Magic is in the air in "The Lost Provinces," yet Stephen Glazier has not set his "novel of high adventure" in some remote kingdom like Shangri-La. There is a memorable sequence in an Ali Bab-esque mountain stronghold, but the "provinces" of the title refer to Alsace-Lorraine. As the story opens, it is 1907 and that much-disputed region has been under German control for more than 30 years, a country "lost" to its patriots until the hoped-for "day of recovery."
Clayton Peavey, a young American, has come to Paris, postponing his graduation from Harvard. His excuse for being there is to paint, but in truth he was bored with school and tantalized by the rumors of artistic ferment abroad. A Brahmin from a diplomatic family, Clayton, if not quite a Jamesian innocent plunked down amidst European intrigue, is a person unfamiliar with dirt and danger. However, he finds himself facing both and quickly develops a flair for acting impulsively in the interest of self-preservation.
Shortly after Clayton arrives in Paris, he makes the acquaintance of a posturing but good-natured poet and sometime pornographer named Guillaume Malaime. But before Guillaume can introduce his new friend to his bohemian clique, the two are clapped behind bars, accused of being accomplices to the murder of an itinerant acrobat. From that moment on, the events of the plot become more and more baroque, almost suitable for light opera. Yet the gaudiness, the twists and twirls, are lovable, and the book has a radiance and flavor all its own.
Because Sebastien Zorn has been killed before the very eyes of Clayton and Guillaume, they meet up with Inspector Guy Pernicieux, who finds them a highly suspicious pair. He is forced, however, to release them when an American official intervenes on Clayton's behalf. Though warned to avoid Guillaume and his raffish crowd, Clayton cannot resist the lure of Montmartre and Guillaume's infectious unconventionality.
At this point Glazier really begins to have fun, not only with the ever-increasing skulduggery -- more murder and mayhem, political terrorism and conspiracies -- but with the milieu he is placing it against. Whether or not one realizes that Guillaume bears a strong resemblance to Apollinaire or that the building where Clayton visits Guillaume's gang is the famed "Bateau Lavoir" housing Picasso's studio, "The Lost Provinces" is a charming, literate period thriller. It's just that noticing the concatenation of l'esprit nouveau figures adds to the boxes-within-boxes effect that is so much a part of the other plot strands and gives the book an extra fillip.
After all, 1907 was the year in which Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" was unveiled; it appears as "a large mysterious canvas," the sight of which causes the privileged few who see it to come out "pale and speechless or filled with superlatives." It was also the year in which Proust became a shut-in on the Boulevard Haussmann, and Glazier puts this to use as well. Paul Fort, Max Jacob, Marinetti, Diaghilev, cubism, futurism, surrealism: many familiar names, as well as forgotten ones, many avant-garde movements. Employing a generally light touch with his cultural seasoning, Glazier amuses himself and the reader with tantalizing scents from the bubbling artistic stew that was Paris just before the World War I.
But the magic of "The Lost Provinces" is more than that. Although Glazier takes some of his characters and props -- clowns, jugglers and other saltimbanques, African masks -- from Picasso's canvasses, one must remember that Picasso was taking his own inspiration from the world around him. Yet, inside the world of "The Lost Provinces," the art is what's real and life is what's fabulous, a not uncommon situation for fiction that slyly taps history. ("The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" is just one well-known example.) When Clayton and Guillaume become embroiled with a circus troupe of Alsatian nationalists, plus "international cartels, French penetration, German animosity, Islamic fervor, famine, monetary crisis, decadence, debt, internecine tribal strife, and . . . British helplessness," it's little wonder that Clayton begins to have the impression that he's stumbled into "someone else's fairy tale."
Whether on their perilous journey through Morocco or a spying expedition to London, Clayton and Guillaume are an entertainingly odd couple, caught up in the forces of change sweeping across Europe. Each is seeking the meaning of life by following Lambert Strether's (in Henry James' "The Ambassadors") dictum: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to." And Glazier's imagination is fertile enough to allow this to happen.