BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Eye's Mind: Bridget Riley Collected Writings 1965-1999

Edited by Robert Kudielka

Viking pounds 16.99

In the early 1960s Bridget Riley's black-and-white striped paintings offered an unheralded optical experience for art lovers. Their dazzling, eye-bending quality provoked one New York cartoonist to draw a screaming woman hanging on to her husband as he is dragged head-first into the irresistible black hole of a dot painting called "Fission". Riley's impact on art and design resulted in shop windows imitating her "Op" art innovations, which led to her fear, it is revealed in this definitive collection of Riley's essays and interviews, that it would take "at least 20 years before anyone looks at my paintings seriously again".

Luckily, we read later, she was proved wrong. Indeed, the main achievement of this volume lies in its chronological account of an artist-in-progress, told in her own words (and she writes with the same compelling immediacy and precision with which she paints). But as one of the most important abstract painters of her generation it is inevitable that she has had a lot of explaining to do. Patiently, she outlines her approach in such a way that we can go to her paintings (beautifully reproduced, by the way) with a deeper understanding of their intent. For example, she describes the dizzying impact of the 1966 "Static 1" in terms of the dynamic created by the variegated dots: "I feel that when Michelangelo said that he let a figure out of stone, I feel that I let the energy out of the forms, the elements, via the relationships."

Clearly, the visual effect of these relationships is the key to her work; later she compares her approach to colour with that of the elderly Monet in the same terms: "when his eyesight began to fail him, [Monet] painted some of his most beautifully subtle canvases from the names on tubes ... [This] was only possible because he knew that ... in the end it was the precision of relationships that counted." Everything in this book illuminates; her art criticism, accounts of her childhood, her (eccentric) schooling and travels make for a retrospective of her career that aspires to the model of Paul Klee's Notebooks. This is a fascinating, educative read, and it is to her credit that her lucidity does not cloud when confronted by the obfuscating jargon that infects so much of contemporary art criticism and that is displayed in all its pomp and circumlocution by her editor and various of her interlocutors.

The Artist's Widow

by Shena Mackay

Vintage pounds 6.99

Anyone who has ever been foolish enough to attend a private view at a Mayfair art gallery will relish the opening scene of Mackay's latest novel. The self-congratulation and pretension endemic in this particular social grouping are subtly lampooned (no real art appreciation takes place, but lots of self-serving and "working the room"). But what is particularly clever about Mackay's satire is the way her deft approach to characterisation becomes the story's exposition. Lyris Crane is the 80-year-old widow of artist John Crane, and an artist herself. So she is ripe material for feminist film-maker Zoe Rifaat's documentary about neglected women artists ("Gwen John was a miles better artist than her husband", she gushes in blissful ignorance). But the real villain of the piece is Lyris's great- nephew, Nathan, whose personal hygiene is as offensive as his conceptual art (pictures of his bottom) but far more revealing. While there is much to laugh at, Mackay's intent is to illustrate the seriousness of art's purpose, and she successfully makes the case that to succeed as an artist, one must first succeed as a human being.

The Luneburg Variation

by Paolo Maurensig

translated by Jon Rothschild

Phoenix pounds 5.99

"They say that chess was born in bloodshed." Murder, morality and the queen's-pawn chess opening concern first-time Italian brainbox-novelist here. Maurensig's gripping plot twists and sonorous prose style startled critics into making comparisons with Italo Calvino. What a pleasure it is to have to keep up with the duel of wits that takes place during the horrors of the Holocaust, as one captive player dices with death and attempts to outmanoeuvre his sadistic captor. On every level, this powerful, intricate narrative cuts to the quick, dissecting extremes of human emotion in fiendishly clever moves, yet never alienating the reader with intellectual gameplaying.

George Eliot: The Last Victorian

by Kathryn Hughes

Fourth Estate pounds 8.99

Both George Eliot's emotional and intellectual development are explored with a wonderfully fresh insight and authority by this doctor in Victorian Studies blessed with a populist touch. The dilemmas that faced first Mary Anne Evans (as she was christened), then Marian Evans (as she renamed herself for literary London), and finally, George Eliot (the pseudonym that paid tribute to her married lover, George Lewes) are reproduced with all the forcefulness with which they impacted on our freewheelingly complex heroine. Most praiseworthy, though, is Hughes's ability to relate Eliot's controversial love life with the paradoxical stance of social conservatism that pervades her fiction - something that has long puzzled feminist critics. Ultimately, this most empathetic of biographies should be read for its distillation of the intense intellectual excitement generated by "the cleverest woman in England".

The Nation's Favourite: The True Adventures of Radio 1

by Simon Garfield

Faber pounds 5.99

Foolhardy BBC executives allowed the man who debagged ITV's Saturday- morning wrestlers to be a fly on the wall during the most crisis-ridden period in Radio 1's history. The result is a rich tapestry (at times, confusing) of voices unashamed to reveal the extent of their sycophantic, backstabbing attempts to hold on to their turntables.

The Haunted Major

by Robert Marshall

illustrated by Harry Furniss

Canongate pounds 5.99

No less than John Updike provides the introduction to this 1902 classic of golf literature in which Major the Honourable John William Wentworth Gore, "the finest sportsman living" by his own admission, is given his come-uppance by the game that sorts the putt-ers from the tee-ers. Not content with outdoing P G Wodehouse (who loved the book) on the urbane- charm stakes, this undeservedly obscure Scottish writer introduces the ghost of a Scottish cardinal on to the course to settle an ancient religio-historical score with this representative, pompous Brit. Let us hope that P G and Marshall are peaceably trading fours in that great bunker in the sky. LP

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