28 NOVEMBER 1992, Page 37


A further selection of the best and most overrated books of the year, chosen by some of The Spectator's

regular contributors

William Boyd

Adam Thorpe is a fine poet and his first novel, Ulverton (Secker, £13.99), was a remarkable debut. Assured, boldly struc- tured and elegantly written, it only went awry (for me) in the final cod television- script chapter. Equally bold was Ben Macintyre's trip to Paraguay, which he documented in Forgotten Fatherland (Macmillan, £17.50) — a fascinating and bizarrely funny search for the remains of Elizabeth Nietzsche's 19th-century proto- Nazi Aryan colony, Nueva Germania. Peter Costello's James Joyce: The Years of Growth 1882-1915 (Kyle Cathy, £17.99) proved that diligent scholarship can still mine ore from the most well-worked seams. A mass of new information about the youthful Joyce, far and away the most self-confident and ambitious writer of the 20th century.

Alice Thomas Ellis

Walking round the bookshops I find myself suffering from book-poisoning. Having to read many manuscripts I tend not to read books except those written by my friends. I recommend Beryl Bainbridge's The Birth- day Boys (Duckworth, £19.95), Shelley Weiner's The Last Honeymoon (Constable, £13.99) and Stephen Hill's Concordia: The Roots of European Thought (Duckworth, £19.95) because it shows there is nothing new under the sun. I don't recommend Your Ultimate Choice: The Right to Die with Dignity (Souvenir Press, £6.99) (does that mean you can take it with you?) because the title reminds me of those off- putting menus, and life is short enough already.

Frances Partridge

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's enormous, vigorous, yet sensitively understanding life of Gerald Brenan, The Interior Castle (Sinclair-Stevenson, £25), stands out arrestingly among the year's biographies. It is a vivid portrait of a fine writer and eccentric character, packed with quota- tions from his books and exceptionally good personal letters, as well as having a foundation of zealous research. I found it both moving and entertaining.

Anyone who missed Within Tuscany (Viking, £16.99) by the painter and sculp- tor Matthew Spender is strongly recom- mended to get a copy of this, his first published work, written in a fluid, dashing style that keeps a skilful balance between the colloquial and the poetical. He writes about the country he has chosen to live in, its history and natural history and

present-day inhabitants, with a musician's ear and an eye for sharp and rich imagery.

My last choice is a book by Anthony Storr, the psychiatrist, here revealed in Music and the Mind (HarperCollins, £16.99) as a devoted and speculative music-lover. It is a stimulating inquiry aimed at discovering what it is about music that so profoundly moves so many people, in the course of which he describes the physical effects of mescaline, considers the relation of bird-song, the burbling of babies and the language of literature to music, and touches on many other fascinating topics, concluding that its most significant aspect for us is its power to create order out of chaos.

Anthony Daniels

Guerrillas and Revolutionaries in Latin America by Timothy P. Whickham Crowley is a scholarly and shrewd comparative study (Princeton, £13.50).

Simon Strong's Shining Path (Harper- Collins, £16.99) is the best — or better book in English on this important subject. Louis Althusser's self-exculpatory auto- biography, L'Avenir dure Longtemps (Stock, FF 140) is both lyrical and morally repulsive.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

The list starts with Republics Ancient and Modem (University of North Carolina Press, $54.95) by Paul A. Rahe. This rather daunting title gives an idea of the serious- ness and the range of the theme, but no hint of its total fascination. It embraces the whole of European political thought, from the birth of systems, through Sparta and Athens, with their later impacts and rejec- tions, then sweeps on to Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, enlight- ened despotism and the philosophes, to the American Revolution and the anatomy of modern political notions. It is annotated on a Gibbonian scale and illustrated by the influences of literature, poetry, religious clashes and wars and by a vast throng of absorbing and complex figures. Paul Rahe's career as a universal polymath took off over ten years ago while clambering about the Greek mountains, Thucydides in one hand, classical maps in the other. Three happy years at Wadham were followed by youthful professorship at his home univer- sity of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where this extraordinary book took shape. It is a great achievement and will stay as a landmark.

