The King in the Tree, 3 Novellas by Steven Millhauser

I prefer Steven Millhauser’s short stories to his novels. Confession time:  I never finished Martin Dressler or Edwin Mullhouse.  The style was too 19th century for me; it reminded me too much of Bartleby the Scrivener.  But Millhauser’s short stories are an entirely different matter.  Imagine the love child of Herman Melville and Italo Calvino: their offspring’s prose would have the aerie quality of Calvino’s fables, anchored to earth by Melville’s practicalilty.   There is still a 19th century flavor to the writing, but it’s balanced nicely – like in A.S. Byatt’s or Kazuo Ishiguro –  the plot isn’t confined by period, but skims lightly through it.

The three novellas that make up The King in the Tree are completely seperate.  Revenge starts off with the reader joining a cheerful, middle-aged woman giving a house tour.  What begins as happy reminisces of her marriage and harmless small talk takes on a sinister tone as we move deeper into the home.  Millhauser begins in the Front Hall.  New information is revealed as we are taken from room to room: Downstairs Bath; Kitchen; Dining Room and Stairs.  The secrets become more menacing when we reach the hidden, more private, parts of the house: The Bedroom, the Attic & the Basement.  It is a beautifully constructed tale, a journey into the dark places, that in some ways reminded me of Orpheus’s journey through the Underworld.

An Adventure of Don Juan puts the famous lover on an English country estate, enjoying all his host has to offer.  Fleeing what he has come to see as the tawdriness of his life in Venice, he discovers that relationships play out pretty much the same regardless of the landscape.  The plot of this story isn’t extraordinary.  Rather, it acts as a vehicle for extraordinarily lovely prose and a platform from which to make observations on the human condition.

Sometimes it seemed to Don Juan that there were two lives: a public, proper, entirely uninteresting life witnessed by everyone, and a secret life of bliss and torment that had nothing to do with the other life.  In one life he sat sipping a cup of green tea, among friends, in the pavilion of an English garden, while in the other he was lying rapturously beside Georgiana on the floor of a hut in the middle of an impenetrable forest at the bottom of a hidden valley surrounded by impassable mountains.  Mary Hood smiled over a cup of tea, but in her eyes was a night-world where she and Don Juan wandered hand in hand forever through the rooms of an abandoned country house filled with beds and sofas.  And what of Georgiana, pointing at a bird singing on a branch – it is one of yours, Augustus? – or urging Mary to eat a biscuit? – she too must be the mistress and goddess of a secret world where, unknown to Juan, she lead her other life, the one she concealed from him behind her cool smile and quiet gaze…

Again and again Millhauser revisits the themes of jealousy, revenge, attraction and infidelity (not necessarily in that order, of course).  Each novella presents the reader with some variation of the eternal triangle, and in the title story he stays true to form. Who doesn’t love revisiting an oldie but goody?  The love triangle of Tristan, Iseult and poor, neglected King Mark is rife with self-inflicted melodrama.  Millhauser’s version is narrated by Thomas of Cromwell (a nice reference back to an original author of the romance) who is both confidant and objective observer in all that unfolds.  Thomas willingly inserts himself into the action, experiencing the rewards and the emotional fallout of his choices.  While it adds nothing particularly new to the mythology, The King in the Tree is a poignant variation on the familiar legend.

By all reports, Steven Millhauser is as much a scholar as he is a storyteller.  The King in the Tree supports that opinion, as do all his other collections: Enchanted Night, Little Kingdoms (my favorite) and The Barnum Museum.  These are beautiful stories, beautifully told.  They are fun in that they contain little treasures throughout – references for people in love with literature and the history of literature.  Best of all, they are perfectly suited for the time between Summer and Fall… seamlessly transitioning us from light reading to the heavier, prize-seeking tomes that come out every Fall.

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York.  (2003)
ISBN:  0 375 41540 8

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