AT THE RISK of sounding precious, I must say that the most delightful book I have read this year was a faded apology for communism, published in London in 1949. It's called Scenes From a Bourgeois Life, and the author, Alaric Jacob, was one of those hothouse flowers of the literary '30s who wasted their perfume on the desert air of Marxism. The pages of polemic are few, however; elsewhere the memoir is an intoxicating, uproarious and highly erotic narrative whose prose style makes you want to stand up and shout with admiration.
Among contemporary books, I found Jerre Mangione's history of the Federal Writer's Project, The Dream and the Deal (Princeton University Press), deeply interesting. it is a case example of why government should not subsidize artists -- because inevitably, after the first burst of creativity, politics perverts both giver and taker. Mangione also shows how the red-baiters of postwar Washington cut their ideological teeth on federal writers long before Pearl Harbor.
The most haunting novel I've read in 1990 was Harry Mulisch's Last Call (Viking), about an old Dutch actor invited, after years of retirement in the Polderland, to take part in a radical theater production in Amsterdam. Unable to resist, he ends up confronting the nightmare of his collaborative youth. EDMUND MORRIS Biographer