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The Boston Phoenix Earth Bound

Gustaf Sobin's spirit world

By William Corbett

MARCH 13, 2000: 

The Fly-Truffler by Gustaf Sobin (W.W. Norton & Co.), 155 pages, $19.95.

The Fly-Truffler is a love story of language and place. The novel has characters and a plot, but its true heroes are Gustaf Sobin's spare, lucid prose, redolent of image and odor, and Provence, both its language and its vanishing culture. This is a tender book and a sad one, but bright, too. Every page glows with Sobin's love for a world with which he has lived deeply and intimately for, the jacket flap says, 35 years. His novel is short enough to read in one winter night or one rainy summer morning, but its impact, its scale, is great because of the author's intense compression of feeling into words.

Sobin has published two other novels, both unknown to me, but I have read several books of his poems, which are published in America by New Directions. He either writes skinny poems or spreads his lines over the whole page, leaving a lot of white space. He is that rare poet whose music is composed, in part, of the silence blank space can represent. His poems are delicate yet deliberate, here and now then nearly gone, evanescent. They seem not so much written as breathed in and breathed out. For Sobin poetry is a pure art or pure art. He sounds like no other American poet at work today. Perhaps his long residence in a foreign country partly accounts for this.

The Fly-Truffler begins with Philippe Cabassac, a professor of Provençal linguistics, searching out truffles, using a stick to stir the flies below which the pungent black fungi are buried. When he finds a truffle, he puts it in a jar with several farm eggs for three days so that the truffle's earthy odor will permeate the eggs. Then he slices the truffle into those eggs and makes himself an omelet. He has discovered that after eating a truffle omelet he dreams of Julieta, his dead wife. Sobin's novel tells of their love and brief marriage and of Philippe's growing obsession with the dreams that complete the life that the death of his wife interrupted. Gradually, he leaves his daylight world for that other deeper world of essential spirit where imagination liberates and his desires are fulfilled.

The richness of this novel is in the story, but there are greater riches elsewhere -- in Sobin's description of place, for one. Not place, as in the city Avignon, where Philippe teaches, or landscape, as in the mountains where he and Julieta traveled in their passion to record the Provençal language still in use. Sobin's place is directly underfoot. It is rocky soil and the grasses and trees, almond, peach, and oak, that grow in it. The author's focus is so total that the world he creates can engage and hold your entire imagination. His prose operates on all the senses, so that I feel I could recognize Philippe's dilapidated farmhouse, smell Julieta's resinous odor and touch, heft in my hand the weight of sadness in the book.

It is this emotion that gives The Fly-Truffler its exceptional quality and strong after-presence. Sobin's Provence is a dying culture barely alive in the words Philippe and Julieta collect. "Breath relics" is the novel's description of these words, and though the words themselves are used with exquisite economy, each speaks of deeds, such as the cultivation of silkworms, that are now only fading memories. It is to this past, this world that is perhaps only open to the imagination of those who love it, that Philippe abandons himself. Finishing the novel, you may feel as I did that Sobin has hit and held a note true to all our fates.

I rarely finish novels certain that I will reread them. The Fly-Truffler is one of the few. We have all heard of the novel that only a poet could write; we know that this usually means poetic prose, sentences wrought into preening for the reader's attention until these darlings distract the imagination. This is not what Gustaf Sobin has given us. His prose bears re-reading because it is impossible to pick up all the nuances and enjoy all the pleasures the first time through. That the reader intuits these depths, the lights and darks behind Sobin's words, is another quality that gives this novel its power and subtlety.

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