PAPERBACKS

Saturday 12 September 1998 23:02
comments

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, Vintage pounds 7.99. According to Kurt Vonnegut, at 76 years old it's time he gave up writing. He tells us that two years ago, he found himself writing a novel that he couldn't finish. But then he had a brainwave and it gave rise to Timequake, his latest and final, offering. If this is, as he claims, a failure as a novel, it is a brave and eloquent one. The story is that a jolt in time causes the entire world to endure a re-run of the previous decade, and a total loss of free will. We join Vonnegut in 1996, dead centre of the deja-vu, as he is working on his incomplete novel. Memories of the Great Depression and Second World War, and the obsolescent thrill of reading the classics take up much of his epigrammatic wit. But as the greatest exponent of kidology in American fiction ("I have pretended in this book I will still be alive for a clambake in 2001... I must be nuts"), he constantly mocks his authorial authority and deflates the creative process. What finally emerges in this most poignant of swansongs is a lament for lost friends, family and faith.

Anna Freud: Selected Writings ed Richard Ekins and Ruth Freeman, Penguin pounds 8.99. Although, like a good girl, Anna Freud remained faithful to the theoretical frameworks established by her father, she was one of the most innovative thinkers in the history of psychoanalysis. This definitive overview starts with extracts from her classic essay, "Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence" which, her editors contend, is the first crucial contribution to psychoanalytic theory elaborated by someone other than Freud senior. It also shows how she modified her father's work in such a way as to consolidate his reputation. Her career started early, when her father used baby Anna's dream of "stwawbewwies, omblet pudden" to illustrate the wish-fulfillment dreams of childhood. She soon became his favourite daughter - "my faithful Antigone" - along the lines of the daughter of Oedipus Rex; whose loyalty to her family meant great personal sacrifice. In spite of this, she became the undisputed head of Vienna's institute for child analysis, and an expert on both normal and pathological child development. All this is presented with helpful, explanatory notes to make it a cogent study for lay readers.

An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears, Vintage pounds 7.99. Iain Pears's bestselling novel has been described as a combination of Agatha Christie and Umberto Eco, which means that it is a historical murder mystery with intellectual pretensions. Certainly, it is a gripping yarn, briskly plotted, with colourful suspects, and careful attention to period detail, but it lacks the subtlety of thought and imaginative vision that sustain Eco's massive narratives. Set in 1660s Oxford, and with four narrators (or witnesses to the mysterious death of an unpopular New College fellow), Pears puts together a compelling portrayal of academic life (both then and now), with all its intrigue, sycophancy and esoteric obsessions. Self-conscious digressions on anatomy, land law and, rather wittily, the nature of evidence, threaten to throw the story off balance, but it is philosophy that leads the way in the detection of the criminal. And, apart from the pedantic asides, Pears provides a love story, a witch, and four creditable heroes. For those unwilling to negotiate the minefield of erudition contained in The Name of the Rose, this is an entertaining, multi-levelled religious shocker.

The Mammoth Book of How It Happened: Eye-witness Accounts of Great Historical Moments ed Jon E. Lewis, Robinson pounds 6.99. Jon E. Lewis has devoted his career as a historian to eye-witness accounts of seminal events in history. Compiled from memoirs, diaries, letters and journalistic accounts, Lewis builds up an oral account of social and political history from 2700BC to the present. An unknown Sumerian schoolboy (c2000BC) relates his day's studies to his father: "I recited my tablet, ate my lunch, prepared my new tablet" etc. As Lewis states, his endearingly bald account hardly differs from that of a modem schoolchild's. Lewis's point seems to be that whether BC or AD, the same preoccupations, hopes and fears emerge from the detailing of ordinary lives and momentous moments. So, in 600BC, Nebuchadnezzar, sounding like a latter-day DIY freak, describes building the palace of Babylon. In 45BC, Cicero grumbles about having a dictator (Julius Caesar) for dinner. More recently, ethnic cleansing and the end of apartheid are explored at street level by the ubiquitous eye-witness.

Catching Shellfish Between The Tides by Rosalyn Chissick, Sceptre pounds 6.99. Rosalyn Chissick is a poet and journalist with the yearning sensibility of a back-packing hippie-chick. In her first novel, self-discovery and storytelling go hand in hand: "Stories change lives. That is their purpose." And so twenty-year-old Magda, who wears silver bangles up to her elbows, and a tattoo of the moon on her left shoulder, travels aimlessly through Greece in search of self-definition. Magda meets a man who makes her pregnant. She then meets a doctor who takes her into his house and delivers her baby, whom Magda ominously calls Missing. By now, it should be obvious that Magda has a weak grasp of the hard facts of life. Chissick's achievement is to create strong, memorable characters, whilst encasing them in a hazy, elliptical narrative. Magda's life ambivalence towards her baby daughter. memories of hoisting a suicidal friend out of a "steaming pink bath", drift in and out of the narrative as reality blurs with the fantasy of Magda's massive task of reinventing herself. Only when she finds herself a surrogate mother (an extremely kind woman in a supermarket) does Magda feel able to give her baby its proper name, and finally get a grip on her life.

The Spirit of Prague by Ivan Klima trans Paul Wilson, Granta pounds 6.99. Czech writer Ivan Klima witnessed the horrors of Nazi occupation, the Stalinist regimes of the Fifties, and the triumph of 1989's velvet Revolution. As one of Europe's pre-eminent literary figures he is sufficiently qualified to discuss Kafka, Kundera and Vaclav Havel. These essays, taken from early samizdat publications and his later writings, address the spirit of his city, both under adversity and full of hope. When censorship forbid self- expression, Klima asked questions that united his fellow countrymen. As he says, it is the only means of uniting "people in a large human society that still needs language as a means of keeping in touch, of persisting." This collection offers rewarding insights into Klima's literary and personal inspiration.

Lilian Pizzichini

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments