THE THREE ROMES by Russell Fraser


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A gnomic, acerbic guide takes us around Moscow, Istanbul, and Rome, but that thin-lipped Yankee wit eventually palls. Fraser--author of a fine biography of R.P. Blackmur, A Mingled Yarn (1981)--specializes in crisp, staccato one-liners. Russia in the '60s, he says, ""was like Texas without money, all empty space, bragging fights to the universe, and a chip on every shoulder."" He creates a hard-nosed persona who can be quite entertaining: when his Intourist guide in Moscow's Cathedral Square sadly declares that the Tsar Cannon has never been fired and the Tsar Bell (the world's largest) has never been rung, Fraser ""tell(s) him to consider the lilies of the field."" But this is a style in search of a cause: when Fraser is moved in any way, as by the tribulations his ""mad lepidopterist"" friend Bogdanov has to endure from the Soviet system, he moves the reader too. All too often, however, he rattles on like an omniscient, disorganized cicerone, especially in Istanbul and Rome, where he does little numbers on Sancta Sophia (sic), Mustafa Kemal, the Bazaar, a soccer match at Inonu Stadium, the fall of Constantinople, street scenes in Trastevere, E.U.R., a performance of Puccini's Girl of the Golden West, the Baths of Caracalla, the career of Garibaldi, and so on. Fraser has a keen eye and a sharp tongue. Though slightly vain of his command of languages, he never struts or plays the pedant. (""A Bavarian tart, she looks good enough to eat,"" he notes, in a typical, down-to-earth aside.) But in the final analysis Fraser doesn't have enough to say. We get glimpses, no more, of his Russian, Turkish, Italian, or expatriate friends. We get only a shadowy seine of Fraser himself. And we get too much of his acidulous, epigrammatic manner. It's pleasant enough, however, in small doses.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich