More Bitter Than Sweet : STEFAN IN LOVE, By Joseph Machlis (W. W. Norton: $19.95; 240 pp.)

Rubin is a free-lance writer.

Toward the end of "Stefan in Love," Joseph Machlis' fourth novel, the middle-aged Hungarian hero, a journalist by trade and a veteran of the ill-fated 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, tries to digest the astonishing news of his country's long-delayed liberation. Gorbachev and glasnost have finally brought the freedom he had almost given up hoping for. He realizes he now can leave his badly paying job at an obscure Hungarian-language newspaper in New York to return to his position as a respected columnist in his beloved Budapest. But at this point in his life, the importance of these world-changing events is dwarfed by his obsessive love for a woman half his age.

Like a well-made foreign film of a certain vintage (mid-1960s or thereabouts), "Stefan in Love" takes a pair of attractive stock characters through the predictable but still compelling paces of a doomed love affair that unfolds across a variety of colorful settings.

The story opens in Budapest, pre- glasnost , where the hero, nearing 50 but still handsome, spots a beautiful girl in a sidewalk cafe. For Stefan, it's love at first sight. He's old enough to know better, but age has not changed the way he feels. They meet again, quite by accident--providentially, it seems. She is young, eager to learn, as impressed by his intellectual stature as he is charmed by her beauty and freshness. There are cinematic walks along the Danube, a scene at a concert, at a soccer game; later, a daring flight across the border, followed by scenes of the glamorous fashion world in New York, where the young woman, Ileana, eventually embarks on a career as a model.

Ileana is the kind of sensitive and considerate person who shrinks from the prospect of breaking up a marriage. Luckily for her, Stefan's marriage has been a hollow sham for years.

Stefan, not to put too fine a plot on it, is something of a Central European male chauvinist cliche. One reason that his marriage is a sham is that he's taken a series of mistresses--owing, of course, to the fact that his wife is "frigid." (It does not occur to him to wonder if his wife's "frigidity" has anything to do with his egocentric approach to love-making.)

Stefan's love for Ileana is different from his past affairs. It reawakens the lost dreams of his youth. It's less about sex than about talking, exchanging ideas, sharing emotional and aesthetic experiences, exploring intimacy, and learning to trust. Under the heady influence of this unlikely but very real romance, Stefan decides to emigrate to America with Ileana. It seems like a second chance to do what he'd dreamed of doing in 1956, but this time in the company of someone he loves and who loves him.

Life in New York, however, brings about an inevitable realignment, as Stefan, middle-aged, unable to pick up a new language but dependent on words in his professional capacity as a journalist, no longer can keep up with Ileana's success in the world of modeling. Ileana is not the kind of woman to dump a lover who has become inconvenient. But as she embarks on a new life and discovers new things about herself, she and Stefan grow farther and farther apart.

For the former philanderer, the shoe is on the other foot. Now he's the one who can't be philosophical about the flame of love flickering out or the need to face reality. His love has become an obsession: an addiction he cannot or will not try to break himself of.

Machlis maintains a delicate balance in portraying the two faces of love: as the most life-enhancing experience in the world and as a kind of fevered derangement. The story is told simply, straightforwardly, with a nicely understated feel for its ironies. The third-person narrative shifts slightly as the action moves from Budapest, where we see it more from Stefan's perspective, to New York, where we share more of Ileana's experience of a whole new world opening up for her.

For some tastes, this bittersweet love story may be a little too bitter, too coldly formulaic in the way it traces the "inevitable" trajectory of passion's ups and downs, which, after all, have been probed more fully and feelingly and thoughtfully in many novels before this one.

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