The next is The Way of the World by Nicholas Bouvier (Polygon, £8.95), very well translated from the French. I must declare an interest: captivated by the origi- nal, I was allowed to write the English introduction. I don't think Congreve would have minded lending his title to these adventurous journeys. Long before the pre- sent troubles, the author and a painter friend set off from the Balkans: Greece, Turkey, Iran, Baluch Pakistan, the Himalaya passes and Afghanistan marked the stages of their slow and unconventional progress. The author is steeped in litera- ture and history, the tale is beautifully told; it is original, penetrating, often very funny and in his dazzling kaleidoscope, his pic- tures of desert agonies and low life in Lev- ant cities remain indelible.

The Interior Castle by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy (Sinclair-Stevenson, £25). This biography conveys the gifted, almost feverish idiosyncrasy of Gerald Brenan the trenches in the Great War, Blooms- bury, scholarly but raffish asceticism in Andalusian sierras, a puzzling love-life and Spanish celebrity as a literary hero — with great insight, fluency and skill. Lastly, Dervla Murphy's Transylvania and Beyond (John Murray, £16.95). In her courageous but accident-strewn travels in Rumania immediately after Ceaucescu the author very soon learnt to distinguish between the sound and hardy country-folk who befriended her and the crooked offi- cials and the regime which a manipulated revolution maintained in power; and she is surely right to trace the Rumanian malaise to still older roots. It is a disquieting, ill- starred vision which makes it a relief and a delight to follow her tracks into the forest- ed and bear-haunted Carpathians.

G. Cabrera Infante

Columbus by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (OUP, £16). The best biography of Columbus so far — in spite of a spate of Columbuses — by a Spanish scholar who is also an expert on early modern maritime history.

A Cure for Serpents by the Duke of Pirajno (a reprint by Eland Books, £7.99). Magic idealism by an Italian nobleman who was a Fascist physician serving both it Duce and Asclepius in North Africa. The good doctor (like Chekhov, Maugham and Axel Munthe before him) was a hell of a story- teller in a paradise for foreigners only. After many years the book rereads even better than it read the first time.

Tropical Night Falling by Manuel Puig (Faber, £13.99). The best book, after Kiss of the Spider Woman, by the late Manuel Puig. The author shows off here his uncan- ny ability to disrobe the human heart as women talk.

The most overrated book of the year is the new Roget's Thesaurus (Longmans £14.99). As books go (and some go too far these days), it is not so expensive. But it is a thesaurus, not a treasure-trove.

Denis Hills

The Road Ahead (Bantam Press, £14.99) is the sequel to an earlier book (The Past is Myself) in which Christabel Bielenberg recounted how she had rescued her hus- band Peter, an anti-Nazi Hamburg lawyer, from a Gestapo prison. After Germany's collapse, we are now told, she brought her husband (still treated as an 'enemy alien') and their children safely back to England to settle eventually on a farm in Ireland. Her book is a study in conflicting Anglo- German loyalties, a challenge to xeno- phobic prejudices, with a happy ending. Among those to whom she pays tribute are the Black Forest villagers who protected the Bielenbergs in their final hour of need. The Hour of the Women (Faber, £14.99) is a dramatic account, related by Libussa Fritz-Krockow to her brother Christian, of her extraordinary survival with the remnant of her Junker family after their East Prussian homeland was overrun by Russian soldiers between 1944 and '45. The Russians stole everything, from jewellery to frying-pans and door-locks, and gang rape was routine — even the witch-like village spinster was violated. Yet the Russians were often kind to children; and Libussa saved her step-father's life — he had been taken out into a yard to be shot — by pointing to her advanced state of pregnan- cy. It took Libussa two years of daring for- ays before she managed to bring her family to the safety of the West. Her achievement was a triumph of female will and cunning. The Prussian males, with their disciplined minds, were less able to face humiliating adversity. They knew how to die but not how to survive.

