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Short Takes

Liquidation By Imre Kertsz
Translated, from the Hungarian, by Tim Wilkinson
Knopf, 112 pp., $22

The Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertsz writes, literally, from Budapest but, figuratively, from a state of being, the soul-weary sensibility that makes Central European fiction recognizable a mile away. This small but weighty novel depicts an intelligentsia in a condition of moral exhaustion. They have been released from a half century of victimization -- first by the Nazis, then by the communist police state -- into a void. If the amorphousness of freedom doesn't kill them, the irony will.

The protagonist, Kingbitter, is a literary editor who has lost all interest in literature. His playwright friend, identified only as B., has committed suicide, cutting short a life that embodied an astounding story of survival, for B. was born at Auschwitz and was somehow saved. Despite all indications to the contrary -- for B. insisted on the unknowability of Auschwitz, a familiar theme for Kertsz -- Kingbitter is certain that, somewhere, his friend has left behind a novel that explains it all, and that will give him a reason to carry on.

With its shifts of voice and literary form, this brief fiction showcases the author's mastery of style and his intellectual sophistication while portraying in miniature a milieu in which life is an existential dilemma.

Six Names of Beauty
By Crispin Sartwell
Routledge, 160 pp., $23

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," a 24-year-old poet once wrote, full of the confidence of youth. The philosopher Crispin Sartwell sees the question as immeasurably more open-ended than that. Conceptions of beauty, and the words used to describe them, "are cultural and more-than-cultural, are inventions and also inherent in the nature of things."

In this engaging meditation, Sartwell (whose first entirely conscious experience of beauty had to do with a cat-suited Diana Rigg on "The Avengers") considers the names for "beauty" in six cultures, and the sometimes alien, sometimes compatible, always idiosyncratic associations they evoke from one to another.

Thus the Sanskrit term for beauty, "sundara," or holiness, leads Sartwell down a zigzag path from the Kama Sutra to reggae to the Isenheim altarpiece. The aesthetic concept of "wabi-sabi," connoting the humble and imperfect, explains why the Japanese prefer a bare winter branch to a florist's arrangement, the earthenware of the tea ceremony to the touch-me-not sheen of Western objects of desire. The Hebrew "yapha," denoting light and color, sends Sartwell to the blues; the Navajo "hozho," or harmony, suggests Emerson. Sartwell's prose is lively, his notions provocative, his philosophy as accessible as an open window.

Outside Valentine
By Liza Ward
Henry Holt, 304 pp., $23

It may have been the moment when America started locking its doors. In a pattern that has become all too familiar, the country was riveted in the winter of 1958 by the saga of Charles Starkweather, a James Dean character gone very, very wrong, who tore a path of murderous destruction across Nebraska with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, at his side, till the law caught up with them and made them pay.

This gripping and bravely lyrical novel probes the meaning of violence, victimization, and survival. Among its voices are those of Lowell Bowman, orphaned and emotionally crippled by Starkweather's blood-soaked rampage; Susan, a forlorn teenager escaping her own painful family melodrama through an obsession with the murders; and Caril Ann herself, an abused and not very bright girl whose dime novel fantasies of romance collide horribly with Charlie's American Gothic fantasies of power and revenge.

Despite the author's skill at articulating introspection, Lowell remains an opaque and limited character; and Susan's intriguing adolescent eccentricity fades into anonymous maturity. It is evil, as usual, that brazenly steals the show. Liza Ward's chilling evocations of the killings, seen from Caril Ann's pathetically childish point of view, haunt us with their cruel beauty, as implacable as fate.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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