Francis Drake by John Cummins, Phoenix pounds 12.99
Sunday 02 March 1997
Sandpiper by Ahdaf Soueif, Bloomsbury pounds 5.99. In these six stories, by a Cairo-born, British-educated writer, the sensations of the Levant - the bougainvillea and jasmine, the different textures of desert and seashore sand, the "black velvet" intensity of the night - suffuse the text. Thematically, the fundamental things apply: man and woman, nation and religion, family and friend, virginity and marriage, birth and death. The cultural and emotional wires between these themes are usually crossed: a Muslim-Christian marriage, the weary compound life of Europeans in the Gulf, a Middle- Eastern labour ward in which a woman at full term grieves for her dying best friend. But the story I like most, in which a zealous Muslim lusts after his 16-year-old-sister, is a potent satire on religious hypocrisy. The ebb and flow of the man's guilt and desire, and his savage resolution of them, are brilliantly treated.
Faith Fox by Jane Gardam, Abacus pounds 6.99. The deceptive surface of Gardam's twelfth novel is light comedy. It begins, however, with a death, when the paragon of the Home Counties, Holly Fox, succumbs unexpectedly in childbirth. The fortunes of Faith, her baby, over the next few months comprise the rest of the story: first amongst her maternal connections (the bridge-playing, golfing, ex-army classes of Surrey). But then the story is uprooted to the North Yorkshire moors, where Faith's father's brother runs a spartan religious community founded almost equally on faith and folly. Youth and middle age fare badly in the hands of this novelist, appearing fickle, vain, self-pitying and confused. But the old folk, by comparison, like Faith's Northern and Southern grandparents and all their friends and relations, are far from the crabbed old fools or senile delinquents we know from other geriatric comedies. They are confident, centred and delightful individuals.
Kitchen Venom by Philip Hensher, Penguin pounds 6.99. The world of a clerk of the House of Commons, if this novel is correct, can be distinguished from the real world by its extreme nullity. They hardly know why they sit idly in the Chamber, or keep the "Journal of the House", or play word- games through the long empty days of recess - or pop out at lunchtime to visit a rent-boy, or commit murder. In this dreamlike employment we meet John, a hunchbacked closet homosexual, Louis, an obese ditto, and Henry, an unhappy young man of uncertain sexuality. There are also glimpses of the dream-life of Margaret Thatcher - the action is set at the time of her fall from power - and a few (not enough) episodes from political life, including a terrific sketch of a cabinet meeting. Many of the episodes are told in a way as detached and casual as John's and Louis's sex lives. But then, Hensher's theme is people doing an unreal job in an unreal city: "It seems central," as Henry says of Westminster. "But actually it's a bit of a wasteland."
Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green, Pimlico pounds 15. A dictionary is a tool for a variety of tasks: preaching, teaching, explaining, excluding, avoiding, avowing. But it is a value-powered tool, at the centre of which is an idea of the purity and - if necessary - the purification of language. Yet for most of us, the dictionary was also, once, a fun way for a child to waste time in the hope of finding some Anglo-Saxon profanity in print. Green has passed an agreeable stretch of his adult life doing the same thing, and his book has much to say about the dictionary life of stubby words beginning with B, C and F. He also provides lively biographical sketches of the men - lexicography seems to have been an almost exclusively male pursuit - who compiled the dictionaries, from their origins in ancient Sumeria to the giants:w Johnson, Webster and Murray. Many entertaining characters appear by the wayside, like Shakespeare's enemy Robert Greene, the swindler and jailbird James Hardy Vaux (who wrote Australia's first dictionary), and Dr Minor, who worked on the OED, apparently, from Broadmoor Hospital.
F R Leavis: A Life in Criticism by Ian MacKillop, Penguin pounds 12. The high price of the paperback suggests no great confidence at Penguin for the popularity of this biography. But then, Leavis was not a universally popular bloke. Probably the best contact to have had with him would have been to have spent three undergraduate years sitting at his feet at Cambridge's Downing College in the Fifties, for he was by most accounts a very effective teacher - he certainly inspired the lasting loyalty of many students. But as a writer he was austere and, as a colleague and controversialist, a curmudgeon. He was also a recluse: not a social asset in a university town. But Leavis's influence extended far beyond Cambridge. MacKillop - loyal follower that he is - might have done more to show the what and the how of that spread.
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