Brief Reviews

by Da Chen. Random House, 320 pages, $25.00.

Ms. Hegi's novel follows three generations of a family and its property. Stefan Blau, aged thirteen, ran away from a small German town in 1894, reached the United States, and wound up as the proprietor of an elegant restaurant and the Wasserburg, a large, equally elegant apartment house improbably situated on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, in New Hampshire. This required hard work and shrewd attention to finances. His German-American family -- one child by each of three wives -- remained bicultural while splitting in various directions. Their affairs converge in a row over ownership of the now decaying Wasserburg. Ms. Hegi provides a large cast of convincing Blaus, tenants, relatives back in Germany, and Winnipesaukee locals. The story covers nearly a century of history, most of which the Blaus deplore. Ms. Hegi has a canny eye for the lingering effects of a German background on manners, furniture, and food, and also for the subtle resentments created by the family's cross-cultural heritage. This is a novel of wide range, richly interesting in both character and episode.

The protagonist of Mr. Coetzee's admirable novel is David Lurie, a professor of romantic poetry who, in his fifties and twice divorced, finds his lifelong habit of one-night stands difficult to maintain. He engages in something resembling a real love affair with a student, and is asked to resign. He retreats to his daughter's small farm, in a district where the lawlessness of the new South Africa flourishes -- and strikes savagely. The novel develops into a debate between generations. Lurie clings to standards of law and order and courteous distance between black and white. His daughter is prepared to accept total integration as the only way to survive in the country she loves. There is no way to reconcile these positions, and the novel ends in ambiguity, but on the way it offers high excitement in a raid on the farm, and tart satire in a scene in which the academic ethics committee attempts to extract groveling repentance on top of Lurie's honest admission of guilt.

The painter Caravaggio had a family name that was spelled in too many ways for anyone to keep track of. He became known by the name of his parents' town, near Milan. His given name was Michelangelo (more or less), and his biographer saves space by referring to him as M. That is the only space-saving gesture in this splendidly spacious, grandly inclusive life of the man who can justly be considered the founder of the baroque style. M was tremendously successful in his lifetime, and widely imitated. After his death, in 1610, he was soon ignored, and little was known about him for a couple of centuries. According to Mr. Robb, information has recently begun to surface because scholars have realized that facts about M are to be found not in records about art but in the records of the police. When he was not painting, M frequented taverns and tennis courts, "looking for fights or arguments." The Rome in which M worked was in a fury of rebuilding and redecorating. It was full of ambitious artists and was also at the height of Counter-Reformation fervor. The time, Robb writes, was one "of bureaucratic power, thought police and fearful conformism, in which arselickers and timeservers flourished and original minds were ferociously punished or condemned to silence." M had an original mind and an original style. Repression may have contributed to his bad temper. The Vatican had issued rules for the painting of religious subjects -- and the Church was the source of the big commissions. There were to be no undignified poses, no nudity, and no display of any creature's bare bottom. M got away with an eye-catching horse's rump, but had to redo a Saint Matthew with dirty feet. M's belligerence eventually put him on the run from a murder conviction. He dodged to Naples, Malta, Sicily, and back to Naples. He was welcomed in all these places, and painted busily, but there were also physical attacks. Somebody was after him, and when he tried to return to Rome, somebody got him. He was thirty-nine. His body was never found, and contemporary accounts of his disappearance are wildly implausible. Mr. Robb has a theory on what happened to M, and it is reasonable but unprovable, like much else concerning the man. In lieu of personal detail, Mr. Robb provides a constantly fascinating description of M's Rome. There were juvenile cardinals, "cardinals' nephews," sons of great houses (who had money, high status, and nothing to do but amuse themselves), and the hangers-on whom they naturally attracted. The city was infested with spies, informers, scandalmongers, and scandals. There were party and personal vendettas. There were unemployed soldiers at large whenever peace broke out. It was a gaudy, treacherous, greedy world, which Mr. Robb details with enthusiasm. Readers with a taste for antique melodrama will enjoy it. Art lovers will appreciate Mr. Robb's aesthetic judgment and his ability to describe what is really in a painting. Everyone can take pleasure in his prose, which is fast-moving, colloquial, and unique in the art-book genre.

Mr. Chen describes growing up in Mao's China as a son of the abominated landlord class. Any member of his family could be stoned by street urchins and persecuted by minor officials. There was much petty spite, some kindness, and a great deal of the sort of corruption endemic to inefficient economies. Conditions improved with Mao's death. Mr. Chen got to college, although he had been denied entrance to high school on the grounds that his well-educated parents could not possibly have produced a worthy Communist citizen. The memoir is by no means entirely grim. Young Da and his friends managed to be quite merry, and some episodes are downright funny.

Phoebe-Lou Adams has written her Atlantic book column, under a variety of titles, since 1952.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Brief Reviews - 00.03; Volume 285, No. 3; page 116-118.