PAPERBACKS

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
! Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-56 ed Ann Charteris, Penguin pounds 12.50. When I was 15 and reading On The Road, I'd done scant bumming around, so I only later discovered the book's essential truth: aimless travelling is often boring and sometimes intensely irritating, especially when you're stuck with self-obsessed fellows like Dean Moriarty. And getting pinned in the corner of a box-car for hours of over-excited conversation with Sal Paradise can be far from entertaining. Ditto many of these long-winded letters. In adopting a variety of self-conscious poses (A-student, ancient mariner, Buddhist monk, jazzman), Kerouac strains too hard to achieve cleverness and wit and inevitably defeats himself. Compare and contrast the genuinely brilliant Burroughs letters, reviewed in this column last year. But beat-freaks will want the volume anyway.

! Let's Dance by Frances Hegarty, Penguin pounds 5.99. Serena Burley, demented but not so very old, lives alone, planting plastic flowers in her borders and writing an endless series of illegibly addressed letters. But when she sets fire to her own coal shed and invites the fire brigade to dance by the light of the flames, her daughter Isabel is compelled to come home and take up the burden of care, having to deal in the process with the not entirely benign network of local support that has formed like a web around her afflicted mother. Hegarty is fearless in her portrayal of Isabel's suppressed rage and suffocating guilt, while Serena, flickering in and out of self-awareness like a broken strip-light, is a genuinely tragic creation.

! Exciting Times in the Accounts Department by Paul Vaughan, Sinclair- Stevenson pounds 9.99. A presenter of Kaleidoscope since its first week on air in the 1970s, Vaughan has been a much-in-demand voice-over artist thanks to his friendly, measured tones. Like his equally enjoyable Something in Linoleum, this is a memoir of a modest life told straight, but - as the title suggests - it always has its irony-probe turned on. Vaughan picks up the threads of his life at the age of 25, taking a job at a pharmaceutical chemist. From here he proceeds to the Press Office of the BMA, and so to broadcasting. Someone of his age, he says, has "no choice but to look back" - and this from the one whose voice assumes an unaccustomed sinister timbre as it assures us that "the future's Orange".

! God: A Biography by Jack Miles, Simon & Schuster pounds 9.99. Despite its title, this is not God's life story but a Bible commentary with a twist. It is based on the proposition that Scripture itself amounts to a highly crafted literary work and is therefore available for dissection by literary criticism. As a critic, Miles tells us, he is interested in character development - in this case, God's character. So we read how things"happen to" God in real time and how he reacts, "discovering" things along the way, changing and even "becoming". That's all very well (if theologically eccentric), but where Miles loses me is in seeing God as the Bible's central character, which seems as wrong as to make Dolores Haze the protagonist of Nabokov's Lolita. To me, the Bible is the story of the Jewish people and of their obsession with Yahweh. It is not The Confessions of a Supreme Being.

! What Did You Do in the War, Mummy? edited by Mavis Nicholson, Pimlico pounds 10. A wide and interesting selection of women were recorded talking about their Second World War, with the results here "edited but not altered" down to 32 chapters of first-hand reminiscence. They range from famous figures like Odette Hallows and the late Ann Shelton to WAAFs, evacuees and "lowly" VADs. As oral history it is chirpy, full of soldiering-on and doing-what-you've-got-to-do, with very little defeatism, depression or bitterness. Of course Nicholson is just the woman for this - heartwarmth is her favourite emotion - and once you've allowed for the tinted spectacles, the details are usually interesting and sometimes very striking.

! Idlewild or Everything Is Subject To Change by Mark Lawson, Picador pounds 5.99. It is 1993, so why is Idlewild still the name of New York's airport? Because JFK moved his head an inch to the side and is still breathing. In the alternative reality imagined by Lawson for his first novel, Marilyn Monroe is making her comeback film after a disastrous stab at The Brothers Karamazov, Teddy Kennedy died at Chappaquiddick, and Mike Dukakis and Gerry Ford are a couple of Jock-cops from the Boston PD with dreams of bettering themselves. Meanwhile a new assassin stalks JFK - meaning, with a head full of Stephen Hawking, to "intervene in the time scale, to change the narrative", and so make what-might-have-been happen. This book often succeeds in being funny, but it works a mite too hard. It's good enough to hit a nail on the head without smashing it through the wall.

! Wagner: Race & Revolution by Paul Lawrence Roe, Faber pounds 9.99. Manipulative, overweening, treacherous and a sexual predator, Wagner had a personality more dis- ordered than that of your average musical genius - but his worst disfigurement was systematic racism, the subject of this devastating study. Rose sets out to show not only that, contra the Wagnerian apologists, their man was anti-Semitic from an early age, but that racism was the deliberate, indissoluble theme of all his mature music-drama from Tannhauser to Parsifal. It is said that the writing paper for Mein Kampf was personally delivered to Hitler's prison by Wagner's daughter, a story which Professor Rose's book makes all too believable. More seriously, you wonder about RW's operas and whether they're worth the manuscript paper they're written on.

My Dear Cassandra, an illustrated collection of Jane Austen's witty letters to her sister and other family members, ed Penelope Hughes- Hallett (Collins & Brown pounds 8.99), shows her to have had an eventful life, despite her quiet reputation. The playful, shrewd, occasionally startling voice of the novelist rings out here. When her sister-in-law Elizabeth (above) died in childbirth in 1808, she wrote to Cassandra: "I suppose you see the corpse. How does it appear?"

Comments