Allegro Postillions: Stories by Jonathan Keates. New York: George Braziller. 120 pp. $12.95. The four beautifully written stories in Jonathan Keates's oddly named book are set in Italy circa 1840, and three of them are about artistic failure. In a contemporary American context this would be a rather monotonous subject, variations on a theme of premature publicity and premature dissipation, but in 19th-century Italy artistic failure was done with style. The country was full of artists, composers, and poets who had all the flamboyance and bad manners of genius and none of the genius.
Mr. Keates evokes not only the atmosphere of the time and place -- the sleepy provincial town and a lambent and deliquescent Venice -- but also a characteristic tone of voice, one familiar to anyone who has read Stendhal's Italian journals: a voice at once idealistic and cynical, passionate and shrewd.
These stories, which won two major literary prizes for Mr. Keates when they were published last year in his native England, are subtle, ironic meditations on art and illusion; they are also triumphs of a rich, finely shaded historical imagination.
In the story ``Morn Advancing,'' a solitary, priggish English landscape painter named Cattermole, who despises Italians in general and their politics in particular, goes out to do some sketching in a remote southern Italian valley and is interrupted, to his intense annoyance, by a bit of history: the capture of some fugitive rebels by government troops. Completely unmoved, he is nevertheless unable to finish his sketch; the episode has in some elusive way defeated him.
In ``The Distinguished Elephant,'' we meet Andrea Pellegrini, ``author of `Clara,' a historical tale which had earned a letter polite and sincere from Sir Walter Scott and a condescending remark from Goethe, and `Le Ultime Pagine d'un Romanzo,' that curious mixture of the lyrical and the melodramatic, as well as the two tragedies `Enrico Dandolo' and `La Contessa di Scandiano,' and goodness knew how many poems and critical letters. . . .''
He is the center of a motley salon of liberals in the tiny duchy of Villafranca, known for the best dinners and worst weather in Italy. Under the eyes of police spies, the guests gather ``to yawn commonplaces at a liberal marquis or to talk bibulous slander with a greasy journalist, to listen while the advocate's pretty daughter gave you the biography of her passionate soul, or discreetly to exaggerate the horrors of ducal prisons for the benefit of visiting foreigners, goggle-eyed in credulity.'' And t o worship Pellegrini, ``our lion, our elephant,'' who always consents to read his bombastic poetry with becoming modesty.
Eventually the duke is provoked into exiling him. After eight years in Genoa, Pellegrini is given permission to return, and this proves to be the undoing, not so much of the poet himself but of ``our lion, our elephant,'' the poet his rapt admirers have imagined for themselves.
The other two stories are set in Venice, a city of spectral illusions: ``The city had dissolved itself into a completeness of nocturnal silence, achieving that quality which makes its glazed shadow on the water more true than the fabric itself.''
This is from ``Enthusiastic Fires,'' in which a 17-year-old Danish boy, visiting Venice with his family, finds himself in the same hotel as Hippolyte Jolliot, once Napoleon's favorite composer but now an ailing, pompous old man attended by a grotesque retinue of contemptuous family members and parasites.
The boy, eager for an aesthetic god he can worship and set against his sober family, passionately admires Jolliot's meretricious music and is welcomed by the composer as a disciple, but then he goes to the opera and discovers Verdi -- a passionate, truthful music ``that needed no philosophy, no cultivated solemnity, no factitious awe, to assert itself and keep its verities in perpetual life.'' It is a moment of truth that the boy carries back to Jolliot and his circle, upon whom it wreaks havoc.
The other Venice story, ``A Slight Disorder,'' is about a young Englishwoman who, attempting to deceive her art-obsessed husband, flirts with an Austrian soldier only to discover that she has been grossly deceiving herself about both men. Though slighter than the others, it is still a deftly told story.
These stories have far more to say about the perils of artistic mediocrity than Peter Schaffer's portentous, overloaded play ``Amadeus.'' Instead of making melodrama of the subject, Mr. Keates has turned it into subtle and rarefied comedy that leaves the reader with a wry sympathy for his failed artists. ``Allegro Postillions'' is a remarkable literary debut, an exquisite and memorable book.
L. S. Klepp is a free-lance editor specializing in religion and philosophy. He lives in New York.