In African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (HarperCollins, £16.99) Doris Lessing chronicles her impressions of the new black Zimbabwe on her return there from exile. She finds much to deplore: land erosion, corruption, and the cavorting of new leaders who lived in 'palaces'. Yet she remains an unforgiving critic of the white man in Africa. In this she goes too far. She not only undervalues the old colonial stan- dards of integrity and economic efficiency. She missed out on what was the true test of emerging Zimbabwe — the terrorist war.

Frank McLynn's biography of Sir Fitzroy Maclean (John Murray, £25), packed with fascinating detail and illuminated by many interviews, will arouse both admiration and renewed controversy over this soldier- diplomat's long relationship with Tito and East European politics.

Christopher Howse

One of those sentences that remain with one from childhood is: 'I don't keer w'at you do wid me, Brer Fox, so you don't fling me in dat brier-patch.' Astonishingly (or perhaps not, considering the unreflective conformism of the times) no full version of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris has recently been in print until the new edition from the R. S. Surtees Society (£14, from Tacker's Cottage, Nunney, Frome, Somer- set). As Roy Kerridge points out in his preface there is no racial superiority among the animals of Uncle Remus's fables; they are anthropomorphised as black people, both goodies and baddies.

But the greatest delight from a new book for me has been Vinland by George Mack- ay Brown (John Murray, £14.95). This great Orkney maker of tales has used the historical event of Leif Ericson's voyage to the New World as an occasion for a story about youth, work, death and the discovery of God. It is worth 100 reinterpretations of Columbus.

Some autobiographies add up to more than the sum of their narrative parts. Oliver Bernard's Getting Over It (Peter Owen, £16.50) is a remarkably potent evocation of a lost period and a well-used life. Mr Bernard begins by accusing himself of being too self-accusatory, and he might be right. But the process is fascinating and the result is far from unsympathetic. I look forward to a second volume.

`Have you noticed how people grow to look like their pets?'

Nigel Spivey

Hardly a day goes by when I do not regretfully acknowledge that the prognosis of global gloom issued earlier this year by William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davi- son in The Great Reckoning (Sidgwick & Jackson, £20, currently reprinting) is being duly enacted. Small comfort to be gleaned from the gross autumnal harvest of politi- cal memoirs: I have been happier immersed in the scrupulous eloquence of Edmund Burke, as collected and annotated in Conor Cruise O'Brien's The Great Melody (Sinclair-Stevenson, £22.50).

The most putrid publication of the year is Madonna's Sex (Secker & Warburg, £25). Martin Seeker, who published D.H. Lawrence, and Fred Warburg, who pub- lished George Orwell, are violated by what Secker & Warburg and Madonna have combined.

D. J. Taylor

As an amateur student of Victorian literary criticism, I was fascinated by King of Critics (University of Michigan Press, £31), Dorothy Richardson Jones' account of the life and work of George Saintsbury. Saints- bury (1845-1933) is entirely forgotten these days, although his influence survives in odd corners of the modern critical world notably in work on Thackeray. Miss Richardson Jones' achievement is both to quantify the extent of Saintsbury's enthusi- asms — a quality that distinguishes him from many modern practitioners — and to point at some of the inner uncertainties concealed by his almost pathological book- ishness. I also enjoyed Livi Michael's Under a Thin Moon (Secker & Warburg, £7.99). A first novel which tracks the dismal progress of four women around a shabby Northern housing estate, its political messages are strengthened by an impressive feeling for character and voice. In Fever Pitch (Gollancz, £13.99), the exposure of a quarter century's obsession with Arsenal FC, Nick Hornby provided an example of that rare thing, a literate and intelligent book about football.

Mark Archer

One of my favourite books this year was Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur (Cape, £15.99), full of aquatic facts and follies and a marvellous testimony to human oddity. Having searched in vain for a decent biography of Puccini, I was delighted to see the reissue of Mosco Gar- ner's Puccini: A Critical Biography (Duck- worth, £29.95), first published in 1958, and now enlarged with the author's final medi- tations on this master of the well-made opera. Stifled by its own hype, Alan Kurzweil's debut novel, A Case of Curiosi- ties (Hamish Hamilton, £15.99), fell still-born from the British books pages a case of recipe-book novel-writing unleavened by a single trace of imagina- tion.

