In paperback: Raban novel, Barr on Cubism, Weil anthology

Foreign Land, by Jonathan Raban. New York: Penguin. 352 pp. $6.95. Paperback. Jonathan Raban is one of those observant and evocative British writers who have made an art of travel writing. His books include ``Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth'' and ``Old Glory,'' an account of his voyage down the Mississippi. But returning home is the theme of his first novel, ``Foreign Land,'' in which George Grey, a 60-year-old Englishman who has spent most of his adult life abroad, leaves his home in the mythical West African country of Montedor only to discover that England has become -- for him, at least -- the truly ``foreign'' land. As George explores the English coastline by boat, he gathers up the floating strands of his past and present.

Raban's achievement is to take us beyond the obvious and jarring cultural changes that have transformed George's native land and to show us the deeper and more subtle changes that have taken place in George himself. Cubism and Abstract Art, by Alfred H. Barr Jr., with a new foreword by Robert Rosenblum. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 249 pp. Illustrated (black and white). $16.50. Paperback.

The ``modern'' art that struck its contemporary audience as revolutionary or ridiculous, as a revelation or an exercise in obfuscation, has long since become a familiar part of our mental landscape.

In 1936, when Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, wrote this text as a catalog to accompany an exhibition, modern art may no longer have held the ``shock of the new,'' but it was still sufficiently baffling to make his lucid and magisterial treatment of its major trends a welcome source of enlightenment. Half a century later, the reissue of this seminal work, along with the appearance of Robert Rosenblum's excellent new foreword, enables us to review these famous works from a kind of dual perspective, then and now. Simone Weil: An Anthology, edited and introduced by Si^an Miles. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 290 pp. $8.95. Paperback.

Although Simone Weil (1909-1943) is perhaps as well remembered for her heroism and near-saintliness of character as for her remarkable writings, she herself regarded ``personality'' as a misconception of what lends value to human life. What she considered ``sacred'' in every human being is the ``something that goes on ... expecting, in the teeth of all ... crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him.'' Thus, for her, the vital question is not ``Why do I have less?'' but ``Why am I being hurt?''

Weil's devaluation of the idea of political rights, her emphasis on hierarchy, obedience, and authority, her interest in Roman Catholicism, her championing of ``rootedness'' even as she herself seemed to abandon her Jewish roots, have made her a controversial and challenging thinker.

This collection provides an intriguing sampling of her thought, from her reflections on the lives of workers (whose lot she took it upon herself to share) to her brilliant essay on the ``Iliad,'' in which she praises the great poem for unflinchingly representing the tragedy of force turning people into things.

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