(Published in Observer, August 2001)
Wainewright the Poisoner
Faber £7.99, pp305
Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847), the little-known subject of Andrew Motion's intriguing book, was a significant figure in the London of his times: artist and writer, he painted Byron and was a friend of Fuseli and Blake. The form of the narrative is as beguiling as the subject matter. Eschewing straight biography, Motion writes the 'Confession' from the fictionalised first-person viewpoint of Wainewright.
At the end of each chapter, he adds 'Notes' -- scholarly, biographical information about the real Wainewright. This 'creates a fascinating alternative perspective to the vivacious but chilling story of the gentleman-dandy artist. After the suspicious death of three relatives, he was charged -- though only with the forgery of life insurance documents and transported to Tasmania. Wilde wrote about him, spookily foreshadowing his own downfall.
This mixed-genre study produces a complex reconstruction of its subject, and reinstates Wainewright in his Romantic context.
Harvill £8.99, pp309
In Tokyo, on 20 March 1995, 12 people died and thousands were injured
by a series of gas attacks on subway trains, perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Haruki Murakami, a well known Japanese novelist, investigates through interviews with both victims and cult members the 'implications for the' Japanese psyche', posing the question: 'Where did all that come from?'
Answers are not explored convincingly, however. There is too much passive recording of interviewees, and too little analysis from the author. We have the impression of Japan as a straight-jacketed, depressingly conformist culture, summed up by a subway employee: 'Work means you fulfil your duties.'
Interviews with Aum members merely illustrate general tendencies of cults -- obsessive, leader-oriented millenarian -- rather than probing the motivations of this particular group. The reader is left frustrated by a dull book which delivers less than it promises.
Vintage £6.99, pp379
The French writer Michel Houellebecq's explosive second novel is set in contemporary
France 'in the midst of the suicide of the West'. It is a tirade against liberal, individualistic values. The loose plot recounts the lives of two middle-aged half brothers -- Mlchel, an
introverted molecular biologist, and frustrated ex-teacher Bruno, who is constantly in search of sexual satisfaction. Both grew up in the wake of the Slxties political and sexual revolutions.
Philosophical insertions, reflections on anthropology and false gurus, and discussions about literature deliberately dismantle the conventional form of the novel in order to
say Big Things about Western culture.
The humorously obscene commentary about sex lightens the load. Clearly, to the Left Bank type characters, oral sex is the new art form in France, and fellatio is as prevalent as café au lait. Some will rail against Houlellebecq's show-off nihilism, but everyone will ponder the conclusions of the extraordinary Atomised.
Vintage £7.99, pp249
The opening chapters of Michael Ignatieff's brilliant study of the Kosovo war deal with
the situation at close range. His reportage from the Balkans includes interviews with key participants and moving reflections of the bombed Belgrade. The control of the material is striking.
The chapters that follow reveal Ignatieff's moral thrust, as he explores the concept of 'virtual' war', when only the enemy are killed, the Allied Command is in another continent and the media provided 'a light show for Western TV audiences' who've never had to face the body bags of their own sons and citizens. He deconstructs the rhetoric of the war -- 'precision violence' -- and convincingly argues that democratic decision-making was virtually bypassed (a theme taken up by Tony Benn, but few others).
The coherence of this multi-layered critique of 'the first postmodern war in history' makes Virtual War deeply disturbing and hugely impressive.
The Married Man
Vintage £6.99, pp310
Edmund White's engrossing eighth novel opens in a sensual1989 Paris. The central character, Austin, a 'Europeanised American' homosexual, is on the verge of new love with Julien, a young, still-married French architect.
The third-person narrative lyrically evokes a sense of grand bohemian life. Well-drawn male characters are rather Jamesian, with the addition of a full and explicit sex life. Tension is created in The Married Man by the clash of values between Austin's European aesthetic and the politically correct puritan ideologies of America, where he teaches for a year. A fellow lecturer advises: 'Just imaglne you're in China during the days of the Cultural Revolution.'
Returning to Europe, he travels with his now divorced partner, and sometimes with an ex-lover, to Venice, Rome, and Morocco. The ancient permanence of these landscapes becomes a poignant reminder of the transience of human love blighted by Aids. A moving and quietly powerful novel.