Books: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
! Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the First World War by Philip Hoare, Duckworth pounds 11.95. A fruity account of the 1918 trial for "obscene and defamatory libel" of the proto-fascist independent MP Noel Pemberton Billing. Billing had published in his newspaper the Imperialist the claim that the German government possessed a "Black Book" containing the names of 47,000 British sexual perverts - "Wives of men in supreme position were entangled. In Lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed." When he further claimed (under the somewhat baffling heading "The Cult of the Clitoris") that audiences at the dancer Maud Allan's performances of Oscar Wilde's Salome included many of the 47,000, Allan and her producer sued. The resulting trial proved an extraordinary and inflammatory mix of society tittle-tattle, amateur lit crit and paranoid fantasy, and the arena for Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and literary executor, Robbie Ross, to continue a seething, vicious feud over Wilde's legacy. Hoare has a bad habit of drawing conclusions about personalities from ancient photographs, and you get the feeling he is overstating the sexual hysteria of the age, but it's a thrashing good read.

! The Ordinary Seaman by Francisco Goldman, Faber pounds 7.99. The ordinary seaman is Esteban, a young former Sandinista fighter who leaves Nicaragua for the promise of a job aboard a ship moored in Brooklyn Harbour. But when he and his fellow crew members arrive, they find themselves stranded on board a rat-infested wreck, with no money, no electricity, no plumbing and no way home: now is that a metaphor for the human condition or what? The sterility of this situation hardly ever infects the book - a warm, intricately imagined tangle of memory, fantasy and grubby reality. It's a spiritual descendant of Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, with its message that love is "the only survival, the only meaning"; but Goldman's book - based on a true incident - is larger, more ambitious. The only problem is the irritating way that the dialogue is peppered with Spanish words and phrases: "Va, pues", "Putamadre", "Hijueputa", "No jodas".

! The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, Penguin pounds 8.99. Any account of contemporary physics is bound to flirt with loopiness to some degree, but David Deutsch's stab at a theory of everything goes a lot further than just flirting. You've hardly opened the book before he has his tongue down loopiness's throat and is trying to undo all its zips: parallel universes, concrete mathematical entities, infinitely powerful computers generating entire universes of virtual reality ... stuff like that. Fundamental to Deutsch's argument is that our best theories of epistemology and evolution, viewed from the perspective of the multiverse (the trillions upon trillions of parallel worlds that make up reality), are not temporary truths about psychology and biology, but laws governing the structure of reality. The oddest part is his insistence that he is not offering a radical reinterpretation of things, but just tying up the loose ends in what we already know. Mind- boggling and bizarre, but that doesn't mean it isn't all true.

! Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917 by Geoffrey Hosking, Fontana Press pounds 9.99. In Russian, apparently, there are two words for "Russian": russkii for the people and rossiiskii for the empire. Hosking, the author of a much-admired History of the Soviet Union, argues that this dichotomy reflects a tension in Russian identity - that, in effect, Russia's nationhood has been diluted and corrupted by imperial ambitions, so that modern Russians have a confused idea of who they are and where their borders stop that makes them a problem for everybody else. Anyone looking for a straightforward narrative of What Happened In History should probably go elsewhere. Otherwise, be grateful for the graceful and convincing way that Hosking entwines political theory with brute historical fact, and his fairly optimistic conclusions about the future.

! The Way I Found Her by Rose Tremain, Vintage pounds 6.99. 13-year-old Lewis travels from Devon to Paris to stay with the glamorous novelist Valentina Gavrilov while his translator mother works on her latest fiction. His detached, philosophical approach to life is disrupted by the stirrings of a sexual obsession with Valentina, and then by a more melodramatic turn of events. Some interesting threads run through the story - the idea of translation (French into English, adult speech into child thought, love into sex) and all the things it loses, a recurring image of rooftops - and it has an overwrought, hazy emotional edge all its own. But speaking as somebody who was once a 13-year-old boy, I don't recognise much - well any, of Lewis's experience, and the scenario scores very low for plausibility.

The sixth travel book to date from David Gentleman records his wanderings in Italy through his distinctive pen and wash drawings and meatily concise descriptions of what he sees (he's already carried his sketchbook around Britain, its coastline, London, Paris and India to great effect). His lyrical introduction expounds his views on Italy, Italians and the culture, his insights deepened, as you'd expect, by a habit of looking intently. Townscapes, cathedrals, churches, houses, more churches, and towers - lots of towers - are crammed into every available space. The book has the feeling of a carefully edited sketchbook without losing any of the serendipity from not knowing what to expect on the next page. The one disappointment, given the beauty of the Italian countryside, is that landscapes, specifically rural vistas, are thin on the ground. Gentleman obviously prefers towns. Left: the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milan.

David Gentleman's Italy (Hodder pounds 14.99)