BOOKS: PAPERBACK REVIEWS - Why we ignore Camus' goalkeeping career

The Word From Paris by John Sturrock Verso pounds 15
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The Independent Culture
Of course, nation of shopkeepers, stout, beef-eating yeomen that we are, we don't have a lot of time for Johnny Frenchman and the weaselling, abstract bosh that he tries to pass off as philosophy. When a book like Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures comes out, which shows what a lot of nonsense the French spout, we enjoy a little frisson of self- congratulation on our own sound attachment to common sense and the real world.

John Sturrock has dedicated his career to persuading us that we might be mistaken - that they really do order these things much better in France. This book collects together essays written over 30 years on thinkers such as Sartre, Camus, Barthes, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida, together with pieces on aspects of Proust and writers such as Robbe-Grillet, Queneau and Georges Perec. (Sturrock is currently engaged on Penguin's new translation of A la Recherche, and has translated a collection of Perec's short works, Species of Spaces).

Despite his professed partiality, Sturrock's assessment of his subjects is objective, sometimes almost to the point of brutality - he admits Lacan's impenetrability and egoism, speaks frankly of Derrida's "alembicated" prose style and "regrettable" logorrhoea. But so what, he would add: they are not there to make a point, to make a difference. Indeed, as the opening essay, on "Intellectuals since 1945", argues, a lack of real power is part of the definition of an intellectual, and one of the privileges of impotence is irresponsibility.

Perhaps Lacan has had an effect on the way psychoanalysis is practised; our view of the world may have been affected by a new awareness of the extent to which it is shaped by language. But the principal reason for reading these undoubtedly clever writers (and by extension, I would add, for reading about them) is not practical: it is the sheer pleasure of engaging with their intellects, joining in the game. Without wanting to get involved in that whole tedious joke about Camus' goal-keeping career, you could say that French philosophy is like football - for some, a pointless shunting about of a ball between two pieces of wood, for others the beautiful game, a source of passion and inspiration. In which case, Sturrock is a sort of sports reporter; and this is sports-writing of the highest class.

Bloody London

by Reggie Nadelson

Faber pounds 5.99

There's a strong case for exterminating all Philip Marlowe imitators. But if we are going to preserve a few specimens in the zoo, I'd vote for Artie Cohen, Nadelson's Martini-drinking, Russian-speaking Jewish ex-cop. He's snappier than most, without making a fetish out of it, and with an unusual sensitivity to certain aspects of life (clothes, textures, smells) - perhaps because Nadelson is a woman, though she carries off a male narrative voice without obvious stress. Here, Cohen is called in by a friend on the force to act as interpreter on a murder case, and finds out that he's already intimately, unwittingly involved: a convoluted web of murder, sex and property deals takes him from Manhattan to London via Brighton Beach.

Consilience

by Edward O Wilson

Abacus pounds 8.99

Wilson defines "consilience" as "a `jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation". Put like that, it sounds like a lovely, cuddly notion - as if what's being talked about is uncovering the underlying harmony in nature. Actually, what Wilson is getting at is a good deal harder-edged than that: he wants to explain absolutely everything in scientific terms. Even art is, after all, only a by-product of an evolution-driven urge to imitate, intensify, organise our experiences. Richard Dawkins is a teddy-bear next to this; but Wilson is a smoother, more seductive writer, and you may even find yourself agreeing.

The Penguin Book of Protest

edited by Brian MacArthur

Penguin pounds 9.99

It's the eternal dilemma for anthologists: do you tighten up your definitions and aim for a coherence and selections that complement one another; or let it all hang out and opt for surprising inclusions and odd juxtapositions? MacArthur runs wide - alongside the suffragettes, civil rights workers, socialists, pacifists, hippies and eco-warriors, you get Woodrow Wilson protesting to the German government about the sinking of the Lusitania, Kenneth Tynan railing against the state of English theatre, Paul Foot complaining about his old headmaster. There is amazing stuff here, from Sylvia Pankhurst's nauseating description of force-feeding to Edward Norman's elegant, irrefutable argument on behalf of gay Christians.

Gone to Earth

by Mary Webb

Virago pounds 7.99

Webb's reputation has suffered from the twin handicaps of being praised by Stanley Baldwin, by common consent one of the century's dullest men, and lampooned by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm. As a result, Webb's overwrought style and cod-primitivism (lots of surging sap and pricking buds in the hedgerows) can be hard to swallow; but there is nothing quite like it in English literature - even Gibbons's lurid parodies fall short of the original. This is the one about a gypsy lass, Hazel Woodus - Jennifer Jones in the Powell and Pressburger screen version - who loves only her pet fox, and who herself becomes quarry of both the squire and the minister. You should read it, if only to prove to yourself that you can.

A Man in Full

by Tom Wolfe

Picador pounds 10

Whatever you say about Wolfe, you can't complain about a lack of ambition: here he tries to do the whole of American society - he leaps from penthouse to pavement, poking his stick into race, religion, the media, corporate greed, gender (in his view, men finding new ways of proving their manhood is what modern life's about) ... He wants to be Dickens, a smarter, faster- moving Dickens to match the times we live in. While he's assembled an impressive cast of modern types, though, he's too pedestrian a writer to animate them - a really fearless editor could have trimmed 400 pages out of this, and left it lean and sharp; as it is, 740 pages feel more like an even thousand.

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