Boyd Tonkin: Short cuts and grand designs

The week in books

British authors and publishers have a problem with obesity. Not that I wish to pass judgement on anybody's girth. The bloating of their books, though, does cry out for a literary diet. Driven by the misplaced urge to deliver "value for money" in a cost-conscious market, and abetted by the fatal ease of over-writing in the age of computerised text, both fiction and non-fiction now routinely outstays its welcome. Novels – even stand-out achievements – waddle in carrying 100 pages or more of excess baggage. As for narrative history and biography, my welcome for the latest 600-page doorstopper tends to be qualified by a sneaky feeling that the admiration might have grown had the editor bothered to do a more exacting job. Samuel Johnson said that no man wished any book longer than it was, except Don Quixote. Many readers today might tweak the choice of work but share the sentiment.

Conditions of the mind as well as of the market have led to this feast of flab. The compact essay or novella can shift a culture, ignite a movement and become a lifelong friend. You might readily compose a substantial Western canon out of short works alone, from Machiavelli and Montaigne through to Kafka, Conrad and beyond. Yet great brief literature often demands more attention, and participation, from its readers. To enjoy it most you have to value writing that revels in concentration, obliquity and resonance. As Roland Barthes might have said, the compact canon consists of the works we produce, not of those we just consume.

Barthes, always at his best in an aphoristic rather than academic mode, features as one of the seven authors on the inaugural list of Notting Hill Editions. This new non-fiction imprint publishes handsome, slender hardbacks (priced at £12) designed and produced with panache. Barthes's exquisite Mourning Diary, written after the death of his mother in 1977, joins both other modern classics, such as Georges Perec's deliciously droll pieces Thoughts of Sorts, and some original contributions to the art of the essay. They include Richard Sennett's reflections on exile, The Foreigner, and Jonathan Keates's voyage through Victorian guide-books, The Portable Paradise.

These variegated titles defy generalisation and fit no single mould. We can at least say that, in each case, the physical artefact enhances the verbal art within. Book fetishism is a big bore, but here the design and typography do merit praise because they give one firm answer to that nagging digital-era ask. Why buy a printed book at all? In Lavinia Greenlaw's Questions of Travel, for example, the text of William Morris's 1871 Journal of Travel in Iceland comes accompanied, on facing pages, by the poet's own epigrammatic responses to her own journey there, and to journeys as a whole. (For some reason, the rugged island seems to invite this sort of literary palimpsest: in 1994, poets Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell's Moon Country over-wrote, or over-rode, Auden and MacNeice's skittish 1937 jaunt Letters from Iceland).

This new imprint enters an under-populated but not quite empty field of publishing. Short Books began with a more directly topical brief and, for a while, lived up to its name with a fit and slim list. Recently, however, some of its titles – though excellent – have swollen or sagged back towards the British norm. Hesperus Press boasts a superbly chosen catalogue of rediscovered light- and middleweight classics. But the project that most closely matches Notting Hill Editions is probably Seagull Books, the extraordinary stable of (mainly) avant-garde fiction, poetry and essays – from Adorno and Artaud to Sartre and Todorov – run by Naveen Kishore in Kolkata and distributed worldwide by the University of Chicago Press. Yet Seagull now indulges itself with a few (comparative) monsters as well as its high-value miniatures.

Kishore's list has a strong flavour of post-1960s radical theory, and it comes from the Indian metropolis where such notions still burn bright. The initial Notting Hill roll-call suggests a search for a more eclectic brand identity – though, in John Berger's gnomic notes on a Cataract (with drawings by Selçuk Demirel), it includes one of the global icons of that culture and time. What matters here is not specific ideology but a commitment to ideas. These books will appeal to readers who savour the taste of thought. I hope that their number swells.

Ignatieff goes down in flames

A month ago, this column voiced the fear – or hope – that Michael Ignatieff's bid to become Canada's PM as leader of the Liberal Party might end in a swift return to his proper job as writer, teacher and all-round public mind. Be careful what you imagine. Ignatieff (right) was absolutely thrashed. In this week's federal election, the Liberals shed more than half their MPs; Ignatieff lost his seat; the leftish New Democrats outpaced his party to take over as chief opposition to the Conservatives. Ignatieff promptly quit politics "with my head held high". It might be a while before a major party in a democracy swayed by populist media pins its fortunes on such an intellectual again.

Medieval feminism in the Abbey

During the royal wedding service, the Bishop of London in his homily namechecked the "London poet" Geoffrey Chaucer as he quoted from The Franklin's Tale: "Whan maistrie comth, the God of Love anon/ Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!". How odd that, for all the millions of words spilled on a dress from the once-outrageous house of McQueen, hardly anyone has yet bothered to comment on the true radicalism of Richard Chartres's choice of text. The Franklin, with his Breton lovers Arveragus and Dorigen secretly committed to the forbidden notion of gender equality in marriage, picks up the "feminist" debate that threads through The Canterbury Tales – most famously, with the utterly unshackled Wife of Bath. After the lines the bishop quoted, the Franklin goes on: "Love is a thyng as any spirit free./ Women, of kynde [by their nature], desiren libertee,/ And nat to been constreyned as a thral [slave]". Given the Windsors' matrimonial history of late, you can see why he prudently stopped at the couplet.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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