15 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 38

Philip Hensher

A bumper year for fine biographies of artists; Calvin Tomkins on Duchamp (Chatto, £25), Jenny Uglow on Hogarth (Faber, £25) and Ian Gibson's tactful, scrupulous life of that old fraud Salvador Dali (Faber, £30) stand out in the memory. The revelation, though, was a magnificent catalogue of the 19th-century Berlin painter Adolph Menzel, Das Labyrinth der Wirklichkeit, by Claude Keish and Marie Ursula Ricmann-Reyher (Dumont, 80 DM); how calculating Menzel makes all his British contemporaries seem, how narrow in range and sympathy all but the greatest of the French impressionists.

As far as novels went, I thought Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (Cape, £16.99). a complete knockout; alluring, hilarious, and determined to tease the reader's expectations on every page. A fine Booker shortlist turned up the discovery of Madeline St John's perfectly balanced The Essence of the Thing (Fourth Estate, £9.99); as attuned and unprejudiced an ear for speech as Henry Green's.

The book I most disliked all year was Ian McEwan's pompous and offensive Endur- ing Love (Cape, £15.99), though some of the 50 or so frightful American epics about hoeing in Wyoming must have run it close.