BOOKS / Paperbacks

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African Laughter by Doris Lessing, Flamingo pounds 6.99. 'The marvellous African laughter,' Doris Lessing tells us, is 'born somewhere in the gut, seizing the whole body with good- humoured philosophy. It is the laughter of poor people.' Also perhaps the laughter of irony and despair, one might be tempted to add - but this affectionate and respectful account of four visits to Zimbabwe, the country in which Lessing grew up, but from which she was banished for many years, would disarm all but the most hardened cynic. It is scrapbook reportage, building up a rounded picture not by exposition or detailed description but with a pot-pourri of anecdotes, songs, newspaper cuttings, obituaries, poems, impressions. Lessing also tells us that more people are killed by lightning in Zimbabwe than anywhere else in the world. What more could you want?

Nabokov: The Russian Years and Nabokov: The American Years by Brian Boyd, Vintage pounds 9.99 each. No biography is definitive, but Boyd's acclaimed and minutely detailed two-volume life comes pretty close. It is an admiring portrait which probably underplays Nabokov's arrogance (his favourite writers were Pushkin, Shakespeare and himself; he once tried to have a student who did not share his dislike of Dostoevesky expelled), but these artfully written and perceptive volumes shed a bright light on every aspect of Nabokov's identity - his life, his ideas, his times.

Tea with Marcel Proust by Judy Kravis & Peter Morgan, Road Books pounds 13.95. 'Being ill in French has always been a very sweeping gesture; it's not something idly undertaken,' opines world expert Monsieur P in a scoop of an interview from beyond the grave. Just one of the daft and engaging takes on the world of French letters, plus Peter Morgan's collages and photomontages (above), in this madeleine-light but dead chic stocking-filler.

The God-Fearer by Dan Jacobson, Sceptre pounds 5.99. What if Judaism, rather than Christianity, had become Europe's dominant religion? Would our sorry record of scapegoating and persecution be different? Inverting history, this restrained and unsettling little novel (shortlisted for last year's Whitbread Prize) delicately explores the nature of guilt, as the hero, an elderly Middle European bookbinder, is haunted by the doleful spectres of two young members of a despised Christian sect. A potent, compassionate and intelligent fable.

Grand Street 34, W W Norton pounds 7.50. The latest issue of this New York-bred but determinedly internationalist literary quarterly which combines the cool, book-bound good looks of our own Granta with the kind of quirky mix of subjects and writers you find in London Magazine: Calvino, William T Vollmann, Richard Olney on bouillabaisse, Tony Richardson on theatre, plus superb photographs of the mad constructions of sculptor Nancy Rubins.

Showman: The Life of David O Selznick by David Thomson, Abacus pounds 9.99. Agreeably written portrait of the archetypal old- style Hollywood producer - ambitious, arrogant, memo-mad, fond of booze, gambling and the casting couch, vain (he once shut his balls in a dressing-table drawer while admiring himself in the mirror) and a brilliant hustler and packager of other people's talent. The big personality, formidable energy and, above all, the credits - Rebecca, Spellbound, The Third Man - more than justify the 700 pages.

Tchaikovsky Remembered by David Brown, Faber pounds 12.99. One of a delightful series (also available in hardback, pounds 20; other subjects are Bartok, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel and Gershwin) using the personal reminiscences of contemporaries to illuminate the characters of great composers. Tchaikovsky certainly comes alive here: trying, with complete unmusicality, to demonstrate how he wanted a choir to sing, then breaking his baton in frustration when they failed to please him; dodging Tolstoy in the street so as to avoid their habitual arguments about the merits of Beethoven; being mystified when asked how he invested his money because the idea had genuinely never occurred to him; growing animated 'as soon as the word Paris passes his lips'.

A Nation of Change and Novelty by Christopher Hill, Bookmarks pounds 10.95. Zestful essays exploring the nature and impact of revolution in 17th-century England by one of our best history watchers. Ever sceptical about the veracity of state papers, parliamentary debates and public documents (too tainted by self-censorship), Hill relies on testimony from observers on all sides: the obscure as well as powerful, the fringe and the always shifting centre. People never before involved in politics became vocal and influential; there may have been no plotters, no Lenin, but Hill leaves us in no doubt that British freedoms were hard won in the teeth of repressive authority. A bracing and provocative read.

Cutting Timber: An Irritation by Thomas Bernhard, trs Ewald Osers, Vintage pounds 4.99. Sitting in a wing-chair in the house of a couple he has known for years, on the day his lover Joanna has hanged herself, the narrator muses on his distant youth, when 'I didn't have a penny in my pocket, and yet had been able to afford everything', and on the spiritual bankruptcy that has come upon people whose artistic life he once admired. This splurging interior monologue elegantly doubles as a black comedy of manners, and our admiration for Bernhard's deft craftsmanship grows every time he neatly sidetracks our increasing desire to throttle his obnoxious narrator. It grows into a most enjoyable irritation.

Sadhus: Holy Men of India by Dolf Hartsuiker, Thames & Hudson pounds 12.95. A blessing from Mahant Hagawan Das (above), one of scores of marvellous mystics - philosophical monks, ascetic warriors, even religious transvestites - stunningly photographed in this lucid and revelatory account of the earthly representatives of the Hindu gods. In some sects, keeping the right arm raised for years at a time - not surprisingly, the limb withers away - is one of the most holy and admired acts of self-mortification. Certain Sadhus wear wooden chastity belts, a few even adhere full-time to the habit that led the ancient Greeks to christen them 'the naked philosophers'.

Authority by Richard Sennett, Faber pounds 9.99. First published in 1980, Sennett's idiosyncratic critique of modern attitudes to political authority has not aged well. Sennett is a novelist and urban historian as well as a radical social theorist, and his discussion ranges impressively across literature, history and philosophy. But his contention that instead of attempting to throw off authority we should accept its fundamental necessity - once, perhaps, a welcome corrective to 1968-style thinking - no longer hits home, and the details of his argument are often vague, even obscure.

Murdoch by William Shawcross, Pan pounds 5.99. William Shawcross is famous for Sideshow, his devastating indictment of Nixon's and Kissinger's Cambodian massacres. It was not surprising, then, that he alighted on Rupert Murdoch, so often demonised by the left. What was more surprising was that Murdoch agreed to co-operate with Shawcross and gave him several interviews. The result did not please everybody: liberal reviewers - especially in Britain - complained that Shawcross had been seduced by Murdoch, that his 'expose' was compromised. But there is no denying that Shawcross tells his extraordinary (and scarey) story very well. Perhaps Murdoch's own assessment gets it right: 'He's a very good journalist . . . He managed to offend everybody, my wife, my family, my mother, my friends, and certainly all my enemies.'

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