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Paperback Writers: Greek myth is hip, so is Richard Milward's new novel

Plus: How Sherlock Holmes made mistakes and a new translation of the Koran that seeks to correct errors in other versions.

November 15, 2009|By Richard Rayner

Dino Buzzati: "Poem Strip" (NYRB Classics)

This is weird, wild, wonderful. Dino Buzzati was a luminary of the Italian avant-garde around the middle of the last century. His writing started out as straightforward realism but moved toward Gogol and Kafka. Near the end of his life he created "Poem Strip," a graphic novel that was way ahead of the curve and retold the Orpheus story, set in Swinging '60s Milan. The images are surreal, sexy and frightening, and the text (translated here for the first time into English by Marina Harss, with lettering by Rich Tommaso) is both compelling and poetic. There are shades of Fellini, shades of Dickens, shades of the great Italian horror director Mario Bava. A beautiful book.

Richard Milward: "Ten Storey Love Song" (Harper Perennial)

Take a deep breath. This 286-page second novel from a cool and already much acclaimed young British writer is written in a single paragraph, starting (in the case of the American edition) on the cover of the book itself. The hero is Bobby, an aspiring artist in the contemporary post-industrial north of England. Bobby lives in a dingy 1960s-built tower block (hence the title) and his typical breakfast is: "Two crushed ecstasy pills, one slice of toast (butter optional)." He's devoted to his girlfriend, and muse, and spends a lot of time in his local pub, "where all manner of beatniks and meatheads and drinkers and thinkers smash it into themselves." Everything spins out of control when Bobby's work is discovered by an art dealer from London and he heads south. Milward's work, fresh and bouncing with chemical-induced energy, has been described by the London Times as the youthful offspring of J.D. Salinger and Arctic Monkeys -- nice idea! Kerouac is another obvious influence, not to mention Irvine Welsh. There's some suggestion too of Joyce Cary's classic "The Horse's Mouth," especially in the heady and unexpected optimism of the writing.

Lore Segal: "Lucinella" (Melville House)

Segal hasn't published much in a literary career that now spans almost 40 years, but everything she's written is of enormous distinction -- Pulitzer-nominated, frequent appearances in the New Yorker, etc. All of which might tend to belie what dizzy, shameless fun "Lucinella" -- first published in 1976 and now reprinted as part of Melville House's elegant novella series -- actually is. The novel looks at New York literary life in a way that is scathing yet sweet. Here's a passage from the opening scene, at the Yaddo writer's colony: "On my left, that's Meyers, putting brown sugar on his porridge. (You've read his latest, which won the Pulitzer five years ago -- all about his fear that he is going crazy.) Across from us sits Betterwheatling, the English critic." Betterwheatling! The story visits three stages of its heroine's career, following her in and out of the loop. The construction is clever, the style delicious.

Pierre Bayard: "How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read"; "Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong" (Bloomsbury)

Here are two irresistible titles from a literary professor who could come only from France. Bayard argues that books are fixed objects that come alive only when read, and, since each reader is an individual, every reading is subtly, or maybe radically, different. Even not reading a book of which you've heard and think you nonetheless need to know about is valid. He gets into the social value of book-chat, as applied to works that many of us will have to put up our hands and admit we never got through -- James Joyce's "Ulysses," for instance. All this is done with a sly wit that tells us Bayard, in fact, absolutely loves literature and knows a lot about it: "Sherlock Homes Was Wrong" is a valentine to, and radical reinterpretation of, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." An extremely close reading has been involved; and "How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read" swiftly engages, enlightens and enthralls -- it's a book you'll want to talk about, and indeed read.

Philip Gourevitch (ed): "The Paris Review Interviews" (Picador)

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