Two Slices of Historical Romance

A mirror novel set in England weds theme and style with moral punch

THE CHYMICAL WEDDING, By Lindsay Clarke. London: Johnathan Cape, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 536 pp., $19.95. THE intent of the ancient art of alchemy was the transmutation of base metal - lead - into purest gold. An aberration of the gullible medieval mind, you say? A quaintly arcane footnote to that ultimately superstitious chapter of history, the Middle Ages? ``The Chymical Wedding'' bids one reconsider.

The alchemists maintained that even after ``The Fall,'' a spark of the divine principle remained in humans; with diligent care and spiritual understanding that base metal - material man - could once again become spiritually whole and golden. So powerful and transforming is Clarke's novel that readers will find themselves venturing into the caverns of self-knowledge to rediscover that golden self.

And although Clarke refers to this work as a romance, which it is, ``The Chymical Wedding'' transcends the conventions of the genre. It is at once historical fiction, a philosophical dialectic, a searing commentary on our nuclear age, and a novel of suspense, all of which the author spins out like the best mystery writer in the business.

Fleeing the morass of his crumbled marriage, poet Alex Darken seeks refuge and solace in the quiet depths of rural Norfolk, England. There, he meets an acerbic, aging poet - Edward Nesbit, the inspiration of his youth - and the poet's young American companion, Laura. Intrigued by Laura, enraged and entranced by Nesbit, Darken is drawn from his cocoon of solitude. He joins the couple in their research on the lives and lost secrets of a Victorian alchemist-poet, Sir Henry Agnew, and his daughter, Louisa Ann.

Paralleling this narrative, Clarke weaves a second in which he relates the daily lives of Louisa Ann and her father - the very subject of Nesbit's investigation. Both father and daughter are engaged in writing about the Hermetic art of transmutation as a universal panacea.

Like reflex images, the two tales of ``The Chymical Wedding'' mirror each other. Each narrative features a triangle of characters, the contemporary trio mirroring the historical in near perfect symmetry.

Nesbit tells Darken, ``Of course, you're feeling dazed. Why should you not? You've been struck by lightning after all. It takes time to recognize that it's a privilege to be singled out by the gods that way.''

And while the author pursues the innovative and novel, he does not overlook the refinements of what can only be called ``beautiful style.'' Clarke restores the English and literary to English literature. His prose is so luminous, so lush with imagery, that he often seems more poet than novelist.

His sentences convey a cadence laden with assonance and alliteration. There is a sheer music to them which begs to be read aloud, to savor phrases as they echo in the ear:

``For a time that young woman had been at her window watching the clouds ferry the October light across the sky as though they were carriers of urgent news. Except for the rise and fall of her breath she was still. ... Her dress was of grey silk, its sheen answering to the tilt of the evening light, across the lake, so that she was now little more than a marble's shadow among shadows.

``For three days, since the month had changed, an easterly had fretted among the trees and would not back, but now she sensed a veering in the air, a softness where things had been gritty and bitter before.... The wind gusted to rain beyond the casement. It was as though the night were throwing small stones at the glass.''

Not since ``The Name of the Rose'' has a novel wedded theme and style with such a morally charged punch. ``The Chymical Wedding'' received Britain's prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award. May Clarke's lightning strike a second time.

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