The King in the Tree: Three Novellas by Steven Millhauser (2003) Vintage (2004) 256 pp
When I was reading about Millhauser’s latest collection of new and selected stories, We Others (my review here), a few of the reviews lamented that the title story in The King in the Tree wasn’t included. I happened to have The King in the Tree, a collection of three novellas, on my shelf, still unread, and wanted to know what the fuss was about. After all, I think all of Millhauser’s writing is worth reading, so what made “The King in the Tree” stand out?
As mentioned above, The King in the Tree consists of three novellas: “Revenge,” “An Adventure of Don Juan,” and “The King in the Tree.” Each deals with the extreme results of love and lust and jealousy — love can ruin, love can be indistinguishable from pain. Millhauser is the contemporary torchbearer of the Romantics.
The first story, the shortest, will remind readers of Robert Browning’s classic dramatic monologues, particularly “My Last Duchess,” where a murderous Duke shows off a painting of his late wife to an increasingly horrified guest. In “Revenge” a widow in her late forties is showing her house to a prospective buyer, a slightly younger woman. It’s a dramatic monologue where we only know how the buyer is responding by what the widow says in response. The story is divided up by the locations in the house as the widow and the buyer move from place to place: Front Hall, Living Room, Downstairs Bath, Kitchen, etc. Here we meet both women in the front hall:
This is the hall. It isn’t much of one, but it does the job. Boots here, umbrellas there. I hate those awful houses, don’t you, where the door opens right into the living room. Don’t you? It’s like being introduced to some man at a party who right away throws his arm around your shoulders. No, give me a little distance, thank you, a little formality. I’m all for the slow buildup, the gradual introduction.
The widow’s husband, Robert, has been dead for about a year. Somehow, as she shows the rooms of the house, the widow also tells the story of how she and Robert met, a bit about their marriage, and, most importantly, how their marriage began to fall apart when she had a shadow of a thought confirmed: Robert told her he was having an affair.
Poor Robert! What a sad falling off. And so, creature of habit that I was, I wanted to comfort him, the poor man. I mean there he was, sitting all doomed and sort of crumpled and . . . and banal, so of course the only thing you want to do is reassure your husband, while at the same time it’s dawning on you what he’s actually said, and there’s a panic starting somewhere because this handsome man with his doomed look has gone and done something bad to you, if only you could stop comforting him and start concentrating long enough to figure out just what it unbearably is.
Of course, the news does sink in, and the couple drifts apart while remaining in the home’s close quarters. In the aftermath of the revelation, the widow “slept without sleeping, woke without waking.” The story continues to follow its disturbing track as the widow confesses how this event unhinged her, made her rethink all she’d ever thought about herself; suddenly she became painfully aware of her own body and examined the bodies of all women she encountered, stripping them as she imagined her husband was.
Now, this story doesn’t go to the same place as “My Last Duchess.” There doesn’t appear to be any reason to doubt the widow when she says Robert died when his car slid on black ice. But what we’re left with is this woman who has never had the opportunity to exact revenge on anyone, and she acknowledges candidly, “A house is a dangerous place: kitchen knifes, deadly hammers, sleeping pills, gas stoves . . .” A woman who, as they descend into the cellar, says to her prospective buyer: “Attics for suicide, cellars for murder.”
But “Revenge” isn’t about a twist or a shock. It’s about the gradual build up to shock and horror; it’s the “slow buildup, the gradual introduction,” that the narrator advocates in that first paragraph. It’s not my favorite Millhauser story, but I found it both fun and psychologically acute as we watch this widow slowly uncover just how love and jealousy have pulled her apart.
An Adventure of Don Juan
“An Adventure of Don Juan” begins in the canals of classical Venice. Don Juan is thirty years old. He does whatever he wants with whomever he wants. He is everything: “Men envied him, women of stainless virtue stood in the window to watch him rider by.” But as the story opens, Don Juan is unhappy. He has been in Venice for over a year, but something about it seems false. It isn’t that he’s bored but like “something akin to tiredness that wasn’t tiredness — as if a little crack, like a tiny flaw in crystal, had appeared deep within him and begun to spread.” Millhauser outdoes himself when he describes the allure and the facade by describing Venice’s watery streets:
What bound him was the shimmer of the place, the sense of a world given over to duplication and dissolution: the stone steps going down into the water and joining their own reflection seemed to invite you down into a watery kingdom of forbidden desires, while the water trembling in ripples of light on the stone facades and the arches of ancient bridges turned the solid world into nothing but air and light, an illusion, a wizard’s spell.
