Books paperbacks: Tigger's take on the Shakespeare of prose

The Day Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style

by Tom Paulin

Faber pounds 10.99

Prose doesn't stick in the way that poetry does; and while Hazlitt's poetical contemporaries - Keats, Shelley - have held on to a central place on the curriculum, "the Shakespeare prose-writer of our glorious country" (William Bewick's description) has been pushed out to the margins. Both OUP and Penguin publish decent selected works, but otherwise there is nothing readily available to the general reader.

This may have to do with the sort of writer and the sort of man he was - thorny, egotistical, sensual, content to offend contemporary opinion even when he wasn't actively eager to do so. That is why, as Ronald Blythe writes in the introduction to his Penguin selection, assessments of Hazlitt have "a certain maggoty quality and are eaten through with reservation". But his absence from our consideration is surely attributable, too, to the demands of the curriculum: poetry, being denser, can bear the weight of criticism more easily than prose, so it's the poets who get written about and considered.

But what Paulin does in this brilliant, almost overpowering book is to subject Hazlitt's style to the kind of microscopic scrutiny usually reserved for poets. He picks out the intense imagery and themes with which his "plain-speaking" prose is shot through, and shows how notions of movement, elasticity and electricity inform the style - much space is devoted to metrical analysis of the writing, picturing out the sharp rhythms which for Hazlitt were as important a weapon as the words themselves. The bedrock of Paulin's argument is that the seizing energy in Hazlitt's writing is not to be separated from his radical political views: the son of an Irish Unitarian minister, he was steeped in the culture of "rational dissent", but added to it a delight in the irrational, the grotesque. Paulin's own Tiggerish style is finely tuned to his subject.

It isn't an easy book to read, at least at the start, when it's hard to see where Paulin's ricocheting arguments are leading. And his belief in the Shakespearean complexity of Hazlitt's language sometimes leads him into contention: he baldly states that a phrase of Hazlitt's, "Being, sense, and motion", picks up Claudio in Measure for Measure ("This sensible warm motion") - a weak echo, which could owe as much to reading Locke and Hobbes as to Shakespeare. But still, this is criticism of rare passion which recognises that literature is not something to bury your nose in but part of life.

Russia's War

by Richard Overy

Penguin pounds 8.99

Antony Beevor's Stalingrad may have walked off with all the prizes, and it is a thoroughly gripping piece of story-telling; but if you seriously want to get a handle on the blind prodigality of the Eastern Front in the Second World War, Overy's book is the place to start. Overy has all Beevor's flare for drama, combined with a far sharper sense of historical context - he shows how Stalin's Soviet Union was in many respects a consequence of tsarist oppression and civil war, and while Overy's Stalin is still monstrous, he becomes a comprehensible, perhaps even a necessary monster. He covers much more ground than Beevor, far more concisely, and it costs four quid less.

Pleasured

by Philip Hensher

Vintage pounds 6.99

Assured and elegant, Hensher's story of lives intersecting in Berlin in the months before the fall of the Wall is an impressive attempt to come to grips with the event. This Berlin is, like Isherwood's, a moral backwater, sufficiently cut off from the wash of events for its inhabitants to drift: Friedrich drinks too much and runs a fake drug deal; Peter Picker photocopies interesting news stories and goes to parties; Daphne finds purpose in pointless revolutionary "actions". Unfortunately, at times Hensher himself won't let things slide - a feverish child turns out, predictably, to have meningitis; an East German defector is, of course, a Stasi informant. He tries to fit just a little too much in, and there's a sense of strain that his elegance can't quite compass.

Another World

by Pat Barker

Penguin pounds 6.99

One of the characters here believes that "you should go to the past, looking not for messages or warnings, but simply to be humbled by the weight of human experience that has preceded the brief flicker of your own few days ..." The weight of human experience bears down heavily on all the characters in this book: 101-year-old Geordie, a Somme veteran approaching death; his grandson Nick and his children, whose fraught relationships are diagrammatised in a savage, century-old mural under the wallpaper. Barker's sense of history is strong; the qualification is that her vision of the present, with its socially excluded council estates, violent computer games and quarrelsome extended step-families, is too consciously topical.

The Stone Book Quartet

by Alan Garner

Flamingo pounds 6.99

Garner's best-known books - the children's novels Elidor, The Owl Service, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen - have all been concerned with exposing a magical, mythic stratum underlying the everyday, especially in his own corner of Cheshire. This short sequence continues the job at a more realistic level, telling how one family passes down the generations a sense of craft - the craft of the stonemason or the blacksmith. The stories are simply written, and at one level are an old-fashioned parable of the dignity of the working-man, the need to see history as the aggregate of ordinary lives. But they are charged with another layer of meaning: for Garner, craft is less a technical skill than a sense of our kinship with, and indebtedness to, the soil.

Slow Motion

by Dani Shapiro

Bloomsbury pounds 7.99

How a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey ended up as the mistress of her best friend's stepfather: Shapiro's memoir has everything you expect from an account of 1980s excess - the sex, the cars, the swish hotels, the jewels, the drink, the coke, the FBI investigation. Most importantly, there's the repentance, the realisation (when her father dies and her mother is terribly injured in a car crash) that her life is all wrong ... Shapiro tries to have her cake and eat it, showing off all this ersatz glamour then getting smug about how she chucked it and became a talented writer. In fact, she traded in excessive drug use for excessive writing: overliterary and appallingly self-conscious, this is a book to avoid.

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