17th January 1997 at 00:00
Look no further than the last Booker shortlist to gauge the extent of our obsession with the past. But what do our visits to "another country" suggest about us and our culture? How much is nostalgic tourism, just to see how differently things were done, and how much driven by a desire to make meaningful links between past and present?

In this 70th anniversary of The Waste Land, the contrasts between old gold and present grey have probably never seemed sharper, and yet the first novel I read with a 1997 dateline wove the threads with an utterly un-nostalgic conviction. Footsteps (Flamingo Pounds 16.99) is Katherine McMahon's first novel. Two things happen to its heroine. She is approached to help with a biographical essay on her putative grandfather; and her husband is killed in a climbing accident. Or perhaps, three things, for she finds in Michael's kit evidence of an unsuspected affair.

The novel parallels Helena's twinned grief and anger with the slow, painful and ultimately fruitless progress of her grandmother's love for the photographer Donaldson. The wind and sea that beat and howl against the Suffolk coast, steadily nibbling it away, are somehow in shocking contrast to the absolute physicality of the mountain that kills Michael. But past and present do interpenetrate, not just because Helena's new life brings her back in contact with ancestral scenes. Her collaborator Nick is a version of Donaldson reborn, their unstiffening affection a reprise of what happened before and after the First World War. Footsteps is irreducibly delicate and tough-minded. I strongly suggest you read it, and that someone gets a television script out of it.

Past and present are intricately thirled in Milan Kundera's tiny new novel, his first for five years. I read it in French last year as La Lenteur, it's the first he's written in the language of his exile. As Slowness (Faber Pounds 5.99), and despite Linda Asher's patient translation, it doesn't resonate quite as forcibly. The narrator and his wife take a holiday in a country chateau, where once there was a Laclosian seduction, immortalised in an obscure 18th century novella.

During their weekend, the hotel becomes the stage - or at least the backdrop - for an orgy, an unfettered fantasy in the mind of a latter-day knight, who has replaced horse and casque with motorcycle and full-face helmet. This is the source of Kundera's theme or themes: the aesthetic merits of reticence over display, and the pleasures of slowness; "degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting". This is a nostalgic book, a tiny masterpiece by a man exiled from both his country and, one suspects, his century.

A touch of that feeling, too, in Diane Johnson's Le Divorce (Chatto amp; Windus Pounds 14.99) in which the Jamesian "American princess" is reborn in Isabel Walker whose French brother-in-law ("The Frog Prince") has just packed his bags and walked. At no time are Europe and American more sharply divided than when marriages break up and Johnson presents a wickedly accurate diagram of the cogs turning, fuses blowing, wires crossing. Superb.

Joan Didion, ever alert to those places where the real world criss-crosses with folk-lore, would smile at the "Frog Prince" line. Her first novel for more than a decade, The Last Thing He Wanted (flamingo Pounds 15. 99) is by far her most secular and disenchanted. Despite its very obvious kinship to Democracy (her own, not Henry Adam's), it is also close to her best. Elena McMahon is a typical Didion heroine, seemingly enervated and passive, an aerial rather than a transmitter, in this case a paid recorder of (electoral) events caught up in the gravitational field of a great man. As the decades have gone by, though, Didion's women have become ever more forceful, ever less susceptible and vulnerable, and Elena,though marginalised and often consigned to a little pawn - pushed round the fringes of Treat Morrison's grand ambassadorial gameboard - is more real and present than any of her predecessors in Didion's work.

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