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Book Review

Surprising Passions Spring From Within an Unhappy Marriage

A PURE CLEAR LIGHT: A Novel by Madeleine St. John; Carroll & Graf $22, 234 pages

August 10, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"What are you reading?" the errant husband asks his unsuspecting wife in "A Pure Clear Light," Madeleine St. John's novel of love, faith and infidelity. Flora, the wife, is reading a novel. "What's it about?" Simon, the husband, politely inquires. "Adultery," she replies.

"It was remarkable how, with his head swimming--as if a great red wave had suddenly engulfed it--he was able to converse as if nothing . . . were amiss. Once you've had the education, the words simply speak themselves. 'Adultery, eh?. . . . Hasn't that been done before? "The Golden Bowl" comes to mind.' "

"As does 'A Handful of Dust.' "

"There you are then. That's enough adultery."

Flora notes there's still a lot to be said on the subject, the moral landscape having altered radically since the days of Henry James--or Evelyn Waugh. Nowadays, she remarks, nobody cares. "Not much scope there, then, for a novel," says Simon.

There are, perhaps, no more scarlet letters, no need for fallen wives to throw themselves under trains. But if the more stringent societal codes of bygone days are no longer in force, individuals caught in the tangle of conflicting loyalties may discover that they do care, after all. This, certainly, is the premise of many a modern novel, and a central theme for British novelist Madeleine St. John. In her previous novel, "Stairway to Paradise" (1999), a young woman hungry for emotional intensity vainly seeks it in an affair with an unhappily married man who ultimately prefers his chilly marriage. The heroine of her earlier book, "The Essence of the Thing," is thrown for a loop when her longtime boyfriend tells her out of the blue that their relationship just isn't working.

In this new book, it's the deceived wife who soon wins our sympathy. Not that Simon is a complete cad: He isn't even the sort of man who makes a habit of cheating. He has no "ideological bias" in favor of extramarital affairs, nor does he have a naturally wandering libido. The distinction St. John draws is insightful: Although many people do have affairs driven by their libidos, many others, not really unusually libidinous, consider extramarital sex de rigueur, proof of autonomy, liberation, uninhibitedness. Simon, a competent director of "not especially meritorious" television plays, is simply not interested. He may be vaguely dissatisfied with his failure, thus far, to become "the Jean Renoir de nos jours," but he is quite satisfied with his wife and their three children. If there is a slight tension in their marriage, it has to do with Simon's suspicion that Flora may be seeking to return to the Roman Catholic faith in which she was raised. Perhaps she too finds something lacking.

Then, much to his own surprise, Simon becomes involved with Gillian, a chilly blond accountant, who claims she is not looking for commitment, just some plain, unadulterated (albeit adulterous) sex. Clearly, this affair has nothing to do with his marriage. Clearly, it can be kept in its own compartment. Or can it? Simon is overwhelmed by the intensity of feeling that the affair unleashes in him. And, although Gillian prides herself on her "autonomy," Simon starts seeing--or perhaps only imagining--vulnerability beneath her tough surface.

St. John's style might well be described as minimalist. The chapters are short, composed largely, though not entirely, of dialogue, and not the kind of meaty dialogue in which Dostoevsky's characters ardently debated politics, religion and the meaning of life. (Nor even, for that matter, the kind in which Charlotte Bronte's characters articulated their thoughts and feelings.) St. John's characters, very British, very modern, converse in a kind of shorthand that is ironic, self-conscious, self-deprecating. In some ways it testifies to a shared understanding of the world, but in other ways, it allows them to gloss over their very real differences. ("Once you've had the education, the words simply speak themselves.") Yet they struggle with passions and perceptions that defy articulation. St. John adroitly sets forth their predicament with an irony-edged compassion.

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