Saturday 11 January 1997
The Devil: A Biography by Peter Stanford (Mandarin, pounds 7.99) It seems that the Devil not only has the best tunes but the best books as well. This sober, intelligent account reveals that the Devil is entirely a Christian creation (he is scarcely mentioned in the Old Testament), made "credible and compelling" by Milton. But diabolic parallels have appeared through human history. Stanford traces the various incarnations of the dark presence from the Crusades and the Cathar Heresy to Waco, Texas, and the Manson "Family". Satan, he astutely suggests, "lives on as a way of dealing with [the] unspeakable, unimaginable or intangible."
London: A Social History by Roy Porter (Penguin, pounds 15.00) Piquant as a Hogarth etching, every page of this vast panorama glitters with luxuriant detail. Fused Roman coins testify to the fury of Boadica's revolt in AD61, while in 1666 the Lord Mayor remarked of another great fire, "a woman could piss it out". Porter suggests that London's "hour on the stage" lasted from 1570 to 1986, encompassing 18th century pleasures - an average of two pints of gin per week for every living soul - and hectic Victorian industry. In a furious conclusion, he insists that Thatcher's "balkanisation of the metropolis" has been London's greatest disaster.
Leading the Blind by Alan Sillitoe (Papermac, pounds 9.00) Sillitoe has discovered a rich vein of unconscious humour in the guidebooks produced for doughty 19th century tourists. After offering advice ("a portable india-rubber bath is an immense comfort") and phrases in four languages ("I am very much inclined to vomit"), the guides plied readers with staggering detail. In Germany, we are told the exact wounds suffered by Gustavus Adolphus in 1632 ("five gunshots, two cuts, one stab"), while in Karachi we learn that a British officer crossed a crocodile tank by running across their backs. The armchair traveller won't find a more enjoyable read this year.
A User's Guide to the Millennium by J G Ballard (Flamingo, pounds 6.99) Culled from over 30 years output, this breezy assemblage of essays and reviews fizzles with subversive intelligence. More than footnotes to a brilliant, disturbing oeuvre, this is critical journalism of a high order. While damning Star Wars and devaluing Joyce's Ulysses ("curiously lacking in imagination"), Ballard lauds Blue Velvet and Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom ("a black cathedral"). A brief coda to Empire of the Sun is a highlight of the book. Following his bizarre childhood, the outre has become the ordinary for Ballard. Across an astonishing range, his ironic slant is ceaselessly stimulating.
Tchaikovsky by Anthony Holden (Bantam, pounds 9.99) No composer fulfills romantic expectations of the tortured artist better than Tchaikovsky - and none offers the biographer richer pickings in terms of mystery, scandal and tragedy on an operatic scale. His life was marked by manic creativity and depressive moods, a string of homosexual affairs, a disastrous marriage followed by a breakdown, a doomed infatuation with his 13-year-old nephew and an ambiguous death - was it cholera, as officially stated, or suicide? Anthony Holden weighs the evidence with admirable sanity, and concludes that Tchaikovsky did indeed kill himself at the behest of a secret "court of honour" rather than face public prosecution for sodomy.
Driving My Father by Susan Wicks (Faber, pounds 6.99) This sensitive family memoir by the poet Susan Wicks charts the decline of her elderly father following her mother's death. It's in a similar vein to Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father?, but its tone is warmer and more touching. Where Morrison was objective and detached, Wicks's prose shimmers with subjectivity. She has a poet's ability to invest emotional meaning in inaminate objects and to capture the intensity of the individual moment, whether she's giving us a brilliant shard of childhood memory or suddenly catching herself looking into the future.
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