CLASSICS IN PAPERBACK

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
! The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, Dover pounds 4.95. Less well known than the Songs of Innocence and Experience, this short but exhilarating sequence of visionary prose and free verse was etched, hand-coloured and published by Blake himself. It is a frontal assault on scientific reductionism, a libertarian chapbook, a holistic Bible and a text of near-Zen contrariness. It is also politically scalpel-sharp: "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion," he reminds us.

! Sparrow by Giovanni Verga, trs Christine Donougher, Dedalus pounds 6.99. A sentimental and very simple story told in the letters of a girl forced (like thousands of her contemporaries) into a convent by her family and so doomed to lose the boy she loves. Caged "like a song bird that would not sing", she descends into madness and death. To a modern ear, it is exclamatory and often hysterical, but it remains a telling social document of 19th-century Italy and Donougher, a skilled translator, has resisted the temptation either to send up or tone down.

! Four Revenge Tragedies ed by Katherine Eisaman Maus, Oxford World's Classics pounds 6.99. "They reck not laws that meditate revenge" says a character in Kyd's seminal The Spanish Tragedy, the earliest in this collection of plays, all roughly contemporary with Hamlet. Knowing he had to hold the attention of nut- and joke-cracking groundlings as well as dandified intellectuals, Kyd hit on a dramatic solution which was at once simple, controversial and highly dramatic: an individual, wronged by some extremity of evil, is compelled towards taking the law into his own hands until all ends bloodily. Ours is another "Jacobean" age and revenge is again to the fore. If the moral structure of Kyd's, Chapman's and Tourneur's plays connect to Clint Eastwood's films and The Godfather, they anticipate in their grotesqueness (graveyard rapes at midnight, severed heads) the video nasty and Reservoir Dogs.

! Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman by AJP Taylor, Penguin pounds 7.99. For his celebrated TV act, Taylor didn't need to remake himself as a historian - merely to adapt the existing style of his books. This characteristic performance, first published in 1955, has all the qualities which made AJP so good on screen. Synoptic and fluent, he goes at a breathless narrative gallop through the formation of the unified German state and the life of its extraordinary architect. For Bismarck the triumph of nationalism in Europe was no moral ideal, it was simply a tide which must be caught. Taylor concurs, commenting that "the sorting-out has even been completed artificially by the compulsory moving of populations; yet politics are no more moral than they were before". Of Bismarck's notorious "blood and iron" formula, Taylor comments: "all the great questions of our own day ... have been determined by blood and iron. It is the task of the idealist to put moral clothing on the victor."

! Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, Lawrence Hill pounds 10.99. This tells the story of Jackson's decade in prison from the age of 18, when he was convicted on dodgy evidence of stealing $70 from a gas station. It dramatically recounts this highly intelligent black man's radicalisation, but it is also a brilliant picture of life inside a California jail. In 1971, a year after the book became a bestseller, Jackson was shot dead by a prison guard in an alleged escape attempt.

! The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov ed Alfred Appel, Penguin pounds 11. There's a playful, mocking surface to this novel, but the very denseness of the text shows that Nabokov did not lightly undertake the theme of paedophilia. The editor is a real Nabokov buff. He not only faithfully translates Humbert Humbert's lapses into French and saves us the trouble of a dictionary on words like lanugo, rufous and shoat, but he also enumerates each literary reverence, helps us over Nabokov's private styles and converts for us his coinages.

! The Hard Life by Flann O'Brien, Flamingo pounds 5.99. At Swim-Two-Birds was an ironic bit of metafiction long before Barthes thought of it and though, at the end of his life, O'Brien's novels had become plainer, he never abandoned the comedy of academic pretension. This late novel is set in the turn-of-the-century Dublin household of Mr Collopy, where he lives with his wife, daughter and two nephews, one of whom narrates. In a series of whiskey-sodden arguments between Collopy and a Jesuit priest, O'Brien's pin-bright ear for dialogue celebrates the seductiveness and futility of conversation itself.

Comments