IT'S that time again, when some of us who review books all year around consider the question of which books would we read - or recommend - purely for the pleasure of summer reading. Novels, in theory, make ideal summer reading. As someone who often grumbles at the prospect of reviewing yet another competent but unexciting new novel, however, I find I am usually hard-pressed to come up with suggestions in this department. Having paged through volume upon volume of fiction that is little more than thinly disguised, flatly recounted autobiography, I can sympathize with readers who claim they'd rather read biography or history.
Yet I know, looking back on the books that have influenced me most, that fiction has been central to my experience of reading. The trouble is, it's a long way from being transfixed by "Wuthering Heights" or challenged by "The Brothers Karamazov" to being bored and irritated by a run-of-the-mill novel.
Happily, it turns out - if my own experience is any example - there are a surprisingly large number of classic novels that even the best-read readers still have not read. You may have read "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations" by Dickens, but how many people have read "Dombey and Son,Martin Chuzzlewit," and "Little Dorritt," each a fascinating Dickensian universe of its own to be explored? Almost everyone has read (or should read) "Jane Eyre," but there is a different, remarkably prophetic, side o
f Charlotte Bronte that emerges in her novel "Shirley," including some reflections on Eve, the primal mother, which should delight modern-day feminists. And some time ago, I discovered my own mother caught up by the drama of Balzac's "Pere Goriot," as compelling a portrait of human nature now as it was a century and a half ago.
Even in the case of a writer you think you don't like, it is possible to discover qualities you may have missed. My husband, who confessed he was bored by "Middlemarch," found great charm and passion in George Eliot's portrait of rural life in "Adam Bede," a tale of two women: a wayward countrygirl and a forceful Evangelist preacher. Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" struck me as interminable, but "The Mayor of Casterbridge" had something of the grandeur - and concision - of Shakespearean tragedy.
For people who feel they've exhausted the storehouse of 19th-century fiction, but long for more, the novels of Charlotte Bronts biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, offer a pleasant surprise: "Mary Barton,Cranford," "Ruth,North and South,Sylvia's Lovers,Wives and Daughters," many of them available in paperback these days. And for readers who may hanker for a taste of the far more distant past, to shed the world of 19th-century realism for the romance of the Middle Ages, Penguin Classics offers a new prose tra n
slation of Chretien de Troyes's "Arthurian Romances": stories of Perceval's quest for the Grail, Guinevere's adulterous liaison with Lancelot, and more, all rendered in vigorous modern English.
The best novels - or the best-told stories - don't always come in the standard novel format. The Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith somehow managed to do a better job describing a crumbling marriage in his sonnet sequence "Modern Love" than in his novel "The Egoist." Shakespeare's sonnets are well worth reading or rereading by anyone interested in the complex web of emotions woven by love, friendship, lust, and jealousy.
But for those who are still in the mood to read some contemporary fiction, A. N. Wilson's A Bottle in the Smoke continues in sprightly, yet underlyingly serious, fashion the story of young Julian Ramsay begun in "Incline Our Hearts." This second novel of a planned trilogy takes Julian into the postwar London arts scene, where he struggles amid suitably Bohemian trappings to make his way as an actor or a writer (he's not quite decided). The tone in which Julian relates his past pretentions and adventures
can be heard in this aside: "Though silly and green, our younger self is worthy of our respect, deserves our truth telling, as much as soberer phases of existence." Julian's introduction to the pleasures and perils of literary/theatrical life makes for amusing, often poignant, reading.
In contrast to the sophisticated London scene of Mr. Wilson's novel is the lower-middle-class world depicted by Hilda Ann Salusbury in her nonfiction memoir Only in My Dreams: An English Girlhood. Deserted by her mother, who ran off during World War I, Ms. Salusbury grew up as the oldest of five children, caught up in the silent conflict between their injured and resentful father and their gentle, frail Grannie, who took over the responsibilities of child-rearing from the errant daughter she still loved
and missed. Ms. Salusbury, now an octogenarian herself, has a wonderful gift for describing in concrete, common-sense language the kind of straitened lives led by lower- and middle-class English people in the period between the wars. If it's true that each and every one of us has at least one novel in us, one life-story to tell, this is a fine example of how such a story might be told.
BACK in the realm of fiction, Sara Maitland's third novel, Three Times Table, offers a triune look at three generations of women, as they relate to one another and to the worlds of science, mathematics, and mythology. The grandmother, Rachel, is a distinguished paleontologist, author of a theory that ancient myths of dragons were based on collective memories of dinosaurs. She is about to astonish her colleagues and turn her back on a lifetime's work, however, by publishing a paper abandoning her old bel i
ef in evolutionary gradualism and acknowledging the claims of so-called "Catastrophe" theorists, who find evidence of change caused by sudden, massive global events.
Fifteen-year-old Maggie, the paleontologist's granddaughter, has a different relationship with outsize reptiles: Her best friend is a dragon named Fenna, who taught her to fly. Sandwiched between this extraordinary pair of women is Phoebe, a disappointed ex-hippie who turned her back on her early vocation as a mathematician and now looks after her mother and her daughter.
This thoughtful, rewarding novel succeeds in creating believable people and almost succeeds in getting away with the idea that the "dragon" is real. Ms. Maitland is hardly the first contemporary British novelist to try incorporating elements of Continental and Latin American Magic Realism into the usually skeptical common-sense tradition of British fiction.
