BOSWELL: THE OMINOUS YEARS (McGraw-Hill, $8.50) covers the period from 1774 to 1776. For a man busy with domesticity, the practice of law, the preliminaries of several happily unconsummated duels, trips to London, quarrels with his father, and an endless round of drinking parties, Boswell managed to do an inordinate amount of writing, and some of it, despite the admirable editing of Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, is dull. The erratic high spirits and bumpkin curiosity that carried Boswell through earlier volumes are beginning to flag, even though he is still stimulatingly Boswell, fascinating because his reaction to every pressure is the normal carried to abnormal lengths. Much of Boswell’s charm in all these volumes of comment and reminiscence is his position on the edge of things. For all his bustling intensity, he is a tourist in his own life, watching the scurryings of James Boswell much as he does those of the other quaint natives. But to be a tourist is never to feel at home, an uncomfortable condition when indefinitely prolonged. By 1774, Boswell had begun to suspect that his tourism was to be lifelong, and the idea casts a shadow over all that he records. This is not the volume with which to begin his acquaintance.
THE GLASS COFFIN (Scribner’s, $4.50) is a collection of short stories by the French historical novelist MAURICE DRUON. Mr. Druon’s characters live officially in the present, but he writes as though the world had stopped in 1900. Not for him the meaning of myth or the influence of infantile traumas, and as for the human predicament, he is too absorbed by its extraordinary surface manifestations to care a rap about their ultimate cosmic significance. The result of this antique approach is a clutch of tales which are sometimes thin as air, sometimes less than plausible in detail, and at least one of which depends on an O. Henry ending that has been used three times before by other authors. The stories are nevertheless readable and entertaining. I hesitate to recommend The GlassCoffin it is so shamelessly unfashionable, like a hip flask or a Turkish corner — but, like any good minor vice, it is great fun.
IHARA SAIKAKU was a seventeenthcentury Japanese novelist whose materials were drawn directly from the commercial, urban society of his day. Pieces of his works are presented in THE LIFE OF AN AMOROUS WOMAN (New Directions, $5.50), edited and translated by Ivan Morris. Mr. Morris compares Saikaku to Defoe, with reason, for the Japanese has a similar preoccupation with concrete detail and a predilection for characters on the wrong side of the law. The laws of the shogunate, incidentally, make Gilbert’s Mikado seem a quite plausible ruler, which is only one of the rich and strange revelations to be found in Saikaku.
In POSSESSION (John Day, $4.50) the Indian novelist KAMALA MARKANDAYA tells the story of an ambitious woman who tries to own an artist. This is an old theme — possibly because people do try to own artists now and again-but Miss Markandaya has so thoroughly enlivened it with Anglo-Indian squabbles, her own sly wit, and the presence of the most beguiling dispossessed nobleman ever devised, that its age can be readily overlooked.
MEDIEVAL EPICS (Modern Library, $3.95) is a fat bargain enclosing good translations of Beowulf by William Alfred, The Nibelungenlied by Helen M. Mustard, and The Song of Roland and The Poem of the Cid by W. S. Merwin. Mr. Merwin, a highly accomplished poet, decidedly overshadows his colleagues, making of The Song of Roland a series of scenes as sharp, clear, and brilliant as medieval miniatures.
GEORGE CHRISTY’S first novel, ALL I COULD SEE FROM WHERE I STOOD (Bobbs-Merrill, $4.00), describes a Greek-American boy growing up in a milieu which is not quite of either culture. Stephanos is too American to have any comprehension of a nostalgia for Greece, and too young to understand the tensions and social uncertainties rampant among his elders. He lives in a perpetual state of bewildered exasperation. Mr. Christy conveys this particular juvenile view — why must adults be so silly when they could quite easily he sensible? — with unpretentious conviction and a humor that is both tart and kindly.