Which tune did the band on the Titanic really play as the "unsinkable" liner slid into the icy waves? Modern myth soon plumped for "Nearer My God, To Thee": a sturdy Protestant hymn about the blessings of sacrifice that deflected attention from all those steerage-class migrants locked in by the toffs below the waterline. A later contender was the Episcopal hymn "Autumn", but Titanic expert Walter Lord finally settled on a popular waltz, "Songe D'Automne". Erik Fosnes Hansen's factual afterword mentions the waltz; but the players in his tremendous novel Psalm at Journey's End (Secker & Warburg, pounds 9.99) choose a valedictory burst of Handel's "Largo".

The hype for James Cameron's budget-busting film will claim (with all the hubris of the White Star Line in 1912) the last word on the disaster that turned 1,503 corpses into the deadest metaphor in the entire English language. Late in 1996, Beryl Bainbridge near-miraculously brought this barnacle-encrusted material to life with Every Man for Himself. In the same year, Steven Biel published his shrewd and entertaining cultural history of the shipwreck, Down With The Old Canoe. Biel explains just how and why a brief encounter between Belfast-riveted steel and an iceberg straying too far south became an all-purpose cliche for everything from class warfare to techno-phobia. Norton issues the paperback next week (at pounds 9.95).

The latest Titanic wave began to rip through western culture after Robert Ballard and his US Navy-funded gizmos located the wreck in 1985. Insofar as one can judge from translation (Joan Tate's fluent version of a Norwegian original), Hansen's novel is its highest crest so far. In scope and subtlety, I think it noses just ahead of Bainbridge - no mean feat. Then aged 25, Hansen published it in 1990; with no fanfare, the book finally crept into English last summer. More than 80 years after transatlantic liners flung their Marconigrams over the ocean, it can still take seven years for a European masterwork to cross the North Sea. So much for the shrinking globe.

Hansen invents his bandsmen, though his postscript gives their real names. He makes this pack of drifters and dreamers into a troubled microcosm of a Europe torn between old and new, rich and poor, hope and despair. From the lovelorn Viennese fiddler to the English medical-school drop- out, he lends them all a turbulent, convincing inner life. And he eschews the corny hindsight of the Great-War-just-around-the-corner kind that scuppers almost all Titanic fictions. Chance and contingency, he gently suggests, threaten us more than ideas of destiny or doom, however cruel. A tender, ironic counterweight to splashy Hollywood heroics, this richly- laden vessel deserves a Blue Riband at least.

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