- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

In his nine previous novels and volumes of short sfiction Steven Milhauser has made a name as a serious yet accessible writer who infuses everyday reality with a magical, dreamlike aura. In the Pullitzer Prize-winning "Martin Dressler" (1996) and earlier novels like "Edwin Mullhouse" (1979) and "Portrait of a Romantic" (1977) the magical elements subtly serve the plots; in the more recent "Enchanted Night" (1999) they rise to the surface and dominate the story.
Mr. Milhauser puts this feeling for heightened reality to work in his new book, "The King in the Tree," a collection of three novellas which all deal with the subject of love, particularly in its violent and destructive aspect. Two of them are published here for the first time; "Revenge," the first and weakest of the trio, appeared in Harper's magazine in 2001.
"Revenge" is written as a monologue: A middle-aged widow is showing her house to a potential buyer, remarking on the details of each room they pass through and connecting the various objects and furnishings they see with the memories of her 22-year marriage. As the story progresses we realize that the speaker was betrayed by her husband, and that the silent listener, posing as an anonymous house buyer, was his lover; she has come to view the house (and her lover's widow) out of curiosity and, presumably, grief.
The widow plays, cat-like, with her rival, spinning out the story of her husband's infidelity and, little by little, disclosing her awareness of the buyer's true identity. Technically, "Revenge" is very close to August Strindberg's one-act play "The Stronger," a 15-minute two-woman piece in which only one of the characters again, the betrayed wife speaks. But emotionally, "Revenge" misses the mark: It is a one-note, curiously crude and strident performance. Mr. Milhauser's narrator is bitter understandably so but the bitterness is of a theatrical nature and ultimately subsumes the other emotions the author attempts to introduce into the mixture and which might have enriched the tale.
In this story Mr. Milhauser fails to make his narrative voice convincingly feminine, and her outrage over a betrayal that, so far as she knows, is no more than sexual, seems exaggerated. A long-married woman of 47 would have to be pretty clueless, after all, to believe that her husband could be sexually interested in her and only in her.
As the widow rants away, wondering what erotic wiles the Other has worked upon her man, one can't help thinking that perhaps the long-suffering Robert found the Other not so much sexually preferable as simply nicer, gentler, more restful, and we begin to sympathize with his act of infidelity. "Love, for me, turned out to have a limit," says the narrator: "Robert's faithfulness. But my hatred for you breathed the pure air of infinity." This, we are meant to infer, is Medea in suburban New England; but Mr. Milhauser's one-dimensional treatement of the ancient theme is melodramatic rather than tragic.
The second story, "An Adventure of Don Juan," is the standout in this collection, a genuinely poetic, visually exquisite imagining of the famous libertine on a visit to 18th-century England.
Mr. Milhauser captures Don Juan in a moment of existential unbalance, at a time "when he could no longer bear his life. He was thirty years old, hot-blooded and handsome as a god … He feared no man, mocked the machinery of heaven, and was heard to say that the devil was a puppet invented by a bishop to frighten children in the nursery." Sated with sexual conquest, he longs, inarticulately, for something more: not something different, just something more intense: "More desire, a madness of desire."
Driven by this restlessness, Juan leaves Venice and goes to England, at the invitation of an erudite and attractive landowner, Augustus Hood. There at Swan's Park, Hood's magnificent estate, he joins Hood, Hood's pretty, pliable wife, Mary, and Mary's pricklier sister Georgiana.
Mr. Milhauser vividly describes Swan's Park and its denizens as a luxuriant mingling of Capability Brown and Thomas Gainsborough. Observing the elusive Georgiana, for instance, "it seemed to Juan that she walked through rippling sun and shade in a green world beyond his world, maddening and ungraspable."
Disoriented by the spiritual foreignness, Juan is introduced into a new and dispiriting life "a life of continual agitation and anxious brooding, modified by moments of uncertain hope. Hadn't he always despised men of feeling?"
Soon he finds himself falling truly in love, for the first time, but the experience is anything but joyful: The angel of Love, he discovers, is not a benign being but a dark, vengeful creature who crushes his unhappy victims.
The third tale in the sequence, "The King in the Tree," is a retelling of the Tristan and Ysolt myth. Set in Cornwall during the Dark Ages, the story portrays a crude, brutal, very basic world, as far as possible in tone and atmosphere from the elegant and civilized Swan's Park.
The narrator, Thomas of Cornwall, is a sympathetic, humane man, a longtime friend and adviser to King Mark. The king has, from the moment of his unwise marriage to the young Ysolt of Ireland, been tortured by his bride's potential and indeed inevitable infidelity with his nephew and dearest friend, Tristan. "The King in the Tree" tells the familiar legend with a knowing, post-Freudian spin: The king loves Tristan as much as he fears him, uses him as a sexual surrogate and places Ysolt in his care in a deliberate effort not only to tempt fate but to enforce it; he arranges opportunities for his own betrayal assiduously, and observes the lovers mutual pain and joy with a voyeur's as well as a masochist's pleasure.
Love, say the ladies of King Mark's court, "ennobles the heart and exalts the soul.
Love is a divine gift that permits us to enter the Earthly Paradise, from which we have been banished because of our base natures and which is a type and reflection of the Heavenly Kingdom."
"The King in the Tree" is a deliberate refutation of this creed, a reassertion of primitive, barbaric sexuality in the face of the new ethos of courtly love. So, in fact, are all three stories in this collection: Taken together, they define love as a bleak and negative power that civilization can do little to tame.

Brooke Allen's reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New Criterion.

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