Books: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
About Modern Art by David Sylvester, Pimlico pounds 12.50. Reading these essays on art arouses some of the same emotions as an encounter with a person of extreme and obvious sanctity. You have to admire Sylvester's simple faith in art, his absolute belief that colour and form can express everything about the human condition that needs expression, with a clarity that groping words can't ever achieve. But from time to time you feel faintly embarrassed by his zeal: he can't seriously mean this, can he? Viewing late Rothko, does he really feel hemmed in by forces buffeting his every nerve, and imagine the gravity of his body is multiplied as if some weight borne on his shoulders is grinding him into the ground? Next to this elemental passion, one's own responses seem so feeble, so unworthy. But this volume, which collects essays written from 1948 to 1997, also contains passages that dazzle with clarity of language, and the light they throw on the means and ends of art. His defence of Gilbert and George's "Naked Shit Pictures", and the chapters on Bonnard and Johns, are tender, almost seductive in the way they steer the reader towards new ways of looking at and feeling about painting. It is, as they say, a book no lover of art can afford to be without.

Destiny or The Attraction of Affinities by John David Morley, Abacus pounds 6.99. Ostensibly a novel, but it doesn't provide any of the usual satisfactions of the form: the characters are sketchy at best, some of them no more than a collection of abstract characteristics with a name attached, and they exist not within a narrative so much as a series of loosely related events, which together constitute a sort of psychological history of modern Germany. It may not sound appealing, and it isn't an entirely comfortable read - some of Morley's sentences are appallingly long and abstruse, no doubt the result of prolonged immersion in German culture. But overall Destiny is an uncommonly satisfying book, richly thoughtful and informative, balancing ideas and their symbols with bewitching preciseness.

The Riddle and the Knight by Giles Milton, Allison & Busby pounds 9.99. Giles Milton journeyed from Istanbul to Sinai in a search for proof that the 14th-century travel-writer Sir John Mandeville wasn't the total fibber that posterity has always supposed. Since most of Mandeville's account of his supposed circumnavigation of the globe is obvious fiction (men with faces growing out of their chests, etc), and nearly all of it is pinched from earlier writers, this is a fruitless quest. Milton wrings some mildly interesting travelogue out of the trip, but you'd be better off buying the Penguin Classics edition of Mandeville's Travels, which costs pounds 7.99 and is a good deal racier.

Does It Show? by Paul Magrs, Vintage pounds 5.99. An oddball blend of magic realism of the kitchen-sink variety, set on a council estate in County Durham: punch-ups, gay sex, sexual ambiguity, telekinesis, visions of tiny magic animals, that sort of thing. The eccentricity feels contrived, but Magrs writes with charm and optimism.

Honor and Slavery by Kenneth S Greenberg, Princeton pounds 11.95. From a dispute over the authenticity of a supposed mermaid to the pulling, or attempted pulling, of President Andrew Jackson's nose, Greenberg attempts to delineate the bizarre, unworldly code of honour that ruled the Old South, and show that it was intimately related with slavery. The theory doesn't always wash - Greenberg has some over-subtle, unpersuasive ideas about the fundamental importance of social "masks" - though the basic truth is obvious: if death is preferable to dishonour, anyone who is prepared to live in slavery (ie, all slaves) deserves anything you do to them. The book's main attraction is a wealth of anecdotes, showing the absurd touchiness of the Southern gentleman and the lengths to which he would go to guard his reputation.

Furious Interiors: Wales, R S Thomas and God by Justin Wintle, Flamingo pounds 8.99. Not so much a literary biography as a study of Anglo-Welsh relations through the lens of Thomas's poetry and his disagreeable public persona. Wintle's analyses of the poems are persuasive, as is much of what he has to say about the development of Welsh national identity; but quite a lot of his judgements are eccentric, some of them downright loopy. And boy, you wish he didn't keep trying to dramatise his "quest" for Thomas as a first-person adventure. I blame that Ian Hamilton for writing In Search of J D Salinger.

The catalogue Cindy Sherman Retrospective (Thames & Hudson pounds 22.50) accompanies a touring exhibition of this provocative and engaging artist. Containing over 279 black and white and colour illustrations, it is a fascinating examination of her work over the past 20 years; from the early Untitled Film Stills series in the late Seventies, developing through Rear Screen Projections, Centrefolds, Fashion, Fairy Tales, Disasters and History portraits in the Eighties, to Sex, Horror and Surrealist pictures in the Nineties. Sherman has made it her business to explore the nature and impact of the representation of women and the body by the media through the ages, and this is analysed in three essays by Amada Cruz, Elizabeth A T Smith and Amelia Jones, accompanied by excerpts from the artist's notebooks, and selections from her contact sheets and Polaroid studies. Her work, dominated by self-portraits, is "simultaneously horrific and comic, abject and insidiously seductive ... horror, humour and the grotesque pervade her treatment of the human figure or its surrogate, colliding and intertwining in provocatively complex and intriguing ways." After several years spent focusing on body parts, her latest work featured has returned insistently and hauntingly to the face. The works are numbered rather than titled, leaving all interpretation to the viewer. For the Untitled Film Stills series in particular, the temptation to construct a story for each of the black and white pictures is overwhelming.