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 and classical temples and summer houses and pavilions and gazebos, where Millhauser likes to linger. Shepherds and shepherdesses in period costume roam about, as well as actors impersonating Elizabethan lords and ladies—among them Nicholas Hilliard’s famous young man leaning against a tree with a sonnet pinned to it. And here too there is a world under the ground: caves and hollow trees conceal entrances to steps leading down into dark winding passages. Don Juan spends a lot of time exploring their mysteries.
Of course he also has to seduce at least one of the beautiful sisters. Mary is rather silent, but he finds Georgina irritating because she contradicts and teases. (What is much more irritating for the reader is that everyone says “’tis” and “’twas” instead of “it’s” and “it was.”) Mary is clearly besotted with the Don, but when Georgina has to go home to spend time with her father, he misses her, and realizes she is the one he wants. So when she returns, he tries to seduce her. To his and the reader’s surprise, she rebuffs him. Shortly afterward he finds her in bed with her brother-in-law.
“The King in the Tree” is much closer to Matthew Arnold’s poem “Tristram and Iseult” than to Wagner’s libretto, if only because it ends with two Iseults instead of just one. But Arnold’s sympathies were all for the second Iseult (“of the white hands”), whereas Millhauser doesn’t like her and weeps—if at all—only for the first. What the two versions have in common (and with Wagner’s, of course, as well) is a very mid-nineteenth-century feel. Millhauser seems to have chosen that instead of trying to echo the style of the period in which the original Tristan was written—just as he moved Don Juan from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. There is a Victorian stuffiness about the pompous first-person narrator of “The King in the Tree,” who introduces himself as “I, Thomas of Cornwall, faithful counselor of a once happy King.” What humor there is in this story comes from his ultra-courtly diction. Of course, humor is not to be expected in this particular legend; Millhauser’s version lacks any sense of shattering tragedy as well.
But the first story, “Revenge,” set in the suburban present, is a bombshell—or rather, a cluster bomb, for there are several consecutive explosions—hidden in the folds of a monologue. The speaker is a recently widowed housewife leading a potential buyer—another woman—around her house. The house has intellectual pretensions: the dead husband was a lecturer writing a book that never got written. “There isn’t a room in the house without a bookcase,” the anonymous widow says in the first paragraph, and then—with variations—over and over again as she marches her visitor from room to room. She pretends to say it apologetically, but it is clear that she takes pride in the intellectuality proven by the presence of all those books, and also pleasure in the clandestine humiliation of the other woman who is not up to her level of education—which isn’t, actually, very high. Millhauser’s implication of that fact is sly and mean and horribly enjoyable. “I do have a way with words sometimes, you will grant me that,” says the widow. It might be the author’s deprecating way of drawing attention to his own talents.
His rendering of the woman’s language is a virtuoso performance, shading from cosy suburbia-speak to the lower heights of women’s fiction: “So imagine a fire going,” she says,
—the wood snapping the way it does when it’s a little green—the wind rattling the windows behind the curtains—and one of those Chopin melodies that feel like sorrow and ecstasy all mixed together pouring from the keys [her husband played the piano]—and you have my idea of happiness. Or just reading, reading and lamplight, the sound of pages turning. And so you dare to be happy. You do that thing. You dare.
Forty-two pages later, near the end of the novella, when her hostility has become overt, there is a reprise of the word “ecstasy”: “You don’t like it,” she says,
when I use coarse words…but you also don’t like it when I go the other way—use words that are way up there, like—oh, like ecstasy. It bothers you. I can see it does. Do you want to know something? You live in the flatlands of language. No dizzy mountain view, no hellish undergrounds—just: flat. The Kansas of things.
Well, the flatlands are not Millhauser’s domain.
The woman looking at the house is the dead husband’s mistress. He confessed the affair to his wife, and brought on a nervous breakdown. She is convinced that the automobile ac-cident on black ice that killed her husband was an act of suicide. She plans to commit suicide herself, and she wants her rival to do the same. That’s why she advertised the house; she knew the mistress would come to see it. “How can you live?” she urges:
Where will you go? There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do. No one to see. Don’t you know? Why go on? And always the little voice whispering in my ear, always the sad ghost rustling in the dark. That is why I wanted to show you my house. To tell you who we are. So that we would know. What to do.
On the last page, she goes back to deceptively normal talk about the asking price for the house and the possibility of another buyer.
“Revenge” is a brilliant piece. The economy, the speech mimicry, the buildup of tension, the horror beneath the banality are masterly. The oddest thing about the story, though, is that it engenders no pity for the deranged widow, not even sympathy. Millhauser seems the coldest writer imaginable.
August 14, 2003