Paperbacks: The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge<br/>Hello I Must Be Going<br/>The First Emperor<br/>Book of Longing<br/>Some New Ambush<br/>Dylan on Dylan<br/>The Sinner

Christopher Hirst
Sunday 18 September 2011 21:13

The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, By Adam Sisman (Harper £9.99)

Adam Sisman is one of those authors you know will be readable, enlightening and original, even though he tends to tackle familiar topics. After James Boswell and AJP Taylor, he has moved on to the most famous of all poetic duos, a legendary pair "like Lennon and McCartney". Though he does not press the parallel, there are similarities. Both duos were hugely significant in their fields and broke down acrimoniously for the same reasons: drugs and women. A public figure at 24, Coleridge vaulted over a Dorset gate to meet a startled Wordsworth, at that time unknown. Yet Coleridge "acknowledged Wordsworth's greater genius from the start". Deftly quoting from poems and journals, Sisman pursues the evolution of their ground-breaking Lyrical Ballads. Their subsequent association in the Lake District was less productive. This was due partly to the break-up of the Coleridges' marriage and Samuel's obsession with Sara, Mary Wordsworth's sister, and partly his addiction to Kendal Black Drop, a potent opiate. Years later, the two were reconciled for a Continental tour, but Coleridge noted a new Wordsworth, prone to egoism, meanness and monologues. By concentrating on the years of magical rapport, Sisman captures the writers at their most electric. CH

Hello I Must Be Going, Ed. Charlotte Chandler (Pocket £9.99)

Pocket Books continues its laudable disinterment of Marxist texts with this 1978 collection of conversations between the elderly Groucho and chums including Billy Wilder, Jack Benny and Woody Allen. The memories of vaudeville punctuated with lightning gags are similar to the reminiscing comics in Allen's Broadway Danny Rose. On the cost of cigars, George Burns remarks, "If I spent two dollars for a cigar, first I'd go to bed with it", but the sharpest gags are from Groucho. Grumbling about a new gap in his teeth, he says: "Cavity emptor: let the biter beware." CH

The First Emperor, By Sima Qian (Oxford £6.99)

In his new preface to this vivid, near contemporary account of the First Emperor, whose terracotta warriors are a blockbuster for the British Museum, KE Brasher helpfully directs the reader to racy passages on sex ("he made Lao Ai walk with a wheel of tong-wood attached to his penis") and violence ("more than 450 buried alive") that "have all the markings of a tabloid headline". But this does not necessarily make them untrue. We might view Qian's description of how "Quicksilver represented various waterways" in the so-far unexcavated imperial tomb as also fanciful, were it not for the discovery of mercury in core samples at the site. CH

Book of Longing, By Leonard Cohen (Penguin £8.99)

Written over a period of 20 years, this collection of poems reveals that Cohen's recent spell as a Zen monk has not diminished his libido: "Alarm woke me at 2:30am: got into my robes... about 20lbs of clothing which I put on quickly... over my enormous hard-on". His pensive poems about elderly sex make up for an excess of self-portrait sketches and doggerel in the style but not the politics of the Beats: "Be strong, be nuclear, my France." In his best poems, the rhythms of Cohen's uneasy ballads spring into your head: "My page was too white/My ink was too thin/The day wouldn't write/What the night pencilled in." CH

Some New Ambush, By Carys Davies (Salt £8.99)

Already known for its poetry, Salt is developing an ever-stronger short-story list as well. The 15 pieces in Carys Davies's darkly funny and unsettling collection usually begin with "quite small things", only to edge gently into an emotional abyss in dank Welsh towns, airless Victorian parlours or mouldering libraries. The half-hidden passions of "Ugly Sister" could be a lost slice of Dylan Thomas, while the ousted Latin teacher of "Historia Calamatitum Mearum" has an Atwood-esque prickly wit that surfaces elsewhere. Arrivals and departures often trigger crises – but then, as "Metamorphosis" puts it, "Take-off and landing are the most dangerous times" BT

Dylan on Dylan, Ed. Jonathan Cott (Hodder £8.99)

His Bobness is so protean that in the biopic I'm Not There he is portrayed by seven actors. Yet introducing a 42-year span of interviews, Cott describes the singer as "stunningly direct, heartfelt, poetic and, most important, playful". Dylan can also be very funny. In 1984, he added a bedroom to a Malibu house: "We had architects in and they said 'Oh yeah, Bob Dylan, right'." When he went to see their progress, "they'd knocked down the house!" CH

The Sinner, By Petra Hammesfahr (Bitter Lemon £8.99)

This psycho-thriller or "whydunnit?" topped the German charts and drew comparisons with Highsmith. One can see why – a seemingly motiveless murder by a young mother sends Inspector Grovian on a journey, circle by shocking circle, into the depths of her hellish family past. But the novel (snappily translated by John Brownjohn) overdoses on plot twists and draws out the agony. Perhaps German crime fans, like the hapless Cora herself, are gluttons for punishment. BT

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