Cressida Connolly

Will Self s Cock and Bull (Bloomsbury, £9.99) is the perfect book to give as a present this Christmas. Its cover resembles festive wrapping paper, and it is just the right size to create a pleasing lump in a stocking. Lumps in stockings are, in fact, what it's all about. A satire on gender, Cock describes what happens when a sub- urban housewife turns hermaphrodite, while its twin novella, Bull charts the progress of a rugger-bugger who acquires female primary sexual characteristics. This is shocking, funny and savage — the ideal antidote to a surfeit of mince-pies and mothers-in-law and to the inevitable glut of bad telly.

I loved the understated wit of Andrew Barrow's novel The Tap Dancer (Duck- worth, £14.99). Black Dogs by Ian McEwan (Cape, £13.99) was very good, but best of all was Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (Bloomsbury, £14.99) incorporating the vision of a poet into breathtaking prose. Andro Linklater

The flavour I recall most clearly from this year's novels is the sweetness of nostalgia which Graham Swift created in Ever After (Picador, £14.99). The writing was con- sciously beautiful, the composition deliber- ate, in all a perfect piece of literary art. The coldest taste, by contrast, came from Denis Forman's portrait in To Reason Why (Deutsch, £13.99) of Lionel Wigram. An almost unknown solicitor, his chill recogni- tion that there are more cowards in life than heroes, and more sheep than both together transformed infantry training and tactics in the second world war — and would seem to hold equally good for peace. According to Miroslav Holub, a Czech immunologist and author of the best collec- tion of essays I read this year, The Dimension of the Present Moment (Faber, £4.99), this dire perception will endure no more than three seconds — the maximum it is possible to be conscious of the present moment. Hence the length of a line of poetry, and of annual book round- ups.

Anne Chisholm

The most inspiring, and demanding, book I have come across this year must be Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals by Iris Murdoch (Chatto, £20). If you have encountered and admired her ideas about love, art, and the complex nature of good- ness through her novels, it is worth making the effort to grapple with her generous, lucid attempt to make her philosophical thought accessible. Not a quick or easy read, but a wonderful and important book.

One of the best self-exposures I have ever read, funny, painful and original, came from Barry Humphries' More Please (Viking £16.99). He has managed to write about his home town, his parents and himself with a fascinating mixture of love and hate, and gives a rare insight into how, and at what cost, a comic genius develops.

The most enjoyable thriller of the year came again from Sara Paretsky, with Guardian Angel (Hamish Hamilton £14.99). Her sleazy Chicago settings and her detec- tive heroine's prickly, disaster-prone nature are increasingly addictive. The book I am most glad to have acquired as an object of beauty is the new, superbly produced and illustrated account of the making of the Matisse Chapel in Vence, by Xavier Girard, published by the Matisse Museum in Nice.

Frederick Raphael

Alexander Stille's Benevolence and Betrayal (Cape, £18.99) is a meticulous account of five Italian Jewish families under Fascism, including one whose allegiance to the Duce was as fanatical as it was tragically fatuous. As for Massimo Teglio, intrepid aviator, hero and daredevil, I cannot think how no one has made a film about him. For those who want to know more about racism Ital- ian-style, Giampiero's A Via Della Mercede C'Era Un Razzista (Riccoli) is an accessible pendant. Tibor Fischer's Under The Frog (Polygon, £7.95) not only has witty jacket copy but a truly funny text about life in post-war Hungary which you would swear (wrongly) came of personal experience: truth and imagination work together in a first novel to be treasured. Louis Althuss- er's L'Avenir dure Longtemps (Stock, FF140) is one of the most merciless self- indictments by a ranking intellectual ever to reveal the destructive vanities of a hollow man. A ne pas manquer, if you can stomach it.

P. J. Kavanagh

The most memorable collection of verse read this year was, for me, Peter Redgrove's Under the Reservoir (Secker, £6). It's all good, but the last long-ish poem, 'Buveur's Farewell', about the whole experience of drinking, of being in a pub, (and of leaving it), is conveyed and height- ened in a way that is unforgettable. I have given it to friends who are not normally readers of poetry, but who know what he is talking about, and they have been bowled over.

The most impressive book I have read in, because it is a work of unthinkable labour, cheerfully undertaken, is J.A. Cuddon's, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (Backwell, £50). The last part of the title is significant. In an age of proliferating theory, which becomes increasingly technical, if you want to know what 'structuralism' is, or 'deconstruction', or what Derrida is up to, Cuddon is your fear- less guide, with examples. In fact, in terms of examples, the book is almost an antholo- gy. Unpompous, extremely useful, it is also amusing.

John Osborne

Easily the most debilitating book to come my way was Among the Thugs by Bill Buford (Mandarin, £4.99), an open-eyed and — considering its kick-by-gouge detail — astonishing testimony to the horrific changes which have taken place in the English character during the past 20 years.

Ten years ago, Buford, an American journalist, found himself at a rural railway station in Wales, literally in danger of his life as the London-bound train was system- atically destroyed by Liverpool fans. For a further eight years he followed, with almost dazed application, the coldly planned, strategic missions of bloody intimidation by the 'firms' following Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and the rest.

The picture emerges of a massive ice- flow of accumulating evil that brooks no explanation or excuse. The leaders are not unemployed, dispossessed 'lager louts', they are articulate and self-assured: bank clerks, accountants, self-employed builders, these missionaries of undiluted ferocity and cruel degredation. I can think of no book which has induced in me such a sense of present hopelessness and helplessness.

Pre-war Edinburgh. For which relief, much thanks. Muriel Spark's Curriculum Vitae (Constable, £14.95) is a slightly reti- cent first volume of autobiography, prod- ded out of her by pedantic swarms of academic clodhoppers. Terse and bitter- sharp, it is full of family fun, romantic fiascos, small-time literary poseurs and the redolent limbo of post-war London. Masefield told her: 'All experience is good for an artist.' Her advice? 'Beware of men bearing flowers.'

As for the theatre, I recommend Orders and Desecrations (Lilliput, £15.95), a semi- autobiography of the Irish playwright Denis Johnston, edited by his son, Rory. The names dropped in this life are the ones that matter: O'Casey, MacLiammoir, Yeats, Shaw. Dublin at its best. And not one for the luvvies.

John Whitworth

Housman's Poems by John Bayley (Claren- don, £25) is a marvellous book, the kind that shows you what a study of English lit- erature ought to be about, but to a great extent no longer is. And it drives you back to those poems, another splendid thing.

Larkin's letters, edited by AnthonY Thwaite (Faber, £20), are required reading until the biography next spring, though I do see it isn't nice to be called a creep by the illustrious dead. Fortunately, I never knew him, though I did once send him a postcard which he never replied to.

I suppose the most 'important' book of poems is the Gaze of the Gorgon by Tony Harrison (Bloodaxe, £5.95), now our best living poet, but the one I enjoyed most was Wendy Cope's Serious Concerns (Faber, £4.95) and 'Jesus found me a parking space' is undoubtedly the line of the year.

Caroline Moore

Top of my list for this year is A. S. Byatt's Angels and Insects (Chatto, £14.95). Few novelists can write with such convincing authority about the past, without ever falling into the ghastly patronising which makes John Fowles unreadable. I have only just read it, but am sure it will pass the memory test and haunt the imagination. I admired Rose Tremaine's Sacred Country (Sinclair-Stevenson, £14.95) — strange in subject matter (a trans-sexual heroine) but so solidly imagined that it is truly original rather than merely quirky. And I enjoyed Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety (Viking, £15.99). Some critics complained that it was too funny; I can't say I found this a particular drawback. The freshest and most infectiously enjoyable biography has to be Victoria Glendinning's Trollope (Hutchinson, £20), rich in digression, and beautifully written. I don't usually award wooden spoons, but there are so many mis- quotations in Michael Thorn's biography of Tennyson (Little, Brown, £20) that it deserves a special mention.

