Paperbacks: A Life of Privilege, Mostly<br/> The Man Who Wrote Mozart <br/> Grace <br/> Reading Writing <br/> Paris Noir <br/> The Testament of Gideon Mack <br/> The Great LIFE Photographers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A Life of Privilege, Mostly, by Gardner Botsford (GRANTA £7.99 (261pp))

Yet another account of life at the New Yorker, that most recorded of periodicals, preceded by a 70-page recollection of the Second World War. On the face of it, Gardner Botsford's memoir seems familiar terrain. Yet this spare, amusing book is an utter delight. Without a surplus word, it is a work of endless fascination told in exemplary style. The first section, about experiences as an infantry officer in the D-Day landings, has more than an echo of Catch-22: "The Army is no place for Rational Man". Modestly, he accords as much space to being wounded in action as to an encounter with a whip-wielding dominatrix in London. The return to Civvy Street calls for a gear change, but is scarcely less enjoyable. After a tantalising glimpse of the moneyed Manhattan into which he was born, Botsford turns his attention to the wildly eccentric, hard-drinking but impressively talented staff of the magazine. Any writer will learn valuable lessons from such heroic figures as the editor Harold Ross ("'fabulous' should be regarded with great suspicion") and theatre critic Walcott Gibbs ("Writers always use too damn many adverbs"), but the entire book is a masterclass of the most delightful kind. CH

The Man Who Wrote Mozart, by Anthony Holden (PHOENIX £9.99 (238pp))

As his biographer notes, it is "entirely typical" that Lorenzo Da Ponte should wind up "where you would least expect him". Born outside Venice in 1763, the Jewish-born Catholic priest who became the librettist for Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí... rests alongside mobsters in a New York cemetery. His life encompassed poisoning by a love rival, friendship with Casanova and a spell as a grocer in Pennsylvania. If such vicissitudes ensure an entertaining read, Holden rightly focuses on Da Ponte's role in the greatest musical works ever written. CH

Grace, by Linn Ullmann (PICADOR £7.99 (130pp))

Johan, a mediocre arts journalist, faces terminal illness as his capable, beautiful doctor wife Mai - whose devotion still astonishes him - prepares to ease his passage. On the surface, Linn Ullmann's poised and poignant tale sounds like a fictional tract prompted by right-to-die debates. In fact, its distilled prose spotlights the unofficial moments that give any life meaning and pattern, thrown into relief by the prospect of its end. Grace casts a cool, always compassionate, Nordic light on love and loss. This third novel confirms Ullmann's singular talent, but in some nuances of scene and mood she remains (as she happily acknowledges) Ingmar Bergman's daughter. BT

Reading Writing, by Julien Gracq (TURTLE POINT £11.99 (376pp))

It is impossible to think of any other critic who would write in the same way about Fest's life of Hitler ("I have stayed at home, huddled in a corner, my mind lifeless and shivery, like wet laundry"). It is also hard to conceive of many who would turn down the Prix Goncourt, as Gracq did in 1951. Advancing viewpoints on the "repeated calamities of the rainbow in figurative painting", or how "the miraculous precision of memory" in Proust deprives his characters of a sense of future, Gracq is a brilliant nonpareil of self-reflection and, in some obscurities, very French. CH

Paris Noir, by Jacques Yonnet (DEDALUS £9.99 (280pp))

Concentrating on the seedy area around Rue Mouffetard, which becomes "La Mouffe" in a typically Parisian abbreviation, Yonnet reveals the dark side of the City of Light in the 1940s in this "secret history of a city". The street life of the Left Bank ticks on much as normal during the Occupation, though Léopoldie the tart stops turning tricks because "the green German uniform does not suit her complexion". Keep-on-Dancin', the killer with a fondness for history, rules the roost. Though describing himself as "sceptical, disillusioned, cynical", Yonnet casually dispatches a traitor in the Resistance. This is film noir in book form. CH

The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson (PENGUIN £7.99 (387pp))

On one level, this novel of a disturbed minister's meeting with a kind of Devil reads like a vigorous update of Hogg, Stevenson, and the whole Scottish Gothic crew. Yet the ordeal of Robertson's "false shepherd" of a clergyman moves far beyond pastiche. It patrols the modern boundaries of belief and madness, and looks at the lingering role of an embattled faith in a "dark wee country" beset by "doubts and fears". BT

The Great LIFE Photographers (THAMES & HUDSON £18.95 (608pp))

Unambiguous and dramatic, the LIFE house-style looks stagey these days. Yet this approach produced gems of humour (bodyguards crouch as the French president wheels his shotgun for game in 1950) and tragedy (the death of Robert Kennedy, attended by a single hotel servant, is a modern pietà). This collection is an eloquent argument for the return of the photo-journal. CH

To order these books call: 0870 079 8897