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Fools for love

Devotion A Novel Howard Norman Houghton Mifflin: 190 pp., $24

February 18, 2007|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, a former Times book critic, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

GLIMPSING Maggie in the lobby of Durrants Hotel in London, David is painfully smitten. Nothing unexpected about that. Nor about his following her out the entrance where the expected heart-stopping glances are exchanged; though his "muddle-headedness was such that he could only eavesdrop on his own brain as it came up with nothing but 'Hello,' which he said." Maggie, about to climb into a taxi, responds:

"Actually, I can stand flirtation only in small doses. So that sufficed." Then, pointedly oblique: "If I want to introduce myself, I'll be back in about an hour."

Not much above an hour she is back and sees David waving to her through the hotel window. She recalls a Japanese novel whose heroine could remember her lover only in the same trans-vitreous fashion. "Maggie, who had heretofore considered romance pretty much as an abject condition ... had long desired to experience an amorous window."

It is the start of their love story, one that Howard Norman, in his novel "Devotion," fragments into kaleidoscopic pieces, some bright, some very dark, some sharp, and all successively tumbling, jamming up and shifting. Author of the extraordinary and properly praised "The Bird Artist" and the improperly neglected "The Museum Guard," Norman is a silver-tipped original, a wielder of comic improbabilities that come to be serious inevitabilities. If he is part of any literary current, it belongs to no American writer I can think of but to the philosophical romances of Milan Kundera and, more remotely, to Diderot's "Jacques the Fatalist."

The meeting of David Kozol, a young Canadian who teaches the history of photography at the Tate Gallery, and Maggie Field, touring manager of a chamber-music ensemble from Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University, is not at the start of the novel. Norman begins "Devotion" with a kind of operetta overture, incorporating quick references to all that follows. (A lot does follow, and if this review founders in the telling, Norman doesn't. His account of true love running anything but true has the play, the jangle, the sentimentality and sometimes the coldness of commedia dell'arte.)

The briefly foreshadowed events take place in the 11 months following the lovers' honeymoon. (We get to the wedding later too, and -- before it, of course -- to the evening of that first meeting: a consummate rendering of consummation's etherized daze, nightlong rambling and stop-time endlessness.) It is an emptying clown car of puzzle pieces that will fit together only farther along.

The beginning is a street fight between David and William, father of Maggie, who after the wedding has flown back to Halifax to resume her work. William stumbles into the street, where a London taxi smashes his pelvis and larynx.

In a typical Norman pairing of rage and care, the men also return to Canada, where David takes over William's duties as overseer on a Nova Scotia estate while nursing him through a long convalescence. And taking care of the 19 swans that are William's obsession and pride.

Now to assemble the puzzle, though the tale's switchbacks and withholdings are part of its jagged playfulness. Also of its gravity. David and Maggie are puzzles to themselves and to each other, and the solving is painful, absurd and uncertain. To the author, it is the dark night of any marital relationship that struggles toward daylight.

Summing up: After their dazzled encounter and various transatlantic assignations, Maggie organizes a wedding -- spare in arrangement, lavish in ingenuity -- on the estate where William works. A still-dazzled honeymoon in the Hebrides follows.

After Maggie's return to Halifax, David remains a few days in London to wrap up his job. At Durrants, where he stays in reverent memory of that first night, he encounters a former Czech girlfriend who has flown in from Prague to confront him over his breakup letter. She's not trying to renew the affair (in another Norman touch, she's gotten her boyfriend's consent for the trip) but to assert her own spiky self against David's blandly reasonable explanations. (Norman redux: intelligent sensitivity as passive cruelty.) Nothing happens other than a woozy night of talk, but William, in London to consult the Royal Swan Keeper about his own swans, finds her in David's room.

Thus the fight, the crippling, the flight back, David's stay in the estate guesthouse to tend to William and William's job, the zany exchanges in which the old man simultaneously requires his company and threatens to beat him up, once recovered. He will, later, breaking David's jaw and becoming caregiver in his turn. Maggie, brooding in Halifax over the presumed infidelity, visits her father periodically but with strict instructions that David is not to be in her sight.

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