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King in the Tree

King in the Tree

by Steven Millhauser

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A master of literary transformation, Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser turns his attention to the transformations of love in these three hypnotic novellas. While ostensibly showing her home to a prospective buyer, the narrator of “Revenge” unfolds an origami-like narrative of betrayal and psychic violence. In “An Adventure of Don Juan”


A master of literary transformation, Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser turns his attention to the transformations of love in these three hypnotic novellas. While ostensibly showing her home to a prospective buyer, the narrator of “Revenge” unfolds an origami-like narrative of betrayal and psychic violence. In “An Adventure of Don Juan” the legendary seducer seeks out new diversion on an English country estate with devastating results. And the title novella retells the story of Tristan and Ysolt from the agonized perspective of King Mark, a husband who compulsively looks for evidence of his wife’s adultery yet compulsively denies what he finds. Combining enchantment as ancient as Sheherezade’s with up-to-the-minute acuity and unease, The King in the Tree is Millhauser at his best.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
An ingenious geometer of love triangles, Millhauser tinkers with tested formulas in these three novellas, while giving full rein to his taste for the fantastical. Cuckolded King Mark, in a new twist on the legend of Tristan and Isolde, commissions an automaton copy of his banished queen. Don Juan travels to an English country estate, where his playboy instincts run afoul of a quizzical Enlightenment bluestocking. In the weakest of the three novellas, a melodramatic monologue that opens the collection, a bitter widow confronts her late husband's mistress while showing her around their house as a prospective buyer. Yet, no matter how rickety the scenario, Millhauser's shrewd sense of psychology makes his characters' impulses toward romantic excess manifestly believable, as when the chivalrous Tristan realizes that "if he was going to betray at all, then he had to betray as deeply as possible."
James Schiff
In these three peculiar albeit dazzling novellas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Martin Dressler emphasizes the painful, even fatal consequences of love and adultery. Millhauser writes from the perspective of wronged spouses and courtly advisors who are entangled in the erotic lives of others. In "Revenge, " a simple house tour goes from friendly to ominous as the wife-narrator leads her potential buyer from room to room. "A house is a dangerous place, " she says, "kitchen knives, deadly hammers, sleeping pills, gas stoves". Soon the wife is confessing intimate details about her marriage and husband's affair as well as harping on the "other woman, " with whom the reader experiences an increasingly strange connection. Millhauser's world, like that of Italo Calvino, can be sunny and romantic, and his assured prose can enchant, haunt and beguile.
Publishers Weekly
There is nothing lighthearted about love, implies Millhauser, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler, in these three dark and feverishly rich novellas. While he stops short of cynicism, Millhauser's take on romance is a dark one. An excitable widow leads the reader on a tour of her house-apparently being offered for sale-in the harrowing "Revenge." As she moves from room to room, the story of her husband's extramarital affair unfolds, and it gradually becomes clear that the widow's monologue is addressed to her husband's lover-for whom she has a sinister surprise in store. "An Adventure of Don Juan" finds the famous philanderer, bored with a lifetime of easy conquests, leaving the Continent for a change of scenery on his friend's English estate, where he will experience unrequited desire for the first time. Millhauser retells the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde in the title story. Narrator Thomas of Cornwall, counselor to Isolde's cuckolded husband, King Mark, looks on in silent disapproval as Isolde and Tristan blithely carry on their affair, causing the king to suffer a storm of competing, paralyzing emotions. Millhauser's portrayal of fools and self-made victims is unblinking and unsentimental. He is particularly attuned to the ways that people fall out of love. The narrator of "Revenge" describes the moment when she realized her marriage was in trouble: "I asked myself, am I happy? And I felt a little pause." Millhauser is at his best dramatizing these moments of ambivalent hesitation and the disastrous effect they have on the "fellowships of two." Though he covers time-honored territory, Millhauser's precision, coupled with his brave imagination, makes these stories as smart and fresh as they are grim. (Feb. 24) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Three novellas on forbidden love from a Pulitzer Prize winner. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Some of the best writing of Millhauser's increasingly brilliant career (Enchanted Night , 1999, etc.) appears in this collection of three imaginative and unusual novellas. "Revenge" is an extended monologue spoken by an unnamed middle-aged woman, recently widowed, as she shows her house to another nameless woman, its prospective buyer. Every successive room and object triggers an emotional memory of her late husband, an adulterous yet doting history professor, and progressive revelations of the narrator's anger and unhappiness illuminate both the identity of her visitor and the ingenious "revenge" she has taken. It's a very clever psychological horror story, which creates out of simple declarative sentences a thickening atmosphere of menace and suspense. "An Adventure of Don Juan" brings the notorious seducer, bored with easy conquests of Venetian women, to England and the lavish estate of Juan's casual acquaintance, wealthy Augustus Hood. The estate is a private theme park, a "giant mechanism" whose parts replicate classical scenes and themes, including the entryway to Hell. And it's a place of awakening for the great lover, whose attraction to a bewitching woman (his host's sister) utterly indifferent to his charms teaches him a lesson or two about the farther reaches of amorous pleasure. Best of all is the title story, Millhauser's version of the medieval romance of Tristan and Ysolt. King Mark of Cornwall's counselor and former tutor stoically observes his cuckolded sovereign's vacillations among outrage, relief, confusion, and sorrow as continually conflicting evidence surrounds rumors hat young Queen Ysolt and the King's nephew and trusted knight Tristan are lovers. Both the forceof their passion and the inhibitions of his own honor prevent the monarch from acting, and allow the tragedy to follow its own serpentine course. It's an unforgettable dramatization of the many faces of love and loyalty. Wonderful work, from one of the authentic magic-makers.
From the Publisher
“No one alive writes better about yearning and heartbreak. . . . Before such mastery, a reader can do nothing but bow his head.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Millhauser . . . uses his lush prose and archetypal motifs to trace the outer arcs of passion, places where eros and violence meet. . . . This writer is in love with a large, very beautiful tiger, and at its best the fiction he produces is an exquisite negotiation with the beast.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[Millhauser] seeks always to spellbind rather than merely to entertain . . . . He never fumbles a word out of place, never lets fall an unfelicitous phrase, and especially never looks down during his high-wire imaginative act.” – San Francisco Chronicle

