Last Valentine's Day prompted Redbook, Vanity Fair, and Esquire to field short story reports from veteran literary explorers on the prowl in love's chimera-filled territory. In February issues, Anne Rice and Saul Bellow offer contemporary answers to the question, ''How do I love thee?''
Rice, best known for her novel, ''Interview With the Vampire,'' treats Redbook readers to a gothic romance. Gaslit England provides the setting for ''The Master of Rampling Gate.'' Rice adopts the florid expression and extravagant emotions favored by past romantics and a growing number of contemporary parodists (most prominently, Joyce Carol Oates).
''Rampling Gate. It was so real to us in the old pictures, rising like a fairy-tale castle out of its own dark wood.'' Rice's shy but reckless heroine defies the deathbed wish of her father and journeys to the forbidden precincts of the family manse. There she encounters and, just as quickly, succumbs to the charms of the dark intruder against whom her father warned her. Neither deceitful nor overwhelming, the young man compels by means other than seduction or force. This centuries-old vampire kisses, and our heroine experiences the rush of well-being and surreal visions most often associated with narcotic stupor. As her ''happily ever after,'' Rice sends the pair off to London in search of victims.
The expected humor never materializes, nor do the romantic thrills. The companionability of vampire and heroine suggests less lover and beloved than brother and sister or pusher and protegee. The story operates outside the structure of any ethic, traditional or of its own invention. Rice puts on the fancy dress of gothic romance to no apparent purpose. She neither sends up the genre nor plumbs its depths. ''Master'' would not deserve comment but for its appearance in the women's magazine most respected for its commitment to quality fiction. Redbook's endorsement suggests that its readers' current desire of love is not intimacy but oblivion.
Nobel laureate Bellow views love from another perspective. His portait of an extramarital affair, ''What Kind of Day Did You Have?'' is a variation on the slice-of-life genre. Katerina Goliger, ''a divorced suburban matron with two young kids,'' jets from Chicago to Buffalo and back again at the behest of her ''world class intellectual'' lover, Victor Wulpy.
''A somewhat spoiled celebrity,'' septuagenarian Wulpy still travels the lecture circuit, partly for money, partly to get away from his wife and to his mistress. Feeling glum after his Buffalo lecture and anticipating grimly the next afternoon's flight to Chicago and another speech, Wulpy phones Katerina in the middle of a frozen winter's night to tell her he needs her in Buffalo in the morning. As Bellow traces the day's journey from Katerina's predawn departure from home to her return that night, he also recounts the history of the couple's romance from its unlikely beginning to its present status quo.
While the story's smaller-than-life vision recalls New Yorker ''casuals,'' its gigantic pretensions and hollow center correspond perfectly to its host publication, the new Vanity Fair. Self-serving snobs, slaves to fashionable opinion, Bellow's characters provoke in readers the same distaste they inspire in one another. Wulpy views humanity with loathing and Katerina with a clinical detachment that mixes contempt with condescending affection. Katerina sees Wulpy as her ticket to the really exclusive intellectual salons. The story runs on tediously for 34 pages, bloated by Wulpy's banal pronouncements upon art, politics, and philosophy.
This is a romance? I remember an enormous cast of opportunists too cynical ever to love or to inspire love. Fortunately, they are forgettable. Harder to dismiss and deeply disturbing is Bellow's presentation of misanthropy as the thinking man's natural persuasion, of self-interest as the true nature of love.