Sensibility overwhelms narrative in this story of homoerotic obsession, a second novel from the British Hollinghurst (The Swimming-Pool Library, 1988). Pudgy, bespectacled Edward Manners is a 32-year-old gay Englishman just arrived in an unidentified Flemish town, where he will give English lessons to two students, pursue his own ""bits of writing,"" and check out the gay scene -- a Continental adventure before the onset of middle age. In short order, he finds a sex partner (Cherif, a hot young Moroccan) and falls in love with one of his students, 17-year-old Luc Altidore, ""a blond Aztec"" expelled from an exclusive Jesuit school for serious truancy. Edward does not declare his love, though his theft of his beloved's underwear is a symptom of his obsession, an obsession he finds paralleled in the life of local Symbolist painter Edgard Orst (1865-1944) while working on a catalogue for the Orst Museum. Orst became obsessed with a Scottish actress. Though their affair was cut short when she drowned at sea, Orst painted her for the rest of his life. Edward starts to see Luc's eyes as those of an ""Orst temptress""; he is fascinated by the story, appropriately, for he is a pedant/aesthete whose most passionate outburst is reserved for a Muzak rendition of Mozart in a hotel dining room. Edward's cultural and sexual history is detailed further when he returns to England for the funeral of his one great love; as teenagers, they made love beneath Milton's ""folding star."" All this background is presented well, but by the time it's established, Hollinghurst's story has withered on the vine. His attempts to revive it in the final (Belgian) section, as he ups the ante for Edward and Luc while throwing in revelations about Orst's final days, are unsuccessful. As in his debut, Hollinghurst seeks thematic richness by counterpointing lives from different eras, but here his weakness as a storyteller is even more marked.