“In a mere 80 pages or so, [Millhauser] can whistle up worlds as bright and intricate as a Mozart piano sonata or as ominous and ethereal as a Charles Ives symphony . . . powerful, spellbinding reading.” —The Seattle Times

“An ingenious geometer of love triangles, Millhauser tinkers with tested formulas in these three novellas, while giving full rein to his taste for the fantastical. . . . [His] shrewd sense of psychology makes his characters’ impulses toward romantic excess manifestly believable.” –The New Yorker

“Coursing through these novellas are such literary ghosts as Byron, Wagner-as-librettist, Matthew Arnold and Alfred Lord Tennyson. . . . But when Millhauser is plumbing the mysteries of the human heart, there’s no question that he is writing after, not before, Sigmund Freud–and Kate Chopin, and John Updike and the sexual revolution. . . . The King in the Tree is a moving, melancholy book about the unlovely toll exacted by love on those it has abandoned.” –Los Angeles Times

“Ever finish a book that was so good you ached to grab the collar of the next passer-by and shout in his unsuspecting face, ‘Read this! You have got to read this!’? Steven Millhauser writes that kind of book.” –San Diego Union Tribune

“Among [Millhauser’s] best. . . . The King in the Tree is a flawless retelling of the story of Tristan and Iseult. . . . Astonishingly, Millhauser creates a version that though modern reads like a newly discovered medieval tale. . . . His story will live with the older versions, and Richard Wagner’s, as part of the myth.” –Boston Globe

“Reading a book by Steven Millhauser is like tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole. In the Millhauser Wonderland, time reels backward, life is but a fairy tale, and figures of mythology rule the universe. . . . All three of the novellas that make up The King in the Tree inhabit eerie realms of the imagination. Here men and women yearn for love, but it’s a poison more often than a tonic.”  –Newsday

“These three tales, each in different ways, confirm Millhauser’s reputation as a master stylist.” –Newark Sunday Star-Ledger

