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Lord Berners

by Mark Amory,

Pimlico, pounds 12.50

274pp

GRACEFULLY WRITTEN and admirably concise, this biography is pretty much pure delight. Born in 1883, Berners came into a fortune after inheriting his title from a childless uncle. This wealth enabled him to pack in his diplomatic career, notable more for practical jokes than application, in order to pursue a passion for the arts. Though more than a dilettante, Berners spread his talent thinly. He wrote several slender novels, painted a little, but was foremost a composer.

His real genius was for eccentricity, though we learn that the piano in the Rolls-Royce was an exaggeration (it was a small clavichord). The best-known fact about Berners is that he dyed the doves at his country house in a variety of pastel shades. According to Nancy Mitford, they resembled "a cloud of confetti".

Writing of his friend Ronald Firbank, Berners might have been describing himself: "Frivolity combined with beauty, humour and fantasy." Much of Amory's book is Firbankian in tone, such as the reaction of Berners's mother to a boa constrictor brought to lunch by one of his friends.

"Wouldn't it like something to eat?"

"No, it had a goat this morning."

"It does seem so inhospitable."

Occasionally, the tantrums of Berners's gilded circle can be tedious, but the reader can rest assured that the following paragraph is liable to contain an entertaining aside - perhaps about the diva so short and fat that her coffin would be "a perfect square" or Penelope Betjeman's horse joining a tea-party in Berners's drawing room. Amory sympathetically probes the depression which underlay Berners's taciturn exterior, but his greatest achievement is to revive interest in a character who, for comedy and oddness, is almost the equal of Waugh. CH

Marcel Duchamp by Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins (Thames & Hudson, pounds 7.95, 224pp)

Though an unequaled influence upon artists of the Sensation! generation, Duchamp (born 1887) was moulded by inconceivably different factors. Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) was inspired by Burne-Jones, while the sexual blasphemy of The Bride Stripped Bare (1923) was a reaction against his Catholic upbringing. The authors insist that Duchamp's final work, a keyhole view on which he spent 20 years, is "the most complete physical manifestation" of his philosophy - but Beuys opined: "The silence of Duchamp is overrated."

Marllyn, Hitler and Me by Milton Shulman (Deutsch. pounds 7.99, 422pp)

As the sub-Milligan title suggests, Shulman is not the most modest of hacks. In the final paragraph of this memoir, he accepts responsibility for the knighting of Ayckbourne and Stoppard. So blatant is this trait that it is even endearing (one reviewer astutely compared him to Mr Toad). Though some bits have a musty smell, there are many good anecdotes, like Eli Wallach nearly thumping George Brown on TV or Beaverbrook's warning to Shulman when appointed film critic: "Film companies will try to bribe you with money, liquor and women."

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (Flamingo, pounds 8.99, 463pp)

"Lacking airs, tall, arresting. sexually attractive and extremely stylish." It is impossible not to draw parallels between Georgiana (1757-1806) and another Spencer female who similarly was rarely out of the papers. Foreman deftly picks her way through a tangle of sexual and political shenanigans in this justly acclaimed portrait of an irresistible, if deeply flawed woman (at 30. her gambling debts amounted to pounds 60,000). Princess Di would surely have adored one 18th century detail: "the Prince" was a common euphemism for menstruation.

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester (Penguin, pounds 5.99, 207pp) You won't read a more enthralling work this year than this account of a deranged American surgeon who spent 38 years in Broadmoor after murdering a labourer in 1872. From his cell, William Minor became a leading contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. This story brilliantly weaves together the American civil war, the history of lexicography and Victorian asylums, but at its heart is the tender relationship between Minor and OED editor James Murray. Everything is wonderful about this book apart from the misleading introduction

ENDS-LG

RJC-PA

Spending

by Mary Gordon,

Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99

310pp

MIDDLE-AGED New York artist, Monica Szabo, has got herself a male muse - a sexy commodity broker as good in bed as he is in the kitchen. Even better, he inspires Monica's greatest work, a series of paintings of post-orgasmic Christs that catapults her into art stardom. Upper East Side wish fulfilment at its most sophisticated as Gordon examines the relationship between money and art, creativity and gender. But it's when she describes needle-sharp showers and expensive take-outs that Gordon really hits her stride.

The Gabriel Club

by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

Granta, pounds 6.99, 396pp

1,286pp

ROY-BHATTACHARYA's impressive poetic thriller centres round a dissident group in pre-Velvet Revolution Budapest, and the mysterious disappearance of its founding member. Nearly 20 years on, a wax effigy of the missing woman is found floating down the Danube, a circle of red roses round its head. The central characters act just as you would expect from mittel-European intellectuals: they walk around naked, smoke like chimneys and spend aeons of time debating the meaning of existence.

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