BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / For love of significant aubergines


By Maggie Traugott
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:50

THE GREAT drag for anthologists must surely be smartypants reviewers who tut, Enfield-like, ``Surely no such anthology is complete without . . . ?'' Malcolm Bradbury pre-empts all this in his Introduction to Present Laughter: An Anthology of Moder n Comic Fiction (Weidenfeld pounds 15.99). Before you can say, ``So where's the Roth and Rushdie then? Or the Beckett and Bellow - eh? eh?'' he is ruing their absence in tones reasoned and remorseful. All inclusions are 20th-century pieces, mostly storie s - no cryptic oddments - starting with Aldous Huxley, Dorothy Parker and Evelyn Waugh and ending with Jonathan Wilson, the redoubtable Martin Amis and the ubiquitous Will Self. Wilson was a new one on me, with just one story collection in print, but it is well worth sampling his cool irony here. He is part of a rich vein of Jewish humour in the book, which also features the cosy wisdom of Isaac Bashevis Singer in ``Gimple the Fool'' and the insanity of Woody Allen in thrall to Emma Bovary in ``The Kuge lmass Episode'', which truly made me laugh.

As Bradbury points out, comic fiction only really goes back to Cervantes, at around the turn of the 16th century, but poetry of course is another matter, and it's Chaucer who leads the parade in The Oxford Book of Comic Verse (pounds 17.99) edited by John Gross. This is roughly chronological, running right up to Vikram Seth and Victoria Wood, well balanced between mainstream and lesser-known, sacred and profane (not too profane) - but side-splitting it largely is not. Gross warns ``a diet of uninterrupted merriment soon palls'' (it does?) so that ``an adequate Book of Comic Verse must always be to some extent a Book of Serio-Comic Verse'' (zzzzzz-z-z). Still, there are plenty of delights here: spikey Swiftian couplets, limericks from Lear to Larkin, Roy Fuller marvelling at 5th century coptic socks (very funny) and Joyce Grenfell bemoaning a lack of gentlemen dancing partners in ``Stately as a Galleon'': ``So gay the band,/So giddy the sighting,/Full evening dress is a must,/But the zest goes out of abeautiful waltz/ When you dance it bust to bust.''

Jill Dawson, in her Introduction to The Virago Book of Love Letters (pounds 15.99) declares, ``An anthology by women only, far from being lopsided, teases out many women who have been overshadowed by their lovers' reputations.'' True, but it can get pretty frustrating to read these pleading, scorching declarations without any replies - from men or women. Claire Clairmont grovels to Byron (how would these anthologists get along without Byron, Boswell and Updike?), Winnie Mandela pontificates to Nelson, Vita bleats to Virginia, de Beauvoir exults in her adulteries to Sartre, but one longs to know how the letters were received. And let's face it, people in love can be such noodles: to wit, Anais Nin to Henry Miller: ``I kneel befo re you. I give you myself and it is not enough, not enough. I adore you. Your body, your face, your voice, your human self, oh Henry ... Henry, Henry, Henry.''

You can see why Stephen Brook banned Anais Nin, along with Henry Miller, from The Penguin Book of Infidelities (pounds 17), ``for the simple reason that I cannot bear their prose styles''. He exercises no moral judgments, however, in this lively compendium of sexual vagaries from life and literature. A dirty double standard predictably runs through most eras from the Roman onwards, except perhaps for the 18th century, when a notorious Miss Chudleigh wowed both George II and Frederick II ``who ad-mired her ability to swallow two bottles of wine'', bigamously married both the Earl of Bristol and Duke of Kingston and vamped Pope Clement XIV.

Simon Rae is a bit snooty about ``true crime'' and sticks mainly to the literary sort in The Faber Book of Murder (pounds 17.50). He has arranged the dirty deeds alphabetically, which allows for disarming juxtapositions - say, the strangling of John Webster's Duchess of Malfi and the dismemberment of Otto in Ian McEwan's The Innocent (gripping pieces, both). Rae leans quite heavily on the obvious (Shakespeare, Dickens, P D James) but some of his diversions are whimsical: for instance, Philip Larkin's letter to Robert Conquest threatening to ``pelt HMV with napalm bombs'' for a bad recording session hardly warrants inclusion in a catalogue of murder.

Jenny Uglow allows spectres into The Chatto Book of Ghosts (pounds 16.99) from all sorts of literary and not so literary traditions: ancient texts, psychical society records, novel extracts, The Gentleman's Magazine, The Bible, folk tales, plays, songs, poetry - indeed, some of the most effective entries are in verse. It is quite a feat of scholarly net-casting, even if some extracts are too truncated to achieve full spooky potential. It is arranged cleverly in ``the arc from dusk to dawn, from summoning to exorcism'', and among such chilling sections as ``Nasty Shocks'' and ``Things That Go Bump'' comes the welcome comic relief of ``Fakes and Mistakes'', featuring the likes of James Thurber, Oscar Wilde, Terry Pratchett and Flann O'Brien in the throes of a haunting that has more to do with the spirits he's poured down his throat than any from beyond the grave.

Almost madly eclectic and deeply entertaining is The Oxford Book of the Supernatural (pounds 17.99) in which D J Enright shows his unfailing radar for what will fascinate. Here are Japanese badgers that change shape, ``significant aubergines'' from Leicester which reveal verses from the Koran, a tobacco-loving ghost with good news for smokers, witches, poltergeists, devils (whom Martin Luther recommends may be driven out ``by a good joke or biting sarcasm''), a wig-stealing midget ghost, horses that wor k out square roots and haunted coat-hangars. This is a book for sceptics and believers alike - very highly recommended.

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