Cramped Chronicle of America's Tocqueville : GENET: A Biography of Janet Flanner by Brenda Wineapple (Ticknor & Fields: $24.95; 361 pp.; 0-089919-442-7)

Mairs' books include "Plaintext" and "Remembering the Bone House," both published by Harper & Row

From 1925 until 1975, Janet Flanner wrote The New Yorker's Letters From Paris under the pseudonym Genet. The daughter of a prosperous Indianapolis mortician, who killed himself when she was 19, and a woman whose theatrical ambitions had been frustrated by her marriage and the birth of three daughters, Flanner fled the Midwest by marrying a classmate from the University of Chicago and moving to New York.

Before long, she fled the marriage in the company of Solita Solano, the first of the several women she loved, and the two settled eventually in Paris. The career of this writer with the ambiguous pen name, considered by admirers "America's Toqueville," provides the focus for Brenda Wineapple's respectful, responsible but lackluster biography.

On the face of it, Flanner's life promises to make a rich and intriguing tale. On her arrival in Paris in the '20s, she was drawn into the community of expatriates whose names still glitter today: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Beach, Ernest Hemingway, Kay Boyle. . . . In addition to her Letters From Paris, The New Yorker published her lengthy profiles of some of the foremost figures in 20th-Century art, literature and politics, among them Pablo Picasso, Edith Wharton, even Adolf Hitler. Although she left France for the United States during World War II, on her return, she traveled widely to report on the war's aftermath, including the Nuremberg trials.

For years, with the suavity of an international diplomat, she simultaneously sustained relationships with three beautiful women--Solita Solano, Noel Haskins Murphy and Natalia Danesi Murray--"keeping present and former lovers and friends away from one another, arranging itineraries and schedules so as to prevent discord as much as possible and to protect herself and others."

If Wineapple's account lacks the animation such circumstances would seem to engender, the difficulty may lie in the subject herself. To a considerable extent, Wineapple makes clear, Genet functioned not just as a nom de plume but as a mask, permitting Flanner to remain, in true New Yorker style, "witty, distant, and uninvolved." The journalistic advantage of this persona was that it permitted a double vision, placing Flanner "inside history because she was there, as well as outside it, as an American in Paris, a woman, a spectator."

But the disadvantage to the biographer is suggested by Flanner's resistance to writing her memoirs: "After so many years spent studiously avoiding the word I , she was hardly about to embark on a project in which the first person was essential. Moreover, she must have thought that writing her memoirs would make public her private life, and this she would not do. Her life had been an eminently private one, devoted to concealment, not revelation, and the conscious crafting of an identity."

So adamantine a veneer prohibits the biographer, and therefore the reader, from bringing the person crouched beneath it to life; the veneer itself must simply do. The remark of one critic reviewing Flanner's generally acclaimed Paris Journal might apply to Genet as well: "Rather than objectivity about events which no longer excite and which are too fragmentarily related to rank as history, the reader might prefer more of Miss Flanner herself."

In fairness, however, a responsible biographer can reveal only what her subject has permitted to become known. All the same, Wineapple might have strengthened her presentation through more penetrating literary judgment and livelier literary techniques. She cites, for example, one of Flanner's major themes, her lifelong wistfulness for the past, noting that in 1921, she believed that "the civilization of today, influenced by bourgeoise self-interest, is moving away from an ideal," embodied in the Acropolis.

By 1968, "the world seemed more and more incomprehensible, with its burgeoning skyscrapers, its ugliness, its continuing violence, its youth subculture, its scatalogical language," and Flanner "craved a turning backward," this time not to Attic glory but to the same 1920s she had earlier decried. But Wineapple never explores the significance of this implicit intellectual stasis for Flanner the woman or Genet the writer.

Genet's strengths, according to Wineapple, lay in "her strong reactions, her vivid pictorial sense, her sharp metaphor, her common sense, and even the crushes she sometimes got on people and movements." With the exception of common sense, these qualities are largely missing from the biography.

A brief passage in the preface describing one of Flanner's homes suggests that Wineapple can use concrete detail evocatively, but for the most part, people, places and incidents fail to come alive. Instead, the style is relentlessly expository. Apparently believing herself duty-bound to account for Flanner's whereabouts at all times, Wineapple, for instance, shuttles us back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across the Atlantic on nearly indistinguishable trips that leave us woozy with jet lag.

Genet's lack of flair should not dissuade readers interested in 20th-Century literary and social history. Through her thorough research, Wineapple has documented the life and world of a writer whose journalistic style, urbane and ironic, remains an antidote to gonzo journalism and related disorders.

Moreover, the volume itself is appealing; the cover is attractively designed, using an antique endpaper; the text is printed in a handsome typeface on good-quality stock; a small array of photographs is well-selected. It should well please all biographiles.

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