Paperbacks: Debunking a Romantic myth

Lord Byron's Jackal: A Life of Edward John Trelawny by David Crane Flamingo pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
Biography always strikes me as a grinding job: devoting yourself to the detail of someone else's life, offering their jottings and indiscretions a significance you would never dare give to your own. Surely, by the time they're done, biographers must start to despise their subjects?

Crane starts his life of Trelawny with the advantage of already despising his subject. In his lifetime (his dates are 1792-1881), Trelawny became a kind of living monument to the Romantic spirit - a friend of Byron, Shelley and Keats, a hero of Greek independence and champion of liberty. He was the man who identified Shelley's body, and snatched the poet's heart from the funeral pyre; he had travelled to Greece with Byron; he was a soldier and a pirate, "the last of the giants", in the eyes of admiring young literary types: "the sole survivor of the race of Theseus, Hercules, Og, Cadmus and the Dioscuri who, rayed with semi-divinity, colonised the metallands of Western Europe", according to a previous biographer.

But most of Trelawny's story was his own invention, and what Crane has written is less biography than disbiography, dismantling the myths that accreted round him and putting in their place the more mundane, less creditable truth. In the years when he claimed to have been a pirate, for instance, Trelawny was really an insignificant midshipman in the Royal Navy, pushed from ship to ship as one commander after another tired of him, and then a cuckolded husband. He never met Keats; and while he was friend of both Byron and Shelley, the part he played in their stories was hardly benign - he supervised the building of the boat in which Shelley drowned, and advised Byron on his doctors.

Crane is not just concerned with Trelawny's story, but with the whole saga of Philhellenism and the fight for Greece, and his account of the rivalries, intrigues and incompetence that characterised the struggle is fascinating reading. If the book has a flaw, it's a tendency to become rather lofty, both in morals and in prose: Crane is a little too ready to pass judgement instead of letting the past speak for itself, and there are some faintly purple passages. Then again, it can't have been easy to spend so much time in Trelawny's company and not be affected. I tell you, biography is a dangerous business.

The String of Pearls

by Joseph Roth

trs Michael Hofmann

Granta pounds 6.99

The Shah of Shahs, visiting 19th-century Vienna, falls in love with a countess, and is duped into sleeping with a prostitute who resembles her, rewarding her with a gift of pearls. Roth, an Austrian who died in 1939, seems finally to be getting his due in English. The String of Pearls is a good advert for him: a combination of fairytale - the original German title translates as The Tale of the 1,002nd Night - bleak sex-comedy and commentary on money and society, written in spare, unfussy prose.

A Crime in the

Neighbourhood

by Suzanne Berne

Penguin pounds 6.99

One of the Americans on the Orange Prize shortlist, and just as small and domestic as any British novel. It is set in a quiet American suburb in the summer of 1972, at the time of Watergate: 10-year-old Marsha observes the break-up of her parents' marriage and records everything she sees in a "book of evidence" - a habit that becomes significant when a young boy is murdered at a nearby mall. Comparisons have been made with To Kill a Mocking-Bird, and there is a certain resemblance; but Berne's debut is less charming, more unnerving, shot through with an impressive air of moral disquiet.

The Truth about the Irish

by Terry Eagleton

New Island Books pounds 6.99

Warton Professor of English Literature at St Catherine's College, Oxford, acclaimed playwright (Saint Oscar) and "one of the world's leading literary critics" (as the blurb modestly puts it) - what is there left for Eagleton to do except write a toilet book? His joky A-to-Z debunking of myths about Ireland has some good moments: the entry on Wilde ignores Oscar in favour of his father, a surgeon, folklorist and fashionable Dublin figure; his summary of the Troubles is pithy and well-balanced. On the downside, it seems to be addressed to elderly American tourists whose ideas of Ireland come from Ryan's Daughter and John Wayne in The Quiet Man, rather than U2 and Roddy Doyle. Eagleton lets himself down with some fairly clunking jokes: there are no more fairies in Ireland - perhaps they've all gone to San Francisco! Coming next: 101 Uses of a Dead Irishman.

Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits

by John D Barrow

Vintage pounds 7.99

Having broached the topic of knowing it all in Theories of Everything, Barrow moves on to examine in detail the reasons why we can't. Some of these are physical - the speed of light and uncertainty of transactions in the realm of quantum mechanics place absolute limits on what we can observe and measure. Others are logical and mathematical - Godel's theorem shows that there are some truths we can never prove. Others are inherent in our own psychological and intellectual make-up. It sounds a little negative, but Barrow is keen to emphasise that it is only because there are limits that we can trace any patterns in the world, know anything at all. So, there's a reason to be cheerful.

Fredy Neptune

by Les Murray

Carcanet pounds 9.95

Murray's verse novel is a gripping epic of alienation. The narrator is a German- Australian sailor, Fred Boettcher. During the First World War, in Turkey, he sees a group of Armenian women burned to death and is powerless to help; he contracts leprosy, and when he recovers finds that he has lost all sensation - can no longer feel pain or pleasure. More than that, he is practically invulnerable, and terribly strong, a kind of Superman, set apart by his freakish condition and his German parentage. His journey through the 20th century, stopping off in Hollywood, Hitler's Germany and wartime New Guinea, among other places, is startling and readable, infused with helpless rage and compassion - which seems like a fair reaction to the age.

RH

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