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Leonardo's Nephew

by James Fenton

Penguin, pounds 9.99, 284pp

IT IS no disparagement to say that the Oxford Professor of Poetry is a first-rate hack. Two decades or more ago, Fenton wrote one of the funniest political columns of modern times in the New Statesman. He later revealed a keen eye for quirky stories during three years as South-East Asian correspondent of this newspaper. The reason for his disappearance from British newsprint is that Fenton moved on to the lofty slopes of the New York Review of Books, where he has devoted himself to exploring fine art. This collection of 15 beautiful written essays shows Fenton to be as keen as ever about pursuing unlikely twists.

Typical is his investigation into Seurat's masterpiece Une Baignade a Asnieres in the National Gallery. Fenton notes that the idyllic Asnieres was the evacution point for a Parisian "super-sewer" built by Haussmann. Some 154,000 tons of effluvia, including horse droppings, were annually debouched into the Seine, "about 6in to the left of the carrot-headed boy on the bank". Eager to sniff out the facts, the assiduous Fenton attempted to buy a sewer map from the Paris sewer museum, but the attendent refused "for reasons of the security of the French state". It appears, however, that the bathers were a few hundred yards upstream in "the last (comparatively) unpolluted stretch of the Seine".

Elsewhere, we learn that for his sculpture of Balzac, Rodin devised a pose in which the great author "grasped his erect penis". This potent symbol of genius was then swathed in a dressing gown for the final version. The story crops up as an aside in an essay on the French sculptor Maillol. Fenton describes the heterosexual sculptor's uneasy relationship with Count Harry Kessler, a "deeply queer" patron of the arts. When Kessler attempted to commission a portrait of Nijinsky, Maillol was unenthusiastic: "Is he not plump?"

Fenton explores a wide artistic terrain. He moves with ease from Egyptian mummy portraits to the pop constructions of Robert Rauschenberg. His essays are as impressive for their readability as their perceptions. CH

Once Upon the River Love

by Andrei Makine

Penguin, pounds 6.99, 216pp

AS EXOTIC a read as his previous novel, Le Testament Francais (winner of the Goncourt and Medicis Prizes), Makine's latest novel tells the coming-of-age story of three young Siberian teens whose snow-bound horizons are forever transformed by a season of Jean-Paul Belmondo films. Intoxicated by the images of desire, passion and fun showing at the local Red October cinema, the three end up exchanging the cedar-scented forests of their childhood for new lives in the West.

Roger Fishbite

by Emily Prager

Vintage, pounds 6.99, 228pp

NOVELIST EMILY Prager has a reputation for being a bit naughty. Her latest book, a millennial re-working of Lolita, is narrated by 13- year-old "Lucky Lady Linderhof", "the first sexually abused girl-child... actually to murder her abuser". Lucky lives with her funky mother in New York, but things take a turn for the weird when their lodger, a tall Texan, starts leaving the shower curtain open. Twinkly and ironic though Prager's writing is, Lucky never becomes real enough to give her story proper bite.

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