Sunday 30 July 1995
! The Fifth Corner of the Room by Israel Metter trs Michael Duncan, Harvill pounds 7.99. Russian readers have discovered a wonderful truth. Many of their favourite "soviet" writers turned out to be even more seditious than they had hoped. A grossly truncated version of this novel appeared in 1967, the part which dealt with the love story of an underachieving maths teacher and the mercurial, beautiful Katya during the 1930s. It became a famous and popular novella in the Brezhnev years, when the passionate insecurity of the romance could be read as a sly criticism of the regime. Now with the suppressed two-thirds restored, Metter's work is revealed as an uninhibited attack on Stalinism, by turns tender, ironic, farcical and tragic.
! Good Company: Diaries 1967-1970 by Frances Partridge, Flamingo pounds 7.99. This fifth instalment of Frances Partridge's diary begins at an important moment in the historiography of the Bloomsbury Group - the year of Holroyd's life of Lytton Strachey. We therefore have Partridge "already ducking in anticipation of the next instalment" in the Sunday Times and clearly not enjoying the exposure of her circle of friends to the wider public gaze. The hallmarks of Bloomsbury are crisply stamped on almost every page of this volume - the fascination with family gossip, devotion to friendship, unblinking frankness, rationalism. To this she adds her own excellent good sense, humour and curiosity which ranges in every direction. It is particularly interesting to read her tolerant, grandmotherly response to the excesses of the Sixties.
! The Brontes by Juliet Barker, Phoenix Giants pounds 9.99. Where do you stand on the Reverend Patrick's parenting skills?Are you for or against Branwell? The role of the Bronte men and how much they constrained, infantilised or otherwise trampled on the sisters' imaginations is a burning question in Bronteology. Barker's inspiration for this massive book was her belief that, while previous biographers have concentrated on individual members of the family, to see them collectively as a single tightly-knit unit both inward- and outward-looking will pay better dividends. So she gives us the sisters operating now as separate people, now as interchangeable members of a literary team. The father, far from being a crabby obscurantist, is a public figure in Haworth, which itself emerges as no storm-blasted outpost, but a busy, modern industrial township. Finally we have Branwell, who on Barker's evidence, was not quite the rakehell of legend.
! Emerald City by Jennifer Egan, Picador pounds 5.99. These stories, all of which appeared first in upmarket magazines like the New Yorker and GQ, highlight the outwardly-mobile aspects of American culture - trips, vacations, overseas tours. Egan's language is economical and she receives and passes on her perceptions with minimalist efficiency. The effect is cool and distancing, a clever processing of words which nevertheless is highly readable. One which stands out concerns a girl at a convent high school and her crush on a classmate. Egan here achieves an identification which is hypnotic and painful.
! Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson by Patrick McGilligan pounds 6.99. The man with zig-zag eyebrows and ambiguous teeth was already a veteran of low-budget westerns and bikesploitation films when, at 31, he was accidentally cast as a disillusioned, whisky-sodden southern lawyer in Easy Rider, a few yards of celluloid which made him famous. He'd been a so-so drama student, excelling only in the acting exercise called "abandonment". Before that lay respectable poverty in New Jersey, in a home full of secrets and melodrama. Only after making Chinatown did Jack discover that his "big sister" was his mother and his "mother" was his grandmother. It all makes him somewhat more interesting than the contents of your average Oscar-night tuxedo.
! Foreign Correspondent: Paris in the Sixties by Peter Lennon, Picador pounds 5.99. Lennon was a fresh-faced Dubliner who set off for Paris in the late Fifties. The book starts life as a rite-of-passage autobiography - Lennon tells us of his first steak au poivre, his early sexual failures, his social gaffes. But as a freelance journalist he had the job of interviewing celebrities, and the book becomes an impressive exercise in name-dropping. At one intellectually congested moment, we find him chatting in a cafe with Ionesco while Beckett sits at a neighbouring table and Sartre and Jean-Luc Godard hob-nob in a corner.
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