Bennett diaries: dry, wry and winning

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The Independent Online
DESCRIBED as splendid, brilliant, dry, wry, profound, singular and endlessly entertaining, Alan Bennett's volume of diaries is the most nominated Book of the Year for 1994. Selina Hastings's biography of Evelyn Waugh is beaten into second place, w hile Craig Raine's verse-novel, History: the Home Movie, comes third.

Our annual survey, covering the nominations in 10 newspapers and magazines, finds reviewers as generous as ever. Even Terry Major-Ball gets three nominations for his memories of his brother ("innocent," finds Beryl Bainbridge in the Times) as does Lord Howe for his predictably dull memoirs ("written in the quiet tone he uses in speech," according to Malcolm Rutherford in the Financial Times), while Anna Pasternak, much-reviled author of Princess in Love, gets a kind word from Matthew Parris in the Sunday Telegraph - "honest pap".

The Pope's Crossing the Threshhold of Hope does not, admittedly, score, but the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, in which he had a hand, does ("Serene, scholarly and authoritative," according to Roger Scruton in the Times Literary Supplement). Mi riam M Foot may be aggrieved at the lack of acclaim for her History of Bookbinding but the Spectator allows M R D Foot to observe that he would have included it had she not been his wife. The only significant writer who misses out is the winner of the Booker, James Kelman, who gets one nomination, and many brickbats.

However, Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star, shortlisted for the Booker, gets the most nominations for a prose-novel, beating P D James's Original Sin. As always, literature, biography and history dominate, but Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, with six nominations, is a rare example of a science book almost making the top 10.

The Sunday Times invited nominations for the worst book of 1994, and the Spectator for the most overrated. But in neither case did reviewers rise to the challenge. A few went for easy targets - Nick Hornby chose Jeffrey Archer's latest novel as "probablythe worst book published anywhere in the solar system"; others preferred a more generalised approach - "this year, most books were overrated, overlong and overpriced", wrote G Cabrera Infante.

Some nominations for "best books" seemed ruder than those for "worst books". Olaf Olafsson's Absolution was "on the face of it, just another gloomy, guilt-ridden novel by an Icelandic novelist I had never heard of," wrote David Robson in the Sunday Telegraph. Robson admitted that it turned out to be "oddly exhilarating", but that hardly seemed likely to send people into the bookshops. Brian Sewell in the Financial Times nominated a biography of the composer Peter Warlock. If most readers had never heardof him, they may not have been encouraged by the news that he was "largely dislikeable, if not despicable". The biography itself was "burdened by . . . worthiness".

Annual prizes for the reviewers: Most over-the-top nomination: Martin Jarvis (Sunday Telegraph) on A N Wilson's The Vicar of Sorrows. "I found this intriguing novel so disturbing that I bought the rights and plan a three-part television film." A close runner-up was Alastair Macaulay (Financial Times) who, on reading The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, had to rush straight to the phone to read them aloud to friends.

Most unusual nomination: Keith Thomas (the Observer) who proposed the index to Gladstone's Diaries.

Most pompous nomination: Malcolm Rutherford (Financial Times) on Kissinger's Diplomacy. "Anybody serious should have read it by Christmas."

Biggest show-off: Clive James in the TLS. Joachim Fest's latest book, written in German, was "no easier" than his last "for the foreigner to read".

Least inviting nomination: Naomi Lewis (Observer) on a long-lost novel by B Traven containing "terrible detail of the forest-end of the mahogany trade early this century, worked by Mexican slave labour".

Least convincing nomination: Nicholas Shakespeare (Daily Telegraph) on Graham Robb's biography of Balzac. It "took 16 years to write".

Special mutual back-scratching award: Craig Raine (formerly of Exeter College, Oxford) and Timothy Garton Ash (formerly of Exeter College, Oxford) for praising each other's work ("magnificent study"; "great virtuosity") on the same page of the TLS.

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