"Have you found any professional criticism of your work illuminating or helpful? Edmund Wilson, for example?" asks Julian Jebb, the guy sent by the Paris Review to interview Evelyn Waugh back in 1963. Waugh replies succinctly, superbly: "Is he an American?"
"Don't Look Now" by Daphne Du Maurier (New York Review Books)
Du Maurier, the daughter of a famous British actor-manager and the wife of a famous British general, became more celebrated than either -- a beloved teller of tales whose work was frequently filmed. Her most famous book, of course, is "Rebecca," but, as Patrick McGrath argues in his introduction to this original collection of her stories, she was much darker when she turned to fiction in short form. "The Birds" is Rachel Carson meets the horror flick (and the original story is, if anything, more terrifying than the movie Hitchcock made from it). "Don't Look Now" has remarkable sexual tension and is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith in some ways, while "The Blue Lenses" has a central idea that's one of the most original and scary you'll ever come across. She's a writer we think we know but don't really -- hugely underrated.
"The Haunted Screen" by Lotte Eisner (University of California Press)
The great German film director Werner Herzog, on hearing that Lotte Eisner had been diagnosed with cancer, journeyed from Berlin to Paris to see her. He didn't fly or drive but made the pilgrimage by foot, hoping that, by this act of will, he could restore her to health. In life, Eisner inspired that sort of reverence. In death she remains one of the greatest writers about film. Her biographies of Murnau and Fritz Lang are great, but this, a study of the German Expressionist cinema that later inspired film noir, is her greatest book, both allusive and inspiring.
"I Was Dora Suarez" by Derek Raymond (Serpent's Tail)
This is the book that apparently made a well-known London publisher vomit on his desk. Written late in the career of Derek Raymond, it's a dark, dark book, set in a seedy London and telling the story of a detective's pursuit of a psychotic ax murderer. Raymond, having been forced to change his writing name from Robin Cook (once the other Robin Cook, a thriller writer, heaved into view), specialized in finding the edge of the moral cliff and jumping right off it. His fictive world is deadbeat, downbeat but thoroughly believable, and evoked with the scary precision of a scalpel slicing through flesh. "I Was Dora Suarez" is extreme, but like nothing else you'll ever read.
"Frozen Tracks" by Ake Edwardson (Penguin)
Where Derek Raymond takes us into the despairing heart of murder, Swedish writer Edwardson pursues a more meditative, although still somber, approach to crime. In this, the third in his Erik Winter series to be translated into English, a team of detectives tracks a criminal who is abducting children and then returning them, seemingly unharmed. Then, one day, when violence does occur, Edwardson observes it almost out of the corner of his eye. The story is dialogue-heavy and procedural very much in the Sjöwall/Wahlö style, unfolding in gloomy autumn, oddly often the darkest time in Scandinavia, before snow arrives to reflect what little light there is. "Frozen Tracks" feels, not noir-Gothic like Raymond's book, but almost ordinary, trusting to small details to disturb.
"The Human Factor" by Graham Greene (Penguin)
The hero of this novel -- Greene's late masterpiece -- is the sympathetic study of a traitor, a high-level spy in the British Secret Service who betrayed his country long ago and now hears the barking hounds of retribution. The writing, as Colm Toibin notes in his introduction to this new edition, is "clean and brisk and businesslike," and the tone is bleak. Still, Greene had a compassionate heart, and not only a cold eye, and his exploration of the conflict between the personal and the political in one man's life seems wholly apposite today.
"Danube" by Claudio Magris (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
"From here Kafka, stretched in his deck chair, looked out on the garden beneath, where there now stands a wooden shed crammed with wheelbarrows, sickles and other tools," writes Claudio Magris, describing the room in which Franz Kafka died. "He saw the greenness which eluded him, or rather the flowering, the springtime, the sap, everything that was sucked out of his body by paper and ink, desiccating him into a feeling of pure, impotent barrenness." This book, ostensibly tracking the journey that Magris made along middle-Europe's famous river, is a startling meditation on life, death, literature and the tangled history of a region that gave birth to much art and much horror too. He raises the ghosts that haunt the landscape through which he travels, and the writing is by turn lyrical, funny and moving. First published 20 years ago, and issued now in the FSG Classics series, this is a fascinating and enduring work.
"Rotten" by John Lydon (Picador)
"Glen was a closet Abba fan, and funny enough, so was Sid," remembers John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten, remembering the two bass players employed by his band, The Sex Pistols. "We got rid of one Abba fan and got another one in its place. Once Sid ran up to the girls from Abba in the Stockholm airport to ask for their autograph. Sid was completely drunk and stuck his hand out. They screamed and ran away. They thought they were being attacked." Mamma Mia! Lydon, who survived and prospered, always had wit as well as anger, and his book, which functions almost as an oral history of punk -- interspersing interviews with his own memories -- is fun, and, in some crafty way, very clever. Who'd have thought it, remembering that snarling voice from the hot British Jubilee summer of 1977?
"Ringolevio" by Emmett Grogan (New York Review Books)
Grogan grew up broke in New York, became a heroin addict before he was in his teens, and won a scholarship to an elite school while pursuing a double life as a thief. Or so this classic memoir would have us believe. Grogan then fetched up in San Francisco where he became a leader of the anarchist group The Diggers. "Don't believe everything you read, but don't be too quick to doubt either," writes Peter Coyote, who was Grogan's friend, introducing this edition of a vastly vital and entertaining book. An important book, too, forming as it does a bridge between The Beats and Hunter Thompson. Grogan writes in third person, as though, like an actor, he was always studying his effect
"The Bhagavad Gita" translated by Laurie L. Patton (Penguin); "The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation by George Thompson" (North Point Press)
Here are two new versions of the Gita, a central Hindu work -- an epic poem that recounts the conversation between a warrior faced with battle and his charioteer Krishna, a manifestation of God. What should the warrior do? How should he act? Wisdom is hard to find, and this stuff, written in Sanskrit more than 2,000 years ago, has stuck around. Patton and Thompson offer strikingly different approaches.
"One who is without desire, / but with a self / whose thought is restrained, / and who has left off / all grasping, / undertaking action / with the body alone, / that one does no evil," writes Pattton. Thompson renders the same passage as: "When he has abandoned hope, and has restrained himself and his thoughts, when he has abandoned all of his possessions, then it is only his body that acts; he does not accumulate guilt." Patton seems more interested in poetry throughout, where Thompson leans toward a practical clarity. Both are valid approaches to a text so deep it will tolerate years of study, and both have excellent introductions.