JAMES BALDWIN began his career by refusing to be relegated to the category of "Negro writer," although he brilliantly articulated how it felt to be black in a bigoted white America. He was equally frank about his homosexuality, while refusing to be typecast as a "gay writer." Outspoken, impassioned, the author of "The Fire Next Time,Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Giovanni's Room,Another Country," and many influential articles, Baldwin was a major star in the midcentury literary firmament, deeply involved
in debates about civil rights, black power, and other issues. In Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, James Campbell, a Scottish journalist who knew Baldwin during the last 10 years of Baldwin's life, presents a brisk, sympathetic, but by no means uncritical account of Baldwin's volatile life, from his illegitimate birth and boyhood in Harlem to his self-imposed exile from America and the friendships, quarrels, and controversies that continued to feed his legend.
We do not necessarily expect biographies written shortly after the subject's death by a surviving friend or family member to have the long perspective that comes with time and distance, or the definitive quality of a full-scale biographical research project. What we do expect is vividness, immediacy, accuracy, and some attempt at assessing the material at hand. Where Campbell's portrait of Baldwin fulfills these expectations, Hazel Holt's biography of British novelist Barbara Pym, A Lot to Ask: A Life o f
Barbara Pym, does not tell us all that much more about Pym than we already know from her own diaries and letters, published as "A Very Private Eye," with Ms. Holt as one of the editors. Readers who have come to know and love Barbara Pym's delightful novels will surely be interested and touched by the life story of this "excellent woman," who received so much less than her due - as a writer whose subtly rueful humor was spurned by publishers in the 1960s and as a woman whose warmth and affection were never
returned in full measure. As Pym's friend and literary executrix, Ms. Holt can hardly be faulted for taking a low-profile approach, and yet one feels that her unwillingness to interpret and evaluate her material, to provide perspective and to render judgments, weakens the impact of this biography.
No one could accuse the exuberant Anthony Burgess of not being sufficiently to the fore in his colorful and opinionated autobiographical writings. The first part, "Little Wilson and Big God," covered the years from his birth in 1917, including his time in the then colonies of Malaya and Borneo, until his return to England in 1959. You've Had Your Time: The Second Part of the Confessions covers the time that Burgess began to find fame - indeed notoriety - as a writer, the author of "A Clockwork Orange," t
he Enderby trilogy, "Earthly Powers," not to mention his free-wheeling literary critical studies of Shakespeare, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and the novel in general. Whether he's discussing his experiences in Hollywood, retelling his visits to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, or the Soviet Union, or describing the horrors of teaching a creative writing course at Princeton, Burgess maintains a frank, funny, shoot-from-the-hip style of disclosure that is genuinely fun to read. Only toward the end does th e
pace seem to falter and the exuberance turn into windiness.
Alan Judd's Ford Madox Ford is in many respects a good old-fashioned biography aimed at the nonspecialist reader, written in an easygoing style, and full of sympathy for its subject. Ford was a man who did much to foster the growth of literary Modernism in the early years of this century and a prolific - perhaps too prolific - writer in his own right, author of "Parade's End,The Good Soldier," and "The Fifth Queen." Mr. Judd defends Ford at every turn - against the criticisms of his contemporaries and a g
ainst the stern judgments of his previous biographer. He also calls welcome attention to Ford's underrated - indeed, virtually unread - body of poetry. But Judd seems to rely too much on the testimony of Ford's last and surviving wife, who is an excellent source, but who should have been used more carefully. Worse yet, Judd did not feel it incumbent on himself to bother with footnotes, blithely dismissing the need for documentation with the self-serving claim that Ford "was never a man to be detained by a f
ootnote or checked by a reference." The fact that Judd goes on to say that he, not his publisher, is to be blamed for this affected bit of self-indulgence absolves neither of them.
QUITE as entertaining as Judd's life of Ford and rather more reassuring in its research methods is Steven Watson's handsomely illustrated Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde, a fascinating survey of the poets, playwrights, artists, photographers, journalists, and patrons of the arts who flourished in New York, Chicago, Paris, and London in the teen years of this century. From famous names like Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp, and Gertrude Stein to largely forgotten characters like the poet Flo y
d Dell and artist Mina Loy, who cut quite a figure in their day, this book provides a clear, easy-to-follow picture of the personal and professional relationships - friendships, rivalries, influencings, love affairs - among this unorganized network of people caught up with a passion for innovation. Replete with anecdotes, photographs, charts, even a map of Greenwich Village, "Strange Bedfellows" presents basic information for the uninitiated reader, along with much that will be new even to those more famil i
ar with this period. Almost everything in the way of the outrageous, risque, and silly that we associate with the 1960s scene can be found in these pages chronicling a decade half a century before. Which only goes to prove the truth of Jean Cocteau's remark, "The only thing that never changes is the avant-garde."
A BOTTLE IN THE SMOKE. By A. N. Wilson, Viking, 279 pp., $18.95
ONLY IN MY DREAMS: AN ENGLISH GIRLHOOD. By Hilda Ann Salusbury Academy, 271 pp., $18.95
THREE TIMES TABLE. By Sara Maitland, Henry Holt, 216 pp., $18.95
TALKING AT THE GATES: A LIFE OF JAMES BALDWIN. By James Campbell, Viking, 306 pp., $21.95
A LOT TO ASK: A LIFE OF BARBARA PYM. By Hazel Holt, Dutton, 308 pp., $19.95
YOU'VE HAD YOUR TIME: THE SECOND PART OF THE CONFESSIONS. By Anthony Burgess, Grove Weidenfeld, 416 pp., $21.95
FORD MADOX FORD. By Alan Judd, Harvard University Press, 471 pp., $27.50
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: THE FIRST AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE. By Steven Watson, Abbeville Press, 384 pp., $35