(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In his new trilogy of novellas, Steven Millhauser focuses on the powerful obsession of love. In all three stories, love is explored not as it happens in contemporary “date movies” but as the stuff of blind passion and tragic finality. Millhauser’s lovers echo the madness of Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), who would tear the world apart to claim his Cathy; the adolescent lunacy of William Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet (1595-1596), who simply cannot wait; or the insanity of the title character in Shakespeare’s enraged Othello(1604), who creates his own jealous hell.

In short, love in Millhauser’s stories is not for the faint of heart. In the title piece, he retells one of the most famous love stories of all time—the tragic romance of Tristan and Ysolt, examining how a powerful passion is necessarily forbidden, inevitably obsessive, and always fraught with intrigue and deception. In “An Adventure of Don Juan,” he explores, in typical Millhauser fantasy fashion, a romantic encounter by that most famous of all philanderers, Don Juan, in which love and sexuality are entangled with the imaginative creation of an alternate reality. Although the third story in the collection, “Revenge,” is a less magical, more mundane monologue of modern infidelity, it has a unique Millhauser finale.

“The King in the Tree” is a tour-de-force version of one of the great love stories of all time: the tale of Tristan, Queen Ysolt, and the tormented king of Cornwall. Told, journal fashion, by Thomas, the king’s faithful counselor, this is a classic fable of infidelity, jealousy, and court intrigue—complete with a beautiful queen, a handsome knight, an Iago-like chief steward, a demonic dwarf named Modor, and a claustrophobic world of lust, lies, alliances, betrayals, play-acting, whispers, mutilation, and murder. Thomas, a reasonable, practical man, observes and records the machinations of the illicit affair and the growing awareness of the king, who resists accepting the heartbreaking knowledge of the relationship between his young wife and his most trusted knight.

The title of the story derives from the king’s hiding in a tree, echoing both lost childhood innocence and adult discovery of betrayal. The tale is filled with intrigues, as other members of the court try to exploit the affair and undermine the king’s control and as Tristan and Ysolt use various stratagems to conceal their affair from the royal cuckold. As a result, the story is rife with pretense, play-acting, and mock shows. Seldom does Millhauser tell a story without introducing an artificer of some kind; here it is Odo, a monkish man from another kingdom who creates a mechanical image of the queen that the king visits in a poignant attempt to hold on to the woman he idealizes rather than accept the real woman to whom he is married.

Increasingly, the characters in the story become less real than two-dimensional icons of passion, obsession, jealousy, and intrigue. At one point, Thomas says of the queen that her life is a masque, a play, in which everything vital about her is hidden, played out in secrecy. The story ends in Shakespearian tragic fashion as Tristan is banished, marries another, languishes for lack of Ysolt, and dies as a result of a lie told him by his neglected wife, which thus causes the death of the heartbroken Ysolt. Because action in such a realm of pretense, intrigue, and passion always turns back on itself, the reader may at times feel that the story goes on too long—as the king suspects, discovers all, seeks revenge, changes his mind, reconciles, only to suspect and seek revenge again. This cannot be helped. In the fictional world of Millhauser, there are always two parts of every action—the seemingly straightforward visible one and the convoluted inward one which is its true meaning.

The most literary fiction in this book is “An Adventure of Don Juan.” Fearing that he has become a third-rate actor in a play called Don Juan Tenorio, the great lover longs for a more intense life of sensual pleasure, a madness of desire. Not an account of merely one more seduction, this is rather a story about the great Lothario’s growing boredom with easy conquests, the haunting decay of Venice, and his visit with an acquaintance, Augustus Hood, on his grand estate in the Arcadian beauty of the English countryside.

Hood, a combination of Percy Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, is an iconic romantic figure radically different from the Byronic man of action Don Juan. Hood’s estate is an elaborate version of an English garden in which the division...

(The entire section is 1898 words.)