DIVINE SARAH

By Adam Braver

Morrow. 216 pp. $23.95

The year is 1906. The actress Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps 40 years into her career, has included Los Angeles on this particular American tour. But the city's reigning cleric, Bishop Conaty, has made such a fuss about Sarah's morality -- or lack thereof -- that theaters have closed their doors to her. She is persona non grata in the City of Angels.

Enter Abbot Kinney, the brash entrepreneur who has turned a soggy strip of California beach into "Venice of America," complete with amusement pier, tourist hotels, columned walkways and a busy set of genuine canals, complete with ornamental bridges and gondoliers in garish costume. Kinney invites Sarah: Come on out to Venice for a week, appear in our gigantic new auditorium! We'll show you a good time and the bishop can stew in his own juices! (Or words to that effect.) "Back in the day," when she was young, beloved by all, feisty and outrageous, Bernhardt might have welcomed this controversy, joined in the media fun -- seeing the scandal, the brouhaha, as an integral part of her career, not part of the acting itself, but a way to keep her name in the news, her reputation as a temperamental diva alive and well.

But Bernhardt is 61. She's tired. She's bored to death with her life as an actress; she's beginning to see through the essential random meaninglessness of things. She recognizes that she's in danger of simply going through the motions when she plays "La Dame aux Camelias," living, moment by moment, the life of Marguerite Gautier "in tragic pursuit of Armand Duval." Sarah has forgotten why Marguerite would pursue anybody. Or why she, Sarah, should play Marguerite. Or why she, Sarah, should sign any more autographs or attend more "patrons' brunches." She's at the point where she's beginning to think: What's the point? And from that point, there are only two paths, the one back to life or the one that leads -- fairly logically -- to death, or spiritual death at the very least.

But she's responsible for the lives of many others. In her retinue is a trainload of actors and stagehands in general, and in particular her devoted manager, Max, whose many homosexual affairs do not prevent him from considering Sarah the great love of his life. Were she to quit, she'd take that whole theatrical tribe down with her.

Here, in Venice of America, in one short week, the dramas of art, commerce and ennui play out in microcosm. Abbot Kinney, in this narrative, is motivated solely by love of money -- even though in real life he must have been as deeply eccentric as Sarah herself, and as much of a visionary: Who, in his right mind, would set to work digging canals and hiring gondoliers when banking, insurance or venture capitalism might have made his fortune far more easily? Sarah, here, is the pure artist, continually in search of authenticity and the quest to "make it new," whatever that elusive "it" is. Max, in this allegory, represents love and devotion that never, ever falters. In that sense, the love of art may be more constant, more faithful, than art itself.

Then there is the "anti-Sarah," the tabloid newspaper reporter Vince Baker, who has just as faithfully dedicated his life to searching out the wretched side of life. He tells himself he's searching for "truth," but truth, in his eyes, equals fraud, thievery, municipal corruption, everything that is repulsive, ugly, evil, sad, meaningless. Baker assiduously lives his own life according to his awful standards, drinking the vilest rotgut whiskey, eating the very worst food, dwelling in a spectacularly dreary apartment on Pico Boulevard (although in L.A. at this time, in real life, most city bachelors found homes in welcoming downtown boardinghouses, where they could be reasonably sure of good company and two wholesome meals a day). And Baker frequents the lowest possible whores. He's certainly not in the market to be redeemed by the love of a good woman.

He's assigned, much against his will, to cover the Sarah Bernhardt story. On her first afternoon, down on the Venice pier, the actress expresses a wish to catch fish for her dinner. Kinney hires a Mexican swimmer to fasten a dead fish on her hook -- for publicity purposes. Bernhardt knows a dead fish from a live one, and she decides to slit the corpse open and bury her lovely face in its rotting guts. Is that a gesture of disgust for publicity and all things fake or inauthentic, or yet another publicity stunt? Vince Baker doesn't know. His primary need is to get a "story," to make something, often, out of nothing. He's both drawn to Sarah and revolted by her. She glows with something -- what is it, exactly? -- that has the potential to destroy him. Because of this, he suffers a spiritual crisis of his own.

I haven't given away the plot of "Divine Sarah" here, only the circumstances. Readers interested in the wars between life and art, art and commerce, inspiration and age, should be captivated by Adam Braver's novel. The fateful moment when enthusiasm (if only momentarily) deserts us is the focus of this author's concern. And, of course, that fateful moment haunts us all.