PAPERBACKS

Poetry First Editions: Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge The Tower by W B Yeats Penguin pounds 3.99 each
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The Independent Culture
Oh, this modern craze for "authenticity": catgut strings in fortepianos, Shakespeare played in courtyards, walls painted National Trust "Dead Salmon" pink, and now Penguin's Poetry First Editions, which "allow modern readers to recapture the extraordinary impact these books first had and to see some of our most famous poems in their original context".

That claim needs qualifying: clearly, the Lyrical Ballads aren't going to be as fresh and surprising to the audience of 1999 as they were to the audience of 1798. In any case, the book sold very few copies, so the "extraordinary impact" is something of a myth. All the same, detached from the usual anthologised contexts, stripped of critical apparatus, some of the work does have a new zing. Coming across the poems in The Tower together, including "Sailing to Byzantium" and "Meditations in Time of Civil War", you can't help noticing the unifying themes: old age, the division of body and spirit, Ireland as both state and state of mind. With the Lyrical Ballads, you can appreciate the full weirdness of Coleridge and Wordsworth's conceit of presenting their work as the output of a single author.

There are other advantages. "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" as presented here is significantly different from the more familiar later version. It has more irritating archaisms ("eftsones", "ne" for "nor"), but it's pacier and more urgent (repeated imperatives to "Listen, Stranger!"). When the albatross first starts following the ship, we're usually told that "It ate the food it ne'er had ate"; here we find out that "The mariners gave it biscuit worms", which makes up in quirky particularity for what it lacks in mystical resonance.

Not all the Poetry First Editions are so intriguing: I could live without Burns's Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect and, from the bunch forthcoming next month, I won't be panting for Rupert Brooke's 1914 and Other Poems - or, for that matter, A Shropshire Lad, which has never been hard to come by. But Byron's The Corsair sounds tempting, as do Keats's Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems, and Birds, Beasts and Flowers by D H Lawrence. All in all, I'd say this series was an authentic pleasure. Trespass by D J Taylor Anchor pounds 6.99

In his book A Vain Conceit, about British fiction in the 1980s, D J Taylor argued, basically, that modern novelists weren't as good as the Victorians - they lacked the social and political breadth, the big picture. He's tried to make up for that in his own fiction. So Trespass is a good old- fashioned Condition of England novel. Holed up in a shabby hotel on the Suffolk coast, the middle-aged, disillusioned George Chell relates how he came from unpromising beginnings on a Norwich council estate to work at the heart of a vast financial empire, and to witness its cataclysmic collapse. It is a thoroughly worked out book, with flashes of eccentric ingenuity, at odd moments recalling Citizen Kane - the same atmosphere of moneyed panic and futility. But it is rather too like his earlier novels (English Settlement, Real Life), with its dreary provincial background, its bleak evocations of early mornings, its rootless, over- literary protagonist. If Taylor's like any Victorian novelist, it's Trollope - of whom it was said, he's so good, you wonder why he isn't better.

Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics

by P J O'Rourke

Picador pounds 6.99

O'Rourke tours the world looking at how different economic systems work - dictatorial socialism in Cuba, democratic socialism in Sweden, democratic capitalism in the USA, undemocratic capitalism in Shanghai, and plain chaos in Albania - and concludes that (wouldn't you know it?) the unfettered free market is best. As always, polished, urbane and witty as heck, but for once the Republican Party reptile act wears thin: he's a bit too ready to duck into a sneer or hide behind a gag when an inconvenient act or difficult argument presents itself.

Pushkin

by Elaine Feinstein

Phoenix pounds 11.99

Out in paperback to coincide with the fuss over his bicentenary, this is an excellent account of the life and premature death of a dominant figure in Russian literature. There is lots to fascinate here - the startling realisation that Pushkin was black, or at least very dark (his grandfather was an Abyssinian slave who rose to become a Russian general, and Pushkin resembled him more closely than any of his other descendants); the gloomy farce of the duel that killed him. Feinstein paints it all in strong colours, and never fusses about letting her feelings show; but she never pushes interpretation beyond what the evidence permits. The problem, as always with Pushkin, is that if you don't speak Russian it's very hard to understand precisely what the fuss is about; but at least you can get the facts straight.

Oxford Book of English Short Stories

ed A S Byatt

Oxford pounds 11.99

A marvellously unexpected anthology: Byatt's definition of Englishness is very tight - all the writers here had to be English, not simply writing in English or resident in England. Lots of big names don't pass the cricket test (Wilde, Henry James, Conrad, Elizabeth Bowen ...), while a number of obscure ones sneak in (William Gilbert, Mary Mann, Malachi Whittaker). Even when Byatt plumps for somebody obvious (Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Saki), the choice of story is unpredictable. The result is further skewed by Byatt's attempt to define the English character - she favours matter- of-factness crossed with whimsy, and with a cruel streak, which means that there are lots of ghost stories, and a particular brand of magic realism painted in very down-to-earth tones.

Kitty and Virgil

by Paul Bailey

Fourth Estate pounds 6.99

Kitty is Kitty Crozier - middle-aged, beautiful, English, solitary, cursed with a freakish father and a stuffy twin sister. Virgil is Virgil Florescu, an awkward, shabby poet with a stainless steel tooth, who escaped from Ceausescu's Romania by swimming the Danube. Bailey's novel is a tender, mannered blend of the intimate and the world-historical - not likeable, but absorbing.

RH

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