September novels: sweeping the world

September 07, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

September arrives with its cornucopia of outstanding fiction to remind us that an international literary culture flourishes.

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Out of Ireland comes the exquisite "Four Letters of Love," a first novel by Niall Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 352 pages. $23). A son remembers his father, who suddenly quits his civil service job and abandons the family each summer to paint in the west of Ireland because "it's what God wants me to do." The pained, bewildered son describes him: "I hold his towel and he walks his high frailty into the sea." So begins this splendid work, literature of the highest quality.

Two narrative lines intertwine as a benighted girl named Isabel Gore finds her life forever altered when her brother suddenly, in a convulsion, falls dumb and lame.

There are no easy victories in this extraordinary novel, but there is a miracle. "A key was turning in the world," Williams writes as love triumphs in the heart-rending resolution. Deliverance is possible even as the door is shut tight against the local priest. As for the artist's one surviving painting, "it was Aesop and Grimm, it was Adam, it was the sea and Cuchulainn." "Four Letters Of Love," a stunning and luminous chronicle of love foretold, is Ireland and it is art.

***

From the benighted North in a dark mood is Bernard MacLaverty's "Grace Notes"(W. W. Norton and Co. 224 pages. $23), fresh from Ireland's summer best-seller list, and his first novel in 14 years.

Catherine, an insecure young composer, moves to Glasgow, and later to a remote island, fleeing a repressive landscape. Her achievement is to convert "sheer bloody bigotry" into her music. At the beginning, Catherine returns home for her father's funeral; MacLaverty reverses chronology in the novel's second half to reveal how Catherine, freeing herself from the rigid Catholicism of her father, attained the "sense of herself" necessary to accomplish the "celebratory sounds" of art.

"Grace Notes" reveals where music is born, and how art and life are inextricably bound. Baby Anna's joy in life points the way for Catherine to write a woman's original music, one which celebrates birth, even as Dave, Anna's alcoholic and abusive father, represents both a bad choice and England's blight on life in the North.

MacLaverty writes a lucid and lambent prose. "Grace Notes" partakes of an epic resonance in which the fate of a community and that of an individual strain and clash.

***

Even more devastating is the war between Jews and Palestinians in Anna Mitgutsch's "Lover, Traitor: A Jerusalem Story," translated by Roslyn Theobald (Metropolitan Books. 211 pages. $23). The narrator, only partly Jewish, comes to Israel vaguely to uncover her roots; she is in search of a cousin of her grandmother, Martha, whom she never finds. Her name is Hildegard, but she calls herself Devorah.

She pretends to be young, and carrying an American passport. Her lover, "Sivan," insists he's an Armenian, despite mounting evidence that he's Palestinian. "Evil intentions thickened the air like a mysterious odor," Mitgutsch writes, even as her narrator persists in willful blindness.

The atmosphere of tension in East and West Jerusalem, and elsewhere, distinguishes this novel even as its politics seems cartoon-like. "All Vienna welcomed the new era," Mitgutsch writes, ignoring the courageous Austrian resistance later.

Equally spurious is her contention that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are "the same thing"; the author does not demur. Still, this is a riveting book, its premise fully engaging: "love and politics -- there's always a chance that blood or circumstance will pair you with your enemy."

***

Multiculturalism need not denote a compromise with quality. Witness "The Dancing Girl of Izu And Other Stories," translated by J. Martin Holman (Counterpoint. 176 pages. $22), the first publication in English of 21 of its 23 pieces by Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata. These are exquisite tales of frustrated yearning for connection; the hero is invariably, as was the author, an orphan struggling to attach himself to others.

In "Diary of my Sixteenth Year" he resents having to help his dying grandfather urinate painfully into a bottle. He becomes TTC "The Master of Funerals," always to be counted upon to mourn decorously because life has brought him a "capacity for sadness."

Kawabata reveals how little people can do for each other, and how time erases what was once deemed essential. Some of these stories are only two or three pages long, but they all glitter and sparkle.

Saturated in melancholy, peopled as they are by the bereft, with their autobiographical lilt, th Loneliness hangs like mountain mist on this brilliant collection, a must for those who appreciate writing at its most elevated.

Joan Mellen teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University. The most recent of her 13 published books is "Hellman and Hammett," a dual biography (HarperPerennial).

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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