The Seraglio

James Ingram Merrill, Author Atheneum Books $0 (312p) ISBN 978-0-689-11924-8
Diffidently, as though fearing to reveal too much, the brightly laureled poet begins the story (published 30 years ago and long out of print) of Francis Tanning and Benjamin, his impossibly charming and rich old Romeo of a father. We meet Francis on his wanderjahre in Rome, where he has skillfully concealed his wealth and lived like a bohemian with a bunch of artists, most of whom will turn up later at one or another of his father's fancy dwelling places. The old man's former wives, current girlfriends and aspiring mistresses constitute a veritable seraglio, augmented by a stock nurse who speaks in capitals about Caring for her Patient, a stagey valet and Benjamin's daughter Enid by his first wife, who with her husband Larry, watches over the family's fortune and snobbish pretensions. Francis, from whose point of view much of the story is told, has conflicted feelings about his wealth and his sexuality, which come to a head when he wakes up in the bed of the sculptress he has commissioned to make a bust of his father. In a dreamlike reaction, he unsexes himself, and the book takes fire. As he grapples with grief and guilt, Francis gains an initially painful, eventually serene sense of himself, finding his role as an artist who makes a higher, more classic design of human life. Although the book suffers from a diffused focus (in a preface, Merrill confesses it is a ""hybrid"" of two different novels), there is a mesmerizing quality to the author's prose that infuses several scenes (a session with a Ouija board, a frenzy of people devouring a cake decorated with babies' faces) with a Dionysian intensity. (October)
Reviewed on: 01/01/1987
Release date: 01/01/1987
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