliette, who hates Justine and engineers her demise. The narrator lives in London, city of decay and decadence. He is an opium addict who descends into madness as he is caught in the web woven by the sisters. "The straining carapace of my character had been lifted off to reveal the soft centre of naked existence. I now lived for the pain she offered me." Is this really what transgressive literature has come to? When a fine writer experiments with language, the form of the novel and the boundaries between imagination and reality, must she enter a cocoon that so utterly resembles a Peter Greenaway movie? Enough staring at the ceiling, for God's sake.

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