Unravelling such a shimmering tangle as ""episodes in the literary conquest of the Void during the 19th century,"" it's best to be quick-witted, nimble-fingered, and intellectually suave at all times. As readers of the quarterlies know, Professor Adams possesses these attributes in intimidating abundance. He is one of the few scholars who has an actual flair for writing, with a winking elegance sometimes approaching the dexterity of Nabokov. Dealing with heavy-weather giants like Baudelaire, Melville, Mallarme, Poe or Gogol, sophistication of that order can seem a bit much. And there is a jaunty exuberance in these chapters which doesn't always fit the dark, difficult subject discussed. Happily, Adams doesn't fritter away his solid literary training; however brisk he becomes, there's usually a hard, serious intelligence at work, and in a relatively short book he encompasses an ample portrait of the drainage and seepage of the self represented by the Romantic consciousness, at least in its more decadent forms. Indeed, the theme of Nothingness is explored on many levels here, whether it reveals itself through alienation from the common world as in Flaubert; excessive, suicidal romanticism in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; Ibsen's destructive female idealists; Baudelaire or Melville's use of the voyage as a metaphysical metaphor; or various complementary aspects of boredom, social or psychological ironies, or the retreat into aesthetic experimentation. A significant, sharp commentary on a cultural past very much still with us.