TWO LIVES AND A DREAM

By Marguerite Yourcenar

Translated from the French

By Walter Kaiser

In collaboration with the author

Farrar Straus Giroux. 245 pp. $16.95

IF ONLY by virtue of being an octogenarian, Marguerite Yourcenar must be accounted one of the grandes dames of belles lettres, if not la plus grande. She is, besides, a commander of the French Legion of Honor and a member of the French Academy. There is a presumption of one who speaks from so lofty an eminence that her every word is golden, and Yourcenar herself in publishing these three tales would seem to share that presumption. I don't -- but I do feel a moderate admiration for the longest of the three pieces, the 121-page novella, "An Obscure Man," and would commend it to any reader with a taste for "thoughtful" (as against vigorous, vulgar, or action-packed) historical fiction.

Though not in the same league as her most celebrated novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, "An Obscure Man" offers a similar son et lumie`re diorama of a past decorously interpreted by the skillful evocation of its best-known artifacts. One can easily imagine a museum with a sufficiently large collection of Dutch art of the 17th century organizing a tour of its paintings with Yourcenar's novella as the tape-recorded guide. After the first whirlwind 22-page dash through Greenwich, the Caribbean, the Maine seashore, and back to England, the story settles down in Amsterdam, and thereafter every page seems to be an illustration of some remembered Dutch painting: Steen's genre scenes of whores picking the pockets of drunken gents; Vermeer's ladies at their harpsichords; Ostade's hovels; the louring cloudscapes of Van Goyen; the harbors bristling with the masts of sailing ships. It's all there in "An Obscure Man" as background to a tale of a humble life so determinedly representative that it might have been plotted by a committee of statisticians. The effect of the story is of a Candide chastened of all comedy, an 18th-century philosophical romance the moral of which is C est la vie. Finally, it is the paintings Yourcenar quotes, and not her protagonist Nathaniel's fate, that one remembers as the story fades to its final landscape of windswept dunes and easeful death. Pretty enough, but the comparison the book jacket makes to Flaubert's "Un coeur simple" is wishful thinking.

The dream referred to in the book's title takes place in the 25-page story, "A Lovely Morning," a pendant to "An Obscure Man," in which Nathaniel's teen-age son meets a group of players passing through Amsterdam on their way to Germany and Denmark to perform Shakespeare. This young Dutch slum boy already knows the role of Rosalind and so impresses the traveling players that he is invited to run away with them. Not exactly a representative moment in Dutch life of the 17th century, nor much of a plume in Commander Yourcenar's hat, but it is easy to understand what tempted her to write it: the love of the boy's father Nathaniel, who had to die so young for the sake of her art. At least his son is offered the promise of a bit of fun.

THE LAST of the three tales is surely the least. "Anna, Soror . . ." written in 1925 when Yourcenar was 21 and (by her own account, in the book's appendix) not much revised since, is a tale of incestuous love in 16th-century Naples based on the best decadent models of the '20s, utterly sincere, stiff as a whalebone corset, and purple as the vat of wax at the Crayola factory. Here, for instance, is the moment when the prescient mother, Valentina, of the two soon-to-be-errant siblings dies, leaving them a castle to sin in:

"The wind blowing in through the large open windows caused the flames of the lamps of flicker. To the east, the mountains of the Basilicata were still dark with night; brush fires indicated the course of dried-up streams. Women were moaning threnodies in the accent of Naples or the dialect of Calabria.

"A feeling of infinite solitude enveloped the children of Valentina . . ."

The effect of some 60 pages of prose in that vein is of hearing all of Wagner's Tristan played on a soprano recorder. One must marvel at the earnestness and skill of the performer, but it's not the same as hearing Melchior and Leider. The 21-year-old who wrote it is not to be blamed for aspiring greatly, and no more can one reprehend the 83-year-old for wishing to honor her younger self's effusions by including them in the official bibliography. But Flaubert it isn't. Even Euge`ne Sue might have had second thoughts. :: Thomas M. Disch writes poetry, short stories and novels. His most recent work includes the fairy tale "The Brave Little Toaster" and "Amnesia," an interactive computer novel.