BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! Paris Interzone by James Campbell, Bloomsbury pounds 7.99. This account of writers in post-war Paris is concerned with the anglophones who, by the late Forties, were returning in numbers to the arrondissements of J Joyce and G Stein. It was a disparate bunch - Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Alexander Trocchi, Christopher Logue, William Burroughs - all keen to be geniuses together around St Germain-des-Pres, to sleep in dim chambres de bonne, and otherwise to live and (in the semi-public style popularised by Sartre) write in cafes. Much of the output was bread-and- butter porn for Olympia Press, and sex was after all nothing new in the avant-garde. What this group added in the Fifties were the pioneering ingredients of drugs and race, still staples of the metropolitan literary diet.

! Why The Allies Won by Richard Overy, Pimlico pounds 12.50. Overy begins by looking with admirable clarity at three critical junctures of World War II, each dating from 1942: the defeat of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad/Kursk, the Japanese naval reversal at Midway and the introduction of effective anti-U-Boat measures in the Battle of the Atlantic. In explaining the war's outcome, Overy goes on to emphasise Allied superiority in leadership, motivation and organisation, all gaps which began to widen rapidly from 1943. On the way, the myth of German super-efficiency takes a few direct hits. There was one Division in Normandy organised by medical disability: a company for men with stomach disorders, another conscripted entirely from the short-sighted, and so on. It sounds straight out of Spike Milligan.

! You Can't Do Both by Kingsley Amis, Flamingo pounds 5.99. This is good and much of it funny stuff, despite the labyrinths of its sentence structure. Robin Davies, the hero of Sir Kingsley's last-but-one novel, is no stranger to the bind of the title, an injunction delivered by his father in terms whose sternness is meliorated only by the man's pompous complacency, and implying that social rectitude and physical pleasure are incompatible lifetime goals. The thumping great block in the path of Robin's sexual education, a frequent one in mid-century suburban England, is that hindering their adolescent child's sex life was a parental prerogative pursued even more tenaciously than going to the office or paying the income tax. Robin at last negotiates the rat-run of family interference to achieve approximate sexual maturity, but in such a hostile climate that you want to cheer as you might a chap who's just walked across Antarctica in flannel pyjamas. Later it all goes wrong, of course, and it's his fault, stupid bugger.

! Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant by Amy Knight, Princeton pounds 12.50. With the same rimless pince-nez and freeze-dried stare, he was the spiritual twin of Heinrich Himmler, two secret policemen with no discernible emotional dimension beyond the relish of power and the will to use limitless cruelty in getting it. The first English biography presents Beria in lurid terms - that his favourite pastimes were classical music and the rape of young girls, that he kept up contacts with Nazi Germany throughout the war, that his complexion was "greenish pale", hands moist and eyes bulging. But almost everything about this nasty individual is open to question. Thriving as he did in an environment of maximum treachery and connivance, nothing said about him post-mortem can really be trusted. Amy Knight nevertheless makes a good job of her preliminary sifting of evidence.

! Walter and the Resurrection of G by T J Armstrong, Headline pounds 6.99. Walter is a 12th century cartwright's son, born Nuremberg, died Cyprus. His fictional autobiography features picaresque adventures in company with a band of merry men and lasses - from mystic monks to murderous mountebanks and scabby drabs. There's a pan-European conspiracy by an elite brotherhood dedicated to arcane knowledge whose precise nature Walter cleverly succeeds in keeping dark, at least from me. Appended is a novella with a modern setting about G, an Oxford philosopher and magician who is in touch with Walter of Nuremberg on the psychic internet. A jolly, rather gripping novel in which the shades of Hermann Hesse and John Fowles vie for dominance.

! Lord Gnome's Literary Companion ed Francis Wheen, Verso pounds 11.95. To say these book reviews from Private Eye are critical is like saying Ron Knee is a shade off-colour. His Lordship's bookish chum is unremittingly vituperative - about authors, who strike him as freeloading lamebrains or con artists (a rare exception, oddly, being Robert Robinson) and equally about publishers, agents or anyone else in the book trade. The knockabout fun gets a mite repetitive, and many of the targets are sitting up on the firing range in day-glo suits. But this is nothing compared to Wheen's absurdly pompous preface, which asks you to consider the collection as meet for a thesis.

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