BOOK REVIEW / Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
Misreadings by Umberto Eco, trs William Weaver, Picador pounds 5.99. In 1959 Eco started writing a humorous monthly column for the Italian literary magazine Il Verri, from which this is a slim selection. The viewpoint is that of the Sixties avant-garde. Lolita is parodied in the confession of an Umberto Umberto who loves old women. The Italian 19th-century classic I Promessi Sposi becomes a lost work of Joyce. Robbe-Grillet is teased and The Story of O reviewed by Lady's Home Journal ('One reason the book can be recommended is the attention it devotes to toilette . . .'). Not all of this material works in translation and some of it is distinctly musty, but there is plenty of superior fun to be had here too.

Power and the Throne: The Monarchy Debate edited by Anthony Barnett, Vintage pounds 5.99. Whether you believe that monarchy is the beetle which eats our house and can only be cured by a visit from Rentokil, or (like me) that royal decline is no more than the stink from our suppurating national self-image, you will find your views, and most shades in between, represented in this anthology of short essays. There is even the odd royalist. On the whole the editor has gone for bankably stylish commentators such as Amis, Hitchens, Hare, Weldon, Fenton, Paulin, Warner and Nairn - Andrew Morton must surely have pinched himself to wake up in such company - and if the preponderance of sense is talked by reformists, republicans and monarchists also get in some good lines.

Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor by Susan Haskins, HarperCollins pounds 9.99. 'We know very little about Mary Magdalen' - strange opening words for a book of nearly 500 pages, by the end of which you know quite a lot about the woman Haskins wants to rescue from her besmirched reputation and restore to the respectability of sainthood. This may or may not be a pointless enterprise, but the cultural history of the Magdalen which this author uncovers clearly shows how she has been used across the centuries as a mirror to reflect the neuroses (obviously most of them sexual) of each age.

Limestone and Clay by Lesley Glaister, Mandarin pounds 5.99. Nadia and Simon, potter and potholer respectively, are a sexually happy, Scrabble-playing young couple with a circle of like-minded Middle England friends, but in the course of one weekend the smooth glaze of their life cracks as little-discussed yearnings, suppressed guilt and careless betrayals surface and force them towards the edge of destruction. Glaister's style can seem overwrought, but this horror-tinged portrait of an 'ordinary' marriage shows a distinct talent for narrative suspense.

In the Houses of the West by Christopher Burns, Sceptre pounds 5.99. The legendary curse of Tutankhamun is visited on Raymond Murchison, an archaeologist with Howard Carter in 1920s Egypt. Smitten by the sister of his strange, mystically inclined best friend, the repressed Murchison soon finds himself struggling in a three-way bind, hardly understanding the sexual and spiritual forces that will threaten his life. Burns's novel, like the papyri which his hero tries to buy from local dealers, is not that easy to interpret. At one level it is a drama about sex and power against a very interesting historical backcloth; at another, it's a colloquy between crabbed reason and dangerous magic.

Such Devoted Sisters: an Anthology of Stories edited by Shena Mackay, Virago pounds 6.99. These stories on the theme of sisterhood (biological rather than political, with one possible exception) cover most of the bases. There are childhood games, teenage rivalries, coming-of- age epiphanies, secret-sharing. The exception is Nann Morgenstern's dissection of a high-school coven, 'The Sorority' - though even this, in its final twist, turns out to be about the freakiest 'real' sister imaginable. Like all good anthologies, this collection has something for all and nothing for nobody.