L'embarras du choix

Much as one may sometimes deplore the choices of the publishing industry, both in what it does and does not publish, each year nonetheless yields a rich profusion of worthwhile books. More, in fact, than even the most diligent reviewer can find time or space to review, which surely must be cause for rejoicing.

This has been a year for reappraising the 19th century. Yale historian Peter Gay's Education of the Senses (Oxford University Press, $25), the first volume of his project The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, provides reams of fascinating evidence to refute the popular misconception of middle-class Victorians as prudish Philistines. A fresh and comprehensive look at 19 th-Century Art (Harry N. Abrams, $30.95), from an international rather than a Franco-centric perspective, is offered by Prof. Robert Rosenblum and his colleague, the late H. W. Janson, in a lavishly illustrated book covering the painting and sculpture of four distinctive periods: 1776-1815, 1815-48, 1848-70, and 1870-1900. Rosenblum and Janson have endeavored to view 19th-century art contemporaneously, with reference to politics and society, without the distorting lens of Modernist retrospective, but they believe there is no one approach to art, no end to the ways we can understand it. In Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art (Viking, $22.50), Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner seek to understand the Romantic myth of the avant-garde, which led almost every aspiring artist to cast himself in the role of rebel as the first step on the road to acceptance.

A ubiquitous, slightly ridiculous, 19th- (and early 20th-) century man of letters who also wrote the powerful autobiography ''Father and Son'' is the subject of Ann Thwaite's well-researched and comprehensive biography Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape (University of Chicago Press, $25). And a 20 th-century novelist who tackled daringly ''modern'' themes in a style redolent of the finest Victorian novelists is the subject of Hilary Spurling's excellent, very readable Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett (Knopf, $22.50). Compton-Burnett (along with Richardson, Austen, Dickens, Zola, Lawrence, Proust, Woolf, Waugh, John Cowper Powys, et al.) also figures in Diversity and Depth (Viking, $27.50), selected essays by Sir Angus Wilson, who is almost as delightful a critic as he is a novelist. Wilson's faith in the future of the novel is shared by critic Robert Alter, whose essays in Motives for Fiction (Harvard University Press, $20) cover such topics as literary biography, Edmund Wilson, Norman Mailer, Alfred Kazin, and Vladimir Nabokov with clarity and sense.

Many attempts have been made to explain the general thirst for biographies, diaries, letters, and memoirs. One reason may be the wealth of interesting, revelatory material that continues to make us rethink our conceptions of famous people. The Diary of Beatrice Webb, edited by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, the second volume of which was published this year (Belknap, $25), reveals the passionate interior life of a woman more commonly pictured as an austere and formidable theorist of Fabian socialism. But The Letters of Jean Rhys (selected and edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly, Viking, $22.50) do not so much change our understanding of the author of ''Wide Sargasso Sea'' as they complement it, providing a vividly detailed portrait of one whose weakness was her strength.

Mary Catherine Bateson's compassionate, yet sharply revealing memoir of her parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, With a Daughter's Eye (Morrow, $15. 95), far outshines Jane Howard's biography of Mead, a strong-willed woman who consciously treated her child as anthropological research material. (Better, perhaps, to come of age in Samoa than chez Mead!)

An Angel at My Table, the second volume of an autobiography by New Zealand writer Janet Frame (Braziller, $12.95), is a quietly evocative, pellucidly vivid account of the author's isolation as a young woman, her confinement (essentially wrongful) in a mental institution, and the part her own writing played in rescuing her.

Frame's title comes from the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the greatest poets ever to write in German. Wolfgang Leppmann's solid and sensitive Rilke: A Life (Fromm, $22.50) fills in much-needed background on this extraordinary man and poet, whose haunting last poem ends: ''No one knows my face.''

If Rilke labored to give us a world transfigured by words into vision and song, Franz Kafka, another who merits the appellation of genius by any standard, prophesied the terror of a waking nightmare. The Nightmare of Reason (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.50) is the title of Ernst Pawel's insightful, much-acclaimed biography of the man who articulated the Angst so central to our century.

In The Nuremberg Trial (Atheneum, $22.95), John and Ann Tusa provide a thoughtful, well-researched account of one aftermath of the Nazi nightmare in this balanced and lucid assessment of the factors that led up to the Nuremberg verdicts.

The year has also brought us Simone de Beauvoir's Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (Pantheon, $19.95). The first part is a poignant memoir of the 10 years leading up to Sartre's death; the second part is a dialogue (de Beauvoir's questions and Sartre's answers) covering a variety of subjects: personal, political, and philosophical.

The reputation of a little-known British composer and poet who fought on the Western front in the World War I will surely be enhanced by two paperbacks from Oxford University Press. The Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney ($7.95), edited by P. J. Kavanagh, are remarkable for their freshness and originality. Michael Hurd's biography, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney ($7.95), tells the terribly sad story of a young man blessed with extraordinary gifts, and plagued by mental illness which blighted his life but could not stop his writing. And a major edition from a poet who was killed just before the Armistice, Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments, edited by Jon Stallworthy in a boxed, two-volume set (Norton, $65), gives us the poems complete in one volume, with the poet's manuscript drafts and fragments in a second volume, making the set perfect for the scholar and the general reader alike. Stallworthy's chronological arrangement enables us to trace the growth of this very Keatsian poet through peace and war.

Shifting our gaze from the past to the future, the noted scholar Hans Jonas examines The Importance of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (University of Chicago Press, $23). Jonas believes we have entered an era - different from any previous age - in which we must learn to take responsibility for the long-term consequences of our actions rather than just the immediate repercussions. Our technological ability to alter nature, he argues, extends the range of our ethical concern beyond the domain of private acts into the realm of public policies.

A rather different approach is taken by Nobel laureate P. B. Medawar in his elegantly concise book The Limits of Science (Harper & Row, $11.95). Medawar, who shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1960 for demonstrating the theoretical possibility of transplanting tissues between genetically different organisms, argues that the growth of science, per se, cannot be limited. The so-called perils of technology, he would remind us, come not from science but from the use society chooses to make of its discoveries.

While Medawar tries to establish the limits or borders between science and other areas, such as ethics, the Bulgarian-born critic and scholar Tzvetan Todorov has chosen to examine the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica from the viewpoint of a moralist rather than a historian. The Conquest of America, translated from the French by Richard Howard (Harper & Row, $17.95), is both intelligent and deeply felt: a study of what happens when we perceive others as objects.

What survey of 1984 can be complete without mention of the man who made this year famous before its time? Orwell Remembered (Facts on File, $16.95) offers a wide selection of reminiscences from famous literary colleagues and nonfamous friends and neighbors. Audrey Coppard chose the material; Orwell biographer Bernard Crick provides notes and introduction.

And this year, all 10 of Barbara Pym's completed novels are finally available in paperback (about $3.50 each) from Harper & Row's Perennial Library. They come singly or in nicely boxed sets and will surely delight anyone who gives or receives them.

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