BOOKS : CLASSICS IN PAPERBACK

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! Dubliners by James Joyce, annotated J W Jackson & B McGinley, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 12.99. This is a coffee table paperback, with marginal notes, pictures and maps. The stories in Joyce's first book are as clear as glass and certainly don't need fanciful annotations, as here when a straightforward sporting metaphor ("boxed his corner") turns into an obscure allusion to carpentry. But if Jackson and McGinley overkill with their glosses, some of the notes are useful since Joyce, seeing his Dublin from the inside out, doesn't pause to explain his references.

! Yellow Back Radio Broke Down by Ishmael Reed, Alison & Busby pounds 7.99. Reed is hardly known here but he's quite an act - a black satirist whose 1968 shredding of the western genre is fast, funky and great fun. The Loop Garoo Kid - a cowpoke both quick on the draw and able to hold his own in the dialectics of literature - is the hero amongst a wild bunch of characters: Mustache Sally, Chief Showcase, John Wesley Hardin and the Pope.

! Italian Hours by Henry James, Penguin pounds 7.99. So much of James the novelist is snagged on the hook which draws Americans back to Europe that his travel essays on Italy (he visited 13 times between 1869 and 1907) are obviously significant. James the tourist is never quite at one with the "huge, hot, gentle, happy family" of Italian life. He looks and keeps his distance. And though he likes "the happy hazard of things" in his contemporary Italy, he feels acutely (in the odd paradox of tourism) homesick for the past.

! The Constant Sinner and She Done Him Wrong by Mae West, Virago pounds 6.99 each. There's no doubt Mae West could write. She could also overwrite - "night smeared its obliterating black pitch over the colours of earth" - often lapsed into cliche and, although overall her dialogue was excellent, her black characters sound decidedly Uncle Remus. Never mind all this. Never mind Kathy Lette's pun-drunk introduction. These stories (the second was filmed as Diamond Lil) are out of the dime-novel top drawer and, at times, the phrasemaking would make even Chandler sit up.

! The Portable Dante trs & ed Mark Musa, Penguin pounds 8.99. American Musa vies with British C H Sisson (in Oxford Classics, same price) for the best modern English-ing of the Divine Comedy. Both keep the original three- line stanza, but use un-Dantean iambic pentameters and lay aside the rhyme scheme. Penguin also does Musa's version in three vols (triple the price but with more notes) while keeping Dorothy Sayers's awkward, scholarly version in print. If Sisson shades it on quality, this complete text gets the value vote by throwing in La Vita Nuova for free.

! Hell by Henri Barbusse, trs Robert Baldick, Turtle Point Press pounds 9.99. In a Paris hotel, a young man discovers a hole in the wall which allows him to observe secretly the goings-on in the next room. Drawn to voyeurism like an addiction, what he sees takes him on a journey through hell as harrowing as Dante's. It's a shock to realise the novel appeared as early as 1908: its frankness about sex is extraordinary; its vision of the self as isolated, alienated, inarticulate is among literature's early intimations of existentialism and the absurd. Barbusse went on to write a definitive war novel, Le Feu, but this was an amazing debut.

! Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings, Papermac pounds 10. Not many anthologies outlast their time: The Golden Treasury survives for summing up 19th-century tastes; Auden's commonplace book as a key to the writer's mind. This is another durable collection of poetry and prose, made by the gifted wartime film- maker who died in 1950 leaving the book unpublished (it came out 35 years later). Jennings's extracts portray the Industrial Revolution, 1660-1885, not as a chronicle of achievements, nor as a catalogue of woe, but as an upheaval for the human imagination, a mixture of hope and foreboding. It's powerful stuff.

! My Life by Marc Chagall, Peter Owen pounds 12.95. Born in 1887, a Russian Jew, Chagall died two years short of his century. This delightful memoir of himself as a young man is written in one-sentence paragraphs, with a few literary tropes and 50 of his own illustrations. It is as unaffectedly amusing as Dali's autobiography is ponderous and pretentious, proving that Chagall was the lighter wit as well as the deeper painter.

! The Wooden Shepherdess by Richard Hughes, Harvill Press pounds 8.99. The title The Human Predicament was the measure of Hughes's ambition for his roman fleuve about politics and society between the wars. The first volume, The Fox In the Attic, came out in 1961; this second volume, which appeared in 1973, stretches the narrative which began with Hitler's Munich putsch in 1921 to the death of Rohm in the Night of the Long Knives, with excursions into prohibition America, working-class Coventry, rural Wales. Hughes died after completing only 12 chapters of the third part, but fans will be pleased to find them published here for the first time. A truncated masterpiece.

! Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus, Payback Press pounds 8.99. Jazz autobiography is a distinct genre and one of the best I ever read was Bechet's. Mingus's is just as good, and much sexier. Mingus here brings to the page all the violence and passion - and the self-questioning - that was in his nature and his music. As powerful a piece of black literature as you can get.

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