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The confessions of Sir Walter Ralegh (a.k.a. Raleigh)--in a dense, dirge-like, bitterly poetic memoir which, while full of fictional speculations, is far more straightforward than Nye's fanciful, aggressively modern treatments of Faust, Merlin, and Falstaff. Ralegh is writing this free-form autobiography in 1618, aboard the Destiny; after 14 years in the Tower of London for ""treason,"" he has been released by King James, who has sent Ralegh off with a fleet of ships to find gold in the New World. But, with ""Death at the helm,"" the voyage is doomed: Ralegh's son has been killed; it's becoming clear that there's no gold to be found; the bedraggled ships are deserting. (""I have command of a flotilla of turds."") And so, while deciding on what to do next--keep looking for gold? return home to certain execution? turn pirate against Spanish ships?--Ralegh takes the blame for his son's death, drugs himself with exotic flora, thinks fondly of wife Bess, broods on his London enemies, and recalls (in accumulating fragments) his less-than-noble career. He recalls early years fighting in France, being overwhelmed by 1575 London: ""a vast hive,"" with honey that was ""cerebral and passionate and absolute and virginal. It had something to do with the queendom. It had everything to do with the Queen."" He re-creates the legendary moment with the puddle and cloak: ""I performed the poetry. . . . She understood my action perfectly."" He sketches in Elizabeth's ""golden idolatrous Court,"" with his own eventual arrival in the royal bedroom: ""I remember each trick, each cheat, each turn, each parry, each tease, every ugly and pretty perversity which served to keep Elizabeth a virgin. . . . She feasted on me. I got nothing back."" And, while heading back to England and fending off repeated attempts at mutiny, Ralegh berates himself for his opportunism (""I blame only myself for glorying in the glory. I don't hate you . . . I dislike you, Elizabeth Tudor. Dislike, dislike""), for pursuing foolish ambitions. True, the last 100 pages of this long, ruminating novel drag badly--as Ralegh, after bringing his history up to date (as for the supposed treason, ""I was just a dangerous ghost"" from Elizabeth's reign), returns to England to engage in the slow, cat-and-mouse court intrigues (""I smell Bacon"") that will end in his execution. And, throughout, there's too much repetition and elaboration to hold a conventional historical-fiction audience. Still, for those familiar with the textbook version of Ralegh's story, Nye offers a dark, restless, persuasive counterpoint that's often intriguing--relentlessly dour, yet with frequent passages of grim power and evocative beauty.

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 1982
Publisher: Putnam