Non-fiction: Oct 4

Steven Poole and Vera Rule on The Uncanny | Sedition and Alchemy | The Ghosts of Sodom | Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship | Undaunted Courage | White Rajah

The Uncanny
by Nicholas Royle (Manchester, £15.99)

Royle's playful, scholarly study of this protean idea collects essays on topics as various as Freud, moles (as in worthy pioneers rather than beauty spots), the Victorian fascination with being buried alive, cannibalism, the "omniscient narrator" of fiction as telepath, and doppelgängers (in which chapter he tells the amusing story of his own "double", the novelist Nicholas Royle). The book is densely and allusively argued, yet also full of pregnant one-liners, such as this on cinema: "The entire 'industry' might be defined as a palliative working to repress the uncanniness of film." (What does Royle think of those recent masterpieces of the uncanny, Japanese horror film Ringu and Danielewski's novel House of Leaves ?) He also has fun making up words, using parenthesis marks to bracket empty space, and putting anecdotes in coffin-shaped boxes. Those allergic to Derrida, oft cited here, may bristle; but it's a fascinating and ambitious work.


Sedition and Alchemy: A Biography of John Cale
by Tim Mitchell (Peter Owen, £14.95)

This life of possibly the premier avant-garde Welsh viola-player of recent times, from his early school concert performances, through his time with the Velvet Underground and subsequent solo explorations in rock, opera and theatre, is arranged self-importantly around references to the Parisian avant-garde of the early 20th century, and arbitrary historical events (such as Mahler's marriage or the birth of Bobby Fischer) that all took place on Cale's birthday. Slightly annoying, perhaps, but the book will none the less be attractive to Cale fans, being the only biography of him available, and having been written with the subject's cooperation. There are many pleasingly odd side-stories (for example, that while recording an album in 1980, Cale became interested in acquiring the material to build a nuclear bomb), but the style is rather dry and more direct quotation from people like Brian Eno and Lou Reed would have been nice. Good photographs, though.


The Ghosts of Sodom
by the Marquis de Sade (Creation, £7.95)

Being two notebooks of the secret journal that De Sade began writing at the age of 67 while imprisoned at Charenton asylum, covering 1807-8 and 1814. The other two are still lost. The diary entries are joined in this volume by letters that he wrote from Charenton (many increasingly pathetic pleas for release) and a set of working notes for The Days of Florbelle (which De Sade envisioned, it is argued here, as a reconstruction of The 120 Days of Sodom, since he supposed the latter work destroyed and lost). For example: "I have given Louis a big cock and much apathy, and Soubise more talent"; or "Be careful not to repeat the adventure in the girls' convent when boarders are whipped." The diaries themselves are novelistically compelling, alternating hypnotically quotidian accounts of letters and visitors with odd references to the author as "Moses", and the touching story of De Sade's final romance with Magdeleine Leclerc.


Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship
by Noam Chomsky (The New Press, £9.95)

This reissued essay of 1969 diagnoses a counter-revolutionary elitism on the part of soi-disant "moderate" scholars. Indeed, Chomsky sneers, "they stand midway between the two varieties of extremism, one which demands that we destroy everyone who stands in our path, the other, that we adopt the principles of international behaviour we require of every other world power". The first part of the essay concentrates on the war in Vietnam and the academic tendency, which Chomsky finds alarming, to seek to impose psycho-technological solutions; the latter part takes issue with "elitist" studies of the Spanish civil war that on his view fail to understand its true revolutionary nature. Classic Chomsky, both in its dogged close reading of the adversary, and in its bizarre alliances: at one point, he quotes approvingly a scholar who claims that the depredations of the British in India were actually worse than "Hitler's . . . Dachaus and Belsens".


