A Week in Books

Talent, like wine, improves over time
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GLANCE AT any publisher's catalogue now, and the "hot", "sparkling" or "exciting" beginner- novelists will beam out at you in all their poster- perfect loveliness. "Eminently promotable" scream the PR mailings, which means "babe"(F) or "hunk" (M). The book business consumes as much fresh blood - and succulent young flesh - as an Aztec high priest at a total eclipse. Meanwhile, older writers with a long record of excellence often find themselves dumped by publishers who act with all the gratitude of a frisky tycoon with a canny divorce lawyer and the hots for a new au pair.

So let me praise three books which, in their separate genres, have pleased me hugely over recent months. Next week, Virago will publish the latest novel by A L Barker, The Haunt (pounds 16.99). Set around a shabby hotel in deepest Cornwall, it features a shifting cast of deftly painted loners who talk through and across one another in finest Alan Bennett style. This laconic comedy of ideas marries the deadpan timing of Kingsley Amis at his driest with a tinge of eerie nature-mysticism that brings Iris Murdoch to mind. With its sly, slow-burning jokes and exquisite dialogue, The Haunt must count among the season's funniest novels - a fact utterly lost on Virago's po-faced blurb writer. You want (for instance) a truly witty dig at commitment-phobic males? "`She had a key cut and moved into the flat when I was at the shop. I got back to find her tights drying on the radiator, the fridge full of fat-free yoghurt and garlic pearls in the bathroom. It brought me out in a worry rash.' `Is it the bed thing?'"

Hot, sparkling, exciting - certainly. Yet A L Barker was born in 1918; Leonard Woolf brought out her first novel with Hogarth Press in 1947. Coincidentally, Leonard and Virginia had 20 years earlier published the first collection by the poet Ida Affleck Graves, whose volume of new work The Calfbearer (Oxford, pounds 7.99) shows a technical mastery and emotional punch that dwarfs most other British bards. Turn to the memoir shelves, and nothing else from 1999 can equal Picador's reprint of Nirad C Chaudhuri's classic Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. The great Bengali curmudgeon flays the follies of the contemporary world with an elegant savagery that makes Naipaul look about as tough as Terry Wogan.

Chaudhuri is, famously, a centenarian now; and Ida Graves not far behind. Add in A L Barker, and the combined age of this glittering trio reaches 280. This would not be worth even a passing mention if British publishers made their choices according to talent alone instead of youth or looks. But, since they don't, it sadly is.