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THE BOOK OF KINGS;\o7 By James Thackara; (Overlook Press: 774 pp., $28.95)\f7

May 30, 1999|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the author, most recently, of "Apocalypses."

James Thackara's story begins in 1932, in the rue de Fleurus, by the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. It ends in the 1960s, less than a mile away, in the Louvre. In the 774 pages between the two, the torrent of his tale has carried us through Germany and Russia, North, South and Central America, Algeria and Greece; through love, betrayal and self-betrayal; war, revolution, terror, adulteries, incest and cataracts of talk. The heroes of Thackara's melodrama are students as the curtain rises: two Germans, Johannes Godard and David Sunda; an American, Duncan Penn; and a Franco-Algerian, Justin Lothaire, the author's alter ego, hence complex, weird and wonderful.

Slumming in a shipwrecked world, at war with their times, with each other, with themselves, these incandescent souls blunder through the quagmire of their time, ever looking back to the paradise lost of the rue de Fleurus. Passionate, star-crossed, befuddled, driven and hobbled by principle and lofty aspirations, they engage in reflections and exchanges worthy of intellectuals and of juveniles experience surrealistic dreams, seductions, frustrations--the snares and pitfalls that we all experience or shrink from experiencing--exaggerated to operatic proportions.

As in opera, in which most of the action takes place at the top of the voice, everything (or almost) here is intensely experienced. That was what Walter Pater, the 19th century Oxford aesthete, thought too: "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." Success perhaps if, after the flame, a still small voice is heard, as Elijah heard it in that Book of Kings that Thackara takes as his title. In his novel, however, there are no directions and only contradictory advice; there is little difference between hope and delusion; it becomes hard to distinguish between high-flown pretensions and "the stilted language of actors moving above the audience" that Justin fails to fathom. Dedicated to saving humanity, Thackara's characters are depressed by its blindness and its commonplace lives. Determined to wrench history out of its murderous skids, they are hemmed in by its stink. Hemmed in by history, but even more by Thackara's determination to spare them none of it.

Supported by a cast of millions, the ruthless author drives his four musketeers, their womenfolk and their friends through the worst of contemporary history: Nazi horrors, Soviet dreariness, defeat, occupation, concentration camps, society dinners. David fights in Russia, Justin in the French Resistance, Godard is seduced and killed by Nazism, Penn crushed by a tank on the first day of the Ardennes offensive. Along the way, marriages stiffen, friendships go stale, ideals wilt or, worse, metastasize. Fathers' sour grapes set sons' teeth on edge, and one of David's sons becomes a murderous though unsuccessful terrorist. All slosh through sloughs of sensibility, soar high on wings of aspiration, prowl the bleak wastes of failure, engage in improbable ruminations.

These latter ponderings are too ponderous. Internal or outspoken, they do not convince or, when believed, fail to bear out the intellect attributed to the ruminator. Indeed, because too many characters' words and deeds fall short of their alleged intelligence, and because their flatness is more evident than their charm, it is hard to empathize with the problems protagonists manufacture for themselves, the wisdom they pursue but don't seem to acquire, the success they achieve but too seldom enjoy. Out to inflect history, they remain its prisoners, the more so because they bite off more than they can chew. Which also applies to their creator.

A grand historical frieze, as this sets out to be, has to take history seriously. When he does that, Thackara can be glorious. He gives a magnificent account of the 1940 German breakthrough at Sedan and the panzer sweep to the Channel coast, and he's pretty good on the German invasion of Russia. Such set pieces apart, his grasp of historical detail inspires no confidence: Leon Blum was head of the French government in 1936, not 1932; Gen. Guderian was not Schnell Heinz but der schnelle (the hustling) Heinz; Joseph Darnand, head of Vichy's militia, would not be checking documents in a train; Woodrow Wilson put forward not seven but 14 points, the last not the least important; and why do characters talk about "fascism," as if it were a generic drug, when over and over the book refers to Nazism? What would Hitler have said if he were called a fascist?

One could go on, but my point should be clear: Errors of detail are not merely irritating. In a narrative with historical pretensions (we are frequently given the exact date of this or that scene), detail can be essential or, at least, reassuring that the author knows what he is talking about. Thackara has messages to convey, and one of them is a pacifist history of Europe. Slipshoddery does not help his case. Especially when the copy editing is equally careless and equally irritating because petty errors disturb the reader's concentration.

Melodramatic, overwritten, often unconvincing, sometimes exasperating, "The Book of Kings" is also moving, provocative and stimulating. Its very relentlessness can captivate and eventually fascinate. I read it to the end and, by then, my head swam with not unpleasant tipsiness. I could have done without the epilogue though. "The Book of Kings" could too.

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