John McEwen

Allan Ramsay: Painter, Essayist and Man of the Enlightenment by Alistair Smart (Yale, £45). Dr Smart brings the ship of his 60- year rehabilitation of Ramsay safely to port. This great portraitist's name will henceforth be mentioned in the same breath as those of Gainsborough and Reynolds.

Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings by Keith Bell (Phaidon, £95). A revolutionary catalogue raisonne in that it is designed, and beautifully. It goes without saying that it is the definitive work on Spencer. For its size and standard of production it is also at a bargain price. The Tap Dancer by Andrew Barrow (Duckworth, £14.99). A novel of manners, lovingly 'hand-crafted' as opposed to the `manufactured' Booker fodder, and a comic masterpiece. Worst Book: Anything `Bookerish' and unlike Andrew Barrow — Amis junior, Barnes, Ian McEwan, etc.

Jennifer Paterson

My greatest pleasures from reading this year have mostly come from Beryl Bainbridge. The Birthday Boys was a totally gripping book (Duckworth, £12.99), most beautifully written. She seems to become the characters in some mysterious way. Also I have been catching up on the deeply sinister Harriet Said and the surreal thriller Winter Garden (Penguin, £4.99 each). Another book I found fascinating, funny and splendid was People Who Say Goodbye by P.Y. Betts (Futura, £4.50). Childhood memories about living on Wandsworth Common when it was still a countrified suburb. A little treasure and a hoot.

Alastair Forbes

`I suppose Isaiah Berlin was given the 0 M simply for his conversation', I heard some- one once enviously mutter. If that had been the case, I suggest that the Queen, at her next party for members of that august Order, should go the whole hog and offer him the Garter, for that is how high I myself rate his conversation, to say nothing of his badinage and bavardage. (Living abroad, I should add that he also 'gives very good phone', as they say in the US). The respectful quizzer, admitted with his machine to his Ligurian summer lair, a Mr Jehanbegloo no kidding, has had his transcribed tapes published by Sir Isaiah's stepson, Peter Halban, and they are good value even at £17.95 for a slimmish vol. Although the word 'decent' crops up continually in the Berlin vocabulary, Sir Isaiah seems to have been taken aback to be asked what he understood by the word and was content to reply that surely every- one knew what was meant by it.

That dear good lady and strictly ball- room dancer Dame Iris Murdoch later in the year took me on her very long but very worthwhile philosophical Pilgrim's Progress through decency and on to that Goodness she sees as the only acceptable replace- ment for organised religion. Her admirable Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (Chatto, £20) should be made Must Reading for the mysogynists and feminists alike lately `Let's face it, passive smoking was a stupid choice of weapon!' milling about Dean's Yard.

Naim Attallah's exemplarily candid inter- views with Barbara Skelton and Claus Billow alone are worth the £15 he charges for his latest hardback (Of a Certain Age, Quartet). But somebody must tell him that there is no such person as 'Lady Diana Mosley', even if brilliant novelist Nick Mosley's mum was Lady Cynthia.

He deserves much credit for confiding Quartet's list to the discerning good taste of brilliant Mr Pickles, whose Encounter and Robin Clark reprints are also admirably chosen and printed. I particular- ly applauded Alethea Hayter's Sultry Month (Robin Clark, £6.95) and a pretty edition of Frederic Prokosch's imaginative youthful journey in poetic prose eastward from Beirut, entirely concocted in the Yale University Library. I first enjoyed The Asiatics in a green Albatross paperback edition a year before the author and I became friends at King's Cambridge and later visited Florence together, each for the first time, in a springtime pre-war vacation.

