Paul West's 'Amaryllis': Redemption, damnation


"Sporting With Amaryllis," by Paul West. Overlook Press. 160 pages. $19.95

There is one reaction I often have when confronted with works of genius. It is namely: well, duh.

Sorry to burden you with that current cliche, sorry not to be more creative, but having just completed Paul West's "Sporting With Amaryllis" I am so daunted by the obvious power of his intellect and lyrical style , I tremble at the thought of seeing my own words on paper, such poor pathetic mewlings as they may be. Besides, I have a headache from trying to figure out what the hell he's talking about.

Perhaps the problem is I am too long removed from youthful wanderings in the groves of academe. There was a time when I could, and would, have reveled in a book such as this, priding my self on each literary or historic or mythological clue caught, each metaphor, first recognized as such and then amazingly comprehended. And when feeble faculities had finally appreciated the full crescendo of symbols, there was unadulterated cerebral joy. Today my reaction is: "Oh, so that's what's going on here." And the primary satisfaction lay in the fact that the novel was only 160 pages long.

West, prolific author of more than a score of books - fiction, non-fiction and poetry- has become a darling of critics, who have described his previous work in terms so glowing you need sunglasses to read the reviews. Undoubtedly, he is deserving of superlatives, for his prose has a strength and sweep and elemental force that draw you into its current and tosses you about until you swear you're drowning - and still you savor every salty drop you swallow. Unfortunately, in "Amaryllis," you eventually end up hurled upon a beach with sand in your mouth.

The book tells the tale of a young Cambridge student who is struggling with and against two impulses, so overwhelming, so fundamental, that they have appropriated every aspect of his life. One is intellectual - the need to create, to write. One is hormonal - the need to get laid. Indeed, West spends the first portion of the book exploring the virginal gentleman's sexual obsession with graphic lewdness. The high-minded might term it erotic; I found it borderline pornographic.

Redemption or damnation, or maybe both, comes in the form of Amaryllis, shepherdess of myth, whom he encounters by chance on a London street and follows home to her hovel, a reeking abode she shares with a eunuch and has furnished with rotting animal skins and various grotesqueries emblematic of human organs and bodily functions. Here, the student is initiated into certain physical mysteries and is set upon the intellectual course he will follow until the end of his days, to the benefit and enlightenment of mankind in general.

Of course, this being the aforementioned work of genius, Amaryllis turns out to be someone else. As does the eunuch.

That such an exceptional talent as West's is wasted on this pretentiousness. Undoubtedly it will be hailed in certain circles, fodder for intense discussion by those who dwell behind ivy-clad walls. Or wish they did. For the average reader, and I am one, "Sporting With Amaryllis" is a work full of sound and fury signifying - if not nothing - not much.

Karen Zautyk is a member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News; previously she was the suburban news editor and copy editor for the News. She writes travel and humor columns that are published nationally.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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