BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, Picador pounds 5.99. Nabokov wrote The Enchanter, the "first little throb" of Lolita, in 1939 before he moved to America. His son Dmitri translated this long-lost novel 10 years ago, and it is reissued here with a lengthy "postface" designed to debunk the "inane hypotheses" that attach themselves to his father's work. One of these is paedophilia, which Dmitri prefers to think of as an interest in "the strange distortion of parenthood". The nameless narrator, like Humbert, is in his forties and frequents public parks looking out for little girls at play: "and tomorrow a different one would flash by, and thus, in a succession of disappearances, his life would pass", until one nymphet inflames his passion to the point of obsession. Unlike Lolita, she is no seductress. Nabokov conjures a fairy-tale out of the determination with which the enchanter infiltrates her family. He marries her dying mother, who leaves the wicked stepfather as sole guardian. Nabokov described this as "a beautiful piece of Russian prose", and his son has served him well in maintaining the tension of his taut, byzantine sentences. The enchanter is a fascinating piece of characterisation - his refined and acute observations denote a man of sensitivity, but the denouement reveals him as a contemptible lecher, capable only of enchanting himself.

! Eat Fat by Richard Klein, Picador pounds 6.99. Forget New Year self-denial, "fat is a fabulous three-letter word". From the champion of nicotine (Cigarettes Are Sublime), comes this witty and erudite history of blubber. Klein analyses the aesthetics of fat and its relationship to power. He compares "the shapes and widths of Claudia Schiffer's body" to that other great beauty, Queen Nefertiti, "whose hips and thighs swell from the waist, whose stomach protrudes". Lovely though she is, Schiffer's "body lacks the solid form and weighty movement that lend authority and dignity to a royal body". As for contemporary heavyweight leaders, Klein repeats the gossip that, while dining in a Washington restaurant, Bill Clinton and Helmut Kohl finished off a whole dessert trolley between them. Their bulk is equated with their success, their "greed" with their hunger for it - and we must emulate them, he concludes. I can't see many takers.

! Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski, Granta pounds 6.99. After long bouts of depression, novelist Jenny Diski finds "a kind of joy totally disconnected from the world" when surrounded by white, be it the white sheets of a hospital bed, the glittering white of ice-rinks, or the white bedroom she wakes up in each day before the colours of the world assault her. She pursues her dream of total immersion to the Antarctica. This memoir- cum-travelogue deploys her considerable novelistic skills to unravel the mystery of her parents' whereabouts in tandem with ruminations on the great explorers, the fate of the elephant seal, and observations of her intrusive bird-watching companions who voyage with her. Diski is a hopeless traveller, and whether she ever sets foot on an ice-cap is unclear, but this is irrelevant. She finds her longed-for oblivion in the cabin, reading Melville and watching icebergs float past her porthole. The reader is cheated of a climax, but is left satisfied that Diski reaches her destination.

! The Memory Game by Nicci French, Penguin pounds 5.99. "Nicci French" is the pseudonym of journalists Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, and this is their first novel. It's a psychological thriller that hinges on the newsworthy issue of False Memory Syndrome. A lot of research has gone into this - specifically, the potential for abuse within the therapeutic relationship. Twenty-five years after her disappearance, the remains of 16-year-old Natalie are discovered buried outside her parental home. Jane, Natalie's childhood friend and soon-to-be ex-wife of her brother, is the narrator, and the shock of this forces her into therapy. French leads the reader through the twists and turns of unreliable memories in an ingenious updating of the whodunnit. It's slick and well crafted, but flawed - the characters belong to the world of colour supplements, and two voices, alas, do not always make one.

! Skin by Joanna Briscoe, Phoenix House pounds 6.99.

Joanna Briscoe's second novel confirms her reputation as a formidably talented writer. Her prose is polished, sophisticated and seductive, rather like her heroine, the French feminist and erotic novelist, Adele. Adele's success has been in mythologising herself, as a thinker and as a woman. But now she is 40, and her looks are beginning to let her down. In desperation, she abandons her principles and herself to the surgeon's knife, and Briscoe charts each intervention with macabre glee. As each layer of skin is removed, Adele's vulnerability is exposed, and as "a country-shaped stain dribbles onto the pillow", the years seep away.

If you are fascinated by heraldry - the signs, terminology, the right of arms - but tend to nod off when confronted by row upon row of coats of arms, then this is the book for you. Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning by Ottfried Neubecker and J P Brooke-Little (Little, Brown pounds 16.99) features sumptuous illustrations of sculptures, jewels, portraits, stained glass, tapestries and tabards mingle with fabulous beasts, shields and family trees, drawing you effortlessly and irresistibly into an understanding of the rules of heraldry: "everything connected with arms is decoration, both the coat of arms itself and whatever is applied to it. Its unimaginable variety within a strict but flexible framework has a charm which once succumbed to can never be forgotten." Nuremberg's coat of arms (left) contained the imperial eagle, showing that the city was under the wing of the Emperor.

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