A PRESENCE WlTH SECRETS by W. M. Spackman

A PRESENCE WlTH SECRETS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Another arch little frolic through the verbose, erudite, multi-lingual, upper-crust world of An Armful of Warm Girl (1978)--as Spackman (a fine, fine essayist) provides three fragmentary, oblique angles on the life of painter-professor Hugh Tatnall, a society-connected Casanova of academia (Smith College mostly) and the Continent. First we have a chunk of 37-year-old Hugh's own viewpoint: in bed with a comely junior-year-abroad student in Firenze (a liaison that erupted spontaneously in the wake of scary street violence), he's thinking about his regular mistress--who may have been killed in the violence--and analyzing his feelings about his present idyll: ""was he God help him merely bored? . . . For eccolo, here he was at a ritrovo with as sweet, as acquiescent, a delizia as the Bona Dea and Iddio combined had ever indulged him with, and in this situation he felt at a loose end good god?"" Next we hear from another of Hugh's ladies (all of whom speak, as does Hugh himself, in the pouting, italicized, exclamation-pointed rhythms of That Cosmopolitan Girl): this one tells of a visit with Hugh to a French chateau owned by dashing Alain, who nearly seduces her but gets fatally involved in Breton-terrorist goings-on. And finally we're at Hugh's funeral (he's been shot by an angry mistress)--where chum Simon, a classics professor, is recalling other Hugh conquests and adulteries: ""this delicious girl was not just in his arms but, beyond any ambiguity, was his!--even this lovely mouth had never kissed anyone with this abandon."" Is Spackman making fun of these terrifically self-satisfied, shallow, tiresome people? Alas, no: Simon ends up with a sentimental salute to the loveliness of Hugh's liaisons: ""the covenant had a humaneness it would never have occurred to a simple libertine was what in fact made the pleasure a pleasure."" True, there's real potential in the beauty of passing amours, of love-for-love's-sake (the theme has been done oft before by far better writers)--but here, with faceless, vacuous characters and effortfully elegant prose, it's thoroughly unconvincing (Hugh sounds more like age 73 than 37), unamusing, and empty.

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 1980
Publisher: Knopf