Books: Paperbacks

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Collected Stories by Vladimir Nabokov, Penguin pounds 9.99. The blurb quotes the critic James Wood: "A gorgeous book, a tutor in exquisiteness." So it is: Nabokov's meticulous eye and Mozartian ear - his translation from Russian writer to one of the most polished writers in the English- speaking canon is one of the miracles of modern letters - hardly seem to belong to the messy, vicious century he was living in. And that's his trouble, quite often. Reading these 65 stories, assembled in one volume for the first time, you realise how much of Humbert Humbert's impatience with the crankiness of adult flesh, in Lolita, was a version of the author's own fastidiousness, a fussiness that here creates an air of sterility. Nabokov will linger over enchanting sensual details (the shades of tan and pink on the bodies of sunbathers, say, or the precise sound of a snicker). He rarely makes you feel, as Updike will, that he's told you something you never knew, or put his finger on something you've been trying to express. But in many stories, he makes a virtue of polish, showing how the inevitably neat structures that imagination imposes are mismatched with the scruffiness outside. This is partly an aesthetic stance, partly a political one. He's at his most energetic and attractive when he's attacking the totalitarian need to make everything fit, in stories like "Tyrants Destroyed", "Cloud, Castle, Lake" and "The Leonardo", where he reads like a more worldly Kafka (though in the notes to "Ultima Thule" and "Solus Rex", which began life as the opening chapters of a novel he never finished, he's careful to point out that the character K is to be thought of in connection with a chessman, not a Czech).Of course, that anger comes from his own experience. From the very beginning, a sense of exile weighs down these stories (and at time you think: thank goodness something does). Many are set among the White Russian diaspora; in others, the characters are deracinated in some less obvious way. Little that he wrote escapes an autobiographical tinge, and the chronological arrangement here enhances that effect. If you want the best of him as a writer, stick to the novels. This collection is not always gorgeous, and when it is, it isn't always pleasing; but as the record of the development of an astonishing writer, it is an unfailing source of interest.

! Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960 by Christopher Isherwood, Vintage pounds 9.99. Next to Isherwood, of course, Nabokov's hints of autobiography look positively meagre. No other writer has mined his own life for material more exhaustively, first as fiction, then as explicit autobiography and now here. The diaries start in 1939 - the end of that low, dishonest decade, the year that Auden and Isherwood set off together for exile in America, and Isherwood met his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, and settled in Hollywood. There are some long gaps, mostly due to drinking or depression; 1945-49 is done in breathless outline ("April 28. Day with Wystan, Hugh and Chester. 29. Breakfast with Gore. 30. We left for England"). The bulk of the book, though, consists of detailed chronicles of daily life, grumblings about the film industry, gossip about friends and acquaintances, and commentaries on Isherwood's own spiritual state. Whether anybody is much bothered about Isherwood the writer these days is a moot point (but see below); but it's hard not to warm to Isherwood the person. What comes across more and more as you read is the sincerity of his desire to be a good person and a good artist. And the sheer breadth of his acquaintance is impressive - the index is awash with grand names: Huxley, Forster, Connolly; Montgomery Clift, Stravinsky, Charles Laughton.

! Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood, Minerva pounds 5.99. To coincide with the publication of the Diaries, a reissue of his 1946 novel, a brief sketch of adventures in the film trade set in London in the mid-Thirties. The narrative revolves around the relationship between Isherwood and Friedrich Bergmann, a charismatic socialist film director from Vienna (based, you learn from the Diaries, on Isherwood's friend and mentor Berthold Viertel), who finds himself in charge of a petty British musical at the time of Anschluss. Beautifully written, full of quirky period detail, and a satisfyingly complete meditation on the inadequacies of art.

EVENTS

LONDON: poets Judi Benson and Judith Kazantzis read from their work at the Voice Box, RFH, South Bank, SE1; Tue 9, 7.30pm, pounds 4/pounds 2.50. 0171 960 4242

2 Paul Durcan reads from his book-length poem, Christmas Day, an antidote to 'a world run seasonally mad'; Purcell Room, RFH, SE1; Wed 10, 7.30pm, pounds 6/pounds 3.50. 0171 960 4242

MANCHESTER: Ruth Rendell (below) talks about her last book Road Rage; Waterstone's, 91 Deansgate; Tue 9, 7pm, pounds 3. 0161 832 1992

CANTERBURY: Janet Backhouse, the Keeper of Illuminated manuscripts at the BM, gives a talk with slides on her book The Illuminated Page at Waterstone's, 20-21 St Margarets St; Tue 9, 7pm, pounds 2. 01227 456343

Salisbury: Leslie Thomas reads from Chloe's Song at W H Smith; Sat 20, 1pm, free. 2-4 Old George St. 01722 327093

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