Paperback Roundup

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Keats byAndrew Motion, Faber pounds 14.99. Poets are slippery fish. It's always a moot point how far the life is reflected in the art, especially with someone like Keats whose imagination seems so abstracted from real experience (Motion quotes Byron's gibe that Keats belonged to "that second- hand school of poetry"). One of the nice things about Motion's Keats is that he manages to balance life and art - resisting the temptation to read the work as covert biography, he does thrust it into the real world, pointing out (what ought to be obvious) that Keats's romantic individualism implied political radicalism too. Keats the poet often seems to evade him, his critical comments tending toward the bland and rarely capturing the garish colours and wild scenes he paints. But Keats the man, prickly, proud, self-doubting, besotted, is brilliantly caught. This is partly a matter of sheer detail (at times as you plough through 580 pages, the unworthy thought bobs past that it's a good job Keats was only 25 when he died). More than that, though, Motion has a fine sense of narrative sweep; in particular, his account of Keats's last months, when the knowledge of death is pressing hard upon him, are wonderfully moving.

Nationalism by Ernest Gellner, Phoenix pounds 6.99. Gellner's last word on the subject, in a book not quite finished when he died in 1995, proves to be a seductively pithy survey - only 108 pages - of nationalism in all its manifestations. His point of departure is the late Elie Kedourie's dictum: "Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century." At the opposite end of the spectrum is the belief, held by despairing liberals as well as nationalists, that nationalism is an ineradicable human trait. Gellner sits in the middle: nationalism is not a necessary part of the human condition, but it does have deep historical roots. Brilliant at skewering the assumptions behind nationalist discourse, Gellner comes unstuck when he tries theoretical analysis; but that's partly because his logic is undermined by his shrewdness and optimistic realism.

The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate, Picador pounds 8.99. A deeply sane, commonsensical attempt to rescue Shakespeare the man, Shakespeare the playwright and Shakespeare the cultural icon from all the nonsense under which they have been buried by Baconians, Bowdlers, biographers, patriots, iconoclasts, cultural vigilantes, and the whole apparatus of reverence and myth that surrounds the name. Bate is not averse to flying a few kites of his own - suggesting, for instance, that all the speculation about the Mr WH to whom the Sonnets were dedicated is based on a simple misprint - but for the most part his views on what makes Shakespeare great seems almost boringly, incontrovertibly right, solidly grounded in text and history. Anybody who cares about Shakespeare will want to read this; anybody who doesn't care should read it anyway, and then they will change their minds.

Night Train by Martin Amis, Vintage pounds 65.99. Wittgenstein was deeply puzzled by Shakespeare - his similes, he wrote, "are, in the ordinary sense, bad". So where did his greatness lie? Likewise, Amis's brief flirtation with suicide and American hard-boiled pulp fiction is, in the ordinary sense, fairly lousy. The artificially desexed and hardboiled opening sentence - "I am a police" - has been widely derided, and it doesn't get much better: a badly mixed cocktail of Ed McBain and Kierkegaard, it's a distorted echo of echt Amis. The detective narrator - butch, sexually abused ex- alcoholic Mike Hoolihan, a woman but without any way of signalling the fact - is hollow, and the opposition with the beautiful, fulfilled astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell, whose death Hoolihan has to investigate, is over-schematic. But it evokes something: a new variety of despair, perhaps. No fun, then, but no pushover either.

The Mystery Of Hunting's End by Mignon G Eberhart, Bison pounds 14. A more conventional crime novel: in the Thirties and Forties, the three highest paid women crime-writers in the world were Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart - pioneer of the "Had I But Known" school -- and, coming in at number three, Mignon G Eberhart. In this one, first published in 1930, her heroine, dowdy, practical Nurse Sarah Keate, finds herself trapped with a group of suspects in a tastelessly faked-up hunting lodge among the sand-hills of Nebraska, investigating a five-year-old murder along with her flirty young gumshoe friend Lance O'Leary. The story, hopelessly fraught and tortuous - Had I But Known meets Locked Room Murder - is rescued by Eberhart's eye for incongruous realism: a corpse sans toupee, a suspect hissing without his dental plate. It's damn expensive, though.

A Song of Stone by Iain Banks, Abacus pounds 6.99. The Fall of the House of Usher meets Mad Max. The story is set in an unnamed landscape dominated by bands of soldiers foraging for petrol, food and bullets, and by the nebulous thudding of far-away heavy artillery. Abel, the aristocratic narrator, and his mute consort try to flee from their castle, but are captured and forced to return as unwilling hosts to an enigmatic lieutenant and her battle-weary platoon. As ever, Banks is obsessed with ancestry, scions of strange families weighed down by their heritage (cf The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road, Whit): one of the disturbing aspects of his work is the sense that his characters are too much trapped by their genes and their upbringing, never properly determining their own lives. That is one reason why, admitting the sharpness and originality of Banks's vision, I still find it hard to feel thrilled by him: his characters are unaffecting; lacking choice, they lack personality, anything for the reader to latch on to. Spurts of cloddish writing (eyes described as "aqueous spheres lying easy and accepting in their smooth surrounds of moisture") don't help.

Robert Hanks