Books: No progress for this rake

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by Andrew Miller Sceptre pounds 14.99

In this glittering confection of 18th-century moeurs, Andrew Miller focuses on a few months in the life of the fabled seducer who, in 1763, came somewhat whimsically to England in search of rest and reflection while in exile from his native Venice. Miller tells us that the story is in part based on 's own memoirs, but is mainly an invention.

The presented here is a vain, amiable hedonist who at 39 is suffering from intimations of mortality; bored and fearful, he must seek new conquests and confirm past triumphs, for he has glimpsed himself "sitting with his make up smudged, waiting for the next performance". But his prey eludes him and it is in the ensuing dark night of the soul that humiliation and mortification drive him first to the doubtful joys of honest toil, then to a flirtation with writing and then to an unpleasant sample of country life. After a not very long time he is back in London, gaming and whoring and still pursuing the scornful and combative object of his desire. No change.

Once upon a time he did re-create himself, changing from illegitimate street child to "exactly what the silk-wearing classes had needed; a truly accommodating fellow with a scrap of genius who, like a Venetian canal, was all the more charming on account of his corruption, the shimmer of his pollution". This first invention and work of artifice have exhausted his resources.

The Hogarthian background is vividly drawn and spotlit by tiny details: a ferryman smoking his pipe upside down in the rain; Dr Johnson's cat, "a creature about the size of a pedlar's knapsack"; prophylactics made from sheep-gut which, when in use, smell of roast lamb; four blind musicians, each carrying an instrument in one hand and resting the other on the shoulder of the man in front. There are descriptive passages of extraordinary power and beauty: the city drowned in a mighty flood, the construction of Blackfriars Bridge, an outdoor coupling performed "as gods and sparrows did it, clenched under the public sky, racked by the moment".

Yet, despite such piercing joys, or even because of them, this is a disappointing and unsatisfying book. himself is a two-dimensional creature, too shallow and self-absorbed to engage sympathy. His night of tortured self-examination and its sequel just don't convince; his actions and the actions of those around him often seem merely arbitrary, and one doesn't care what happens to any of them. It is hard to accept that the depicted here could have caught the interest of Dr Johnson, or indeed achieved his own haunted notoriety. His observations on life and love are banal and his twinkly-old-roue tone of voice is acutely irritating: "Munich! Where every card had been a losing card and that little dancer, La Renaud, had stolen his clothes and his jewels and infected him with a vile disease. Exquisite pain." There is a lot of this sort of stuff. does not speak English although it is his voice which dominates the book; perhaps this is why some of the prose is oddly awkward and laboured, tipped off balance by clumsy relative clauses. Then beyond every dazzling image or comparison lurks some farfetched, unworkable simile: dawn "showing one by one, like an auctioneer, the things ... of the world" or an old clavichord which grins "gap toothed, like some man's mistress put out to grass when he could no longer bear the sight of her". Meanwhile the phrase "ate gratefully" and the adverb "grimly" bode no good. And yet, so much must be forgiven of an author who can see a pink gloved hand as a glamorous piglet or describe 's mind "anaesthetised by drink, by gambling, curled inside his head like a dog in dreamless sleep".

Is it possible that this book has been written too swiftly? If so, porca miseria, as its hero would say. For despite its flaws, at its best it confirms the unshakeable certainty which possesses anyone who has read Miller's marvellous Ingenious Pain: that here is a writer of very rare and outstanding gifts, no matter what.