Gulping down rich feast of Elkin's prose

May 16, 1993|By Diane Scharper

VAN GOGH'S ROOM AT ARLES: THREE NOVELLAS. Stanley Elkin. Hyperion.

312 pages. $22.95. The Muse, Stanley Elkin says, is real as digestion. "Indeed it is digestion. Of a sort. It's the metabolism of decision, conclusion, the brain's bum rush. . . ." Talent, he continues, is the ability to recognize what the Muse has given.

The Muse has given Mr. Elkin, author of 16 works of fiction and essays, a love for the music of language. His stories build to a linguistic rhapsody. Characters and story line are merely vehicles for this rhapsody.

Such writing has won Mr. Elkin many awards. Among these is the National Book Critics Circle Award for his 1982 novel, "George Mills," which many called a breakthrough book because of its potential for enlarging his readership.

Mr. Elkin is a stylist hard put to compete with the language of television. His writing is rich, frenetic, outrageous. It can also be very difficult to read. He says the same thing in several ways. When he can use one word, he uses two or three or four. He swoops by his subject, picking up little bits of it, letting those bits accumulate into something resembling poetry, but not exactly poetry. Imagine "Alice In Wonderland" as told by Walt Whitman and James Joyce, and you'll have it.

The three novellas that comprise "Van Gogh's Room at Arles" continue this tradition. Listen to Louise Bristol, central character (these novellas don't have protagonists in the usual sense) of "Town Crier Exclusive, Confessions of a Princess Manque." Bristol, who has been jilted by the prince of England, reminisces: "Because that was mostly how we spoke to one another in those days-- in all love's thrust and parry, in all its stichomythic Ping-Pong tropes of engagement. Each hanging on the other's words as if love were some syntax of Germanic delay. Because this wasn't as it always had been with me, Sir Sid. Accustomed as I was to arias, soliloquies, lectures, speeches, promises."

The characters in the other two novellas, "Her Sense of Timing" and "Van Gogh's Room at Arles," are likewise accustomed to arias, soliloquies, etc. Take Jack Schiff. A professor of geography, Schiff spends the entire novella not speaking so much as running at the mouth about his helplessness and his wife's poor sense of timing. This, coupled with Schiff's neurological disease -- perhaps the same MS that affects Mr. Elkin -- makes for a disconcerting yet weirdly brilliant story.

When the story opens, Schiff's wife is leaving him. This, he says, is the worst possible time. Not only is he a cripple, but he's also host to a party for his students. As Schiff speaks, you feel a sense of unreality. "How could men trust a sex that lived so much by its inborns and instincts, that stood so firm by the agenda of its drives and temperament," he wonders as he stands there, "giving another passing, glancing, bruising thought what he must have done -- his disease must have done -- to his wife's intrinsics and basics."

Thoughts, pages seem to rush forward, spinning breathlessly. You're either following, holding on for dear life, or you're left wondering just what Mr. Elkin means by phrases like "his wife's intrinsics."

This breathless pace is especially evident in the title novella. Professor Miller, a dull man with a propensity for small talk, has received a grant to study in France. He'll be staying -- to his and everyone's surprise -- in van Gogh's room at Arles.

As he visits the places van Gogh painted, he loses his sense of self: "His soul has been sprained." Soon Miller begins to live in van Gogh's paintings and to see things through van Gogh's eyes.

The room floods with yellow light. And Miller has an epiphany to rival anything from James Joyce. Imagining all of van Gogh's work placed on the walls, he recognizes "the beautiful ruin of the world he couldn't quite catch, . . . the guts, the soul, the brains and eyes, all the inner extremities and other moving parts of vision, of vision."

Passages like this, that we can't quite catch, make Mr. Elkin's prose, not to mention his Muse, stunning.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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