THE LONG VIEW By Elizabeth Jane Howard (Out of print)

BEFORE there was Harold Pinter there was Elizabeth Jane Howard. That is, those of you familiar with his play, "Betrayal," and the subsequent film version, in which a marriage is dissected in a startling backwards progression that begins with the armor of current cynicism and winds up, years before, at the fresh skin of love's early innocence, should know that Howard perfected this perverse scenario in her 1956 novel, The Long View.

It is, simply, a brilliant book. And it amounts to something of a sacred object among those who have read it, many of us more than once. I myself have bought it and given it to friends from New York to Paris to New Delhi: Each recipient later speaks of it in the hushed tones reserved for moments of sheer, unalloyed (and revelatory) pleasure. I regret, however, that I haven't the slightest idea what its author now thinks of it, for to produce such a powerful success so soon in a literary career -- she was only 33 when it came out, her first novel, The Beautiful Visit, having appeared six years earlier -- does create hard-act-to-follow problems, a circumstance that, at the very least, breeds ambivalence.

The Long View, which spans the years (backwards, remember?) 1950-1926, opens on an evening in which Antonia Fleming is having a dinner party to celebrate her son's engagement. Howard's confident and elegant irony can be glimpsed in the weary intimacy of the very first sentence: "This, then, was the situation." And when we hear, a second later, that such an event "was the kind of unoriginal thought expected of her, and she sank obediently to the occasion," it is utterly and completely clear that we will never be far from disillusionment as the story unfolds. WHAT IS extraordinary, though, is how, despite Howard's fulfillment of this expectation, we allow our hearts to shed the pain of what we know and how we participate -- suspiciously at first, then with growing relief and, finally, with joyful eagerness -- in the "unnatural" journey allowed these characters. One hears of human beings who have the wisdom of never yearning for the past, but they are rare; it is hard to imagine that most of us, at one time or another, have not wanted to visit again those moments of (only seemingly) uncomplicated "beginning."

If there is a flaw in this book, a possibility to which I'd have trouble admitting, it lies in the character of Conrad Fleming, Antonia's husband. A monster of egoism and manipulative skills, he is at once a lover and a dictator, throughout. And although Antonia is not without weapons of her own, he is, cruelly, always one step ahead of her. It is nearly too much, and only Howard's great skill at reminding us from time to time of Conrad's unexpectedness (which, in him, translates to a hypnotic charisma) saves him from being a cartoon cad and throwing this masterpiece off-balance.