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Short Takes

The Italian Lover
By Robert Hellenga
Little, Brown, 340 pp. $23.99

Margot Harrington, the heroine of Hellenga's earlier novel "The Sixteen Pleasures," is back on the scene in Florence, as her memoir is about to be translated into a film, titled "The Italian Lover." But this time, as she is drawn into the retelling of her discovery and conservation of an erotic Renaissance text, she is not alone. She has a new, Midwestern lover, a smart and tough producer, a terminally ill director and his loving wife, and a young and beautiful leading lady playing herself.

The vagaries of the filmmaking process supply the basic structure of the plot, which is narrated from these several points of view. Margot, who has the most direct personal connection to the film, has, not surprisingly, the most difficulty with it. She is living her life while participating in or witnessing her life as it is being made into art. Eventually she comes to make adjustments in her life and her view of art to appreciate the necessary changes to her story, even the happy ending.

Hellenga tells a fast story and creates solid characters, but what is most memorable are the apt references to the arts - Helena Bonham-Carter in "A Room With a View," Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday," "L'avventura," "The Iliad." Art, literature, and film are alive for these characters, and the many specific references to them provide substance to the philosophical conundrums about life and art that the novel engages in its larger story.

In the Blood: A Memoir of My Childhood
By Andrew Motion
Godine, 336 pp., $24.95

The first chapter of this beautiful and brilliant memoir by the present British poet laureate is so moving, gripping, and suspenseful that, needing to discover the result of the accident it describes, I skipped to the last chapter of the book, something I never do. Andrew Motion's childhood ended suddenly one day when he was 17. "I want to lock into my head everything that's happened in my life up to now, and make sure it never changes." Retrieved here from safekeeping are Motion's lovingly preserved memories of his family and school life before his innocence was taken from him.

Motion's mother isn't lumpy, tweedy, or stern, like other boys' mothers. She is slender, stylish, and playful. Despite her soft heart, she sends 7-year-old Andrew off to prep school, where he cries daily and is regularly beaten and paddled. On solitary walks in the woods, he discovers dragonflies, mallards, moorhens, "swans with their wings half-lifted like meringues." When he moves on to Radley at 12, he encounters none of the horrors of English public schools but instead surprisingly sympathetic teachers. In plain but precise language, Motion captures the very particular sights, scents, and sounds of life at Little Brewers, the family's home in Hertfordshire.

Motion's love for his gentle and generous mother is at the center of the memoir, but surrounding her is a world of rules and prohibitions. He is always encouraged "to get on with it." "Well done" is the highest praise ever handed out. His abundant feelings have so few permissible objects that when he returns home from his first term at school, he has only the quivering, scratching dogs to share his ecstasy with. "Even if it was disgusting, there wasn't any person I could hug like this, and I couldn't go round the house telling tables and chairs how pleased I was to see them."

Liar's Landscape: Collected Writing From a Storyteller's Life
By Malcolm Bradbury
Edited by Dominic Bradbury
Macmillan UK, 427 pp., paperback, $15.95

As well known in Britain as David Lodge, with whom he is frequently confused, Malcolm Bradbury is little known here. This volume provides a scattershot introduction to his work, including snippets of memoir, literary criticism, fiction, and television plays.

Bradbury's boyhood memoir (published in a British edition and available at Amazon and other retailers and at presents an affectionate portrait of his train-besotted father, who throughout World War II took the family on vacations on the great rambling British railway system. He reports gratefully on his education at a grammar school where he was a scholarship boy. On university life and the current state of literature (as indicated by the Booker Prize), he writes with ironic incredulity. My favorite piece is "The Wissenschaft File," a correspondence between Bradbury and an eager foreign literature student about the university novel. The student introduces himself as an "advanced student in Anglisten-Studien at Liebfraumilch University, with nice manners, rimless glasses and a small moustache." Bradbury describes the redbrick universities where the campus novel is set as "1960s architectural wonders built in green fields by Finnish architects driven mad by the remarkable plastic properties of concrete." Responding to questions about his relationship with the greats of the past, Bradbury writes, "I have learned a good deal from Freud on many matters, but perhaps least in the realm of wit and the comic, which he sees as a manifestation of the unconscious, something we do not have in my country."

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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