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Literature in space and space in literature

Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900

by Franco Moretti

Verso pounds 12

If "history" has been derailed into "heritage", and time no longer signifies a continuum of hope and decay but is converted by technology into parallel, international clocks, space is the only place left in which philosophers and literary critics can play. Although even this area is problematic, since global corporations have eroded distance (making all international markets easily accessible) and polluted the environment, so that we think only in terms of its ecology.

So we should be grateful that Franco Moretti, who teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has stepped into the breach with his own special brand of geographical literary criticism. Crudely speaking, Moretti concentrates on literature in space, and space in literature. As he states at the outset, "Geography is not an inert container. [It] is not a box where cultural history `happens', but an active force, that pervades the literary field and shapes it in depth." Thus he shows how in the 18th and 19th centuries that most contentious of spaces, the European nation-state, needed its own cultural form of self- expression, and how the burgeoning form of the novel suited these purposes exactly.

He illustrates his thesis with gaily coloured maps that trace the route, say, of Gil Blas's encounters with supporting characters on the road, or the growing tide of translations of Europe's first best-seller, Don Quixote. The point of all this esoteric industry is to analyse the manner in which geographical co-ordinates shape not just the content (for example, the action in historical novels tends to be set alongside disputed regional borders) but the style of literature (when borders are crossed, metaphorical language is employed to convey the sense of disorientation). And he does so most persuasively. The respective topographies of Balzac's Paris, Dickens's London and Sir Walter Scott's Scottish Lowlands yield fresh insight into cultural history, and confirm old suspicions. Readers will not be surprised to learn that "France is clearly the epicentre of the world's evil", and that any young hero who ventures into Paris's Latin Quarter is bound to be corrupted. Inevitably, the picaresque novel emerges as: "the great symbolic achievement ... defining the modern nation as that space where strangers are never entirely strangers". And it is the literary genre that becomes him most - ambling through a vast array of texts, making fortuitous discoveries.

Moretti's maps, then, make connections - fascinating, illuminating connections - which, if the reader is prepared to follow long, declamatory paragraphs that take a line of reasoning that sees no need for main verbs, will fulfil the need for an old-fashioned, materialist discourse.

How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food

by Nigella Lawson

Chatto pounds 15

Whereas Delia Smith tells us how to cook in the most painstaking, laborious detail, Lawson capitalises on contemporary appetites and busy lifestyles by telling us how to enjoy our food in style. No fussing over toast racks, no waiting for the fast boil, but lots of impromptu dinner parties and hungover breakfasts. Lawson's aim is to free us from the tyranny of the recipe. Her "ridiculously easy" chocolate cake, and "quick, foolproof" custard will delight the child in all of us, whilst the section on "Feeding Babies and Small Children" will furnish harassed adults with imaginative but straightforward advice. Meanwhile, flesh-eaters will be amazed at what she can do with a chorizo sausage.

Sinatra: The Artist and The Man

by John Lahr

Phoenix pounds 8.99

John Lahr, drama critic for the New Yorker and a superlative writer on the performing arts, set himself the task of squaring a circle with this brief, intelligently illustrated biography of Frank Sinatra. "How to reconcile the enchanting crooner and the explosive bully?" Go back to Hoboken, New Jersey, Lahr suggests, where the "solitary latchkey kid", and offspring of the local backstreet abortionist started his amazing trajectory into the stratosphere of fame. Here he perfected his image of "perfect individualism", and swaggered on to the stage on behalf of the whole of post-war America. Lahr locates the intersecting points between the public and private Sinatra with the deceptive ease of his endlessly fascinating subject.


by Tony Adams with Ian Ridley

Collins Willow pounds 6.99

The Arsenal footballer who was once known, even to his fans, as "Donkey" proves himself to be an urbane, literary sophisticate. Well, almost. Therapy- speak and Colemanballs aside, this is an honourable addition to the field of sport-lit. Its authors won Sports Book of the Year with it, and Adams won new fans for his inspiring display of honesty. "Prison [for drunk- driving offences] had told me I was a survivor", but at subsistence level: remorseless alcoholism, the breakdown of his marriage and wetting the bed landed him in AA meetings, and it's been one match at a time since then. As for the future, with the canny footballing insight he shows here, management surely beckons.

The Anatomist

by Federico Andahazi; translated by Alberto Manguel

Anchor pounds 6.99

Mateo Colombo, the most famous physician in 16th-century Italy, can hold his head high in the Age of Discovery, as having unearthed a treasure of enormous significance for mankind - the clitoris. Andahazi, first-time novelist from Argentina, playfully pays homage to this genuine Renaissance scientist, but the real subject of his clever, slippery novel is the unknown realm of female sexuality and men's attempts to understand and control it. Set in Venice, Colombo sighs with unrequited love for Italy's most skilful and industrious (if emblematically one-dimensional) prostitute, and is threatened with the stake if he refuses to censor his magnum opus. Andahazi tells his story with wit and magic-realist flourishes.

The War Zone

by Alexander Stuart

Black Swan pounds 6.99

This first novel caused attention-seeking controversy when it was announced that Stuart had won the top Whitbread prize. Clearly, Tim Roth read the papers that day, because he's made it into a film. The subject? Incest. The treatment? Confrontational. Stuart presents a sexual relationship between father and daughter. The narrator is a victim of his own adolescent urges, the style in which he tells his story is raw and angry, revelling in imagery that is bloated with corruption. He watches his father and sister in action, reflecting: "I must be sick, watching this." Something with which the reader would be naive to concur.