Literary journal catches the eye and the mind

Originally an outlet for the literary aspirations of Cambridge University undergraduates, Granta, after a brief disappearance, resurfaced Alpheus-like in 1979 as an ``avant-garde'' literary magazine. Distributed by Viking Penguin, appearing four times a year, designed to resemble a paperback book (it sells for $6.95 an issue), Granta may remind some readers of such British book/periodicals as New Writing and Penguin New Writing. Granta's editor, William Buford, an American expatriate, stresses its international interests. Clearly, Granta has come a long way from its student days to its current incarnation as a medium for such internationally known figures as G"unter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing, George Steiner, and Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez.

Attractively designed, with each issue organized around a central topic, Granta represents a serious endeavor in the realms of literature, journalism, and packaging -- a slightly disquieting combination, perhaps.

But when one considers the effort that goes into packaging literary junk food, it may be reassuring to think that some efforts are also being made on behalf of ``good'' writing. In 1983, Granta's seventh issue brought us the ``Best of Young British Novelists'' (included were A. N. Wilson, Martin Amis, William Boyd, Maggie Gee, and Graham Swift). No. 8 featured America's practitioners of so-called ``Dirty Realism'' (Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Elizabet h Tallent). With packages come labels, as well as claims that one's products are the ``best.''

Granta is launching its American publication with its latest issue (No. 15), featuring James Fenton's eyewitness account of ``The Fall of Saigon,'' followed by a triad of clashing viewpoints: Ex-CIA man Frank Snepp fears that excessive secrecy, far from increasing national security, will obscure the facts needed for sound decisionmaking; Norman Podhoretz warns of the dangers of national impotence, but would cure it by resuscitating our faith in the nobility of our intentions in Indochina; Noam Cho msky is appalled by such efforts to reconstruct a myth of noble intentions to cover what he sees as a reality of aggression, bad faith, and spitefulness.

Reading Chomsky and Podhoretz, one wonders if America is divided between these two opposing views or if some of us actually (almost schizophrenically) hold both views at once.

Fenton, who leaped aboard a North Vietnamese tank en route to South Vietnam's presidential palace, admits that his pro-Viet Cong sympathies were at odds with his recognition that the conquerors of Saigon were ``Stalinist-style'' communists.

Stories, essays, and reflections by Nadine Gordimer, John Berger, George Steiner, Salman Rushdie, G"unter Grass, Ted Solotaroff, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Peter Greig round out the volume. A photo essay by Don McCullin shows us the kind of disturbing pictures of human suffering that many people may not care to see.

Thoughtful, eye-catching, serious, and eminently readable, Granta should certainly appeal to readers in this country as well as in Britain.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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