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ROMANTICISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS by Anita Brookner; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 184 pp., $25

THE SONG AND THE TRUTH By Helga Ruebsamen Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent; Alfred A. Knopf: 356 pp., $26

WHAT ARE YOU LIKE? by Anne Enright; Atlantic Monthly Press: 272 pp., $24

THE CAVE by Tim Krabbe; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 152 pp., $20

October 01, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

ROMANTICISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS by Anita Brookner; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 184 pp., $25

Everyone who engages in any kind of artistic or intellectual endeavor feeds off the poor dead bodies of the French romantics at some point. The writers and painters whom Anita Brookner weaves into her tapestry of the 1800s in France have become the very templates for the term "artist": Charles Baudelaire in his black frock coat; Emile Zola, the good friend, the lonely man, the arch-idealist; Eugene Delacroix, whose quiet life belied his paintings in which all the senses smoldered. Brookner, novelist and art historian, uses few brush strokes to make her characters unforgettable. Life for the sake of art was their motto. They shared, she writes, an ability to "bring infinite longing to the fore." Their movement was one of revolt, of dissidence, "against Voltaire in literature and David in painting," but also against piety and Christian dogma. They were dispossessed, like orphans; they had various physical ailments from malnutrition or drugs or alcohol or they burned up from the inside out, consumed by the fire of their own idealism. They left perfect phrases and huge questions: Baudelaire, "un moi avide du non-moi" ("a self avid for non-self"); Zola, "J'ai combattu le bon combat" ("I fought the good fight") but perhaps even more moving his earlier words, "allons, travailler." Brookner captures in few pages their vision of a heroic future and their decay and depravity. The book is a syllabus, really. We must know more about them.

THE SONG AND THE TRUTH By Helga Ruebsamen Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent; Alfred A. Knopf: 356 pp., $26

There are many novels and story collections about childhood this fall. Oh, there have always been books on childhood; it is after all one of the great hurdles for the literary imagination. But recently, we see more writers trying to speak in the voices of children, to really crawl inside childhood and recapture it for the reader. This is vastly different from using childhood to explain a character's behavior, or from having a character or narrator look back upon his or her childhood. To really portray the logic of a child, the learning process, the changing relationships to adults would exhaust our finest authors. It can't be done quickly or summarily, barely even poetically. It is, after all, an accumulation of knowledge, thin layer by thin layer. Helga Ruebsamen starts out bravely, seeing through the eyes of her main character, Lulu, age 5, growing up in the Dutch East Indies. We see Lulu's night world of shadowy adults (servants, mostly) and sleeping lizards and large-leafed plants on the veranda. But this world is shattered by what she sees (and then reports) her mother and Uncle Felix doing one night. Ruebsamen sticks to Lulu's construction of reality even as her plot suffers (it's worth it), but when Lulu returns to Europe in 1939, the book becomes ordinary. Perhaps this is what the author means: There's the song, and then there's the truth. And never the twain shall meet.

WHAT ARE YOU LIKE? by Anne Enright; Atlantic Monthly Press: 272 pp., $24

Here is another glittering example of this fall's fictional fascination with childhood. The novel begins when Maria's mother dies in childbirth. Maria is raised by her good-humored father, Bert. At 20, she moves from Ireland to New York, an Irish woman with a plate of steel somewhere between her skin and her heart. She falls in love with a handsome loser, Anton, and the first crack appears in her armor when she finds a photo of herself, age 12, in his belongings. Maria must travel back and forth, from childhood memories to the present, ratcheting herself up to adulthood as so many of us do. Make sense of a childhood memory; be a better adult. Anne Enright lurches a little in the transitions, but she gets us to a whole person, somewhere between Dublin and New York City.

THE CAVE by Tim Krabbe; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 152 pp., $20

The trouble with most (not all) thrillers written by American authors is that they are so literal, written according to that credo for cretins: "just the facts, Ma'am." They never lift off into the bizarre beyond. Tim Krabbe, a Dutch writer, sets his characters, a geologist and his ne'er do well childhood friend who has grown into a drug lord, on the stage. He then unwinds them, layer by layer, as if they were mummies. His plot is full of beautiful coincidences (two drug runners fall in forever-love at the drop-off point where they meet for the first time), epiphanies, turning points and roads not taken. Krabbe also captures (the book is about a quarter the size of most books in this genre) the terrible essence of all thrillers, the fall from grace, a character's point of no return, when the purity of youth turns sour and the soul begins to rot.

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