Undaunted Courage
by SE Ambrose (Pocket, £7.99)

I lugged this account of the Lewis and Clark trans-American expedition of 1802-06 in my pack from sea to shining sea the winter I followed their Corps of Discovery; next to Lewis and Clark's own journals compressed in one volume, it was the trip's best company. Ambrose roughs in the reasons why Thomas Jefferson sent the boys up the Missouri, over the great divide in the Rockies and along the Columbia (he wrongly thought there was navigable water almost all the way, essential to American expansion before the railroad). Then he follows them step by ever-less-stoutly-shod step across the continent, as they consumed their 193lbs of portable bean soup and tried fried squirrel, froze, nearly drowned, got mosquito-bitten and just plain lost. I'd have bet that Ambrose, a soldiers' chronicler ( Band of Brothers ), would love Will Clark best, but unexpectedly he admires more the melancholy, profound Meriwether Lewis.


White Rajah
by Nigel Barley (Abacus, £8.99)

If the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind, then the kind of mind that was absent was perfectly exemplifed by Sir James Brooke. He was born in Benares in 1803 and raised to treat the world as a profitable adventure playground - and to tap papa for cash when the globe didn't pay. Through avarice, ineptitude and the occasional crucial deployment of a borrowed gunboat, he became overlord of Sarawak, before shrinking away in a cottage in Burrator in Devon, living off the beneficence of the rich philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts and subsidising stalwart local lads on whom he had crushes. Barley is uncommonly charitable to Brooke, though his anthropological heart is in the longhouses of the Dyaks, and also with the Ibans, Malays and Bidayuhs. The best chapter is the postscript, in which he rides pillion to meet the gays of contemporary Kuching in the gardens of the national museum, following their rajah, meaning the spirit within.


The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Review: Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

Michael Dibdin savours James Hamilton-Paterson's witty recipe for disaster among British expats, Cooking With Fernet Branca

Michael Dibdin

19, Jun, 2004 @12:27 AM

Crime: Mar 25

Maxim Jakubowski on The Grave Tattoo | Smoked | A Thousand Lies | Contact Zero

Maxim Jakubowski

25, Mar, 2006 @12:55 AM

Article image
Strange times

Continuing our series on political theatre, Naomi Wallace argues that playwrights have a duty to engage with the here and now

Naomi Wallace

29, Mar, 2003 @2:13 AM

Article image
Rereading: Ivor Gurney

Rereading: Many thought that Ivor Gurney's claim to be 'England's first war poet' was a symptom of his insanity. Not so, argues Adam Thorpe, this misunderstood writer was one of the finest of his age.

Adam Thorpe

10, Nov, 2007 @11:57 AM

Article image
A life in books: J G Ballard

'I embraced surrealism - like a lover - and psychoanalysis, which closely abutted surrealism. Together, they represented what I wanted to do'. JG Ballard talks to James Campbell

James Campbell

13, Jun, 2008 @11:10 PM

Science fiction and fantasy: Jan 15

Jon Courtenay Grimwood on In Your Dreams | The Roses of Roazon | Siberia | Resolution

Jon Courtenay Grimwood

15, Jan, 2005 @1:43 AM

Article image
Review: The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna

Jad Adams learns more than he needs to know about the playwright's sex life in Neil McKenna's The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde

Jad Adams

25, Oct, 2003 @1:56 AM

Strange fruit

At the annual Rhubarb Show dinner in Wakefield, the only one of its kind in the world, there was a great deal of muttering among the guests. What was the hubbub, bub? If you put your ear to the television set and listened, really carefully, you could actually hear what they were saying. "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb." And again: "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb."

Stuart Jeffries

10, Jul, 1999 @12:33 AM

Review: Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R Gaines

When JS Bach met Frederick the Great the Middle Ages collided with the Enlightenment. Sparks fly in James R Gaines' Evening in the Palace of Reason.

John Banville

08, Jan, 2005 @1:42 AM

Article image
Craig Raine on the Russian avant-gardist photographer, Alexander Rodchenko

Russian avant-gardist Alexander Rodchenko claimed that photography could 'leave Rubens behind'. Through patterns and unusual viewpoints, his compositions make the viewer see familiar scenes in a different light, observes Craig Raine

Craig Raine

26, Jan, 2008 @11:54 PM