Paperbacks: If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho<br></br>On Modern British Fiction<br></br>Remembering Carmen<br></br>The Real Middle Earth<br></br>Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val D'Orcia

And now for the real reason we should learn Greek

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If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho trs Anne Carson (VIRAGO £12.99)

If legend made Homer blind, history made Sappho dumb. Blind Homer on his lyre "said it all", in the words of a later Greek writer. Not quite. Sappho said far more, but later critics clipped her tongue; her nine volumes have been reduced to a rubble of fragments. She was a poet, a lyricist, and as we learn from the introduction, the inventor of the plectrum. She held sway as the headmistress of an academy for girls, loved, lost, was banished to Sicily. Over a period of 2,500 years her work was subjected to the most pitiless hatchetwork in the history of literature. But she survived, partly thanks to the respectful translations of early Roman poets, partly because some phrases just don't die.

It's very hard to write about Sappho without hyperbole. There's no defence against her genius. Reading her, you are reminded of the heart not as something to be forgotten in the quotidian grind, not as the seat of the soul or of the passions - but simply as an organ. She pins you, she's rumbled you; wriggle or writhe as you like - she's found your heart and squeezes it.

This collection of her fragments gives you everything, for the first time: the great, the good and the indecipherable. "Love the melter of limbs stirs me...an unmanageable sweet-bitter creature"; "Moon has set and the Pleiades; middle night, the hour goes by, alone I lie"; the quiet, desperate confession, "I used to weave crowns"; "Their heart grew cold; they let their wings down" or the simple, exquisite, "you burn me". Songs of loss as beloved girls leave for the world and marriage. Songs for brides and bridegrooms; Songs of love for men and women.

The translator is the poet and classicist Anne Carson, and, true to her promise in the introduction, she has left well alone. She makes us work. Where only a word from the original poem survives, she has given us that word. There are no hindering extrapolations. We, like Sappho, are forced to yearn, wondering what comes next.

Inevitably this sometimes makes for baffling reading. One has to turn many pages before finding something from which some meaning may be distilled. But it's worth it. Sometimes, also inevitably, you quarrel with the translations: "creature that steals in" might be a faithful rendering of orpeton but it lacks the ominous ambiguity of "crawling thing" or "reptile". And Sappho was very ambiguous when it came to love; like all true students of feeling, she was unsentimental about its effects. Love is something for which you must sacrifice yourself, not others.

As St Photios, patron saint of book reviewers, wrote: "Read Sappho." Just do it.

On Modern British Fiction ed Zachary Leader (OXFORD £8.99)

In the olden days, so runs the argument in the last essay of this collection of criticism, critics were moralists. It's easy to giggle at this now, but they had a point. A book can indeed affect the soul, particularly if the writer doesn't even believe that such a thing exists. Then both writers and critics got subtler and less wise. Martin Amis's piece "Against Dryness", about Iris Murdoch, is a joy, but is too short and seems to be largely concerned with the film. Christopher Hitchens, as always, gives us brilliant insights in a style almost defiantly indigestible: as if beauty itself were bourgeois. Elaine Showalter anatomises "ladlit" with precision and wit, but assumes, in an Austenesque way, that it's all about the pursuit of hymeneal bliss. The fact that she invokes Amis in this connection is particularly amusing. Then there's that piece on Isherwood by Katherine Bucknell. Isherwood is one of those writers whose survival has been assured not by their own skill so much as that of their bodyguards. As a chronicler of the agonies of the small soul he had no parallel, so maybe we deserve him. But when are souls going to start expanding? The answer, as this collection reminds us, is elsewhere, in the voices from abroad who approach English at an angle.

Remembering Carmen by Nicholas Murray (SEREN £6.95)

As a treatise on the nature of romantic passion, this book succeeds brilliantly. Carmen, one of those "mysterious" women whose mystery is only emotional amnesia, has gone. She has left Christopher's life, and he has resigned himself to a future of joyless promiscuities. He remembers their time together, always hoping that the memory is alive for her too. Meanwhile, she remembers him, and they both remember Jimmy, the musician who interrupted their pattern of shouting jags and sex with such languid aplomb. A terrible accident poisons the carelessness of Jimmy and Carmen's relationship, and Christopher finds solace elsewhere. The aperçus are wonderful: the career girl's choice is "an effortless bargain"; but these start to pall once they intrude upon the dialogue. As Jack Lemmon said in Some Like it Hot: "Nobody talks like that!" But as you consider this world where everyone loves each other without admitting that love can be as divisive as it is unifying, you start to worry that maybe the modern assumption is right: there are no deep people, only deep feelings.

The Real Middle Earth by Brian Bates (PAN £7.99)

Tolkien's creation of "Middle Earth" was, avowedly, less artistic than forensic: there were missing links in the pattern of Old Germanic mythology which he felt bound to supply. Brian Bates here goes further, claiming that before the Middle Ages there was a Middle Earth, a spiritual bridge, like the Bilfrost of Scandinavian legend, between the time of Christ and the absolute rule of the church in the 11th century, a world of trolls, wizards and elves. In fact, Bates does little more than demonstrate what we had long suspected, that there was a continuity of tradition between the Celts and their cultural and - in part - racial successors, the Germanic tribes. The rapid ruralisation of Western Europe which followed the collapse of the Roman empire engendered a world-view in which anything could happen; after all, nobody knew their neighbours anymore, no one knew anything. He rightly stresses the importance of Middle Earth as a paradigm of psychological limbo. Images of ships, rainbows and twilight recur, all suggesting a world in transit. The trouble is, the author has merely persuaded the reader that such things were believed, not that such things were: the bones of ogres have yet to be exhumed.

Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val D'Orcia by Caroline Moorehead (JOHN MURRAY £8.99)

Iris Origo had an aristocratic father to whom she was devoted, a shrill, porcelain mother rich in everything but maternal feeling; she married into Italian aristocracy, and went on to write biographies in which the skills of diarist, poet and memorialist elided. In short, her story looks terribly familiar. But she surprises us at every turn. She was not uniformly impulsive; though passionate, she was above all a thinker - acting only when she knew she was right. Her marriage was fraught with infidelities and burdened by the death of her only son, Gianni, of meningitis. Her husband desperately wanted a son, yet she gave him only daughters. The portrait painted by Caroline Moorehead is of a woman who unsettled expectations largely because she was oblivious to them. When Mussolini took power in Italy she was at first slow to perceive his danger, but moved swiftly to help refugees, and her adopted countrymen grew to love her dearly. Reading her diaries from Libya and Abyssinia one is struck by her capacity for evoking passion through concealing her own. Many found her imperious - natch.

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