Saturday 29 August 1992
Literature for the coffee-table. Antonia Fraser has rounded up the usual suspects - 40 'leading writers', running all the way from Melvyn Bragg to John Mortimer - and asked them to name and discuss their favourite books. The result has many oddities (J G Ballard on the Los Angeles Yellow Pages, 'a fund of extraordinary material'), but also many pretensions. As Tom Stoppard says, 'I become quite shifty when I hear about other people's early reading'. The shiftiness grows unbearable as one reads yet another account of a dreamy child lost in a whole new world: 'Seventy-two hours later, having finished the sixth of Jane Austen's novels . . .' Everyone chooses Alice in Wonderland and Dickens, and many claim an implausible craving for their contemporaries: if Margaret Atwood really does believe that the highlights of world literature are Toni Morrison, Alice Munro and Robertson Davies, poor her. Yet the abiding impression is not of bookishness, but of illiteracy. The bemused reader is introduced to The Last Chronicle of Basset, Finnegan's Wake, Howard's End, Gustav Flaubert, Appolinaire, Faulkener, Jorge Louis Borges, Rosamund Lehmann and, best of all, Samuel Butler's Erewhom. If you say it backwards, er . . .
HEARTS OF DARKNESS by Frank McLynn, Hutchinson pounds 18.99
The exploration of Africa by European explorers in the early 19th century might have been, as Frank McLynn admits, a saga with a 'baneful' ending, but it is nonetheless a story of imperishable drama. The early adventurers concentrated on tracing the routes of rivers - the Niger, the Congo, the Zambezi - and locating their sources. Extraordinary characters - Livingstone, Burton, Stanley, Speke - surged into an unknown world in pursuit of glory. Their exploits preceded, as McLynn insists, the European 'scramble' for the economic interests which emerged in Africa in later years. So the body of this book is full of wild and personal stories - sudden encounters with lions and hippos, tussles with exotic diseases and the constant struggle between pride and humiliation. Although McLynn reserves a chapter at the end for a discussion of imperialism, the bulk of his book elbows aside any modern uneasiness, in favour of a sympathetic vision of individual hopes and fears.
BELLADONNA by Michael Stewart, HarperCollins pounds 9.99
Michael Stewart's sixth thriller adds a historical dimension to the weird science that has proved so successful for its predecessors. A modern historian's interest in a 17th-century alchemist sparks off a series of visions, which turn into something even more strange: reality. This cunning idea allows Stewart to float a passionate romance against a background of supernatural chills. The historian is finally driven to rely on the ancient magic for help, leading to a tense and breathless conclusion.
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