The scent of aubergines

Carole Angier and D J Taylor review the latest fiction from an invisible celebrity and an unsung hero

Patrick Suskind's Perfume burst upon the literary scene ten years ago. It was alarmingly nasty. Its serial-killer hero, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, was born without any odour of his own but, in compensation, with a preternaturally powerful nose. The hardest thing on earth to capture in words is smell. But Grenouille's inhuman gift for the creation of scents was perfectly expressed in Suskind's gift for describing them.

Next came The Pigeon, in which again the telling mirrors the tale - of a man so withdrawn that the telling is barely audible. Then he wrote The Story of Mr Sommer, which isn't the story of Mr Sommer at all but of a boy growing up in postwar Germany who meets and remeets the mysterious Mr S.

They are all finely crafted parables, set on the edge of madness, and it would be nice to be able to say that Three Stories & a Reflection (Bloomsbury, pounds 10.95) is a return to that original form. Alas, no: this is an extremely slender offering which seems to me to dig a narrowing tunnel to a literary dead end.

The richest story, "Maitre Mussard's Bequest", the closest to Perfume, is an ambitious, young man's story, in which the dying Maitre reveals a vision of the death of the universe.

The other, later stories all seem to reflect the traps and terrors of the writing life. In "Death Wish", a young woman artist is tipped into depression and suicide by a critic's idle remark. In "A Battle", a stranger plays chess so coolly that a group of Sunday players imagines him to be the bold and brilliant Master they long for, though it's clear he's a vulgar sham.

The reflection, "Amnesia in litteris", is about a professional literary man who has forgotten everything he has ever read. This happens; if you read for a living, you do forget a lot. But the anonymous hero has lost everything, except one line: "You must change your life."

If "Death Wish" and "A Battle" express Suskind's artistic fears, "Amnesia in litteris" contains his recognition that he has reached the end of the road. And then I noticed the dates of these stories: 1979, 1981 and 1985. He managed Mr Sommer in 1991. But I hardly dare ask where Patrick Suskind is now. (CA)

It would be wrong, perhaps, to call John Murray an underrated writer - the jacket of his new novel carries salutations from Jonathan Coe, Margaret Forster and William Palmer - but it would be accurate to call him an under- purchased one. Published by small presses in the North of England, his novels sell in hundreds rather than thousands and his reputation survives on word-of-mouth.

This age-old story of neglect would hardly be worth bothering about were it not for the fierce and idiosyncratic talent being neglected. Radio Activity, Murray's last novel, was a send-up of the Cumbrian nuclear industry. Reiver Blues (Flambard, pounds 8.99), also set in the debatable lands around Carlisle is a similarly eclectic stew, taking in surrealist comedy, border history and international politics together with oriental sex manuals and exotic cuisine.

Most of it defies summary. Beginning with the panic attack experienced by Samuel Beatty, plump middle-aged further education tutor and Sanskrit expert, on discovering the dismal state of world affairs in that morning's Guardian, the novel soon snakes out beyond Samuel's relationship with his skinny, apparently duplicitous wife, Vanessa, to the local history of the 1590s, a pseudo-philosophical investigation of the nature of "borders" and the subtle application of these findings to various international trouble spots.

Ranging from straightforward funny dialogue to a much more savage, if understated, political satire, Reiver Blues is distinctly un-English in most of its influences and associations. It creates a kind of borders magic realism reminiscent of MittelEuropa rhapsodists such as Hrabal and Esterhazy. Nevertheless, what emerges from this agglomeration of sex, spectres and Murray's abiding aubergine fixation is a beguiling example of the English regional novel. (DJT)

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