The best of spring reading


Short of consulting a crystal ball, there is no sure-fire method of predicting the best of the forthcoming new titles. That said, several new books are unlikely to disappoint. One of the best bets for 1999 is Annie Proulx's short-fiction collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories (4th Estate), judging by the brilliance of her recently published Broke back Mountain. The only catch is that you have to wait until June. Long before that however, comes the latest offering from John Updike, who follows his superb Toward the End of Time with five slight but hilarious episodes from the life of his wacky writer alter ego, Harry Bech. Bech at Bay is published by Hamish Hamilton next week. It won't win him the Nobel Prize, but perhaps it is about time the collective oeuvre of John Updike not only won that prize but depoliticised it in the process. The calm genius of William Maxwell is already well in evidence - and is being well served by Harvill - with the recent re-publication of Time Will Darken It (1948), which consolidated the impact made by the powerful novella, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980). This month sees the republication of his study of an unlikely friendship, The Folded Leaf (1940), again from Harvill.

Another American, Michael Cunningham, won an immediate audience with an outstanding novel, A Home at the End of the World, in 1991. He built on this with a compelling domestic epic, Flesh and Blood, which also told the story of the American half-century. His new book, The Hours (4th Estate), draws on the life and experiences of Virginia Woolf.

Maeve Brennan is an Irish writer poised on the edge of cultdom. The fact that she has become Irish literature's best-kept secret is disturbing - everyone should be reading her. Her audience should broaden with the publication of The Springs of Affection (Flamingo) a volume of twenty-one stories set mainly in suburban, lower-middle-class Dublin. Author of one of the great Vietnam short stories, "The Things They Carried", Tim O'Brien has fun with Tomcat in Love (Flamingo, April), a comic romp about a guy desperate to win back his wife while remaining equally intent to sleep with most women he meets. Far weightier is Doris Lessing's Mara and Dann (Flamingo, April), a futuristic odyssey in which two children confront a notso-brave-New World. Admirers of A Suitable Boy will be pleased to see the arrival of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music (Phoenix House/April), although weighing in at almost a thousand pages shorter than his previous bestseller, this romance of coincidences, of love found and lost and lost again, is bound to attract readers.

Howard Norman's The Bird Artist is one of the most underrated novels I've ever read; now comes The Museum Guard, due out from Picador next month. Norman's gift is rooted in the extraordinary discipline he brings to his work. In this novel, set against the background of the legacy of war, a man battles both his uncle's influence and the crazed love he has for a crazed female cemetery keeper determined to experience passion, regardless of risk. The exciting Scots writer A.L. Kennedy has true black flair and an immense understanding of emotional torment. In Everything You Need (Cape), the central character, Nathan, confronts his need to love. Never one of his most ardent fans, I will admit to having read everything Salman Rushdie has written. Often a ponderous writer - and The Ground Beneath Her Feet is omniously described by its publisher as both "overwhelming" and "epic" in the space of a paragraph - Rushdie yet again sets out to explore East versus West and just about every big theme imaginable. It is a book of stories and voices and set-pieces - in short, standard Rushdie. Possibly the most intriguing European novel due out this Spring is by Italian Serena Vitale Pushkin's Button (4th Estate/February), in which the romantic complexities behind the poet's death as a result of a duel fought over his wife provide the stage for a novel which critic George Steiner describes as "almost impossible to put down".

Imaginative fiction based on fact yields to fact in May with the publication of T.J. Binyon's biography, Pushkin (Harper Collins). The world of Henry James is vividly created in Henry James: A Life In Letters, edited by Philip Horne (Penguin, April). Even the most prolific of great letter writers would be hard pressed to match the correspondence of Proust. The Selected Letters of Marcel Proust: Volume 4, translated and edited by Joanna Kilmartin, will be published in April. Next month Edmund White, the always readable American novelist and biographer of Genet, publishes a short study of Proust (Weidenfeld), which should reflect White's unique blend of critical intelligence and urbane ease.

Ten years after his death, Bruce Chatwin remains one of Britain's most original writers, and Nicholas Shakespeare sets out to find the not always likable man behind the myths in a biography to be published jointly in May by Cape and Harvill. Next month sees the publication of Brian Rees's biography of Saint-Saens, the first major biography of the composer who died in 1921.

Natural history writer and author of Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez mixes landscape, travel, and memory in About This Life (Harvill) later this month. Autobiography also plays a part in The Story Begins, a collection of literary essays based on the work of various writers by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. Due to be published by Chatto in June, this is a teacher's book and a reader's book - Oz the storyteller is uniquely both.

And still books from the late Italo Calvino continue to appear: Why Read The Classics, a volume collecting some thirty-six essays on literature, will be published by Cape in June. Richard Mabey's name might not immediately mean anything, but once you know he is the author of the bestselling Flora Britannicia, one of the publishing hits of 1996, this collection of essays spanning 1974- 1999 on nature and the environment will appeal. Also worth tracking down is Lucy Archer's Architecture in Britain and Ireland - 600-1500 Saxon, Norman and Medieval (Harvill, May); with three hundred photographs and an informed text, this is a invaluable reference book.

Intent on locating the most beautiful book of the season? Anna Pavord's The Tulip (Bloomsbury, January) is as gorgeous to look at as it informed, a study of the often destructive appeal of this enigmatic and historic flower. Finally, from one end of century to another end of century, Laura Beatty tackles the various lives of the daring Jersey Lily, a woman with an inexhaustible gift for reinvention in Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals (Chatto, March), which also chronicles an age of wit and scandals and luxury. Happy reading.