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10/9/96

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English professor's new novel satirizes academic life

STANFORD -- So how are his faculty colleagues responding to John L'Heureux's fictional depiction of an unnamed university that is a $41.11 cab ride from SFO, set in lion-colored foothills and approached by a long avenue of palm trees?

"It's a little curious," George Brown, professor of English, said after L'Heureux read from his new novel, The Handmaid of Desire, at the Stanford Bookstore on Oct. 8.

"There are people in the department who read the book and say to me, 'I'm glad I'm not in there.'

"And I say, 'You're not?'

"And I, of course, recognize myself among the 'fools' who teach literature."

Brown has known L'Heureux since they were in graduate school together at Harvard University in the late 1960s.

"When he was a Jesuit, and when he was writing for the Atlantic, John always wrote with a satiric voice," Brown said. "His view of life is a bit sharp."

Martin Evans, professor of English, said The Handmaid of Desire gave him "a great deal of malicious joy."

And Al Gelpi said, "I haven't heard any grumbles in the department ­ only chuckles."

"There has been a vague sense that John was doing something on the department, but he doesn't talk about his projects," Terry Castle said.

Her colleagues "have seen the potential for satire," Castle added, "but I don't think it bothered them. John is the Muriel Spark of the department and his ironic wit is one of the things people cherish him for."

While pretentious professors and clueless deans are front-line fodder for L'Heureux's rapid-fire satire, he picks off ­ with equal relish ­ the occupants of Presidential Hill and a bartender at a faculty gathering ("a fifth year student in comp lit and therefore very likely unbalanced").

Hovering over the campus comings and goings like a puppeteer in shadows is L'Heureux's exotic protagonist, Olga Kominska. She coaxes alliances out of jealous seekers of tenure and cleaves loyalties with studied detachment. Author of Medea's Daughters and The Archaeology of Text, "part Susan Sontag, part Meryl Streep," Olga perpetually has "thoughts to do," teaches a seminar on the Problem of Good ("with no subtitle") and castigates Foucault as "an epistemological terrorist."

Convening with herself in a succession of French, Romanian, Hungarian and German accents, she seizes on the opening sentence for her novel-within-a novel: "In the English department of that university there was a small number of certifiable fools. . . ." And later, "She took out 'certifiable,' thus giving the fools larger, more generous possibilities."

In L'Heureux's imaginary English department a tenured "bargain import from Cornell" wants to herd colleagues into a reorganized Department of Theory and Discourse. The departmental diva yearns to surf the trendy wave of videotics but settles for uncontested expertise in scatology poets and sit-coms. And then there's Maddy Barker, "a true genius and a viper," who "had heterosexual urges for which she hated herself," whose dark beauty was disguised "in the electrified hair and bulky pantsuit of the humorless academic."

L'Heureux laughs without even looking over his shoulder.

"Three of my lesbian friends have written me and none of them has complained," he says. "One of them is a little short on humor, so I was relieved when she said she found it a hoot."

At a time of escalating sensitivities on campuses and in society beyond the foothills, L'Heureux has launched a wicked broadside that could draw counterattacks. But the novel's outrageously skewed characterizations and lack of meanness help to offset any perceived wounds.

In his send-up of campus mores, L'Heureux fields a bevy of deans cast in multicultural heaven ­ black, Asian, Chicana, tall, lesbian, gay. Not to mention the dean of Jewish studies, who is blind and confined to a wheelchair.

"Visually and physically challenged and Jewish," L'Heureux's dean of humanities intones. "Now that's what I call a real catch."

But when the author encountered Stanford's own director of Jewish studies on campus the other day, guess who had the punch line?

"Steve Zipperstein came up to me and said, 'John, I just wanted you to see that I don't wear dark glasses and I'm almost never in a chair.'

"I think it's really quite nice that people seem to be amused, not annoyed," L'Heureux said. "Even the deans have wished me well with this, and they get hit harder than anybody in the book."