“Millhauser is our most brilliant practicing romantic, for whom surface reality is merely an uninteresting illusion, and ultimate reality is always artifice.” –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“All three of the novellas have Millhauser’s gifted storytelling voice going for them–a voice that grabs the reader by the ear and makes him pay attention.” –Rocky Mountain News

“Millhauser’s characters are poignantly likable. They hurt, long and love like the rest of us. . . . Sentence by sentence, Millhauser displays awesome control.” –Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Millhauser's three novellas are marvels of craftmanship and inventiveness . . . a storytelling tour de force and an emotional rollercoaster ride." –Richmond Times-Dispatch

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt



This is the hall. It isn’t much of a 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. Of course you have to imagine it without the bookcase. There isn’t a room in the house without a bookcase.

May I take your coat? Oh, I like it. It’s perfect. And light as a feather. Wherever did you find it? It’s so hard to know what to wear this time of year, warm one day cold the next. I worry about my jonquils. They came out last week and then wouldn’t you know it: snow. Luckily it didn’t stick. It’s a miracle they didn’t die. I’ll just hang it right here, next to mine. It must look very empty to you, all those hangers side by side. Those are my late husband’s hats. Funny. One day I cleared out all the coats, all the shoes and galoshes—it just seemed pointless. But I left the hats. I couldn’t touch the hats.


This used to be my favorite room. Listen to me! Used to be. But that’s the way it is, you know. I don’t have a favorite room anymore. Still, I spend most of my time here. Where else would I go? I’m so glad you like it. One thing we always agreed on, my husband and I, was furniture: it had to be comfortable. As Robert put it, no matter how new it was, it had to look sat in. And of course the piano—what’s a living room without a piano, I’d like to know. Not that I ever touched it. No, I gave up piano at twelve. Don’t know why, really. It’s the sort of thing you later think you regret, without really regretting it. But Robert, now. He quit lessons at fifteen but kept on practicing. He never did like to give anything up.

It’s a warm room too. When we bought the place it was a little drafty in winter, but first we insulated and then we replaced those drafty old windows that Robert had to put up every fall. Triple-track: it made a difference, let me tell you. When you close the curtains, in cold weather, it’s just as if you’re sealing yourself in. I’d sit on the couch with my feet tucked under, reading, while Robert sat in the chair there, by the bookcase, reading and marking passages. Or we’d talk—you know, thoughts drifting up, turning into words, like, I don’t know, like a way of breathing. Sometimes he made a fire in the fireplace—excellent draft. I meant to tell you I had the chimney cleaned only last month. Was that ever a job. You wouldn’t believe what was in there. I almost fell over when I saw the bill. But hey, can you blame the poor guy? Anyway. When the fire was going, I’d move to that end of the couch, to be near it. I could feel the heat all along my right side. Sometimes Robert would go over to the piano, if the mood struck him. He never played for anyone except me. This wasn’t exactly as romantic as it sounds. He called himself an amateur—harsh word for Robert—said he refused to destroy beautiful things in public. Robert never liked to make mistakes. It upset him. He played for me because he knew I wouldn’t mind an occasional wrong note. Or you could say he played for himself and allowed me to overhear him. But I loved to hear him play, especially his Chopin nocturnes. He was crazy about Chopin, said he was the greatest composer—not ever, but of piano music. Second was Mozart. He’d play those Mozart sonatas over and over—every single one of them. Do you know what he’d do? He’d begin with any sonata and play right through the book, in order, till all of a sudden—right in the middle of a movement—the middle of a phrase—he stopped. “That’s enough of that!” he’d say, as though he were angry at himself, or . . . or disappointed. Robert was hard on himself. You had to know when to soothe him and when to leave him alone. Men are harder on themselves that way than women, don’t you think? Or am I wrong? But when he played, he was able to lose himself for a while, in the music. So imagine a fire going—wood snapping the way it does when it’s a little green—the wind rattling the windows behind the curtains—and one of those Chopin melodies that feel like sorrow and ecstasy all mixed together pouring from the keys—and you have my idea of happiness. Or just reading, reading and lamplight, the sound of pages turning. And so you dare to be happy. You do that thing. You dare.

