BOOKS PAPERBACKS: Sterility and brilliance in an ivory tower

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The Greatest Sorrow

by Keith Ovenden

Penguin pounds 7.99

The pure novel of ideas is a comparative rarity in this country; and it's certainly uncommon to come across one as readable and page-turning as this. The narrator is Philip Leroux, an Oxford don, fortyish, whose marriage is sterile and whose best friend, the brilliant, unorthodox Moser, has just died. Leroux's grieving for Moser and memories of their lives together are intertwined with his thoughts about Alexander Herzen, the 19th-century Russian philosopher who is his hero, and whose life he has just written.

It's a book about memory, biography, chance, about the gulfs between people which intimacy can barely disguise; mostly, it's about freedom, and how to attain it. Herzen's most celebrated book was Childhood, Youth and Exile, and is about how our pasts shape us, how the quest for freedom, the struggle to be oneself, inevitably makes us into a kind of exile. Science comes into it: Moser was a Darwinian heretic, cast out by the biological establishment for his views on evolution and human nature - he believed that we can fashion our own selves in defiance of biology. He also believed in pattern: nothing happens without a purpose, if you can dig deep enough, a belief that is borne out by his own almost magical meeting with a woman called Vita.

The precision of the writing is not immediately engaging - in other words, don't judge it by the first page - and the density of ideas sometimes leaves little room for the human side of the characters: in that regard, the only other recent novel with which I can compare it is John David Morley's Destiny, a meditation on German national character with occasional stabs at a storyline. Ovenden doesn't go to quite those extremes, though, and once the book warms up, the weight of thought makes up for any slackening of the narrative.

You might be tempted, too, to dismiss it as an ivory-tower novel, taken up as it is with the self-obsessed rituals and in- fighting of academia. But the contrast between Leroux's circumscribed life and the intellectual freedom he struggles for is intentional (contrast Leroux's wife, a banker who travels the world but is chained up by dogma); so is the irony that Leroux is busy writing a life rather than leading one. A provocative and at times maddening book; but also, in a cool, detached way, a lovable one.

Homegrown Revolutionaries: An American Militia Reader

ed D J Mulloy

UEA pounds 12.99

The popular picture of American militias is of a bunch of paranoid, far-right psychopaths, driven by testosterone and mad conspiracy theories. What D J Mulloy demonstrates in this handy anthology is that they are a varied bunch: alongside the Congressional reports and pamphlets reproduced here, there is also a lengthy interview with the 51st Missouri Militia (51st because the Waco siege lasted 51 days), expressing anti-racist views and a healthy detestation of what they perceive as the militarisation of federal government. Of course, there is plenty of wacko stuff too, or it wouldn't be any fun. You need to order it from the distributors, Turnaround: 0181 829 3000.

Gone Astray and Other Papers from Household Words

by Charles Dickens

Dent pounds 14.99

There have been selections of Dickens's journalism before; the advantage of Dent's complete edition is precisely that it doesn't select. This anthology offers the social reformer's righteous outrage, the needle-sharp satire and sparkling caricature, the connoisseur's eye for the grotesque and the absurd; it also has Dickens's acute sense of the strangeness of childhood. But it also offers puke-making sentimentality, sledgehammer humour, page-filling; and the ambiguities of fiction are sometimes reduced to headline simplicities - compare industrial relations in Hard Times with industrial relations here, in "On Strike". Not just literature, but unconscious autobiography.

Night Duty

by Melitta Breznik

Steerforth pounds 8.99

A hypnotically bleak, spare first novel by an Austrian psychiatrist: a doctor on night duty, exhausted by lack of sleep, performs an autopsy on a dead patient, then proceeds to do the same to her own life - anatomising a claustrophobic, poverty-stricken childhood. As she patrols the wards, her consciousness flickers back to other hospitals, to her sick brother, her alcoholic father, her memories running on uncontrollably. It's fuelled by a powerful, doomy vision of life grounded in the flesh, a present perpetually on the run from the past. Underneath, though, is a kind of optimism - love survives, however irrational and unrewarded. Not that I'd give it to anybody with depressive tendencies.

Bestiary

by Richard Barber

Boydell Press pounds 19.99

Hugely enjoyable, this English version of a 13th-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library offers every kind of beast: from the homely (the dog, goat and water-ouzel), through the exotic (the panther, the ostrich and the bonnacon - a bull with curling horns which farts its enemies into submission) to the downright mythical (the salamander, the phoenix and the manticore). Along the way, the reader is offered a good deal of unhelpful information (the lick of a dog heals wounds) and moral instruction (the coot raises the orphaned young of eagles). The illustrations are gorgeous and well-reproduced, to their original size; and it makes a very nice, if pricey, stocking-filler.

Undercover Lives: Soviet Spies in the Cities of the World

by Helen Womack

Phoenix pounds 7.99

This is based on a Russian book called The KGB's Travel Guide to the Cities of the World - the thinking behind that seems to have been that since KGB agents were the only Russians who ever travelled, it made sense for them to give everybody else the benefit of their experience. Womack's version, based on interviews with the agents, is less about the places and more about the business of Cold War spying - anecdotes about recruiting agents and shaking off trails, the mechanical details of a dead-letter drop, selecting a restaurant to meet your informants. The guidebook sounds like more fun, but this is interesting.

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