I have always preferred to fail rather than not to attempt,"" says Gary in his heavily explanatory introduction. And the very fact that he feels the need to diagram the meaning of this difficult, intermittently beautiful book (published--and apparently misunderstood--in France six years ago) indicates how completely he has indeed failed. His theme is Europe's ""cultural failure. . . the unbridgeable gap between aesthetics and ethics,"" a dichotomy presumably embodied in lean DanthÃ¨s, the 50-ish French ambassador to Italy. DanthÃ¨s is a ""man of immense culture,"" a Europe-lover, who is currently having trouble keeping track of time, of his identity. Perhaps his trance-like lapses have something to do with beautiful Erika, the daughter of his long-ago mistress, Malwina von Leyden, who has been paralyzed ever since she and DanthÃ¨s crashed their car 25 years ago. Malwina blames DanthÃ¨s for the accident and has long been plotting her revenge--Erika will seduce married Danthes and ruin his life. Ah, but unbeknownst to Malwina, Erika and DanthÃ¨s have been lovers for quite some time. Any reader who can extract the plot--Gary plays with time, sometimes exquisitely, sometimes infuriatingly (whole paragraphs are repeated as echoes)--will see exactly where it's going: Erika is DanthÃ¨s' daughter. And the only real energy here comes from mystical Malwina (the decadent side of Europe's culture), as she waspishly recollects her various earlier incarnations: ""Cagliostro--I knew him, and he was a creep."" As for Gary's theme, it is both too ubiquitous--virtually every key figure in European culture drifts into a conversation or a train of thought--and too muffled by the often lyrical verbal excess: ""Dusk, that intimist minor master he preferred to the great Goethe-like expanses of day and the Hugoesque melodrama of night. . . ."" What is ironic is that, though Gary is here to tell us that there is no such thing as European culture, only a product of that culture could have cast a ""message"" book in such a dense, baroque, and velvet-draped form.