BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

The Rings of Saturn by W G Seabald trans by Michael Hulse Panther pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
W G Sebald is the learned and decidedly deracine professor of Modern German Literature at the University of East Anglia. As a novelist, he has received much critical acclaim for his disciplined use of language, the precision of which underpins the ruminative, seemingly aimless, leaps of fancy that take in the history of human destructiveness and degradation, and the potential for transcendence through art and literature.

But what really bowled over the critics was this memoir of a walk that Sebald took in August 1992 around the coast of Suffolk. The title refers to the fragments of a former moon that was drawn into Saturn's gravity and destroyed by its tidal effect; its remains - rings of ice and dust - now orbit Saturn's equator.

Sebald's narrative plays upon the implications of this astronomical reference: as the God of Time, Saturn devoured his children, and continues to devour the Earth and its mortals, the lesser and weaker of whom are, in turn, victims of powerful institutions. Sebald's looping journey from Lowestoft to Southwold and Bungay subtly replicates the rings that circle the Planet of Melancholy. The characters he contemplates - Thomas Browne, Conrad and Swinburne - are linked to the places he visits, and the respective loneliness of their lives unites them. These potted biographies fit beautifully into the scheme of things, his subjects' withdrawal from society mysteriously presaging Sebald's own enigmatic, self-effacing narration.

And, just as individuals mirror each other, so do historical events; the Battle of Waterloo, the Taipeng Rebellion, the Belgian dereliction of the Congo, and the death of the herring industry (a fascinating piece of local history). This is a text full of echoes - the industrious, implacable habits of the silkworm are evoked in several, loosely woven episodes that take silk as their central image.

At times, though, the digressions are too tenuously linked (the hideous enslavement of the Congolese is brought to mind by the ugliness of an elderly Belgian woman), and the repetition of his theme jarringly contrived. The Proustian effect for which he strives - moments of revelation that take pages of elegantly punctuated paragraphs to reach - fail to deliver the dazzling philosophical insights found in Proust's study of time. But the journey is worth the taking because, ultimately, Sebald's clarity of vision bestows a formal pattern on his meditations that is profoundly uplifting and thrillingly intense.

Fanfare: Fourteen Stories on a Musical Theme

edited by Duncan Minshull and Helen Wallace

BBC pounds 5.99

"The silence was different when the music stopped, as if the music had changed it." William Trevor's masterly contribution to this selection of stories from the archives of Radio 3 studies the effect a dancing-master's music has on Brigid, a scullery maid. As she walks home after his piano recital, staged as a treat for the servants, she struggles to re-create the tunes she has heard, but they elude her. And it is right that they should, she reflects, the emotive power of music being such that it would be cheapened if it were within our everyday reach. Instead, she hears his music every night in her dreams, and, for the rest of her days, it remains "the marvel in her life". The other contributors are equally commanding of respect, and include Carol Shields, William Boyd, John Mortimer (whose piece ties in with this year's Proms) and Helen Simpson, who takes a comical and timely swipe at "Corporate Entertainment".

My Father's House

by Matthew Carr

Penguin pounds 7.99

Bill Carr was a man capable of much that was good and inspiring in his public life, and much that was vicious and destructive in private. Unfortunately for his son Matthew, the Bill Carr he knew was the explosively violent, wife-beating one. Four years after his father's death in 1994, Matthew Carr became determined to reconcile the man who had rejected him so brutally with the man who was celebrated by his peers as an inspirational teacher, passionate socialist and self-imposed exile intent on righting the wrongs of British colonialism in his chosen homeland of Guyana. Carr returned to the Caribbean and met his father's friends and new family all of whom refused to believe the harrowing tales of abuse Carr junior had to tell. But he persists in his endeavour to transform a sadly commonplace domestic tragedy into the story of a journey to the sickness of an ideologue's mind as it infects those closest to him.

Two Moons

by Jennifer Johnston

Review pounds 6.99

Jennifer Johnston, an Irish Protestant Republican, has previously written about the Troubles, but in her latest novel turns her attention to angels. Grace, a Shakespearean actress, lives in a rose-strewn house overlooking Dublin Bay with her aged mother, Mimi, whose last days are being overseen by a talkative, beautiful angel. So far, so twee. But Johnston is too inventive for a gentle reflection on gentle lives and deaths. So she introduces granddaughter Polly and her handsome boyfriend Paul with whom Grace embarks on a narcissistic affair that renders him more of a fantasy figure than Mimi's kindly angel. Clever, witty Johnston uncovers secrets and exposes vanities ruthlessly.

Antique & Flea Markets of London & Paris

by Rupert Thomas and Egle Salvy

Thames & Hudson pounds 12.95

This copiously illustrated guide to the secondhand markets of two newly united (by the Channel Tunnel) cities is a rummager's delight. Salvy offers a history of the great Parisian tradition of marche aux puces, which started in the 14th century, and took off when rag-and-bone men were forced off the city streets in 1860 and flocked to the surrounding wasteland. They set up makeshift stalls which now attract 11 million visitors a year. As for London, she illustrates the plight of independent dealers on the "cutting edge of the economic chopping block", and celebrates their subversive charm and battles with unsympathetic local councillors.

Mr MacGregor

by Alan Titchmarsh

Pocket Books pounds 5.99

Jilly Cooper has been credited with helping TV's favourite gardener with the sex scenes of his first novel, so that would explain their Jolly- Sooperish enthusiasm. Our hero, tight of buttock and lascivious of intent, undergoes a moral crisis that sees him coming to the rescue of his father's family nursery in a tale that bears all the hallmarks of its author's self-depreciating charm. LP

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