Cold Comfort

Steven Millhauser
Steven Millhauser; drawing by David Levine

More than any other current fiction writer I can think of, Steven Millhauser seems to really enjoy writing. He wallows in it, but in a dignified manner—if such combination can exist; and if it never has, then it does now and he invented it. You sense a thrill of triumph after each word or juxtaposition of words that have been meticulously chosen and licked into shape by a voluptuous tongue. In his book of three novellas, that applies particularly to the second two, both set in sumptuous evocations of past centuries.

The title story, “The King in the Tree,” is the tale of Tristan and Isolde (Ysolt, in this version). The second, “An Adventure of Don Juan,” describes an uncharacteristically unsuccessful adventure the Don never had and gives the largest scope to Millhauser’s predilection for solitary rambles. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Martin Dressler (1996), the eponymous hero rambled through New York in search of sites for the luxury hotels he intended to build. By the time he has bought the third site, what he builds there is more than just a hotel: he creates a stately pleasure dome with seven underground levels containing winding paths through beautiful, exotic gardens and woods and past lakes and seashores. The fact that they are underground gives them a creepy, surreal magic. One suspects there might even be an eighth subterranean level, a foundation of madness.

“An Adventure of Don Juan” opens in Venice, a city whose canals have enchanted and seduced so many writers that they must present quite a challenge by now. Millhauser meets it with aplomb:

What bound him [Don Juan] was the shimmer of the place, the sense of a world given over to duplication and dissolution: the stone steps going down into the water and joining their own reflection seemed to invite you down into a watery kingdom of forbidden desires, while the water trembling in ripples of light on the stone façades and the arches of ancient bridges turned the solid world into nothing but air and light, an illusion, a wizard’s spell.

In spite of all this, Don Juan is dissatisfied with what he sees as the oversexiness of Venice, the too easy availability of its women, and he decides to follow the invitation of an English fellow traveler to visit him in Somerset.

The man is called Augustus Hood and he owns a beautiful house on a vast, beautiful estate. He lives there with his beautiful wife, Mary; her equally beautiful sister, Georgina, is staying with them—two beautiful Gainsborough ladies “each wearing a flat straw hat with a low crown tied round with silk ribbons…. The front and back of the wide hat-brims were turned up, and the edges of the lace undercaps showed beneath.” Augustus Hood himself is a William Beckford type, a fanatical amateur of parks and gardens with ponds and lakes…

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