Books: PAPERBACKS

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, Penguin pounds 5.99. On the face of it Unsworth's tale, shortlisted last year for the Booker, is a dourly medieval whodunnit in which travelling players arrive at a provincial town and, determining to stage the story of a local murder, uncover unforeseen depravity and chicanery up at the castle. But on closer examination we have something more than an leaf out of Brother Cadfael's Casebook. Unsworth's text brandishes a fistful of thumpingly contemporary themes, which surprised me since I had never previously seen him as an allegorist. Nor as a psychic, come to that, since this novel eerily anticipates many aspects of the Belgian Dutroux affair: paedophiliac kidnapping, the trade in political and sexual favours, media intrusion, censorship. A thoroughly modern Middle Ages, in fact.

The Book of Modern Scandal: A Treasury of Bad Behaviour ed Bruce Palling, Orion pounds 6.99. It kicks off with Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb, but this book only looks comprehensive as it enters the 1980s. The selection is wildly uneven: there's no possible equation of significant cases like Dilke, Profumo and Wilde with the elopement of Jimmy Goldsmith. The editor claims to be guided in his choice by "entertainment value", and it's certainly possible to enjoy Camillagate (with full transcript of That Tape) and the matter of Andrew Neil and La Bordes. It's harder to chortle at a villainous event like the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. Would its inclusion be anything to do with the fact that the dead were dark- skinned and the perpetrator a comic blimp?

Testaments Betrayed by Milan Kundera, trs Linda Asher, Faber pounds 7.99. For Kundera, realism is trumpery and morality is death to the novel. In these essays on fiction he carries with him a sackful of books by his favourite writers from Rabelais and Cervantes to Fuentes and Rushdie, but he returns again and again to his fellow Czech Kafka, who embraced everything Kundera thinks valuable in literature. His passionate argument is that the ability to side-step judgement and pass into amorality was an essential precondition for the development of fiction. It was also a tremendous step forward by mankind that freed literary humour and metaphor in a way never possible before.

Schliemann of Troy: Treasure & Deceit by David Traill, Penguin pounds 8.99. Heinrich Schliemann, the "discoverer" of Troy, was a great manipulator of the media, knowing just how to dramatise his finds: "I have gazed upon the face of Agammemnon," he telegraphed after unearthing a golden mask at Mycenae. He was one of those (Berenson was another) whose stake in the game of scholarship was immense, in money and prestige, and a compound of vanity, cupidity and archaeology gave him the drive to reveal a civilisation that had thrived a thousand years before Plato's republic. It also entailed a degree of fantasy and book-cooking that has bedevilled Homeric archaeology ever since. Traill's exhaustive account is itself a piece of archaeology, digging with care into the record, sifting evidence and coming up with a fascinating commentary.

Fullalove by Gordon Burn, Minerva pounds 6.99. The tabloid hack who tells this tale lives a life soused in equal parts of Stolly, deadline-adrenalin and self-disgust. Norman Miller wishes he was his homonymic alter-ego but the nearest he comes to The Naked and the Dead is in covering the latest sex-crime. He is a recycler of human misery, bagging the emotional debris left behind by private tragedy and boiling it down into news- paper words that have all the freshness and sincerity of condolence- card poetry. Burn's own words are at the other end of the scale, at times scabrous but always punchy, and his novel manages to stir something like compassion for the media rat- pack, living in serial contact with the victims and perpetrators of rape, child-abuse, suicide and murder.

Anatomy of Decline by Peter Jenkins, Indigo pounds 8.99. Politicians of course take themselves too seriously but the true test of political columnists is whether they can bear to take the multiple pomposities, paranoias and vanities of politicians seriously enough. The late Peter Jenkins's newspaper columns were often acerbic but, in banging the drum for social democracy some years before the Gang of Four emerged in their knitwear, he showed an enthusiasm for the rough and tumble of British politics, and an appreciation of the relative costs and consequences, which gave much contemporary relevance and readability to his work. Jenkins frequently struck notes that still resound today, for example in dealing with the Tory Right or the issue of sovereignty in Europe.

In the Time of the Americans by David Fromkin, Papermac pounds 14. This is big, fat, readable history, so traditional in its approach that Plutarch or Holinshed might have approved. Fromkin sets out to trace the lives and foreign policies of the last generation of "great" American leaders (FDR, Truman, MacArthur, Marshall, Ike), uncovering patterns in their response to the pugnacious age of Roosevelt and the lessons of the Great War. He sketches their achievements as well as failures, such as the handling of the Soviets, and gives honourable mention to significant lesser figures like Felix Frankfurter, William Bullitt, the Dulles brothers and Averill Harriman. He is significantly almost silent about the operation of the Monroe Doctrine and policies towards South America which, in retrospect, seem to have been so obtusely self-interested.

Comments