Books: In brief

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The Independent Culture
The Keeper of Ruins and Other Inventions by Gesualdo Bufalino, trs Patrick Creagh, Harvill pounds 14.99. 'God is better than he seems; Creation doesn't do him justice,' this award-

winning Italian author once declared. And his collection of 22 stories is gleaming with epiphanies in the face of mortality. A flood-weary Noah thrills to the world washed clean just before a hawk swoops to attack his dove of peace. A boy locked for punishment in a lumber room with his dead father's belongings is transported by imagination to a realm of fiddlers and sorcerer kings. 'It was on the seat of a swing and on his 40th birthday that Severino Paceco became aware of the beauty of the universe', begins another tale of revelation where passion and death are not far behind. Bufalino sweeps effortlessly across centuries, dipping into Greek mythology, naval history and Sicilian folklore. He eavesdrops on Baudelaire squabbling over a book purchase, Jack the Ripper tidying his fingernails after a messy night out and Don Quixote advising Sancho Panza to get a grip on his blustering oratory. There are stories with the charm of Pirandello, one or two verging on the shaggy-dog, most besotted with words themselves (hats off to Patrick Creagh's formidable translation); all offer even greater rewards on second reading.

First Grey, Then White, Then Blue by Margriet de Moor, trs Paul Vincent, Picador pounds 5.99. This winner of the AKA Prize, the Dutch equivalent of our Booker, is a moody canvas depicting marriage and murder, not so much revealed by the perspectives of four characters as smudged by the shadings of their subjectivity. The mysterious Magda has shocked her easily shockable Dutch villge by vanishing for two years on a voyage of self-discovery, through the French countryside of her early marriage, the post-war Canada of her adolescence and the Czechoslovakia of her childhood, where she remembers opening the front door to the Nazis who took her father away. She returns at last to a husband, Robert, driven mad by her cool refusal to explain this absence. Erik, a family friend and Magda's secret lover, finds her body in a bedful of blood with a gibbering Robert nearby. Erik's unsuspecting wife Nellie marvels at her husband's grief, and notices that the only person behaving with dignity is her 19- year-old autistic son Gaby, who shared with Magda an avid fascination with the moon and stars. This is a novel about vision: Eric is an eye surgeon, Robert a painter, Gaby lives for his telescope and Magda must disappear to find herself. While Margriet de Moor's thematic dabbling and splashing of colour through the narrative is evocative and translatable, I'm not so sure these dour unironic characters are so successful in speaking to us.

Dreamers by Elaine Feinstein, Macmillan pounds 15.99. It is mid-19th-century Vienna and students are in revolt, burning Prince Metternich in effigy. The coincidental rise of industry and growing influence of Jewry throughout society form a sinister link in the minds of the old land-owing Viennese aristocracy. Feinstein focuses on three individuals: Anton Shassner, scion of an established Jewish banking line, whose taste runs more enthusiastically to literature; Joseph Kovacs, a protege violinist from the ghetto who rises to the top of Viennese musical elite despite the ubiquitous Wagner's disdain for his race; and an impoverished beauty called Clara whose indeterminate origins throw up shocking Dickensian revelations. Clara fends off promising suitors and bounders alike to become a self-styled intellectual and independent teacher, a radical choice given the times, and one which sits puzzlingly with the 'Reader, I married him' ending. Political and cultural history served up with more schmaltz than you might expect, but entirely digestible.

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