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Explosions and starbursts of self

Proust Among the Stars

by Malcolm Bowie

Fontana pounds 7.99

Malcolm Bowie is Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at Oxford University, and has written on Freud, Proust, Mallarme and Lacan, singly and in illuminating combinations. His latest contribution to our understanding of French literature consists of a thematically arranged decoding of the "sublime extremities" of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. When Bowie describes Proust's mammoth novel as a "a 3,000 page incantation, an insolently protracted exercise in word-magic", he is setting the tone for an inspirational critique in which he gives as generously of himself as does his subject.

Each chapter offers a route back to the delights of the Proustian paragraph and the sense of limitless potentiality they offer. He starts with the versions of selfhood through which Proust's narrator constructs his narrative. Through close readings, Bowie locates the points at which selfhood is lost and found. He conjures up the enigmatic narrator as a series of "explosions and starbursts", which, when they finally settle on one resolved self are but "one momentary geometry among many others".

Although the book's thematic division stops Bowie just short of delivering a masterpiece of regenerative criticism ("Sex", "Time" and "Death" are awkward subjects to divvy up), each chapter effects a kind of revelation. He evokes the "majestic respiratory rhythm" at work, the multiplicity of viewpoints that render the narrator feckless and scatterbrained, or epiphanic. Momentarily, the constellations reveal themselves from amidst the dizzying mass of stars, and the novel's glorious architecture is briefly glimpsed. These rapturous moments of clarity occur again and again in Bowie's analysis, and they are undimmed by the rigorous analysis that underpins them.

His work on Proust's seemingly endless sentences encourages the reader to take the grammar's pulse, and feel the ebb and flow of meaning as it is deferred in parentheses, disrupted in digressions, and then, finally, with a quiet flourish, disclosed. It is only right, then, that Bowie should deliver a critique that sucks the reader into a rollercoaster ride of metaphysical disclosures.

Primordial Soup

by Christine Leunens

Dedalus pounds 7.99

Kate is the anorexic narrator and second-generation Lithuanian immigrant to Florida whose penchant for vampirism indicates Leunens's delightfully perverse reading of the family dynamic. Kate's mother is coarse and insensitive, leaving her daughter to wallow in dangerous fantasies. When her mother sees Kate fighting with her sister, she laments "You' own flesh an' blood!", conjuring the image in Kate's head of her sister as "red meat". If you combine this with the sores on Christ's body, it isn't surprising that these "intensive doses of theology and genealogy did not assist my cold- blooded eating of flesh". There is nothing cold-blooded in Kate's sexual experiments, which combine flesh and hunger.

East and West

by Chris Patten

Pan pounds 8

As last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten presided over Britain's final episode in its imperial history. Here, he updates his well-received chronicle of the end of British rule and his part in it, with a postscript that assesses Asia's economic crises and the first signs of patchy recovery. Not surprisingly, "the best Tory politician of his generation" dismisses Blair's "Third Way" and Germany's "New Middle" as a "loincloth" which covers "socialism's failed orthodoxies". The answer for the centre right, he contends, is to uphold the things that made Britain, whoops Europe, great: markets, free trade, and liberal economics. Oh, and they also need "a strong political and moral lead". Only the suffix "-er" is missing.

Dog Days

by Aidan Higgins

Vintage pounds 6.99

"I met a broadshouldered big-beamed water-eyed farsoonerite farmer in shit-caked wellingtons who was knuckling the ducts of his weeping red- rimmed eyes with a raw-boned hand." Irish scribe Aidan Higgins does not mince his words in the second volume of his fetishistically literary autobiography. He relates two years in his life, during which he shacks up with a woman and her bad back - but mostly as he lives it in the imagination. He can be moving (on his father, especially, "dying piecemeal"), and he can be infuriating (see above). But most of all, he is an exciting writer who dares to play tricks - with linguistics and with the unreliable workings of his memory.

Spanking Watson

by Kinky Friedman

Faber pounds 5.99

The Kinkster is back. Let s/he who is without prejudice cast the first aspersion on this politically unreconstructed private dick. Kinky has to get the builders in when Winnie Katz, his upstairs neighbour, and her lesbian dance troupe start pounding the boards. Irate, he pens an anonymous death threat, then gets his band of "Village Irregulars" to discover the culprit, and thus determine which one is worthy to play Watson to his Holmes. But Kinky is flummoxed when, after his cohorts bug Winnie's flat, he discovers there is a plot against her life. And it isn't his. Never mind the plot, dear reader, this is comic joie de vivre.