A Pursuit of Furies

by Janice Warnke
Random House, 406 pp., $5.95

In 1958 Janice Warnke published a novel called The Narrow Lyre. The title was taken from a line in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and it was her first. It is a work of rare quality, impassioned, haunting, rising to moments of great power, entirely lucid. It might have been highly praised. With a bit of luck it would have been. As it happened the book came out during a newspaper strike, the reviews—the serious reviews that one assumes must have been written—could not appear; when the strike was over the book-production belt had not stood still, attention was turned on to the next batch in the fiction line: The Narrow Lyre had passed almost without notice. Today, needless to say, it is out of print. If we do not count the cost to individuals, what about the cost to ourselves? The question is can we afford to be so wasteful of our artists?

The Narrow Lyre had—has—the firmness and unity of line that marks the great short novels, Adolphe, Death in Venice. It is told in the first person by the protagonist, a man, an American lawyer in early middle age, and the tale he unfalteringly sets forth is one of loss, moral choice, and love between a man and a woman who are both maimed by tragedy, shackled by forces outside their control; he by a drowning at sea; she, a European, a German, a singer, by the war and the guilt—guilt by unawareness—that is destroying her husband, a German musician. The atmosphere of the book is its own, one of contained emotion, a formal and melodious sadness related to music as well as words, to the Orpheus, also of Glück and Monteverdi; and there are passages such as the five lines on the last night in Rome, and the death scene, the storm on a summer morning in New England, that ascend and assault the reader like the waves themselves and remain indelible in the mind. Indeed, there is sustained throughout this narrative a timelessness, a breadth of grandeur, an elevation unfashionable at present in contemporary literature, but here convincing, effective, right.

A Pursuit of Furies again shows unmistakeable quality. The theme is that of the place of private relationships and the individual, particularly the exceptional and the responsible individual, in our world, the world of the affluent and the displaced, and the cold war. The book in many ways is a different one from the first, although the two are also very much by the same hand, the same mind one might say: Mrs. Warnke, like Mary McCarthy, does not hide her considerable intelligence under a bushel. In the first novel intelligence had become an ingredient in the fabric; in the second it is conscious, vocal, practically an issue. Certain concerns reoccur in both novels—the aftermath of Nazi Germany; American attitudes to Europe, Americans in Europe; involvement with music and musicians. In both books we are struck by the author’s ability to get inside characters beyond the…

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