The Bohemians, by Dan Franck <br></br>Diamond, by Matthew Hart <br></br>Dictionary of Allusions <br></br>Ninety Degrees North, by Fergus Fleming <br></br>Rothschild Buildings, by Jerry White

Christopher Hirst
Saturday 18 January 2003 01:00
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The Bohemians, by Dan Franck, Phoenix, £9.99, 463pp

You might expect a hefty account, translated from the French, about the birth of modern art in Paris to be clogged with opaque Gallic philosophising, Fortunately, Franck is a prolific novelist and his book, shuttling between Picasso in Montmartre and Apollinaire in Montparnasse, is replete with incident and lively characterisation. We learn that Picasso would shoot his Browning pistol into the air or ceiling when annoyed or bored, but this was restraint itself compared to Alfred Jarry, who drew his pistol on obstructive pedestrians, noisy children, and when he couldn't get into an overfilled bus. We're informed that Derain once twisted the railings on the Pont des Arts in a show of strength. Modigliani could not be trusted to buy dope (deputed by friends to buy cocaine, he returned empty-handed but "sniffing and giggling"). Apollinaire favoured eating competitions: "They had to eat every dish on the menu. And when they had finished, they started again. First to be full was the loser." Apollinaire rarely lost. Deaths and duels were commonplace in the demi-monde. When Modigliani died, surrounded by empty sardine tins, in 1920, his pregnant mistress threw herself from a fifth-floor window.

Maybe Franck's account is a little too harum-scarum, though he is often insightful about less dramatic matters, such as the frosting of relations between Picasso and Braque. Anyone who enjoyed the Tate's Matisse-Picasso blockbuster will lap up this book, almost as intoxicating as absinthe and far more enjoyable.

Diamond, by Matthew Hart, Fourth Estate, £7.99, 287pp

Matthew Hart, editor of a diamond newsletter, buttonholes his reader in the opening chapter about an 81-carat (less than one ounce) pink diamond found by three Brazilian prospectors in 1999. Sold for an estimated $13.2m, it disappeared into the vortex of chancers, obsessives and tough-nuts known as the diamond trade. Hart's enthralling guide to this murky milieu ranges from the De Beers cartel to Gwyneth Paltrow, whose dad bought the $160,000 necklace she wore at the Oscars. No wonder she blubbed. The prospectors, incidentally, "have now spent all their money".

Dictionary of Allusions, ed. Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, Penelope Stock, Oxford University Press, £8.99, 453pp

Though wide-ranging and informative, it is hard to see how this haul of allusions will be used. Will any stumbling writer really look up "Adventure" and find that "Bilbo Baggins" is just what he was looking for? Oddly, Mr Toad is merely cited under "Disguise" (although he didn't make a very good washerwoman) rather than under conceit or vainglory. Mickey Mouse is characterised as insignificant, rather than the recent, American meaning of fanciful or crazy. This ambiguity won a plaintiff millions in a libel case when a judge ordered the jury not to make a Mickey Mouse award.

Ninety Degrees North, by Fergus Fleming, Granta, £9.99, 470pp

Whenever fans of travel yarns meet, you'll hear the same five words: "Have you read Barrow's Boys?" Fergus Fleming's first book, about the Admiralty's mad search for the North-West Passage and a river route across west Africa, is a classic. His second, concerning 19th-century quests for the North Pole, is equally enthralling. It is the detail that grabs you: "Franklin had food for seven years, silver cutlery and 1,000 bound editions of Punch. Nothing could go wrong. He entered the Arctic and neither he, his ships nor his 136 men were ever heard from again." Irresistible.

Rothschild Buildings, by Jerry White, Pimlico, £12.50, 301pp

When erected in 1887, these mountainous tenements in London's Spitalfields provided the backdrop to the Jack the Ripper murders. Intended as "model dwellings for the working classes", they became a vertical Jewish village. First published in 1980, Rothschild Buildings is a lively aural history of the early history of the community, perceptive despite the author's admitted ignorance about the cultural milieu ("Mr Davis, what's a bagel?"). Though conditions were oppressive, and often violent, the resilience of the residents may offer a cheering parallel for present-day immigrants.

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