Sunday 19 January 1997
Cross Channel by Julian Barnes, Picador pounds 5.99. If only we and the French were more alike, Britain's imagination would begin to have room for the rest of the world. But polarisation starts at Calais, where the English are so sharply stung by difference that France at once becomes the essence of abroad, the indispensible reference point for national identity. This is the role she plays in these stories of past and present: each, in its way, is a boundary flag outlining English regard for that country where cricket is not so much unplayed as unthinkable, British cultural giants are practically anonymous, sex is a sport and sport an intellectual pursuit. In an illuminating passage from the final tale - itself a summation of what has gone before - a Barnes alter ego stands xenophobia on its head, musing that other countries "existed to supply idealism: they were a version of pastoral". Barnes is shot through with like cleverness; his words glide through landscapes of ideas as easily as a hand-built Rolls-Royce cruises along a ruler-straight, cypress-lined route nationale.
Tchaikovsky by Anthony Holden, Bantam pounds 9.99. For no composer of the classical/romantic era was sex so disastrous. A committed homosexual, Tchaikovsky was - in the predominant though not universal modern view - unable to square the idea of himself as a public figure with his addiction to sordid, impersonal gay sex. The attempted cure, marriage to a fruit- cake called Antonina Milyukova, plunged the composer into the comic-heroic misery that provoked Ken Russell into making The Music Lovers. In the end, sex almost certainly killed Tchaikovsky. Holden gives extensive detail of the self-appointed "court of honour" of old classmates who, 34 years after they had all gone out into the world, ordered the composer to kill himself for the good name of the old school. This, Holden suggests, he did by taking arsenic, whose symptoms mimic those of the official cause of his death, cholera. Oh, and the bloke also wrote some great music, apparently.
The Return of John Macnab by Andrew Greig, Headline pounds 6.99. John Buchan was the fountainhead of the modern thriller and it is pleasant to find such a literate contemporary tribute. Buchan's 1925 John Macnab had a trio of bored men throwing down a poaching challenge in Scotland. In Greig's re-make they become a motley threesome - former SAS man, Trotskyite and depressed copywriter - joined by a (female and beautiful) struck-off solicitor who falls uneasily in love with the adman. Of the three sporting estates that are told they'd be losing a salmon, a brace of grouse and a deer, the last is Balmoral. So, when HRH arrives to take up the gauntlet, Military Intelligence and Special Forces enter the equation. The denouement, in which the heir to the throne invites the Trot to call him Frank ("one has always wanted to be called Frank"), is one of several excellent episodes.
Leading the Blind: A Century of Guidebook Travel 1815-1911 by Alan Sillitoe, Papermac pounds 9. Today we have bucket shop air fares and Rough Guides, and anyone with a backpack can hit the hippy trail. Then they had railways and Murray's Handbooks (started 1836) or Baedecker's guides (1839) and the object was exactly the same - to move among strange peoples without getting scared half to death. Sillitoe's chapters unfold geographically, each moving further from the comforts of England, as far as Constantinople and Russia. A successful entertainment rather than a history, the book still manages to show that the essentials of tourism are eternal: what to take, see and eat and how to avoid pests. One also notes the assumed superiority with which the guidebooks were imbued - still to be found unconsciously lurking in the backpacking guides of today.
Nano! by Ed Regis, Bantam pounds 7.99. Nanotechnology may be the ultimate extension of the original project of natural science (champion: Francis Bacon) - to understand nature so well that you can enslave it. It is about subvisible molecular machines, capable of building, destroying, calculating, thinking. These, Regis predicts, will change our lives irreversibly a decade from now. His book tries to avoid sensational futurology, but the implications are certainly sensational. Molecular engineering makes organ transplants, microsurgery and other so-called miracle procedures laughably outmoded. It will be the last possible word in mechanistic medicine. It will also produce a molecular computer, even a designer life-form, with optional self-replication. In the end it will bring an end to human work. Incredible opportunity or moral disaster? Regis sets out pluses and minuses, but this is really a buffy sort of book that gets devoured in one goggle-eyed session or tossed aside after 20 pages.
Driving My Father by Susan Wicks, Faber pounds 6.99. As children we love our parents for the unconditional safety they can give us. But what happens to that love when the roles reverse and they become dependent on us? This memoir - or prose elegy? - tries to answer that question. Susan Wicks's father began a sad new life when her mother died and, despite the claims of her own husband and children, she must try to compensate for his irrevocable loss. The story is told in ordinary narration broken up by fragments of memory which come up as if randomly. Adult memory handles childhood, Susan Wicks knows, by chopping it into self-contained bits: delicate spoonfuls of recollection, some of them tasty and luxuriously complete in themselves. In these pages the pathos of her father in decline, using a walking frame, crying at the sink, is meliorated by those sweet lickings.
The First Time by Lara Harte, Phoenix pounds 5.99. With Euro-song, summer schools and whiskey, First Novelists are a major part of the Irish GNP these days. Harte's themes are friendship and alienation, which Catcher in the Rye forever defined as the central preoccupations of coming-of- age fiction. Fourteen-year-old Cassandra's posh school near Dublin is a pirhana-pool of envy and backbiting. Leeching onto new classmate Emma, she is disastrously misled into believing in the friendship as it draws her, half aware, through a succession of firsts - drink, smoke, snog, kick in the teeth. Never mind that the author was only 18 when she posted it, unsolicited, to a London publisher, this stands out as an exceptionally truthful and fluent first novel.
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