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Isabel Fonsesca, ed., Soho Square – City Limits


It looks from the cover of this collection as if someone wanted to do a vaguely postmodern revival of the weekend, bedside book – miscellanies of the ’30s and ’40s. What it turns out to be is a fairly random assemblage of stories, poems, drawing and mild polemics, falling between the cosy read of a weekend cottage and say, the literary aspirations of an expanded number of The London Magazine or Granta.

Some of the essays and reportage – good colour supplement or New Yorkerish pieces – could fit the first notion of the book well enough: Alexander Cockburn’s sketch of a real life Borges character who compiled a vast dictionary of one of the obscurer Amerindian languages, for example. So could a number of the short stories that depend on an old-fashioned sting-in-the-tail surprise ending (although the best of these, Ahdaf Soueif’s melancholy tale of a Greek restauranteur in Cairo, lamenting a lost love, transcends that description). On the other hand, if this were  a magazine issue, it would be a bumper number in more senses than one, with so many good poets doing characteristics turns so well (Paul Muldoon’s tough pastoral, rebelly as Kavanagh; Motion’s romantic aches and pain; Michael Hoffman’s cool elegies for exiles Max Beckman and our borrowed Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters).

Alasdair Gray, Lanark, 1981

What Soho Square does have instead of cosy old readability is a touch of glamour – Brodsky, Philip Roth (more true confessions), Enzensberger on the sin of consistency – and more than a touch of class in its design, decoration and illustration (the Sunday book never ran to anything quite like Alasdair Gray’s storyboard strip cartoon of his novel Lanark or Posadas’s Mexican translations of Goya). This book sets standards that put most British trade publishers to shame and, at £9.95,  it’s as elegant a present as you’ll find on the bookstands – or anywhere much else.

This review appeared as ‘sohobohemia’ in City Limits, 1-8. 12. 1988.

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