Then Don Juan runs into a rich Englishman named Augustus Hood. Hood invites him to his estate in England, and Don Juan sees an opportunity for something new. At the estate, Don Juan meets two sisters, Mary (Augustus’s virtuous wife) and Georgiana.
As the story progresses — or, rather, as Millhauser pulls his rope more and more taut, as if he’s gradually torturing these characters on the rack, millimeter by millimeter — Mary falls in desperate love with Don Juan, but Don Juan, against his nature, forbids himself of this prize because he really wants Georgiana. She, frustratingly, is not interested. In the backdrop is the marvelous estate of Augustus Hood, on which Hood has created a phantasmagoria (you can’t read too many Millhauser stories without that word coming to mind) out of classic scenes. He has, very realistically, created the mouth to hell, and going into it, much like we would a ride at Disneyland, we find that he has employed people to enact suffering as they play the role of the damned. In its execution, no detail was so small it could be ignored. Don Juan finds this all terrifying but intriguing. On the other side of the coin, Hood has also created Arcadia, which is Georgiana’s favorite place.
All of this artifice, all of this duplication and dissolution, as Don Juan learns what it is to suffer for (or rather, without) love. This is a fine story, and I liked it more than “Revenge,” but the best is yet to come.
The King in the Tree
“The King in the Tree” is Millhauser’s fabulous retelling of Tristan and Ysolt. And if Millhauser kept pulling a taut rope tighter in “An Adventure of Don Juan,” here we think the rope or the victims on the rack must surely break on page 5. By page 20 we can’t believe he’s still tightening it. Yet he pulls it tighter and tighter through 100 perfectly controlled pages, and in the end no one is spared.
Our narrator here is Thomas of Cornwall, King Mark’s faithful counselor. The King has recently wed the beautiful Ysolt of Ireland, and the only person he trusts to keep her safe is his loyal nephew Tristan. The King has essentially decreed that they should remain close. Of course, even on page one, rumors are abounding. The story begins like this:
The Queen is a whore — cut off her nose. The Queen is lecherous — burn her. Such are the interesting remarks one hears at court, from those who dislike the King’s new bride. Others, it is true, speak of the Queen’s exceeding beauty. By this they mean the Queen is guilty and should be hanged. For my part, I believe the Queen is beautiful and must be watched closely.
The King, for his part, wants to showcase his faith in his nephew and in his bride, but of course he cannot ignore what everyone is saying. Rumors might have been enough for him to act had the rumors been about anyone else, but to hang his nephew and bride for treason he needs evidence — he doesn’t want to find any evidence!
And Thomas is somewhere in the middle. He is loyal to the King, but he doesn’t want to bring the King pain. Which is impossible. The rumors cause pain, confirming the rumors will cause pain. Proving them wrong . . . well, how can you ever prove the negative here? Just because the King bursts in on Tristan and Ysolt fully clothed at one moment doesn’t mean they weren’t naked in a passionate embrace the moment before. No, it isn’t very long before Thomas admits to being on the side of death, knowing that the promise of more love means more ruin.
So the novella goes: the King feels satisfied that nothing untoward is going on between Tristan and Ysolt, but the rumors do not stop, so the King perches in a tree waiting to find them out. When they appear to be fully virtuous, he feels satisfied that nothing untoward is going on between them . . . and so on. And Millhauser keeps tightening the rope without breaking it. Soon, even their apparent chastity is a source of madness for the King:
Does the King fear their abstinence, suspecting it to be the sign of a love higher than his own? Or is it that, although he cannot bear to be betrayed, he can bear even less the shame of being spared?
Ah, this was a wonderful story, and you don’t need to know the story of Tristan and Ysold to enjoy it. Nor does knowing the classic story spoil “The King in the Tree,” which is only just faithful enough to keep you wondering what’s going on. I certainly wouldn’t skip “Revenge” or “An Adventure of Don Juan,” but the jewel in this collection is “The King in the Tree.”