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Sentimental Education

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Kai Maristed is the author of, among other works, "Belong to Me: Stories" and "Fall: A Novel."

Oh, to be a lad of 22, bright and well-favored, transported from the doldrums of a classics major at Columbia to life and lust among the literary glitterati on the isle of Capri.

Such is the self-engineered fortune of Alex Massolini, hero and narrator of Jay Parini’s pleasure-filled sixth novel, “The Apprentice Lover.” “In 1970, just three months short of graduation ... I left behind my college, friends, my parents, and everything familiar in an attempt to cut loose from the overfilled barge of my youth, which had become too heavy to drag.”

For Alex, a third-generation hyphenated American raised in small-town Pennsylvania, by far the heaviest load on that barge is the ghost of his older brother Nicky, recently blown to bits by a land mine in Vietnam. Having tried “barbiturates, prayer and pot” in vain, faced with pressure from the family to return home and take Nicky’s place in the family construction business, the only strong feeling Alex can locate is the urge to flee. Desperate to trade in his grubby, familiar world for a crack at sophistication and sensuality, he answers an ad seeking a “private secretary” to the renowned Scottish expatriate poet, novelist and historian Rupert Grant on Capri. Grant says yes, indulgent Uncle Vinnie kicks in travel money and Alex sets to sea.

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Capri can’t help but be a magical place. Certainly Turgenev (as quoted in Shirley Hazzard’s fine memoir, “Greene on Capri”) thought so, calling the island “a miracle, and not because of the marvellous Blue Grotto, but because the entire place is a virtual temple to the goddess of Nature, the incarnation of Beauty ... I have made three visits to Capri, each for a considerable time, and I tell you this: that the impression will remain with me until I die.”

As Hazzard wrote: “The capacity of an island less than four miles long, with an area of five and a half square miles, to sustain the ever-increasing tourism of nearly three centuries is one of its mysteries.”

Parini, too, writes lovingly and evocatively of the charms of this upcrop of rock, once the chosen site of self-exile of the emperor Tiberius. “It struck me that Capri never disappoints the senses, rushing at every organ full-blast, with variety and texture ... Covetously, I ran my fingers along the walls, prizing the chalky stone with its rough and porous grain.”

Not so coincidentally, the lionized and leonine Rupert Grant is at work on an island history featuring that same insatiable emperor, whom posterity has enshrined more for his outrageous perversities than for the genuine achievements of his youth. (So revolting were Tiberius’ rumored excesses that a member of his entourage starved himself to death in protest.) Rupert, too, in the gardened privacy of his aptly named Villa Clio keeps quite an entourage: In addition to elegant wife Vera, a pair of blase teenage offspring and various servants, there are two nubile “research assistants,” the sultry neapolitan Marisa and the English ice-queen Holly.

While Rupert amuses himself with both girls and plays them off each other, inscrutable Vera looks on. Marisa lusts for Alex, Alex pines for Holly, and Vera decides that Alex has a gay thing going with Patrice, a comical philosophy student from the Sorbonne.

Guests, mostly rich or famous, mostly homosexual males, and mostly on loan from “real life”--Auden, Vidal, Greene--pop up at the dinner table, spouting bons mots like so many clever papier-mache caricatures. Other Big Names echo down the years: Stephen Spender, Norman Douglas, Rainer Maria Rilke. For variety, some writers don fictional alter egos: The reader perceives the shade of Mario Puzo in the none-of-your-artsy-bull Dom Bonano, and a mix of Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell spooks in the unfathomable Rupert. No wonder young Alex spends much of his time hoping to earn favor and agonizing over just how foolish he looks or sounds to these demigods.

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The body of the “The Apprentice Lover” floats on this shining surface, strangely weightless and without much consequence. Perhaps Parini, who in previous novels (“The Last Station,” “Benjamin’s Crossing”) has exploited the fictional re-creation of dead writers to darker purpose, has succeeded here all too well in capturing the jejune earnestness of a young poet-in-waiting. Along with glorious one-nighters and great cooking, Alex delivers passages of literary how-to and who-wrote-what-when that would be appropriate to a fiction workshop.

At unexpected intervals, however, a new voice breaks in: deeper and assuredly sarcastic. The raspy baritone belongs to dead Nicky, speaking through brotherly letters from Nam that Alex has carried into exile. These musings of an unassuming soldier slated for sacrifice in a senseless war, his sentinel’s observations and hard-won convictions, the sadness of such growth cut short--all promise, and merit, a novel of their own.

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