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A READING LIFE

Art that baffles and exhilarates

The beauty of the novel, the great fascination of it, I often proclaim, shoehorning my words into a space taken up by sputtering attention spans, the latest celebrity news, and remakes of films that apparently (though who could have thought it?) were not bad enough upon initial release, is that it can do -- can be -- anything.

And is that, I wonder, looking out into the classroom, a vague terror I see in the eyes of my postulant writers?

Nietzsche (I might continue) observed that every philosophy, every great summation of thought, however grand its intent, finally comes down to ''a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir." The same may be said of fiction, another, more modest summation of human experience.

Many of us, I suspect, would have some difficulty placing Estonia geographically, much less naming a major Estonian writer. So: Estonia is on the Baltic Sea, sharing its eastern border with Russia, with Finland to the north across the water, Latvia to the south. Independent in 1918, then again in 1991, for the most part it has been under colonial rule, by Swedes, Danes, Poles, and Russians, since the Middle Ages. And our major Estonian writer, at least for the moment, is Mati Unt (1944-2005), whose novel ''Things in the Night" has been brought out by Dalkey Archive Press (paperback, $13.95) in a remarkable translation by Eric Dickens.

''Things in the Night" is only the second of Unt's books to appear in English, following what is his best-known novel internationally, ''The Autumn Ball." Written during the last years of Soviet rule, ''Things in the Night" was published in 1990.

For all its author's obsession with grotesquerie, supernatural creatures, misanthropy, urban cannibalism, and other transgressive material, the book's purvey is most of all the quiet horror of daily life. It is, as perhaps all great literature must be, a eulogy of sorts, a record, an impression of things and times lost, a novel that -- composed as it is of fragments, false beginnings, letters, poems, small essays, snippets of plays -- does not so much reject linear narrative as, throwing its arms wide, embrace narrative potential at its fullest.

''My Dear, I feel I owe you an explanation," the novel begins, with that intimacy, that voice lodged in the ear, that marks all fine writing. It courses on to detail its narrator's, and the world's, ''beautiful autumnal days" through 294 lyrical, passionate, tender, brutal, ever-surprising pages to an affecting, elegiac conclusion. The novel's lyricism and tone recall two other impressions of wound-down time and mankind's latter days, George R. Stewart's ''Earth Abides" and Walter M. Miller's ''A Canticle for Leibowitz." Its sometimes fragmented, sometimes braided narrative, its leaps of association -- its embouchure, so to speak -- bring to mind great discursive novels like ''Don Quixote," ''Tristram Shandy," and those of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

A friend, I tell my students, was once exhorted to ''put some confusion in it" by the African musicians with whom he was playing. By which they meant something of the true textures, complexity, and formlessness of life.

''So the days went by and winter was already approaching, although it did so in its usual way, through darkness and sadness. . . .

''Susie is emitting a blue light from within.

''She has a blue pig's head and the body of a woman.

''Susie, why are you doing this? . . .

''On the first of January, my birthday, we still didn't suspect anything was wrong, we just put on thicker winter clothes. I held a short speech for the cacti, in which I said that no one ever gets any younger, but there's no real reason to start talking about time unless there is a pressing need to do so. I said that they were guests here in this country but were keeping themselves pretty well. I also said a few other things. Actually, that same evening I did begin to worry. My birthday guests hadn't turned up and the radiators were cold. The lights wouldn't switch on and the electric stove wouldn't heat up. The doorbell wouldn't ring. I paced from room to room."

''Things in the Night" is an amazing if sometimes baffling novel, its author a master juggler adding ball after ball to those already in the air as we hold and try to catch our breath. Not content with the melody and chords handed him, he constantly reharmonizes, improvises, plays off higher intervals -- from which we all benefit, finally reminded that it is not the sadness of life or the tragedy of it that breaks our hearts, but life's evanescent beauty, tucked in so closely that we may fail to see it, passing even as we look on, fading slowly even from memory.

James Sallis's novel ''Drive" made many year's-best lists; his latest, ''Cripple Creek," will be out from Walker/Bloomsbury in April.

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