Paul West, author of more than 20 books, including “Rat Man of Paris” and “Love’s Mansion,” returns to historical fiction with a novel entitled “Sporting With Amaryllis.” This new novel is short enough to be read in a single sitting, but the intensity of emotion and language make this inadvisable. West’s narrative strategy is one of concentrated extravagance. The book that results is one that needs to breathe--a heady swirl of poetry, philosophy, wit and mythology.
The heroes in West’s fiction are often artists. In “Sporting With Amaryllis,” the central character is young John Milton. In 1626, at age 17, Milton was suspended from Cambridge after clashing with his tutor. West’s novel takes place during this period of exile. The term for this penalty was “rustification,” since the insubordinate boys were assumed to be returning to more rural homes. But in Milton’s case, rustification meant London and, in West’s book, he is in no way sorry to find himself on his way there. Ridiculed at Cambridge for his innocence and delicate features--his nickname was “the Lady"--we find him unrepentant and, in fact, quite determined to find sexual adventure.
The story is related in the exuberant prose for which West is noted. “My mind is all swans, rainbows, hydras, harps, eels, magic brews and preposterous resurrections,” Milton tells his tutor. “It was time to be different, to be new, to be dipped among the broth of stars. . . .”
We know in Milton’s own words that he enjoyed London as a place where he could “see beautiful girls while strolling.” In “Sporting With Amaryllis,” this has become an obsession. While out on the streets one day, he spies a woman who reminds him of Virgil’s shepherdess Amaryllis, a perfection on whom his heart is immediately set. “He knew her. He did not. She erupted from his memory then, or from Ethiopia. . . . Her face blazed through him like a loop of white-hot ribbon, painful and narcotic. . . .”
The dalliance that results is a mixture of pleasure, instruction, torment, prognostication and insanity. She takes him first to her home, a place of wet and dripping deerskins, with the smell of a tannery, where she is soon joined by a bearded, castrated lover named Quiescan.
She is, in fact, one of the muses--and Milton’s sexual initiation, at one moment erotic and the next, disgusting, is also his moment of artistic investiture. He soon understands that her attentions mean that he will take his place among the most celebrated of poets. He also learns that this elevation will cost him. “We of the old school set great store by suffering. Who wants poems from the untouched? We usually try to make them hurt as much as possible without quite blowing out the flame.” (To which Milton responds quickly, “There is no need to worry about me for years.”)
Although the story is in some ways sequential and straightforward, most of it occurring in a single encounter, West creates a narrative that seems less to move forward than to boil about the reader. The flamboyance of West’s prose is a good match for the feverish, inexhaustible imaginings of the young man.
The Milton of “Sporting With Amaryllis” is less troubled, less conflicted than the usual West hero. Part of the book’s fun is to juxtapose the sober, principled John Milton of Cromwell’s era that we picture with the randy, often silly young man West has imagined. It is a chance to see the artist in his larval stage. Milton at 17 is intent on freeing himself from repression in the most deliberate way.
Bits of the story belong to Amaryllis (not her real name, of course, but Milton refuses to recast her), and there are surprises here, too, as she turns out to be something more tangible and strange than we’d thought. Occasionally, the narrative voice is hers. Quiescan is not given a part of the story so much as the time to provide a counterpoint.
Among the three, they create a balance--nothing restful, nothing settled, but the sort of plates-in-the-air act at which West excels. West tips toward playfulness, then toward the serious, toward the physical, then toward the intellectual. The book is at one moment arousing, the next off-putting. Nothing is sure, except the world itself, which is always in a West novel something more than we could ever have imagined.