`Bookmark' Gets Off to a Slow Start. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

``Apostrophes,'' a TV program about books, is one of the most popular and controversial television series seen in France. Authors and critics discuss their books, critiques, politics, philosophy, current affairs, and literature in general. The result is often a no-holds-barred intellectual shouting match - passionate, stimulating, exciting. Unfortunately, in the few places where it airs in America (one of them is CUNY here in New York) the telecast is in French, without translation.

Now, PBS is getting into the book-show business, too. ``Bookmark,'' which premi`eres on Sunday in most areas (4:30-5 p.m., check local listings) and will continue for 26 weeks, is a program designed by creator/host Lewis Lapham ``to explore current books through roundtable discussion among authors and editors.''

I have seen the first two programs, and I find them to be cool, literate, moderately stimulating. What's missing most is passion and excitement.

The premi`ere segment features novelist, playwright, and journalist Robertson Davies, discussing his new novel, ``The Lyre of Orpheus,'' with Mr. Lapham and guest author Alison Lurie. Miss Lurie has obviously read the Davies book, but she seems to prefer talking about her own work.

Lapham lures Davies into a philosophical discussion of fact vs. fiction. ``You can get closer to the truth in fiction,'' says Davies, ``because it's the news that isn't fit to print that you can get into a novel.''

``Fiction is like condensed orange juice,'' adds Lurie, ``more intense than ordinary taste.'' (``But who drinks condensed orange juice straight?'' I think to myself.)

There is much talk about the art of fiction and the characters in Davies's book, with little information on exactly what the theme of this novel is, other than ``a journey of self-discovery.''

Apparently Davies does not follow a normal time perspective. ``People are too bamboozled by the notion of time,'' he says. ``If you want to understand history, you must look at time in a new, sophisticated way and see that what happens at any period of time happens at all times as part of the experience of mankind.''

The half-hour is beginning to feel like an hour. But it continues with a discussion of passion and family values, ending with Lurie's observation that ``passion has been replaced by aerobics.''

Lapham brings the show to a conclusion with the comment that it has been ``a grand, grand conversation.'' Maybe for him, but for me it has been frustrating, because I still don't really know what the book is all about, and I don't know the author any better than at the start of the program.

It was the kind of strained, lethargic conversation one might have expected at a 1950s ladies book club. I expected more from ``Bookmark'' - maybe even the passion and fervor of ``Apostrophes.'' It will get better, I think.

I am glad there is a ``Bookmark.'' I am glad that it is serious, earnest, seemingly determined not to become titillating rather than informative. I only wish it were more exciting to watch.

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