Books: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles by David Thomson, Abacus pounds 9.99. Others have said that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made. Thomson goes further: for him, Kane is not just the best film that ever has been made, but the best that ever will be made and ever could be made. It "sums up the entire medium and holds in reserve for those prepared to look and consider the ultimate desolation of the thing called cinema". That judgement, with its strange combination of admiration and disillusion, gives you some idea of why Thomson's biography is so compelling. As narrative and documentary, the book is thorough and readable; beyond that, it shows a determination to realise all Welles's own complexity, and the complexity of the author's feelings about his subject. Thomson gives Welles his due as a genius of radio and theatre, as well as cinema, while never disguising the fact that he's a monster. But the prose is mannered, sometimes to the point of sniffiness; and much of the critical discussion of Welles's work takes the form of a dialogue between the author and an imaginary publisher. This gets wearing. Perhaps that's deliberate, a way of identifying the book more closely with its tricksy, infuriating subject; and in any case, the thrust of the story and the acuity of Thomson's judgements make up for it.

Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge, Abacus pounds 6.99. Beryl Bainbridge's account of the voyage of the Titanic, shortlisted for the Booker and winner of the Whitbread, and quite right too. It's part historical reconstruction, part rites-of-passage novel, part social critique, the different elements slotted together so effortlessly that you barely notice the richness of Bainbridge's picture, or how pointed her moral is. Through the eyes of her narrator, Morgan, a wealthy young American with an enigmatic past and a strong sense of fate, she conjures up a hallucinatory picture of a glittering, rotten and doomed society - at times, it feels like an ocean- going version of The Great Gatsby. Written in an elegant, spare prose, it is original, fascinating and memorable.

Michael Heseltine: A Biography by Michael Crick, Penguin pounds 8.99. For most of his life, Heseltine has been telling anybody who would listen that one day he was going to be prime minister - friends recall him saying so back at university in the 1950s. On a number of occasions, the sheer nakedness of his ambition has provoked potential allies into taking him down a peg or two. So it would be easy to do his career as classical tragedy, the hero brought low by hubris. The strength of Crick's excellent, proudly unauthorised life is that he resists that sort of dramatisation - instead, he writes plainly and patiently, assembling the facts and leaving judgements to the reader. What emerges is more unnerving than a mere tragedy: instead, it's the story of a deeply flawed man who could very easily have been prime minister - chance and other people's misjudgements spared us.

The Age of Anxiety, ed Sarah Dunant and Roy Porter, Virago pounds 7.99. A collection of essays on the angst that has supposedly taken hold of our society in the run-up to the millennium. But are there are significantly higher levels of anxiety than in the past, and has the millennium has anything to do with them? Geoff Watts, in his essay on public anxieties about science, tackles that last point head on: "Is there a millennial link?" he asks, and supplies his own answer: "I am certain there is." (Good to have that one cleared up.) There are some useful pieces in here - notably Geoff Mulgan on fear of computers and Mary Midgley on the environment (she puts the refreshing view that anxiety is a perfectly healthy reaction to depleted resources). The late Oscar Moore is bitingly funny on the subject of Aids; Michael Ignatieff, tackling a sense of community, makes some sharp points about Thatcherism and the inevitable divisiveness of a competitive society, but seems to think that New Labour income tax increases will create another sort of social division - what increases would these be, Michael? Elsewhere, writers seem unsure of where they are supposed to be going, and the whole enterprise is fuzzy and unfocused. That may not be surprising, since a lack of obvious focus is one of the characteristics of anxiety, but it is disappointing.

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. From the author of This Boy's Life, stories about men who talk too much, young men discovering their own capacity for betrayal or failure, loners getting entangled in other people's families - witty, cynical, sad, full of plausible incongruities, and written with impressive clarity. As snapshots, they often feel a little posed: a plot twist is too contrived, a moral is forced into place. But the best of them show the knack of opening out rather than closing possibilities, leaving you dwelling on where it could all lead.

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