A Tour Through the Heart's Twists, the Mind's Turns : GUIDED TOURS OF HELL: Novellas by Francine Prose; Metropolitan Books $23, 241 pages


Francine Prose has a modus operandi. It is the combination of humor and wisdom, and it is more disarming in these two novellas, "Guided Tours of Hell" and "Three Pigs in Five Days," than in any of her nine novels or two short-story collections. Why does a master storyteller, a voodoo-doctor character creator like Prose, need a modus operandi? To keep the truth hidden from her readers, of course! To restrain herself! To carefully orchestrate, like the sources of wisdom (God, music, nature, poetry and authors) seem to do in our lives, the agonizingly slow intravenous drip of usable knowledge into our pathetic daily existence!

Humor and wisdom, the primary atomic ingredients in any character, do a dance of proportion throughout these two novellas. Shallow characters have revelations the size of Mt. Everest, feeble characters rise to historic occasions, while strong characters crumble. History triumphs in the end; situations triumph in the end like empty stages upon which personalities once grappled with their petty problems, less memorable, finally, than the set.

As for the truth, the answer to the question--How should we act in this lifetime, given what we know and, more importantly, what we don't know--Prose, if pressed, would probably admit to knowing the answer (at least in the plots she creates herself), but she forces us to learn through the painful example of her characters.

In the title novella, "Guided Tours of Hell," a group of academics meet in Prague for a conference on Franz Kafka. Two of the participants, Jiri and Landau, the alpha males, jockey for position between each other, among the females and, of course, in their work. This becomes increasingly ridiculous on a field trip to a concentration camp. Jiri, "Mr. Appetite-for-Life" (and in the end, the bigger jerk), spent a part of his childhood in the camp, a role he plays to full advantage and beyond.

Landau, a man who for years has lived off and virtually ignored his social worker wife to do his mediocre work and write his mediocre plays, has, at least "a hint of that transcendence that has eluded him before, that swooning sense of rising above the grubby and the small to a place where a saintly version of yourself lets a sick man spit in [your] ear."

But it passes when Jiri, "Mr. Character-Face," "Mr. Survivor-Guilt" delivers a tirade against "You neurotic American guys . . . academics and blood-sucking so-called intelligentsia. The dirty truth is, you envy us, you wish it had happened to you. You wish you'd gotten the chance to survive Auschwitz or the gulag. History has picked up our lives and given them hard little kisses, while your generation has been left virgins, unkissed. . . . And what have you done? Played cops and robbers during the Vietnam War. . . . You know your lives have no meaning, so you distract yourself with sex. Did I say sex? I don't mean having sex, I mean having sexual problems that you whine about in your books. . . ."

Landau abandons transcendence for full-scale war, aiming his own, somewhat puny, rebuttal that accomplishes little more than catapult him into a series of fantasies about the future, all of them less memorable than the setting he's stuck in.

In "Three Pigs in Five Days," Nina, who writes travel pieces for her editor and lover, Leo, has completely allowed sex (rather than history) to twist her grip on reality.

Leo is a peanut from the get-go, a man who doesn't discuss things, who "with subtle expression changes, brief sharp withdrawals of interest . . . had taught Nina that some things were not to be discussed." Especially things like infidelity, disrespect and disregard. "It was a matter of pride for them both that their romance was based on passion and not on tedious analyses of every gesture and word." When she asks him where he's been one weekend, he accuses her of "micromanagement."

In a moment of personal crisis (probably the only kind Leo can really have), he becomes obsessed with death, and conceives of an article he will call "The Paris Death Trip," a litany of famous graves and death spots like the Catacombs and the Conciergerie, the Revolutionary prison where Marie Antoinette spent her last night. He drags Nina along and, against the backdrop of some of European history's grimmest sites, she has a series of revelations leading up to the big one, which comes from an unlikely source--a woman Nina is momentarily jealous of.

Object-of-Jealousy tells the story of Danton, who, when he hears his wife has died in their village and was buried six days earlier, rides home, demands the body be dug up, and howls over it. A vision of true love that finally frees Nina from the sniveling lover she's been obsessed with.

Wisdom delivered. Character freed. Reader takes note. History continues. One small step for humankind.

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