THE KING IN THE TREE

Three Novellas

By Steven Millhauser

Knopf. 242 pp. $23

No one alive writes better about yearning and heartbreak than Steven Millhauser. So enchanting is his prose, so delicate his touch, that one surrenders to his plangent word-music as one does to the wistful piano pieces of Ravel and Chopin. Reading Millhauser, there are times when you simply lay the book aside and say to yourself, "I had not known that sentences could be so simple and so beautiful."

This is Millhauser's 10th book in 30 years, the latest in an oeuvre that includes the virtuosic Edwin Mullhouse, an unrivaled evocation of a middle-class American childhood in the 1950s; the phantasmagoric exercises-in-style From the Realm of Morpheus; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler, about a Horatio Alger-like American dreamer who at the turn of the century builds a magnificent mall-like complex and then loses everything in life that matters. But Millhauser's preferred genre remains the long short story or novella, often focusing on the tug-of-war between the transcendent satisfactions of art or artifice and the roiled perplexities of human love. Illusionists, painters, clockmakers, cartoonists, painters, writers, visionaries and goddesses--these are his people in The Barnum Museum, Little Kingdoms, In the Penny Arcade, Enchanted Night and The Knife-Thrower.

The novellas of The King in the Tree present three facets of love--more precisely illicit love--and its consequences. "Revenge" takes the form of a sustained monologue in which a middle-aged woman chatters away while guiding a prospective purchaser through her home, room by room. The modern tone is chummy, almost conspiratorial:

"I hate those awful houses, don't you, where the door opens right into the living room. Don't you? It's like being introduced to some man at a party who right away throws his arm around your shoulders. No, give me a little distance, thank you, a little formality. I'm all for the slow buildup, the gradual introduction."

From the first, Millhauser establishes a feeling of the slightly off-kilter: There's something not quite right about this narrator. Within a few pages, she is suddenly describing the night her husband, Robert, told her he was having an affair:

"I think I exasperated him. The poor man needed something from me, blame or forgiveness or . . . drama, and there I sat, exalted in misery, a saint of suffering. Who knows? . . . I don't think he intended to say more, but the silence was choking him. He spat out some words, the way you do when someone's hands are around your neck. He told me things. I said nothing. He told me her name. That's when I learned it was you."

Despite this revelation, the narrator insists on showing the rest of the house, from the cellar to the basement, while calling up memories of her childhood and married life. The imagery grows more and more ominous. "In high school I was never aware of any special unhappiness. . . . I was never a morbid type, never broody or gloomy or crazy-restless. All that was like some dumb style of hat I wouldn't be caught dead in. There were girls in my school--I could tell you stories. Girls who wore long black dresses with lots of rattly beads, stared at you with big sorrowful eyes, and looked like they started each day bright and early by slitting their wrists in the bathtub."

The references to hauntings and ghosts and sudden death grow more abundant. "Razor blades have been known to cause trouble in the most well-regulated families." But I should say no more, except to add that the denouement is more like early Dostoyevsky or Henry James than like a tale from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

The second novella, "An Adventure of Don Juan," moves directly into more typical Millhauser territory. It opens irresistibly:

"A time came when Don Juan could no longer bear his life. . . . He was an expert swordsman, a skilled horseman, a strong swimmer who once on a dare swam across the Ebro, where he ravished a handsome washerwoman before swimming back to complete the seduction of a countess. In his brief life he had bedded more than two thousand women and killed fourteen men. . . . He feared no man, mocked at the machinery of heaven, and was heard to say that the devil was a puppet invented by a bishop to frighten children in the nursery. Men envied him, women of stainless virtue stood in the window to watch him ride by. And yet this man, who walked the earth like an immortal, who did whatever was pleasing to him and who satisfied his every desire, felt that a darkness had fallen across his spirit."

At the age of 30, living in Venice, Don Juan unexpectedly finds himself feeling bored, inauthentic, like "a third-rate actor in a provincial troupe traveling from small town to small town with a play called Don Juan Tenorio." Before, he had had "the sense that Venice was an immense brothel composed of watery corridors and floating bedrooms hung with murky mirrors and paintings of swooning women ravished by centaurs." But now he has begun to feel a dissatisfaction in his blood, "a slight diminution, a lack of zest. It might be true that the women of Venice were a little too willing to be debauched, but it was also true that the most fastidious women had always proved Venetian in the end."

To combat this growing ennui, Juan travels to England where he visits the country estates of an English antiquarian and landscape designer named Augustus Hood. Hood has transformed his grounds into a series of tableaux vivants--Arcadia, complete with milkmaids and shepherds, scenes from the paintings of Salvatore Rosa and Claude Lorrain and even a depiction of Avernus, the classical underworld of the dead. One can hardly tell what is real and what is illusion. The grapes on the sideboards look so luscious they might be wax.

