Paperbacks: A Man's Head
Tragically I Was an Only Twin
American Art Since 1945
Things My Mother Never Told Me
Saturday 05 July 2003
A Man's Head by Georges Simenon (Penguin, £6.99, 137pp)
It comes as no surprise that this early Maigret novel (1930) has been filmed several times. The narrative grips from the first line with a sequence of great tension involving the escape from a Paris gaol of a condemned prisoner. The succeeding scene has equal visual power, when Maigret observes, by binoculars across the Seine, the escaped man take cover and evade his police tail. It turns out that the poor wretch is a pawn, cleverly implicated by the real murderer, who himself has no connection with the victims. The theme of the book - murders committed by proxy - was appropriated by Patricia Highsmith (a great Simenon fan) for Ripley's Game.
Simenon's speciality was the description of psychological manoeuvrings against realistic settings. In excellent, terse prose, the story shuttles between the dreary suburbs and the wealthy expatriate community of Montparnasse. Maigret is an enigmatic yet appealing mix of stolidity and intuition. Unlike his sexually voracious creator, the detective is homely, uxorious and languid to the point of inanimation. Despite its brevity, this novella could happily have lost a few pages. For all the ingenuity of the story, the killer's taunting of Maigret is excessively protracted and the proof of his guilt is slapdash. Yet there are many pleasures here, particularly Simenon's pin-sharp evocation of Paris during the corrupt and seedy Third Republic. This Maigret is one of six reissued by Penguin. When you've finished those, there are another 69 to go.
Tragically I Was an Only Twin by Peter Cook (Arrow, £7.99, 429pp)
The first half of this compilation contains some of the funniest material in the English language, especially E L Wisty ("I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin") and the Dagenham Dialogues of Pete & Dud ("Humming birds can poke their tongues out to 40 yards long."). Cook's output ranged from whimsical snippets for the Mail to the drunken scatology of Derek & Clive. Some sections are for hardcore fans only (his Seductive Brethren column from Private Eye was a bore even in 1965), but for 200 pages Cook's extempore genius is working at full throttle.
American Art Since 1945 by David Joselit (Thames & Hudson, £8.95, 256pp)
This profusely illustrated survey begins chronologically and then takes a thematic approach as American art became more diffuse following Abstract Expressionism and Pop. Though the book is occasionally revealing - Bruce Nauman produced his "Cast of the Space beneath my Chair" in 1965, 30 years before Rachel Whiteread had exactly the same idea - the general impression is of second-rate tinkering. Joselit makes a case for art that engages with political and sexual issues, but his prose is hard work, even when he castigates Julian Schnabel: "the inflated citation of expressionist rhetorics".
Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton (Fourth Estate, £8.99, 351pp)
Though a decidedly uncomfortable spot ("its soil poisonous, its sunlight deadly"), we tend to see our neighbour as homely. Mars had an internationally agreed meridian before Earth. Morton's knowledgeable and intelligent account brings the planet's topography to life. The lava flow from its volcanoes covers the same area as India. Its ruptured surface is caused by "gardening", the technical term for "billions of years of asteroid impact". If Morton's enthusiasm gets the better of him when describing scientists involved in surveying Mars, this is a small blemish in a wonderful vision.
Things My Mother Never Told Me by Blake Morrison (Vintage, £6.99, 341pp)
Blake Morrison is writing for all of us. After his tender but ruthlessly frank memoir of his father, he has produced an equally perceptive account of his mother. Many baby-boomers will identify with his tale of bringing a girlfriend back to his parents' home only to discover that his Lawrentian views on sexual freedom did not go down well. "Not under my roof," said his mum. Though he probes his parents' wartime love affair with skill and insight, Morrison's reflections are tinged with rueful perplexity: "Love's a dark and secret territory," he writes. "We can make maps and draw graphs. But we'll never know the heart."
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