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Down From the Sky : THE FEAST OF FOOLS, <i> By John David Morley (St. Martin’s Press: $23.95; 464 pp.)</i>

Pluto stole Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter, and kept her in his underground kingdom of Hades. The earth turned wintry and barren--Demeter was in mourning--until a compromise was reached: Persephone would return to earth for six months each year. Hence spring and summer and, during her time underground, autumn and winter.

It was the Greeks’ version of the myth, widespread in the temperate zones, that conjures against the passing of light and warmth and celebrates their return. The cycle of seasons that governs how Earth’s creatures survive and die has taken root in the metaphors for our own human cycle: the waxing and waning of beauty, strength and love.

John David Morley uses Persephone’s myth to recount a seasonal turning in several sets of lives. He places his stories in the six months between the autumn and spring equinoxes, when winter comes on and then retreats. He sets them in Munich, home of the Fasching celebration, the extravagant Pagan-derived carnival that beats back the dark from the beginning of January to the beginning of February.

“The Feast of Fools,” the medieval name for Fasching, is itself a carnival of images and styles. Its narratives turn into dreams and grow back out of them. Its characters are mythological figures at one moment, and endearingly human at the next. Its prose wears masks and often changes them: from the naughty archness of an 18th-Century bawdy novel to the wool- gathering of a Leopold Bloom canvassing through Dublin to the complex disjunctions of a Thomas Pynchon or a William Gaddis.

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Morley, an American who 10 years ago wrote gracefully and perceptively of Japan in “Pictures From the Water Trade,” is an immigrant of the imagination. His cityscape, his celebrations, his meals, his very weather and noises are German. Yet his principal characters mount their national ladders into a universality that is sweetly particular. Like Joyce, he uses Greek legend--Persephone’s journey instead of Ulysses'--to impart a design, while embodying the design with an unmistakable local humanity. His Dog Star shines in the sky and it has fleas.

Proceeding week by week from September into a winter of unprecedented--and emblematic--cold, and then on to a February and March of revival and lengthening days, Morley writes of three couples who move from estrangement to understanding. Helpfully, in view of the excursions and diversions, he attaches a chronology at the end, and a map.

The three women are sisters. Martha, the oldest, is pregnant; she and her bookseller husband, Hieronymous, have moved into separate mental hibernation. She dreams of her fat confessor and imagines that her child will be Christ; he lives in the meticulous order of his shop and lusts vaguely for his assistant, Astrid. Dotty, the youngest, is a coltish post-adolescent who temporarily succumbs to a pompous young seducer; while Harald, an apprentice journalist and full-time dreamer, yearns incompetently for her. As the winter deepens, Martha and Hieronymous and Dotty and Harald freeze harder into the ice of their imaginations.

It is Stefanie, the middle sister, who descends into Hades for them all. For seven years she has lived with Brum, a passionate but self-centered painter. She loves him entirely, she carries one of his dry-cleaning stubs in a locket, she dreams how to finish his best paintings. He uses the dreams, loves her, but doesn’t quite see her. On their wedding day, in September, he arrives an absent-minded hour late; she elopes with Max.

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Max is rich, seductive and depraved. His family fortune has been made in the mortuary business; he is literally the king of the underground; he is Pluto. When he takes her shopping for lingerie, he is surprised to learn that she doesn’t wear a brassiere. “Not even when you’re dead?” he asks. His heart is with the dead. “Half the year, half the world is ours,” he tells her. (Traditionally, autumn and winter see the most burials; in each hemisphere they fall at opposite ends of the calendar.) There is a brilliantly written seduction in a box during a performance of “Don Giovanni.” It should be corny, it is corny, it is also terrifically compelling.

Stefanie “descends” into Max’s world of fashionable parties and expensive international travel. The weather gets colder and colder, the nights longer and longer. Then comes the December solstice, and soon afterward the Feast of Fools begins. Each of the characters will be whirled into a dance along their particular route toward the slowly returning sun; while the carnival’s dances--wild, comical, alluring by turns--swirl around them.

Some of these are magnificent. Gondolas and barges have been brought in from Venice, home of an even more extravagant and frightening carnival. They glide along a canal, with gaudy figures from the commedia dell’arte and finally, at a distance, a black barge bearing Death. Morley writes it with chilling beauty; in other carnival scenes he can be precious and elaborately tedious. “Feast of Fools” is a book of excess; it is exceedingly mannered and there is quite a bit too much of astrology and dreams. And yet it is exceedingly good.

To the degree that there is mythological inflation, it almost always leads to a nicely human puncturing. Take one of the dreams. One of Harald’s fellow-journalists dreams of an impenetrable fog that blankets Munich. He and Harald set out to cover a story, attached to each other by a leash. They meet two men speaking Old Norse; they turn out to be part of a visiting theater company. They meet a citizens’ patrol of blind people, called out specially. For once, the leader explains, they are the only sighted people in Munich; and he sets the journalists on their way with precise instructions on counting steps and the heights of curbs.

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Gradually the winter lifts. It is here, in the emerging of the three sisters and their men from their ice-bound fantasies, that Morley does his best writing. Marthe, having given birth to twins, finds that her breasts have become “a public facility.” She responds to her babies’ need and becomes needy. Hieronymous responds to her need; soon he is window-shopping with her and making love. The red shift in light of two bodies traveling away from each other, he remarks, has become the blue shift of two bodies converging.

It doesn’t take long for Dotty, healthy and hungry, to shake off her pompous lover. It takes longer for her to help the splendidly unworldly Harald to stop thinking how he loves her and to love her instead. The Dotty-Harald scenes are a mix of absurdist comedy and--Morley manages the rare trick of using comedy to cut instead of to further sentimentality--straightforward romanticism.

The spring equinox of Stefanie and Brum is knottier. Almost from the time she walks out on him he has been studying to become more human. He has the help of a witch-like creature named Candice who gives him lessons in cleanliness and connecting. Also, in making love to a woman instead of to himself through a woman. He must learn, she tells him, to use his equipment “not as a club but as a divining rod.”

Stefanie’s emergence from Max’s Hades is as uneventful as a season shifting. Morley wonderfully brings Max down from Pluto the Dark God to Pluto the Pup. What is more difficult is for her and Brum to transform themselves in a way that is more than two simultaneous self-perfectings. Morley treads the edge of couples therapy, he gets his trouser cuffs wet, we think he has fallen in, and then suddenly he is out and far beyond.

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“Feast of Fools” does too much and does some of it carelessly. The wonder remains, though. At his best Morley reverses the Greek gods; his play of myths and human characters takes the constellations down from the sky and turns them back into imperiled nymphs and shepherds.


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