Hood resides here with his wife, the quiet and romantic Mary, and her quick-witted, outgoing sister Georgiana. Juan intends to seduce them both. But which one first?

"Don Juan understood that his genius in the art of seduction lay not in his gift of beauty, not in his power to charm, not in his fearlessness, not even in his ferocious will, but rather in a subtle evolution in the domain of feeling: his uncanny ability to burrow his way deep into a woman's nature, to detect with precision the slight, subterranean ripples of inclination and repulsion that constituted the hidden life of women."

But to his consternation, these rakish plans go astray. Before he realizes what has happened, Juan has fallen in love with Georgiana. Alas, the woman, suddenly radiant in his eyes, proves indifferent to his charms and leaves the great lover in torment:

"At night, lying restlessly awake, he posed questions to himself that seemed crucial and unanswerable. . . . If you were allowed one night of bliss in the arms of Georgiana, followed immediately by banishment, or a lifetime of chaste friendship, which would you choose? If you were permitted to ravish Georgiana night after night for the next ten years with the knowledge that she despised you, or to leave tomorrow with the knowledge that she loved you passionately, which would you choose?"

Millhauser superbly evokes the agonies of love--"continual agitation and anxious brooding modified by moments of uncertain hope." Meanwhile, Augustus and Mary Hood hover in the background--one mysterious, the other increasingly pale and wan--as the after-dinner discussions turn more and more to the nature of appearance and reality. Finally, one night Don Juan vows to act. "For love," he tells himself, "is not a sad man sitting under a tree, but a raging sword flashing with blood and fire." Nothing, though, at Swan Park is quite as it seems.

As ingratiating as "Revenge" and "An Adventure of Don Juan" are, "The King in the Trees"--a recounting of "Tristan and Isolde"--strikes me as the most wonderful of the three. Even though every reader is likely to know the arc of the story, if only from Wagner's opera, Millhauser deepens the psychological angst of the King, his Queen, his nephew Tristan and the narrator Thomas of Cornwall. Here all loyalties, strongly felt and believed in--loyalty to one's sovereign, to the marriage vows, to honor, friendship and one's very self--are ripped apart by the remorseless claims of passionate love.

In this telling--based on the medieval version of Thomas, supplemented by that of Gottfried von Strassburg--there is no potion. Ysolt and Tristan are from the beginning both flesh-and-blood human beings, yet at the same time avatars of something beyond mere lust. Late one night, Thomas accidentally observes them in the orchard, hand in hand:

"As I watched their slow, dreamlike walk, under the silence of the moon, I seemed to forget that I was witnessing an act of treason punishable by death, and I felt--but it is difficult to say precisely what I felt. But I felt I was witnessing something that was of the night--an emanation of the night, as surely as the moonlight dropping softly on the leaves and branches. It was something old, older than marriage, older than kingship, something that belonged to night itself. Then I seemed to feel, rising from those scarcely breathing shadows, an exalted tenderness, a night ecstasy, an expansion of their very being, as if at any moment the night sky would crack open and reveal a dazzling light; and I turned my face away, there in my spying place, as if I had been rebuked."

Jealousy, subterfuge, chicanery--all these whirl 'round the lovers, until finally Tristan is exiled to his home, Lyonesse. Then rumors arrive that the young man has married a beautiful girl named, surprisingly, Ysolt of the White Hands. Thomas visits to find out if the rumors are true:

"I know who she is, this lovely bride. She is Ysolt without unruliness, without all that bursts forth and disrupts the beauty of the other Ysolt. Tristan, whose life is in terrible disarray, has wedded himself to calmness, to perfection, to innocence, to everything that cannot move him deeply."

For Tristan is still true, and Ysolt of the White Hands lies in her bed "untouched, unloved, unforgiven." Never, confesses the knight to Thomas, has he loved anyone but Queen Ysolt. "He has tried to live apart from her, has tried to form a new life--all in vain. He suffers day and night, causes suffering to others--all because of this love, a love that consumes him like a poison, a sweet poison that flows through his body. Sometimes he imagines that she has forgotten him, in the arms of the King. Then, tormented though he is by jealousy, he is further tormented by self-anger, for daring to imagine her faithlessness. He would gladly die."

At the end of "The King in the Tree," Thomas glimpses once more, at night, the ghostly images of the lovers walking in the orchard:

"I felt again, rising within me, the mystery, the tender exaltation, the fierce bliss, the serenity like fury, the sheer power of it, before which you can do nothing but bow your head. I stood there and bowed my head."

From Plato and Catullus to Petrarch and Proust, deep passion has been frequently suggested by the yoking together of mighty opposites into a tense, if alas often temporary, harmony. Yet the forces Thomas surrenders to--mystery, tender exaltation, fierce bliss, serenity like fury, sheer power--also suggest something of the astonishing narrative and stylistic equipoise of Steven Millhauser. Before such mastery a reader can do nothing but bow his head. {lsaquo}

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online book discussions take place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.