By far the best autobiography I read was Quentin Crewe's remarkable Well, I Forget the Rest (Hutchinson, £17.99) whose title, the last line of the Memorabilia of which `Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,' is the first, sent me back with joy to much bed- time browsing in Browning (Penguin Poet- ry, £5.99). The latter should be made compulsory GCSE reading, in my opinion, particularly after hearing a Philistine Goliath of a District Judge from a very poor 1991 vintage assert, evidently without fear of contradiction, that the Pied Piper of Hamelin had drowned not the rats but the children, a particularly egregious gaffe, I thought, in the Family Division, of all places, where the Brave New World for Children Act of 1989 is supposedly firmly in force.

Best Primary School pre-Browning verse I've enjoyed was Allan Ahlberg's The Mighty Slide (Puffin. £1.99). Best political memoirs: Lord Gilmour's Dancing with Dogma (Simon & Schuster £16.99) Worst ditto: Lord Lawson's HGV Jugger- naut Apologia Pro Fiasco Suo (Bantam, £20). Most Perceptive Piece on the Woes of the Waleses was, rather to nlY surprise, not Lord Mogg's but Julie Burchill's, in Sex & Sensibility (Grafton, £5).

Harriet Waugh

Undoubtedly the most enjoyable, unput- downable and skilful biography of the year has been Patrick Marnham's The Man who Wasn't Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon (Bloomsbury, £17.99). Simenon was a complicated man, attracted to the criminality in himself, and because of this wrote wonderful crime stories. He never came to terms with his emotionally deprived childhood and suffered a severe case of satyriasis. The skill of Patrick Marla- ham's book is that it encompasses the whole man, making him as interesting as he is complicated and at the same time gives a

picture of the sophisticated decadence of France before the second world war, the occupation and then the wonder of the post-war era in America unrivalled any- where else.

The most absorbing fiction has been Alan Judd's novella, The Devil's Own Work (Flamingo, £3.95). A tale of Faustian pos- session that cannot but be riveting to any- one who writes. I can never now look at the features of Graham Greene without cross- ing myself. This is a little unfair, as it is really an allegory about how literary promise is corrupted into empty fireworks.

Bryan Robertson

In politics my vote goes to Guy Fawkes but our present pickle drew me to Peter Hen- nessy's absorbing Never Again: Britain 1945- 51 (Cape, £20), volume one of a history of Britain projected from 1945 to the begin- ning of the next century. Alive with detail, balanced but never bland, this is a riveting survey which throws a sharp light across our self-defeating relations with Europe and America.

The most moving (and best produced) art book of the year must be Sulyagin's Paper Spirits (Chatto, £25) in which a fine Russian artist commemorates poets, writ- ers and artists murdered, imprisoned or otherwise persecuted by Stalin. Sulyagin's collages are as inventive as anything by Malevitch or Lissitsky, as well as providing acute psychological likenesses of some gifted and heroic men and women from Eisenstein to Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam and Akhmatova.

Richard Shone's study of Sisley (Phaidon £29.95), the English impressionist so enjoy- ably revealed at the RA this summer, is perfectly poised between historical fact, much of it new, and acute insights: an important monograph, not just 'another art book', beautifully written by a gifted writer. In fiction, nothing can touch the reissue of Terence Kilmartin's version, tightening and often correcting, of Scott Moncrieffs translation of the great Proust novel, now properly titled In Search Of Lost Time (Chatto, six vols. £15 each) and containing D. J. Enright's final editorial adjustments. m hooked, all over again.

A. S. Byatt's two novellas, Angels and Insects (Chatto, £14.99) are as compulsively readable as anything by Melville or James, but, in reality, this writer's style and con- tent bear about as much relation to their 19th-century locations as, say, Stravinsky's astringently neo-classical music bears to the 18th century. Byatt's Fabre-ish view of human conduct in relation to the insect world is witty, unsentimental, never forced.

The other terrific achievement in English fiction is Hilary Mantel's long — 872-page — novel about the central personages of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety (Viking, £15.99), without a dull page and the psychologically tense chronicle, pellucidly clear in itself, building a tremen- dous momentum.