Books: Perfumes from the past

A Week in Books: Bennett crossed with Proust? It's a storm in a French teacup teacup
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GOOD THINGS may come in small packages but so, to be sure, do whopping irritations - not least, those yapping "Little Books" that sell by the truckload just now. These gobbets of vacuity represent the bargain- basement side of a powerful literary trend: the rediscovery of brevity as the soul of more than simply wit. Short novels monopolised this year's Booker, and a virtual novella won it. In non-fiction, publishers now try endless shies at the jackpot for small-but-perfect titles that Longitude first hit.

Cue a lot of doomy talk about the decline of our attention-spans and the dominion of design over content. Well, up to a point - but the quest for terse but dense artistic forms has helped to fuel the Modernist project for a century or so. Poets have always dealt in miniatures and microcosms. But the landmarks of 20th-century prose often take the form of aphorisms and fragments too, from Kafka to Beckett via Borges - whose tale "The Aleph" evokes a tiny crystal that can cram the whole universe into "a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness".

The latest seeker after that perfect crystal sphere is the French writer Philippe Delerm. His 86-page book The Small Pleasures of Life (Phoenix House, pounds 5.99; translated by Sarah Hamp) has sold almost a million copies in his native land. These 32 meditations on the minor glories of a rather old-fashioned French rural life - from "a Sunday morning box of cakes" to "an autumn sweater" - have been packaged here as a sort of upmarket stocking-filler. As such, they work pretty well, from the sand that burrows into holiday books "like extra punctuation" when you read on beaches to "the smell of warm wool mixed with damp gabardine" in the mobile library on a winter morning.

Yet, beyond the oodles of nostalgic charm, lies a deeply French attempt to devise a set of imagistic prose-poems that catalogue the effects of time and memory on feeling. Imagine Alan Bennett crossed with Marcel Proust, and you'll have the long and the short of Delerm.

You might, in fact, want to read his little gem as a sort of concentrate distilled from In Search of Lost Time. Delerm makes one direct allusion to Proust (as a beach-read, optimistically) but the novelist's vast joys shadow all these little ones. As he summons up the scent of apples that lets us "live the past within the present", or the old, slow diesel train that chugs us back into "a bygone era of compartmental etiquette and packed lunches", Delerm is dealing in dunked madeleines for the fast-food generation. The tiny book feeds off a huge one, like a tick on an elephant. Monty Python imagined a "summarise Proust" competition. For pounds 5.99, and an hour of precious time, you can savour the clear winner.

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