Tzili: The Story of a Life
Readers of the The White Hotel will miss, in D.M. Thomas’s new novel, Ararat, that “oceanic” feeling which made the first book such a memorable experience. On the other hand, they will find all the fun-house devices of that book—echo chambers, shadow boxes, switchbacks, and double exposures. Ararat is a cold, ingenious, and confident novel; it will confirm the author’s reputation as one of the most inventive and resourceful writers of fiction in English today; but perhaps it should be labeled “For Game Players Only.”
Transparency seems to be the preeminent characteristic of Ararat’s characters; each can in fantasy, or through an act of will, become one or several others, so that seeing the pattern of their relations is like playing three-dimensional tick-tack-toe. The greater part of the novel proposes itself as an improvisation by a Russian literary man, Sergei Rozanov, for the amusement of a temporary, blind, and not very successful admirer, Olga, who had sent him her photograph. Unaroused by her charms and bored by her pretentious literary chatter, Rozanov responds to her plea that he improvise a story for her, and accepts as the theme of that story, “improvisations.” Whether he is really improvising or not we cannot positively know. There is a hint at the opening of the novel—seemingly confirmed at the end—that he is “improvising” stories improvised on another earlier occasion when a drunken Russian poet was thrown together, in a hotel near Mount Ararat, with an Armenian storyteller and a visiting American woman writer of Armenian descent. The Russian poet, said to have a “reputation for facility,” insists that they improvise and the theme is selected as Mount Ararat.
Now Rozanov’s story introduces a repellent literary personage Victor Surkov, a poet, novelist, and biographer whom, we may, if we want, take to be the Russian in the hotel. Surkov, however, soon abandons the themes of Mount Ararat and Armenia, telling instead a story about a contemporary of Pushkin’s named Charsky. Charsky’s life in St. Petersburg as a comfortable civil servant with an amateur’s interest in literature is complicated by the arrival of an Italian improvvisatore who devises “spontaneously” a poem about Cleopatra that is really a poem by Pushkin. The poem involves the Italian in a prospective duel, which he obstinately refuses to avoid; but at the last minute he skips town, leaving Charsky, his benefactor and second, to face the challenger. Surkov has brought the story of Charsky to this point when the proposed duel is broken off by the news of Pushkin’s death in an analogous duel. This so distresses Surkov, or perhaps his creator Rozanov, or perhaps Rozanov’s creator D. M. Thomas, that he transfers the entire tale to a period twelve years earlier (from 1837 to 1825), and has it end with the crushing of the Decembrist conspiracy. The optional interchangeable endings of this inner story destroy any pretense to verisimilitude; they also fulfill a theme of some resonance, that degenerate pretenders to selfhood (improvvisatori-plagiarists) shirk ignobly the responsibility undertaken…
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