Summer Reading: A Time For Fiction and Fantasy

New books offer imaginative tales from the Saragossa to your own back yard

THE MANUSCRIPT FOUND IN SARAGOSSA

Jan Potocki.

Translated by Ian Maclean Viking, 631 pp., $27.95

THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT: SEX, SHOPPING,

AND THE NOVEL

Alain de Botton

Picador, 326 pp., $23

MEN IN BLACK

Scott Spencer

Alfred A. Knopf

321 pp., $23

SUBURBAN GUERRILLAS

Joseph Freda

W.W. Norton

214 pp., $19.95

Summer, it's been said, is the season of romance, and not only the moon-June kind of romance promised by popular song lyrics, but also that category of literature including everything from verse narratives of medieval troubadours and Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" to Melville's "Omoo" and Hawthorne's "The House of Seven Gables."

For those who may remember the archetypal literary criticism of Northrop Frye, every season has its genre: tragedy for fall; for spring, comedy; winter, irony; and summer (the season of fulfillment and freedom from workday contingencies), romance - a rich, green dream world where imagination runs riot.

For Frye's devotees, the perfect summer reading list might include titles such as Scott's "Ivanhoe," Keats's "Endymion," Shelley's "Alastor," Ovid's "Metamorphoses," and Tennyson's "Idylls of the King." For those whose tastes are a little more contemporary, however, there's plenty of summer fiction to offer a timely, perhaps even romantic, excursion into the green realms of the imagination.

When it comes to extravagant invention, exotic locales, and more gypsies, bandits, and mysterious maidens than you can shake a magic wand at, few books published this season are likely to rival "The Manuscript Found in Saragossa," the little-known masterpiece by a Polish count, Jan Potocki, whose own life (1761-1815) was even more extraordinary than his fiction. A soldier, scholar, publisher, political reformer, and world traveler, Potocki made himself an expert in everything from Egyptology to hot-air balloons before taking his own life with a silver bullet.

His contribution to imaginative literature, "The Manuscript Found in Saragossa," was written in French. Ironically, part of the original manuscript was later lost, and the only complete version that could be found was an 1847 Polish translation of Potocki's French!

Newly translated into English by Ian Maclean from a 1989 French edition incorporating the Polish material, "The Manuscript Found in Saragossa" is a seemingly inextricable entanglement of fantastic stories that all begin when a French officer at the siege of Saragossa in 1809 finds the manuscript of Alphonse van Worden, a Walloon officer in service to the Spanish king back in 1789.

Lost in the wild uplands of the Sierra Morena, the incredibly brave and honorable Alphonse meets a series of strange characters: a colorful gypsy chieftain; a jewish student of the cabbalah, and his equally erudite sister; an insinuating agent of the inquisition; an absent-minded "geometer," who has a mathematical formula for everything but a hard time remembering his own name; and a pair of beautiful Muslim sisters who claim to be Alphonse's cousins, but who may only be a mirage.

Not only do the characters have stories to tell, but so do the characters within their stories. After a while, even they become impatient with the endless digressions - which, nonetheless, have a certain charm.

As Alphonse and his companions test their ideas about virtue, honor, love, wisdom, and religious toleration, readers will be delighted, amazed, amused, befuddled, and ultimately perhaps enlightened by this diverting nest of narratives.

Returning to the present, Alain de Botton's "The Romantic Movement: Sex, Shopping and the Novel" is the tongue-in-cheek tale of a young woman looking for love in modern-day London. A dreamer and romantic, Alice is more in love with the idea of love than with anything or anyone else, and this lack of realism makes it hard for her to figure out whether the current handsome man on the horizon is Mr. Right or simply another Mr. Mistake.

The author of a previous novel called "Essays in Love," de Botton has a flair for combining a diverting storyline with lashings of commentary that reads like a cross between a pop psychology guide to romance and a collection of Jane Austin-like ironic asides. To wit: "Shockingly incongruous in a romantic conception of love is the idea one might embark on a relationship not for the richness of another's eyes or the sophistication of their mind but simply to avoid contemplating a diary full of evenings alone." Succinct, bright, witty, replete with aphorisms, insights, even funny charts and graphs, the story of Alice and her quest will have readers nodding with rueful recognition.

Midlife marriage, career, and identity problems confront the hero of Scott Spencer's latest novel, "Men in Black." Spencer offers an absorbing, seriocomic look into the distinctly unglamorous life of a 40-something professional writer who suddenly becomes famous for all the wrong reasons.

Sam Holland is the author of several critically acclaimed novels that have earned him very little money. In order to finance his art - and support his family - Sam has taken on a second career writing mass market, how-to books under a false name. Sam has a lovely wife, a sweet little daughter, and a difficult teenage son who is angry at the family's recent move from New York City to a dull little town upstate - another cost-cutting expedient.

The family fortunes are about to change, however, as one of Sam's pseudonymous potboilers unexpectedly hits the bestseller charts and becomes the topic of every radio talk show. "Visitors from Above" is nothing more than a cut-and-paste compendium of recycled accounts of UFOs and other extraterrestrial lore put together to meet a deadline. But for reasons no one can fathom, it becomes the book of the moment, and Sam - or rather, his pseudonymous persona, John Ratcliffe - is catapulted into national prominence as a guru on a subject he knows little and cares even less about. "To have entered a world in which information was denuded of truth made me breathless," he confesses. "It was like being on the crest of the Himalayas - normal life was somewhere down there beneath the clouds."

Meanwhile, back in the "normal" world, Sam's family is in crisis. His teenage son has run away; his marriage is being threatened by a secret Sam lacks the courage to disclose.

"Turning love into marriage is like having the unicorn tapestry and using it as a tablecloth," Sam remarks to a local lady who owns a bookstore and who also tries to warn him of the untold harm his UFO-mongering may do. By the end of this well-paced, crisply written novel, Sam has come to understand the wisdom of the bookstore owner's reply: "That sounds exactly how a unicorn tapestry ought to be used," as he recovers his lost values and comes to terms with his life and the people who matter most to him.

A small town in New Hampshire is the setting of Joseph Freda's beguiling first novel, "Suburban Guerrillas." Hurley is the kind of place that still boasts a village green and an annual event known as the Blessing of the Lawn-Mower Fleet. Once the home of folks who made their living from the nearby granite quarries, Hurley has more recently become a haven to yuppies in search of a more rural lifestyle.

Thirteen chapters, each like a well-tuned short story in itself, present a cross section of Hurley's inhabitants: affable Ed Jacques, who has the best kept lawn in the neighborhood and whose assiduous attention to his property is matched by his exemplary devotion to his wife, children, and grandchildren; Ed's younger neighbors, Ray and Marisse Vann, childless by choice, ex-urbanites and determined to stop Hurley from being transformed into a concrete jungle of condos and strip malls; and the Vann's friends, Leonard and Tina Walker, who married young and have a college-age daughter.

Leonard drives a Good Humor truck in his spare time, just for fun, and as a relief from his boring work with computers. Tina, a young-looking 38, finds herself in competition with her daughter over the attentions of a muscular youth who works out at her gym.

When a greedy developer threatens to build condos on the adjoining woodland, the "Suburban Guerrillas" band together to thwart his schemes. What gives this book its special charm is not its plot, or the success or failure of the "guerrillas" mission, but the author's delicious blend of whimsy and realism, which makes for a very believable portrait of ordinary, real, everyday people who manage to pay their mortgages but haven't given up all of their youthful dreams.

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