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Woody Allen: a biography

by John Baxter

HarperCollins, pounds 8.99, 492pp

THOUGH HIS range is limited, Woody Allen is the most productive cinematic auteur of our time. This adroit portrait from a seasoned film biographer (Fellini, Bunuel, Spielberg, Kubrick) does not shirk from revealing Allen's less appealing aspects. Of course, the shrieking drama occurs on 13 February 1992, when Mia Farrow entered Allen's Fifth Avenue duplex and discovered six Polaroids of her step-daughter Soon-Yi, "nude... with her legs open". But this bizarre event ("I felt I was looking straight in the face of pure evil," spat Farrow) was presaged in 1956 when Allen did the same thing with his first wife, Harlene Rosen. Friends "were taken aback when he casually passed round some nude pictures he'd taken of her".

Sex aside, perhaps the most incongruous aspect of this famously reclusive personality is his weekly appearance tootling the clarinet in the Hotel Carlyle. The venue is always packed by celeb-hunters who would not normally lend an ear to the archaic jazz of New Orleans. Baxter lashes Allen's playing as barely adequate. "It's the first time he's made me laugh," opines one jazz pro. Baxter stresses the gulf between cool, successful Allen and the witty, self-deprecating Woody on screen. As Allen admits, "A certain part of my personality has got that rigid obsessive coldness."

Baxter allows a generous sprinkling of Allen's gags to spice the copy. "Two martinis, very dry," demands Dianne Wiest's femme fatale in Bullets Over Broadway. "How do you know what I drink?" asks a besotted playwright. "Oh, do you want one too?" she responds frostily. Though insightful and absorbing, the book gets repetitive as it tracks Allen's ceaseless output. His joyless life amounts to little more than writing and filming. Someone points out it's not surprising that he took up with Soon-Yi since he has not met another woman in years. CH

Jonathan Swift

by Victoria Glendinning

Pimlico, pounds 9.99, 336pp

BLESSEDLY CONCISE, this is the most enjoyable account of a distant literary giant (1667-1745) you could imagine. Despite the gulf, Swift's disgust with the world has an astonishingly modem ring. Glendinning's impressionistic prose brings this uncomfortable, hyperactive figure (he was perpetually running up and down staircases) vividly to life. She brilliantly evokes sparkling London and the backwater of Dublin, which Swift first hated, then championed, but the dark heart of the book is the Dean's unhappy entanglement with his muses, Stella and Vanessa.

Spider Web

by Penelope Lively

Penguin, pounds 6.99, 218pp

THE PRESENCE of the past is a recurring theme in Penelope Lively's fiction, and her latest novel, a tale of Nineties rural life, knits together personal history with the more ancient influences of landscape and place. Stella and Nadine were best friends at Oxford, but while Nadine embraced domesticity, Stella pursued a career as an anthropologist. Now retired, and living close to her late friend's husband, Stella finds herself trying to adapt to life in a Somerset village - a society as cruel and complicated as any she has studied in the field. Lively at her donnish best.