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The Independent Culture
8 Extinction by Thomas Bernhard, Penguin pounds 7.99. Bernhard, who died in 1989, was a striker in the premier league of spleen. He detested his native Austria's Nazi past and the post-war prosperity, paid for in the shabby currency (as he saw it) of Waldheimist hypocrisy and opportunism. Like his play The Showman, seen in London last year, Extinction is dominated by a splenetic egotist, the narrator Murau, whose wealthy parents and elder brother have been killed in a road accident. Recalled unwillingly from Italian self-exile to bury them and take possession of his inheritance, he vents his loathing of the Austrian bourgeoisie, the German language, catholicism, philistinism, photography and all the other species of vermin nailed to Bernhard's personal gibbet. This impressive, oddly anachronistic performance - many of Murau's positive views seem to have been borrowed from the neurotic aestheticism of the 1900s - is written in two immensely long paragraphs, yet reads with fine fluency in David McLintock's translation.

8 Journals 1954-8 by Allen Ginsberg, Penguin pounds 12.50. This book must not be confused with the disciplined day-by-day reportage of Pepys or Woolf. It is an outpouring of reflections, observations, reading-lists and poetic drafts, culled from scores of notebooks, jotting pads, dream-diaries, journals and (for all I know) the cuffs of Ginsberg's shirts , the whole collated by editor Gordon Ball in chronological sequence. All Ginsberg's raw, impulsive, improvisatory, confessional attributes are in these pages, which Beat-freaks will devour whole, blind to the fact that much of the love- and sex-stuff (with Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky etc) is callow and slushy. But there is a lot of good stuff too, especially the random, rapid sketches of American urban life and the pen-portraits of contemporaries. I particularly liked the brief glimpse of Thomas Merton's "wide effeminate ass" under his swinging monk's habit and Ginsberg's accompanying thought: "with an ass like that no wonder he's a mystic".

8 The Secret of this Book by Brian Aldiss, HarperCollins pounds 5.99. This collection of short stories and reflections from one of our most prolific and respected novelists packs many squibs of wit. Several stories are faithful to the science-fiction genre in which Aldiss made his name, not excluding a trip on the odd spaceship, but Aldiss has never seen himself as exclusively an SF writer and he here presents a variety of other personae. There are 50-word "minisagas", alternative versions of old tales such as Greek myths and Shakespeare (Hamlet: "two middle-aged people ... whose honeymoon in a remote castle is spoiled by constant interference from an ageing teenager in black"), as well as stories of life, love and death that are wholly contemporary. If there is anything that unites the Aldiss canon it is his thread of liberal humanism and his belief in the diversity of the imagination. For him, the word "real" - as one of his characters observes - has more meanings than a dog has fleas.

8 The Man in the Mirror of the Book: A Life of Jorge Luis Borges by James Woodall, Sceptre pounds 7.99. For most of his life, Argentina's greatest modern writer lived with his mother and, as an outspoken critic of Peronism, used to get death threats. Once the old woman herself was telephoned and informed she would be killed. She gave the caller her address and told him to hurry, as she was already 98 years old. Laconic was also Borges's favourite style - "Two bald men fighting over a comb" was his take on the Falklands - but underneath (on Woodall's evidence) there was great unhappiness, derived from a lack of emotional and sexual fulfilment. The author has interviewed many people who knew Borges, but this is very much an introductory treatment, and at times a little clumsy, as in reminding us that Samuel Beckett had a hit with Waiting for Godot or in using the word "Argentineness". Apparently there are a dozen other biographies in the stocks around the world, but Woodall's isn't a bad place to start educating yourself about this wholly original and extraordinary writer.

8 The Oxford History of the British Army, ed David Chandler, OUP pounds 8.99. The editor points out in his introduction that no British officer has been dismissed for his political views since 1764, using the fact to illustrate his view that the British army has been largely apolitical. And it is true that the British army has never been of itself an effective political initiator, though it has often acted, and with alacrity, as a weapon in the hands of politicians, particularly in the exercise of colonial power or in the execution of right-wing domestic policy. This is a thorough, chronological history, starting in the middle ages and structured as a series of essays by specialists, nearly all holding academic posts. There are additional short vignettes on more detailed subjects: battles, potted biographies, glimpses of barrack life. It is on the whole responsible, balanced and useful.

8 The Dykemaster by Theodor Storm, trs Denis Jackson, Angel Books pounds 7.95. The aptly named Storm was born in the Germanic but disputed province of Schleswig, in his youth under the Danish crown. By 1888, when he produced this intense tale of his windswept native North Sea coast, and one man's battle to keep at bay the encroaching sea, he had become one of Germany's most popular and prolific novella writers. Those who struggled through Der Schimmelreiter for their German `O' Level will remember having it drummed into them that this is a choice example of Rahmengeschichte, or story-within-a-story. This is an excellent new translation from a small publisher.

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