This book is as slender and vivacious as any of its dozen-odd female characters, and it will, I predict, give a few hours of pleasure to quite a few people. I feel some kinship with those readers, who I suspect will mostly be men. We are all of us (how shall I put it?) past our first youth, literate, semi-sophisticated and mentally equipped for an era more decorous and spacious than our own.
As the years creep over us, we wonder what happened to the extravagant dreams of our adolescense. By what mistake or personal failing did we not become millionaire playboys, concert pianists or morganatic members of the House of Rainier?
To console the likes of us, W. M. Spackman, author of the successful "An Armful of Warm Girl," now offers "A Presence With Secrets," a novel of romance. It gives us love between men and women of a special kind. Not today's men, with their ambivalence, their est training and their tennis elbow, but self-assured artists and scholars of middle years and Old World sensibility. And not contemporary women, with their hypoglycemia, their feminism, and their Valium bottles, but . . . girls! Ragazze, jeunes filles ! Angels! Goddesses! with names like Alexandra, Nadezhda, Camilla, Georgiana, Persis and Maura Mac a Bhoghainn!
Spackman describes these bonbons in the kind of diction one might have used in an Edwardian club -- lip-smacking and yet oddly decorous. There are no embarrassing references to genitalia (the breast appears once, and is referred to by its owner, with a maidenly stammer, as "my b-bosom!"). Instead, Spackman gives us their hair, their perfume, and most of all, gentlemen, their eyes: "eyes enormous again into his, wordlessly imploring," "great rueful eyes seeming now to plead," "great eyes all gentian-blue light suddenly deep in his," "great soft eyes," "fire-lit eyes, "eyes dreaming and grave," "lovely wells of betrayal and tears," "eyes flying at him wild," "eyes in wide unguarded welcome," "great wide innocent green eyes . . . as full of wonder as if she'd just been making love while having what she was doing gently explained to her as she did it."
The apple of these eyes is Hugh Tatnall, painter, lover, bon vivant. Born to Main Line Philadelphia (apparently as a body rather than any particular couple), he is reared primarily by his uncle, "an amiable rake who had a palazzo in Rome as well as the one in Florence, a castelletto in Portofino, an 18th-century view of life, and n particular, a succession of titled mistresses."
Tatnall grows up to be a world-famous painter, systematically seduces the owners of the sexy optics mentioned above, and is finally shot by "a tall, tawny-haired rather smoldering Pisan" who falls across the corpse moaning, "But I love you I love you!"
The story is told in three parts -- the first narrated by Hugh, the second by one of his conquests, and the (posthumous) third by an old friend and fellow rogue. All three write in much the same rococo style, using literary and artistic allusions and snippets of Romance tongues: "'J'en suis comme transperce!' he said in this throat, and something choky about de part en part le corps, and simply, well, grabbed me, and bent my head back kissing me." The overall effect resembles what might happen if Louis Auchincloss decided to collaborate with Helen Gurley Brown.
Of course, that is Spackman's aim -- lightweight entertainment, sexy, harmless fun. With its coy lubricity, its upper-class affectation, its pretentious allusions, and its endless discursions on wine, food, art and literature, "A Presence With Secrets" seems like a kind of James Bond for the overeducated -- equally pleasurable, equally phony and probably less harmful. And, at $8.95, "A Presence With Secrets" is a cheap date.
But boorish as it seems, I do have a quibble. At the heart of this book is the same conceit that powered the Bond series -- the oblique but powerful coupling of sex with violence: the fury of a florentine mob, the suave villainy of Breton assassins, the random violence of the pistol-packing Pisan. Many recent books -- from football stories to "The World According to Garp" -- have used assassination as a handy device to tidy up their plots. I'm tired of it. Guns aren't funny right now, and that spoiled the book for me. Spackman should stick with those eyes.