In at least one key scene, the author takes aim at his own foibles. L'Heureux writes about an English department star who emerged from class one morning "feeling pretty good." His voice "had been honeyed, the kids responsive, and he had been absolutely pellucid on the subject of liminality and the hypothetical unconscious. What he wanted now was to tell somebody about how terrific he'd been."

That moment, L'Heureux acknowledges, was taken from his own experience at Oxford.

"I once gave a fairly impromptu lecture on Strindberg, and I thought, 'Well, maybe I'm learning how to teach because that wasn't bad at all,' " he recalls.

"Immediately a young woman came up to me and said, 'I wish you hadn't talked so much today. I wanted to hear what other people said about the play. I wanted to learn something.'"

L'Heureux says one of the things he's discovered about writing is that the characters never become real until he has given them something of himself that's embarrassing.

"If you're a writer, you know that's the place to go for effective writing."

This quarter, L'Heureux will share the lessons he has drawn from self-discovery with fellows in the Creative Writing Program when he teaches the graduate fiction program. After serving as director of the program for 13 years, he will become acting director of the acclaimed workshop in the absence of Elizabeth Tallent, who has requested a year's sabbatical.

A former editor at the Atlantic Monthly, L'Heureux has drawn consistent critical praise for his 14 previous books, most recently with The Shrine at Altamira and Comedians. His new novel has been recommended by the Wall Street Journal as "required reading for any starry-eyed college students who are planning to go to graduate school in the hope of studying the classics of literature." A reviewer writing in the San Francisco Chronicle deemed it "an excoriation of the less civilized aspects of academic life," and the San Jose Mercury News described The Handmaid of Desire as a "splendidly witty book" that "is really about the fate of teaching in the increasingly fragmented U.S. university."

L'Heureux says he's happy that reviewers have noticed "some of the games I was playing, some of the things I was trying to do, like deconstructing the form of the novel while writing one and calling into question some of the sacred truths of English departments."

He began writing The Handmaid of Desire 18 years ago, churned out 70 pages and then put the manuscript aside.

"Humanists weren't as funny as they are now," he says, tongue planted deftly in cheek. "Positions weren't as extreme as they are now, political correctness wasn't around and the necessity to include everybody and everything wasn't around."

But three years ago, L'Heureux picked up the book again.

"I thought, 'let's have another try at the English department.' It seemed ripe with theory and political correctness, and with the government scandals all coming at once it seemed a perfect time for a send-up of high-minded ideals that were being dealt out rather too freely."

L'Heureux quickly found himself consumed with professorial high-jinks and academic sub-plots.

"Sometimes I would be driving and I would unconsciously slow down as my mind drifted off to the book, to the point where I would be going five miles an hour on El Camino Real," he recalls. "And my wife would say, 'Forget the book, sweetheart, and drive the car.' "

In fact, Joan Polston L'Heureux contributed some of the richest moments of the novel. She has been the dedicatee of all of her husband's books since their marriage in 1971, shortly after he left the Jesuit priesthood, where he had served for 16 years. Joan L'Heureux not only researched issues of Vogue magazine in an effort to track down the trendiest designers for inclusion in the novel (Donna Karan and Escada), but also helped with the drafting of a "bowdlerized Hail Mary," chanted by a cell of "post-Christian feminists":

Holy Mary, up above;
Fill our hearts with burning love,
Keep us from the world of straights
Of penises and petty hates.

Since the novel was published Sept. 17, L'Heureux has had telephone calls from friends as far away as Cornell University and Gettysburg College, reporting that they have identified members of their faculty as key characters in the novel. At Stanford, he says, three different members of the faculty have been identified as Robbie Richter, an English professor who goes screaming bonkers early in the novel and never quite recovers.

"I seem to have . . . struck some verities here which apply as much to other universities as to this one," L'Heureux says. "But really, there is no character in the book who comes directly from real life. I have occasionally lifted a quirky characteristic of somebody and then invented a life to go with it, but even there, the characteristics blend with those of other people in other departments, so one-for-one identification is really impossible."

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