THERE CAME A PROUD BEGGAR. By Mark Linder. Carroll & Graf. 569 pp. $18.95.
WE'RE IN a new season of literary folk making fiction out of literary folk. Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot flew that bird across the Atlantic as a Roman candle of cleverness and epigram, calling itself a work of fiction and humorously analyzing the folklore that can surround a literary master. Philip Roth, in The Ghost Writer developed the relation between novice and master; Bernard Malamud pondered the life of a biographer in Dubin's Lives; Richard Holmes recently took his own biographical pilgrimages as source for an autobiographical meditation. Certainly Mark Linder's first novel qualifies for this brief list. It is about an Old Lady -- very old -- with a Secret. She persuades a novelist to write the novel of her life, but isn't prepared to reveal all that an omniscient author needs. She keeps her Secret carefully tucked away. This reduces him to heroic sleuthing.
Such a story is, in reality, about the drive to power and manipulation of others. The Old Lady is a kind of 20th-century Juliana Bordereau out of Henry James' "Aspern Papers." But where that elegant and fearful lady simply guarded some old love-letters from "publishing scoundrels," this one enjoys a complex cat-and-mouse game. There is also a female Companion, addicted to sun- bathing and jealous of her possession of the Old Lady. So we have a triangle with a pas- de-deux of the novelist and the companion, which ends in strenuous couplings in bed. And the triangle has its jealousies as well. The novelist seems to be taking the Old Lady away from the companion, and also the Companion from the Old Lady.
There is a second triangle. The Old Lady has had dealings with another novelist, so that in the end the two novelists are rivals, but one is eager and the other is cautious. To add to the novel's mystification we actually begin with chapters from the novel-in-progress. These are mixed in with the continuing narrative of the Novelist and the Old Lady whose name we discover is Adlington (in the second novel) and things are considerably addled. All this is handled with great skill, virtuosity and wit, though at times Linder lapses into the commonplaces of the popular magazine-story. At other times he is not averse to slapstick. But he does give us a picture of the lengths to which a novelist engag,e will go to solve his mystery and maintain his omniscience.
The geography of the narrative involves the Old Lady's decrepit house, and her ancient garden -- the flora and fauna of her life. It also involves her peculiar relation with her psychoanalytical Companion who turns out to be an M.D. One wonders whether a 90-year- old can stand the strain of so much intrigue, but in fiction she shows a great and supple strength and endurance. We are in the tangle of the novelist's relation with two women and the other novelist; and ultimately we find him scrambling in the bowels of a library, where the detritus of a police dossier yields the Secret of the Old Lady almost as an anti- climax.
I MUSTN'T neglect to mention other literary horse-play; the use of Shakespeare's Othello and its jealousies and connivings; the creation of a modern Burbage, involved with a scholar studying Shakespeare whose name is William. All this mixes up the higher literary criticism with the romp of mystification, particularly since Burbage addles William's wife so that there is no lack of the essential sexual ingredients of the traditional blockbuster.
The Burbage section offers a curious peripheral interest for those of us haunted by the picture of an actor in the White House. Linder dissects more closely than our press has done what it means to have an actor -- who is constitutionally a role player -- in any seat of power. Egomania, the narrator tells us, is often "an actor's strength." He adds: "You see they have nothing else but ego. He struts and frets, looking quite handsome, in those boots and blouses of his. He loves it, though he pretends otherwise. Well, I suppose it is an actor's due recompense -- and their only justification -- the admiration of their audience."
My own hunch is that actors in reality lack self-ego. They are show-offs, histrionic simulators of other people's egos: they are individuals in search of another's personality which is what we mean when we speak of their being "role players." The need for an audience is their way of asserting themselves: but their goods are imitations of life. The entire discussion in this novel of Burbage and the pedantic William muddling around in William Shakespeare is another side of Linder's frolic. He seems to have extracted his maximum of wit out of his 556- page flight of fancy. We must hope he has other such flights in the secret places of his imagination.