I hope you don’t mind these little . . . anecdotes of mine. We can just breeze on through the house if you’d rather. Then it’s all right to continue?

Well. I don’t want you to think of me sitting on that couch for twenty-two years with a look of blissful idiocy on my face. You know, the adoring wife and the happy hubby. Twenty- two years! That was how long Robert and I were married: twenty-two years. Things are bound to be a little imperfect, in twenty-two years. I met him when I was twenty-four, working in a bookstore in Vermont. Robert was thirty. Even back then he had that gloomy kind of handsomeness that just . . . slayed me. A handsome moody man. Doomed, as he was fond of saying. Difficult, was what it boiled down to. Robert was difficult. But you work your way through. Besides, I was a handful myself, back then. Demanding. Temperamental. Robert was very patient. Impatient with himself and others, patient with me. We . . . fell in love, as they say. And stayed there. That was the thing. And I knew him: God, did I know him. I was a student of his expressions, a scholar of his moods. I don’t know when it was, exactly, that I felt something was wrong. It was last year—spring was further along, half my forsythias dead. You remember that late frost. I was sitting on the couch with a book, after dinner, and Robert was sitting in his chair, with a book facedown on his leg, thinking. Brooding, you could say. For no particular reason I asked myself: Am I happy? And I felt a little pause, a little—oh, breath of hesitation, before I answered: Well, yes, of course I’m happy. Of course I am. Happy.

What stayed with me was that blink of hesitation. Robert had been acting a little strange lately. I’d noticed it without noticing it, the way you do. His work wasn’t going well again, he was—I mean, all this was nothing new. But there was a new element, something I was suddenly aware of. Robert was very good at giving you his full attention. I’ve never known anyone who was so good at giving you their full attention that way. He would listen with a kind of . . . a kind of alertness, and whatever he said would be at the center of what you were talking about. I realized that I’d missed this for a while—that his deepest attention was elsewhere. Now, listen. There was no question of unfaithfulness between Robert and me. I knew Robert. It wasn’t the sort of thing he did. Not that he didn’t notice a pretty woman. He liked pretty women. He liked me, didn’t he? Was always talking about how pretty I was and all that; I didn’t deny it. And of course women were always noticing him. But noticing’s one thing, and Robert . . . it wasn’t his way. It just wasn’t in the bounds of possibility. Besides, we were happy. Weren’t we? But I found myself thinking, on the couch—or not really thinking, it was more like the shadow of a thought: could it be that Robert . . . ? I immediately felt embarrassed, almost . . . ashamed, as if I’d been caught in some unpleasant act. But there it was. The little thought-shadow.

This mantelpiece came with the house. I can show it to you in the original plan. Solid marble. Nice, if you like that sort of thing.

Listen. I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a woman—just like me. She grew up in a small New England town, just like me. She was well loved and cheerful and fond of reading, just like me. She was good at school but not brilliant and went to a small college in Vermont, and at the age of twenty-four she fell in love—just like me. She married the next year, and she and her husband moved into a comfortable old house. The years passed. She was happy. Then one day, do you know what happened? Listen: I’ll tell you what happened. Nothing happened. She was happy, life was worth living, she liked the summer, and the fall, and the winter, and the spring, and she liked all the days of the week. And this woman was not like me, not like me at all.

That’s my story. Did you like it?

But—good lord—can you believe it? All along I’ve been holding this envelope. You must have been wondering. Why didn’t you say something? It’s the appraisal. As I said on the phone, I’m selling the house myself. I have no use for realtors—or reelators, as everybody says these days. God, how Robert hated that. Put some water in the perculator for the reelator. Then we can discuss nucular war. Anyway, I had the place appraised, and here’s the report. I won’t ask a penny more, but I also won’t take a penny less. That keeps it nice and simple.

Now if we step around this way. . . . Door to the cellar. Back porch. I want to show you the back porch. But first the kitchen. That door?

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Steven Millhauser received the Pulitzer Prize for Martin Dressler. He is the author of nine other books, including Edwin Mullhouse, Enchanted Night, and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories. He teaches at Skidmore College and lives with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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