01/09/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
by Louis Auchincloss
Long before it was routine for lawyers to litigate by day and write best-sellers by night, Auchincloss was planning estates at the prestigious Wall Street firm of Hawkins, Delafield & Wood and churning out volumes of attractively crafted prose. But not for him taut murder mysteries and legal thrillers. Auchincloss characters, often repressed, often lawyers, are the sort who die, not dramatically, but gradually each day. In "The Single Reader," a partner becomes so obsessed with chronicling his life that he is unable to live it. In "The Mavericks," a misfit lawyer turned conformist learns that he is desirable to his fiancée only as a renegade.
Like Edith Wharton, whose literary turf he has claimed, Auchincloss has a sure understanding of class distinctions and social nuance. His are the characters whose homes are overfurnished but whose hearts—and sometimes minds—have plenty of room to rattle about. There is, for example, Maud, a woman who felt her whole life that "she was like dried-up spring at the edge of which her devoted relatives and friends used to gather hopefully in the expectation that at least a faint trickle might appear." And like Wharton, Auchincloss is an accomplished ironist: "He was widely regarded as a snob, but it was rare for two people to agree on what kind." Some of the stories like "Greg's Peg," the tale of a fatuous denizen of a Maine summer colony, and "Billy and the Gargoyles," the saga of bullying at a prep school, are slight fare. There are far richer rewards in the almost O'Henry-ish "The Colonel's Foundation" and "The Gemlike Flame," the chronicle of an expatriate's pathetic passion. The prolific Mr. Auchincloss was recently retired. Imagine his output now that he has left his day job. (Houghton-Mifflin $25.95)
GREAT ART TREASURES OF THE HERMITAGE MUSEUM, ST. PETERSBURG
How do you choose 1,500 artifacts from a treasure house of 3 million? With exquisite care, to judge by this lavish, two-volume (and 21-pound) opus. Ever since the museum's inception in 1764 with the purchase of 250 paintings, the breadth and extent of its holdings have expanded so that today it ranks with the Louvre, the British Museum and New York City's Metropolitan.
To earn that kind of reputation an institution must be able to boast a history of judicious acquisition. In Great Treasures page after page in Volume I attests to the Hermitage's success in assembling the kind of classical inventory—Roman marble sculpture, Attic vases, Etruscan bronzes—that gives a great museum gravitas, and page after page in Volume II bears witness to how after the outward-looking reign of Peter the Great the Slavic mind grew receptive to that of the West, which it can examine firsthand in St. Petersburg via such masterpieces as Michelangelo's sculpture—a great rarity outside Italy—The Crouching Boy—two Leonardos—the Benois Madonna
and the Litta Madonna
—and Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son, just one of four Rembrandts in the Hermitage's collection of 1,500 Dutch and Flemish paintings.
For many Westerners, however, it will be those works wrought or acquired on Russian and Soviet national territory that are most intriguing, and the range is staggering, from 4th-century B.C. Scythia—one picture shows a gold comb decorated with a scene from a heroic epic—to medieval religious painting—12th-century frescoes, 13th-century icons—to the esoteric 19th-century Tula steel work, five chessmen illustrating the possibilities of that pedestrian metal.
The captions are informative without being pedantic, and an introductory essay on the Hermitage's five main buildings is an ideal way to start this grand tour around a great museum. (Abrams, $195)