ETHEL

The Fictional Autobiography

By Tema Nason

Delacorte. 306 pp. $18.95

Tema Nason's first novel proposes to be a fictional autobiography of Ethel Rosenberg, convicted, with her husband, Julius, of providing secret atomic-bomb information to the Soviet Union after World War II. While Ethel awaits execution in her cell in Sing Sing, she tells the story of her life. In a note that the author appends to the novel, we are assured that "the entire text of this fictional autobiography is a work of the imagination" and we are asked to accept another claim for the power of the fictional mode: "This novel seeks to apprehend a reality not conceivable except through fiction."

But if there is much imagination between these covers of a higher order than fact it is not easily discernible. Ethel's face is on the jacket; the endpapers consist of reproductions of the front page of the New York Times on April 6, 1951, and June 20, 1953, the days on which the couple were sentenced and then executed. If this were not sufficient, there is a chronology at the head of each chapter providing us with the actual events of the case, from the start of the trial until the last stay of execution was denied by the Supreme Court, four days before it was carried out.

"Ethel" belongs to the literary genre sometimes called "faction." About a quarter of a century old, it may well have begun with Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." Factions have centered on Benjamin Disraeli, Charlotte Bronte, Sigmund Freud and other notables whose real lives have caught the imaginations of novelists.

Such novels offer a wide range of literary possibilities. They may stick very close to the life of a well-known person provided with a pseudonym (Mark Childress's current novel about Elvis Presley, who is called Leroy Kirby); they may use actual persons as they were in real life, making guesses about their motivations (Sigmund Freud in D.M. Thomas's "The White Hotel"); or they may use notable persons, assigning them wholly fictional activities (Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit in E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime"). In all cases, imagination plays some part -- in conversations, in minor plot deviations, in interpretations of actions of the "real persons" -- but rarely the main part: The facts (with which readers are acquainted before they come to the book) stand in the way.

The facts of the Rosenberg case are burned into the memories of many Americans of my generation. Tema Nason has stayed with them. We never doubt the veracity of Ethel's story. What we miss is sufficient richness and texture to give meaning and significance to the sad tale. She was a poor Jewish girl, a high school graduate who aspired to be an actress but settled for poorly paid work in a factory. Married to Julius, an engineer and a member of the Communist Party, the mother of two young sons, she (and her husband) were used in their trial as convenient scapegoats. On the basis of scraps of evidence supplied by her brother David Greenglass (who had worked at Los Alamos during the war and was accused of transmitting atomic secrets to the Soviet Union), they were sentenced to death for spying. Ethel's brother was given 15 years.

"I appointed myself her ghostwriter," says Nason of Ethel. If so, she has shortchanged her subject, because what we learn of Ethel is diluted, shallow, containing none of the dedicated, informed, vital matter of genuine Communist Party life in those years. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg died, it may well be true, not because they were spies but because they were devoted Communists at a time when it was dangerous to subscribe to that doctrine in the United States. For convincing documentation and full use of this same history, the interested reader will need to return to E.L. Doctorow's extraordinary faction, "The Book of Daniel," published 20 years ago and, to my mind, the only novel to approach the capacious imaginative possibilities of fiction erected over the skeleton of fact.

The reviewer is the author of three novels based on fact: "Chamber Music," "The Ladies" and "The Magician's Girl."