ANTONIETTA.John Hersey. Knopf.304 pages. $21. "Antonietta" is...



John Hersey. Knopf.

304 pages. $21. "Antonietta" is John Hersey's 300-year chronicle of a fictitious Stradivarius violin named for the luthier's second wife. Although its five chapters are labeled "acts," they more closely resemble the movements of a musical suite, each composed in a different style.

The instrument's creation in 1699 is described in a conventional, third-person narrative -- although little about cantankerous Stradivari seems conventional. Next comes a series of letters by Mozart, whose fancy has been captured by Antonietta and by the female pupil who plays her.

The instrument then passes into the hands of a French violinist who delivers a first-person account of his visits to Berlioz; fired up by Antonietta's music, the composer writes the "Symphonie Fantastique." Seventy years later, the violin again functions as a muse, this time helping inspire Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat."

Finally, in 1989, Antonietta is purchased by an American arbitrageur. Now the genre is a television script; TV has replaced music as the universal language, and a tool to communicate music has become a commodity to be traded.

How much of Mr. Hersey's fact-laden novel is true? Well, think of it as a Stradivarius -- for every authentic original, there are probably several fakes, but they almost all produce beautiful music.

@ Martin Duberman's mother used to warn him never to walk through a park alone for fear of the sick people who lingered

within. But one night in college, he found himself wandering through Yale University's "Green" after too many drinks and stopping near a gay man, whom he began to fondle. "I had become," he realized, "the person my mother had warned me about." Later that night, Mr. Duberman stayed in the shower for hours, "cleaning, cleaning."

It was a ritual of forgetting and denial that he practiced until recently, from psychiatrist's offices ("your heterosexual yearnings can be unblocked," he is told) to academe, where he became a historian: a "comparably painless collective memory," he explains, which offered refuge from personal memory. "Cures" is an eloquent act of remembrance. Mr. Duberman's gay pride still is in evolution (he fictionalizes the names of his friends), but his rebellion against the homophobic culture that left him feeling emotionally stunted and physically crippled is resolute. Criticizing those therapists who function more as "culture police" than as scientists, he suggests that "it is surely time to ask whether gay women and men might not themselves qualify as 'experts' on their own lives." Thomas M. Disch, long known for his provocative science fiction, has turned his bleak, sarcastic mind to the horror novel, his most recent being "The M.D."

The story starts with some tongue-in-cheek metaphysics. The Greek god Hermes appears to a precocious 6-year-old in a deserted Minneapolis park. Being, among other things, the god of healing, he confers the power of the caduceus on young William Michaels. The problem with this famous talisman is it can only give as much health to a patient as it has taken from someone else.

From this premise, the plot progresses through blackly hilarious slashes at medical business ethics, fundamentalist religion, New Age family dynamics, compassion for the plague-ridden and more. Mr. Disch has worked much of this ground before, but "The M.D." proves it is still fertile.

This is not creaking-hinge-and-cobweb horror. The antique deity gimmick aside, the most chilling aspect of this book is that it derives from human nature as chronicled in this or any other newspaper.


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