Sunday 22 June 1997
A Vicious Circle by Amanda Craig, Fourth Estate pounds 6.99. A version of this novel was sent out for review by Penguin last year and then withdrawn, following the complaints of a critic who thought he saw in it an unflattering portrait of himself. I was not privy to that Ur-text, but it seems that the present version (with new publisher) contains numerous changes. The gentleman who complained went a long way towards validating the novel, because it is undoubtedly a satire on the fickle, deceitful and occasionally cruel world of literary journalism. If characters like Ivo Sponge, Merlin Swagg and other denizens of the Slouch Club are recognised by their real- life counterparts, this only goes to prove the point. But there is more here than carping about literary fat cats. Craig's wider ambitions are shown as she ventures out into the health service and other areas of decaying Britain. "You write like Evelyn Waugh crossed with Nancy Mitford," says one character to another. A part of Craig wants to do this too, but another bit of her is reaching further back to Dickens.
I May Be Some Time by Francis Spufford, Faber pounds 7.99. The English are renowned worldwide for the frosty remoteness of their feelings, which some would regard as adequate to explain the nation's morbid fascination with the North and South Poles. England's polar attraction is explored and mapped with considerable resourcefulness by Spufford, both through actual expeditions and the uses to which writers and artists have put them. But he isn't interested in interpreting the theme via others' stereotypes, concentrating instead on ideas and images which the English themselves have developed: the 18th-century concept of the sublime, a combined tingle of fear and aesthetic pleasure at the extremes of nature; the Victorian theory of character, vigorous, Spartan and masculine; the racial superiority with which polar explorers such as Sir John Franklin viewed the "eskimo", whose survival skills Franklin would have done better not to spurn, since in 1847 he died on the polar ice within a few miles of Inuit settlements. All this is crystallised in the doomed 1912 Scott expedition, the talismanic event to which Spufford continually refers, and with which, in a spirited imaginary narrative, he ends.
Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore, Penguin pounds 6.99. Dunmore specialises in siblings who cling as compensation for the niggardly loving of their parents. Her last novel, A Spell In Winter, is dominated by images of frost and snow, while this latest swelters through a summer heatwave. In the midst of it 29-year-old Nina is visiting her older sister, who has just given birth. Isabel is an anorexic obsessive with a practised way of manipulating other lives into orbit around her own, but the baby, after its difficult birth, has drained some of her power. Now Nina, with the sister lying closeted, begins to have sex with her brother-in-law in various parts of Isabel's eccentric garden. The hot, al fresco sex is reminiscent of Chatterley, and D H Lawrence also springs to mind in the brooding sense of death which hangs over the book - notably with the cot-death of the sisters' baby brother. Throughout the novel, memories of this long-ago calamity keep breaking through, like the sound of a fuse fizzling towards its detonator.
Your Mother's Tongue: A Book of European Invective by Stephen Burgen, Indigo pounds 6.99. The last thing Brussels will ever harmonise is the sound of people slagging each other off. Forget about the common currency: an integrated Europe will be a piece of wet chipboard as long as 26 different languages are spoken in the EU, not to mention the countries applying to join. Slang is notoriously slippery, even in one's mother tongue. So to take on the whole Euro empire, as Burgen does, requires care. Understandably, he sticks to the main highways of abuse - class, race, physical attributes, sexual preference, bodily functions - but he should help you to sort your puta madre (whore-mother) in Spain from your Kankerhoer (cancer-whore) in Holland, and your paskapaa (Finnish shithead) from your malakas (Greek wanker).
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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