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Scandals by the Seine

Allan Stein by Matthew Stadler Fourth Estate, pounds 10, 256pp; Should this paean to pederasty be buried, or praised? Roger Clarke defends a novel with the energy - and ambiguous morality - of a dream
THIS IS the first of four novels by the Seattle-based writer Matthew Stadler to find a UK publisher. Never mind that he is acknowledged to be one of the finest prose stylists of his generation, with a decidedly sumptuous, European lilt to his writing. His inflammatory subject matter has pushed him to the margins of both mainstream and gay publishing.

Even though both the teenaged boys seduced by an older man in Allan Stein are only two years younger than the objects of desire in Alan Hollinghurst's first novels (17), and exactly the age of baby- raptor Nathan's target in Queer as Folk, the subject of this novel will produce the usual rants from the usual suspects. Libby Purves, you may recall, will not have Lolita in her house.

Nabokov's narrator in Lolita does express a fleeting interest in "faunlets" - something often overlooked. But it is in the fiction of Stadler that the faunlet is finally examined with all the sensual attention that Humbert Humbert paid to his beloved "nymphets". The seduction of a mother, then her offspring, then the flight of the doomed lovers across the country is pure Lolita - except that the mother merely sends them letters telling them off rather than calling the police. This is France, after all, not the US.

Stadler mischievously puts an overt crime at the beginning of a book just to see off the faint-hearted and the humbug. The narrator beds one of his own 15-year-old students and decamps for France under a friend's name. There he follows up an obsession with a nephew of Getrude Stein who, it is thought, is the model for Picasso's Boy with the Horse.

There's no sense, though, that he is a fugitive. This is the slightly irritating American idyll of Paris. The narrator dogs the footsteps of Stein, rolls about in the catnip of high culture and pays as much languid attention to his food as Hemingway did. His seduction of his landlady's teenaged son has all the vitality and inexorability of a dream, with a dream's ambiguous morality.

This is a well-written and brave book, which despite all the sallies that will be launched at it, stands tall with a kind of marvellous, deluded splendour. Stadler has done what Gilbert Adair has never managed: a readable paean to pederasty.