Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach (Vintage £6.99)
Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach (Vintage £6.99)
In the past year or so, 17th-century Dutch culture has had a serious makeover courtesy of Anna Pavord, with her bestselling history of the tulip, and Deborah Moggach's latest novel (soon to be a film).
The trend started with Simon Schama's brilliant work of history, An Embarrassment of Riches, in which he identified an anxiety about wealth and materialism behind the displays of conspicuous consumption in the work of artists of that time. Moggach takes this thesis as her central conceit and fashions a thrilling love story from its elements.
It is 1636, and Amsterdam is thriving. Cornelis Sandvoort, prominent citizen and man of substance, is also "a collector of beautiful things". These include paintings, flowers and a young wife from an impoverished family. The elderly Cornelis longs for an heir, otherwise what is the point of garnering all these riches? But, so far, Sophia has not held to her part of the bargain. His future posterity weighs on him, so he commissions Jan van Loos, a fashionable young artist to paint the happy couple's portrait. They are surrounded by Cornelis's favourite belongings, but Jan has eyes only for Sophia. Moggach cunningly interweaves her own theories of art into the ensuing tale of sexual betrayal and financial intrigue. The greater deception, for her, is that of the artist who to all intents and purposes communicates the immutability of his subject but, at the same time, allows a tulip, which is about to lose its glistening petals, into the frame.
Sophia gazes dutifully ahead, the very picture of a complacent matron but secretly longs for this dashing young portraitist to seduce her. It doesn't take Jan long to pick up on the signals, and soon illicit notes are being swapped and secret assignations made in the artist's studio. All this hectic plotting gives Moggach ample opportunity to insert famous scenes from Dutch art into her novel (the book even comes illustrated in case we miss the references). Scenes from Vermeer: a woman reading a letter by the light of a window; the chaotic mess of an artist's studio; street scenes; and, of especial pertinence to the plot, a nude lying on a dishevelled bed.
Each stage of this story is frozen into a symbolically significant tableau, but with a lightness of touch that does great credit to Moggach's painterly prose. When the couple's illicit passion grows too ardent to be contained, they plot their escape from Cornelis. And this is where Moggach is at her most inventive, employing the old Shakespearian device of the bed-trick to dupe the husband, and sending Jan into the hectic market of "tulip futures". Moggach reproduces the coded language of 17th-century Dutch art to great effect while telling a rip-roaring tale that ends with a wonderfully dramatic flourish.
Jeffrey Archer: Stranger than Fiction by Michael Crick (Fourth Estate £8.99)
"I have always hoped my good points outweighed my bad." Jeffrey Archer, November 1999. Sadly not. As Archer's career implodes yet again, he is plastered across the front page of every newspaper and Fourth Estate have seen fit to reissue this. In it, Crick takes the great fantasist's claims, examines them minutely and corrects the, ahem, inaccuracies. Of most interest is the episode involving the one person to feel sorry for in this sordid tale: Monica Coghlan - the woman who was hounded off her patch for Archer's sins, or, if you like, the prostitute he paid not to have sex with. "I hate this book," said Archer. Let's hope no one was tactless enough to send William Hague a copy for Christmas.
Shadow-Box by Antonia Logue (Bloomsbury £6.99)
A first novel that basks in the classic cover-copy terms, "ambitious" and "complex". Logue's main achievement here is to meld historical fact with fictional hypotheses without showing the cracks. In so doing, she recreates the lives of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, Arthur Cravan, wannabe Dadaist provocateur, and Myna Loy the English modernist poet whom Cravan marries and then abandons. Of most interest is Jack, who, after reading an article about Myna 28 years after having last seen her decides to write to her about his "ghosts and wives and situations". Logue tells how he punched his way out of the dockyards and was ultimately brought down by racism.
What Do Women Want? Power Sex Bread Roses by Erica Jong (Bloomsbury £7.99)
Articles rounded up from previous publication do not usually make good, cohesive reading, but Erica Jong, the Grande Dame of femmes lettres, is always good for a polemical laugh. Especially when she gets all hot and bothered about sex (she's been married four times so she should know). If she wants to dictate what makes the perfect man, that's fine by me. But she is at her most insightful when discussing literature - her essays on Jane Eyre and Lolita are both original in conception and considered in her approach. Whereas her reading of the Louise Woodward trial is subjective in its defence of the dead baby's mother, and off the wall in her arguments thereon.
Xerxes by Jonathan Buckley (Fourth Estate £6.99)
Set in Munich in the 1820s, Jonathan Buckley's second novel excels at setting the reader's nerves on edge. In it, he traces the career of an aspiring young architect, August Ettlinger, who joins a salon of aristocrats and intellectuals who meet at the house of the manipulative von Wolgast. It soon becomes clear that Wolgast's magnificent house is closer to an anteroom in hell - so sinister are the doings that go on there - than the imagined paradise of Xerxes that Ettlinger spends his time dreaming about. When he isn't ruminating on Paradise Ettlinger drools over the lovely Helene - but she has a dark secret ... Very mannered and rather precious, but not a bad page-turner for all that.
Frost on My Moustache by Tim Moore Abacus £7.99
Tim Moore is so self-deprecating it's a miracle he ever got into print. But here he is, and what a delightfully frail suburbanite he is. Unlike the Victorian diplomat Lord Dufferin who was fearless, statesmanlike, fine and dandy, and who, in 1856, sailed his yacht from Scotland to Iceland to Norway to the Arctic archipelago of Spitzbergen and back again. Then he wrote a book about it. Moore follows in his footsteps and there the similarity ends: "Dufferin seems the personification of Kipling's 'If'. I'm more of a 'But' man." He also gets seasick, and loves to regale us with schoolboy-ish trivia. But he's funnier than Bryson and more winning than Michael Palin.Reuse content