From a contemporary English writer: four period-pieces set in 19th-century Italy--all in some way having to do with the absurdity of artists, the flaws of ego and character that determine their lives and works. In ""Morn Advancing,"" a tetchy English painter travels through Sicily, drawing, utterly unmoved by a vicious drama that surrounds him involving a local clan of outlaws and the police. In ""A Slight Disorder,"" an Englishwoman married to a bloodless painter fancies an Austrian soldier only to find that he's homosexual, in some ways quite similar to her own despised spouse. ""The Distinguished Elephant"" satirizes the Italian penchant for artist-as-national-hero: Pellegrini, a very minor lion, is sent into exile but then granted return--at which point he dries up completely, has nothing more to write, no wind to fly in the teeth of. And the most satisfying of these conventional, unexciting stories is ""Enthusiastic Fires""--in which a young Danish man, living with his art-loving family in Venice, pays homage to a French composer of the Napoleonic era: the composer is long past his prime yet still able to terrorize his family and retinue with his egoism, his cravings for flattery and attention; the young Dane is quickly accepted, but when the lad dares to appreciate Verdi's I Lombardi, the older composer throws a tantrum; the family and hangers-on now revolt, with bitter accusations and revelations. . . but when the old composer then dies, his intimates piously restore him to the summits of Art. Keates' writing is upholstered, deliberately archaic, made to match the age and place--with fully convincing atmospheres. But, despite the jaundiced, cynical themes here, Keates' elegant stories remain rather insipid, without the sharp narrative approach one expects in such cosmopolitan satire.