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21st February 1997 at 00:00
Considering that the founder of their faith took the Devil very seriously,modern Christians are strangely reluctant to admit he even exists. Even today's ultra-conservative Pope hardly ever mentions him. Of course, it's quite another matter among the more extreme Evangelicals, whose repeated reference to the works of Satan is still used to make the faithful toe the party line.

Peter Stanford's The Devil (Mandarin, Pounds 7.99) is subtitled "A Biography". It is as much the story of how we have created this evil scapegoat out of Eden's serpent, gradually superimposing the details of Job's tormentor, the Greek underworld, horned gods of the North, comic status (as in the Mystery plays), Dante's geometric cosmos and Milton's characterisation. So very different from his role in Islam, where he is merely "a minor irritant".

Stanford uses his biographical framework to show how the devil has matured over the centuries only to reach his present decline, neglected by his Christian creators but kept alive by exorcists, film-makers, novelists,journalists (few crime reporters survive without references to the forces of evil and Satanic influence) and, of course, the fundamentalist fringe.

Some of the early Christian fathers influential in the Devil's life story are featured in the new Fount Christian Thinkers series (Fount, Pounds 4.99 each). These helpfully succinct introductions to the lives and philosophies of their subjects embrace both Augustine (by Richard Price) who, having sown his wild oats as a young man, went on to formalise sexual repression; and also that eccentric, lonely Dane, Soren Kierkegaard (by Peter Vardy).

Other titles include John of the Cross (by Father Wilfrid McGreal), Thomas More(by Anne Murphy), Francis and Bonaventure (by Paul Rout) and Stephen Plant's primer on that strange Jewish, anti-Jewish, semi-detached Cathol-ic Simone Weil.

And guess which one came up with this profound observation on the human condition: "Some people produce at will such musical sounds from their bottoms (without making a smell) that they seem to be singing from that part of their bodies." Augustine, surprisingly.

It's the kind of observation W H Auden might have turned into an elegant limerick. In As I Walked Out One Evening (Faber, Pounds 6.99), Edward Mendelson has anthologised some of his wittiest songs, ballads and other light verse. Many are unquotable here or in the classroom, but there is also much accessible, wry verse ("Obscurity is a bad fault" Auden once wrote) which will certainly engage teenage readers.

A personal memoir of the poet and his lifelong companion Chester Kallman - Wystan and Chester by Thekla Clark (Faber, Pounds 8.99) - is sometimes as funny, but also somewhat starstruck. This perhaps results from the author having first met the couple when visiting their summer home on the Neapolitan isle of Ischia as an impressionable 20-year-old on her first visit from America - but her portrait is also full of domestic and literary insights.

More sober is Blind Bitter Happiness (Faber, Pounds 8.99), an anthology of "occasional pieces" by Adam Mars-Jones. Like all such collections, it has a disjointed feel - as if the author is saying, "Here are some pieces I wrote earlier which might just make a book if they're lumped together." Its diverse elements include interviews with Boy George and Marc Almond, an analysis of gay "bodice-rippers" and some severe book reviews.

What makes it memorable are two memoirs: the title piece about his mother (a beautiful, moving essay about a beautiful old lady) and the understated obituary he wrote for his hero and lover. The latter may have found Mars-Jones's writing "by and large tedious" but he returned to New Zealand to spare the author from nursing him as he succumbed, aged 26, to AIDS.

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