Charmed Particles

Sphinx

by D.M. Thomas
Viking, 248 pp., $17.95

Palais-Royal

by Richard Sennett
Knopf, 274 pp., $17.95

Sphinx, the successor to D.M. Thomas’s Ararat and Swallow, embraces material enough for a dozen novels, although it can hardly be considered a novel itself, however liberal one’s conception of the form. It resembles a vast telephone exchange, clicking and reverberating insanely as connections are made and broken, crossed lines are uncrossed, uncrossed lines are crossed.

Part 1 is a play, “Isadora’s Scarf,” prefixed by a witticism of the poet Sergei Rozanov, famous as an improviser: “Duncan is in her grave.” Such fun is ubiquitous in Thomas, and keeps the reader going when otherwise he would throw in the towel and turn to something less taxing, like The Times crossword puzzle or the implications of the merely double helix. The unfortunate blind Olga of Swallow gets a mention, “that cunt, Olga,” the unappetizing Rozanov calls her, while ghosts of the real or once real flicker through the pages. Anna Akhmatova (glimpsed in the company of Anna Karenina), Nadezhda Mandelstam, Mickiewicz, Rachmaninov, Meyerhold, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, Andropov, Margaret Thatcher, and—a pervasive presence—Pushkin, seemingly Thomas’s one pure admiration.

Rozanov is the less than enthusiastic lover of Sonia Vinokur, whose black lover, a student by the name of Joshua, sets out, dressed as a Zulu warrior, to kill him. In error, Joshua spears another writer, Gleb Rezanov, whom Rozanov happened to be visiting at the time. But nothing so trivial or boring as mere coincidence is at work. The enigmatic actress Nadia Sakulin, the “sphinx” (or one of the sphinxes), reckons that she is responsible for Rezanov’s death. It was Pushkin’s play, The Stone Guest, that first inspired her to go on the stage; Rozanov wanted to see a broadcast recording of her in The Cherry Orchard, but his television set wasn’t working; the repairman he sent for was involved in a road accident, and instead a plumber arrived who had been summoned by Gleb Rezanov. Rozanov thought the confusion amusing, and rang Sonia to tell her about it; Sonia thus discovered that Rezanov’s wife worked in a dry cleaner’s and then rang the Rezanovs about a carpet she wanted cleaned; Joshua assumed it was Rozanov she was calling.

Alternatively, and even more indirectly, the mix-up could be attributed to a hare. Pushkin, so the argument goes, would have been killed in the Decembrist uprising of 1825 had he not turned back after starting out for Petersburg; he turned back because a hare jumped out in front of him, and he was inclined to superstition. Thus he was preserved to write The Stone Guest, the play responsible for making Nadia an actress, and hence….

Somewhat similarly, Sir Anthony Eden appears here as “Lord Adam,” and unkind people call Sonia “Cleopatra” because she had a general, a poet, and a young boy on three successive nights, a feat of promiscuity (or versatility) ascribed to the Egyptian queen in a story of Pushkin’s. (See the fragment, “Egyptian Nights,” translated by Thomas in …

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