"The Museum Guard," by Howard Norman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 309 pages. $23.
"The Museum Guard," Howard Norman's brilliant new novel, his fourth, evokes the historical moment of Hitler's systematic seizure of the heart's blood of Western Europe. From provincial Halifax, a museum guard whose emotions are blunted by his having lost his parents at age 8, a man entirely unaware of politics, tells the story.
Like the "bird artist" of Norman's superb previous novel, Defoe's moral instincts are impeccable even as his knowledge of the world is small. Both he and the bird artist drink too much coffee, a Norman signature. Loneliness is so habitual it is no longer noticed.
Norman's terrain seems at first to be the psychopathology of everyday life, his genius in locating it in diurnal tasks: taking meals; listening to the radio; even compulsive ironing, a skill the museum guard turns to at moments of acute distress.
Unlike his namesake, Defoe is tentative, uncertain, cautious, obsessively orderly and unimaginative. He is an everyman who pays dearly for every truth he uncovers. Defoe falls in love with Imogen Linny, a half-Jewish woman who is caretaker at the Jewish cemetery. Her headaches seem one of life's customary evasions.
Norman thrives on the unexpected, as something happens in every paragraph. People are thrust into awareness that they are vulnerable to events in the wider world. Before long Imogen has become obsessed by a Dutch painting called "Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam," which hangs in the Glace Museum where Defoe is a guard; soon by night she is masquerading as the Jewess; soon, persuaded she is the painter's Jewish wife, she plans to move to an Amsterdam awaiting Hitler.
Meanwhile eminent radio correspondent Ovid Lamartine arrives in Halifax bringing to an indifferent Canada firsthand news of the historical nightmare of National Socialism and Hitler, "evil's death's head puppet."
Defoe's uncle Edward celebrates "the fact that life doesn't provide happiness too easily," a perspective Norman endorses as he dramatizes how the advent of Hitler had personal no less than political consequences.
His characters suddenly find themselves in a world where rules of decency and decorum no longer apply and civilized restraints have disappeared. Uncle Edward begins a clandestine sexual relationship with Imogen; Imogen incites Defoe into stealing the painting of "Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam," and he does it - against his nature.
For Norman, the human race, like Defoe and Imogen, has been orphaned and is susceptible to betrayal as never before. In seemingly benign Canada, senseless violence erupts, plausibly. "The world is falling apart," a funeral director remarks. Norman skillfully switches to museum director Edgar Connaught's point of view as through letters he traces Imogen's end-game in Amsterdam. "I expect nothing, yet life keeps taking unexpected turns," Edgar writes.
The art historians and the idealists, the intellectuals and the amateur psychologists, all fail to understand what the simple man who tells this story long realizes: Amsterdam for Imogen meant not salvation and cure, but her "real death."
Words like "soul" and "estrangement," Norman reveals, do us no good. Hitler breathes down our necks while we cling to personal pain, as if it alone defined us. "The Museum Guard" is an extraordinary piece of prose fiction, amid its accumulating ironies, chilling and masterful.
Joan Mellen has written 14 books, including a novel and severa biographies. She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Pub Date: 8/30/98