Article excerpt

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus, Picador pounds 6.99. The critic as mystic: what starts out as a commentary on those famous sessions in the summer of 1967, in the basement of a house in West Saugerties, upstate New York, rapidly becomes an underground history of the American soul as Marcus teases out the story that America tells itself. Dylan's music is treated as - how best to put this? - the plughole down which American history, literature and folklore swirl: Herman Melville and Alexis de Tocqueville bob around with Leadbelly, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and the West Virginia Mine War of the 1920s. It is undoubtedly pretentious; what`s remarkable about Marcus is his ability to live up to his pretensions, to persuade the reader to go along with extraordinary mythologising. The problem comes when you try to reconcile his ideas with the music. But if the music isn't worthy of the criticism, that isn't necessarily the critic's problem.

Early Christian Lives tr and ed by Carolinne White, Penguin pounds 7.99. Six chronicles of early saints, including St Antony, of temptation fame (written about by St Athanasius, of creed fame), St Martin of Tours, of dividing his cloak with a beggar fame, and St Benedict, of monks and liqueur fame. This collection is not without its tedious moments, and an air of almost insufferable smugness infects the whole enterprise - hence the phrase "holier than thou". But there is entertainment, too, in the accounts of solitary monks wrestling with the father of lies, of hippocentaurs and demons, of impossible regimes of self-mortification and prayer, of virginity miraculously preserved (hot tip from the life of Paul of Thebes: when being seduced maintain your purity by biting your own tongue out and spitting it in the harlot's face). Superstition, self-loathing and misogyny: purely from a PR point of view, you can't imagine this is the sort of book the Church of England wants to encourage.

Gaglow by Esther Freud, Penguin pounds 6.99. Freud's third novel blends two distantly related narratives. In contemporary London, Sarah, an out-of- work actress, poses for her painter father, gives birth to a son, and fights off the intermittent attentions of the boy's father; in Berlin around the time of the First World War, Sarah's grandmother, Eva, and her sisters snipe at the "vulgarity" of their mother, and worship their governess and their elder brother. Gaglow is the meeting-point for their stories, a country estate which was once the property of Eva's father and is now being restored to the family. The other elements that link the two strands are harder to quantify - Freud resists the temptation to show history repeating itself, or the sins of the fathers being visited on their children. …