BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov & the Risks of Fiction by Michael Wood, Pimlico pounds 10. Nabokov confounds literary vigilantes, the moralising surface-skimmers who hate literature for its ambiguity even as they insist on uncovering its simple (and disgraceful) meaning. That is his importance - to glory in the risks of double meaning and moral reversal. His work looks for what can be gained in the translation; converts the actions of a madman into "turning a new leaf with the left hand"; treats certainty as an expression of doubt. In a memorable passage Wood analyses Nabokov's famed emotional detachment, as when he compared (in Speak Memory) his father's murder to "those mathematical puzzles that torment us in feverish sleep". Did he really feel like this, or is it simply a way to cope in retrospect? For Wood, Nabokov's cool stance exemplifies his "refusal to be bullied by the rages and accidents of history". At book length, readable and challenging lit crit is rare. This is both.

! To War With Whitaker: The Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly 1939-45, Mandarin pounds 5.99. Newly married Hermione Ranfurly's husband Dan, a cavalry officer, gallops away to the world's first mechanised war with his manservant Whitaker and two chargers. Not wanting to be left out, she follows them to Alexandria, booking (astonishingly) through a travel agent. The vicissitudes of war and her own refusal to miss the fun lead her to Palestine, Cape Town, Cairo, Baghdad, Ankara, Jerusalem, Algier and Italy. As secretary to General "Jumbo" Wilson, C-in-C Middle East, then to an equally top brass, Air Marshall Slessor, the Countess's plus- points were humour, resilience and common sense. Her diary, though in no way profound, is a glorious social and historical document with sharp glimpses of theatre-of-war eccentrics like David Stirling, Fitzroy MacLean, General Patton and Randolph Churchill.

! Pollen by Jeff Noon, Ringpull pounds 6.99. Noon's future-shock Manchester is a genetically disrupted society of humans, robots, zombies and dog- people, suddenly threatened by a cloud of killer pollen released by invaders ("Vurts") from the dream dimension. So now it's up to shadowcop Sibyl Jones (a "Dodo" with no dreams of her own and hence immune from Vurt attack) to wage a lone struggle on behalf of reality. Far-flung stuff, but Noon is only symbolically representing a bunch of familiar and contemporary urban themes: racism, drugs and crime. And he does it with considerable expertise to produce, if you like, a cybernated police procedural. Or Ed McBain on acid.

! Wrongful Deaths by William Wharton, Granta pounds 6.99. In 1988 Wharton's daughter, with her husband and two small children, died in a car crash caused by stubble-burning in Oregon, the news reaching him at the same time as a never-to-be-eaten takeaway pizza. Wharton's fiercely honest book - part-faction but all, as he insists, true - bares his pain like an exposed bone. Recovering what is left of his life, he sets out to right the wrong and make sure that it cannot recur. We read about such accidents often, asking ourselves whether we could stand this in our family, what would it be like? Wharton knows: "It's as if I've been knocked down in a football game, clipped, and I can't get my breath for several seconds. Then I can, and begin to sob with such violence that I almost throw up. I fight for breath between sobs, but that is only the outside. Inside I am knowing things I have no way of knowing."

! Curzon by David Gilmore, Papermac pounds 13. Not a very likeable character (he was priggish and pedantic from an early age) and utterly hostile towards Indian nationalism, Curzon was, in Gilmore's portrayal, one of the most effective administrators in Indian history. Appointed Viceroy before the age 40, he ruled 300 million people from 1898 to 1905, instituting reforms and pursuing justice (as he saw it) with tireless industry and high-mindedness. His later career was bumpy, but he was not a bad post-war Foreign Secretary in the 1920s, despite refusing to install a telephone ("disastrous invention") at home. He should by rights have moved to Downing Street in 1923 but lost out to Baldwin and died of disappointment two years later. This is an excellent biography, witty and knowledgeable.

! Purcell by Maureen Duffy, 4th Estate pounds 7.99. In the 300th anniversary year of Purcell's death, at least four substantial biographies have come out, each of necessity built on a plethora of possibles and maybes. It is amazing how little is known about Henry Purcell's life, considering that he lived in that most gossip-addicted community, the City of Westminster during the age of Pepys. This is clearly a job for an imaginative writer, and novelist Duffy is up to the mark. She knows a catch from a glee all right, but she can also bulk out the thin gruel of the Life with a spicy and nutritious helping of Times.

! Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 by Eric Hobsbawm, Abacus pounds 9.99. The grand old man of communist historians looks back gloomily on our blood-thirsty, boom-and-bust century in which hopes of global Marxist revolution surged like a tidal wave before retreating suddenly into oblivion in the 1980s. Some have claimed that the atomising of the left has also spelled the end of history itself. Not likely, as Hobsbawm points out, with the world sundered between developed and undeveloped populations, the former playing smugly with its technology while the southern world rises towards some critical mass of resentment. The flesh-and-blood consequences of politics and economics are Hobsbawm's thing and he remains unmesmerised by the wonders of technology. After all, as he'd enjoy pointing out, two- thirds of the world's people have never even made a telephone call.

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