Fiction

Angus Wilson was a bureaucratic insider (an assistant superintendent of the British Museum's Reading Room), a gay man and a superb mimic. All three of these characteristics come into play in his 1956 masterpiece, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (NYRB Classics, $14.95). Wilson's protagonist is Gerald Middleton, a 60-year-old historian who never fulfilled his early promise. As Middleton agonizes over whether to fade gently into old age or bestir himself to undertake an ambitious project, new information about an archaeological dig he took part in decades ago threatens to derail several academic careers. In juggling a large cast (the book begins with an annotated list of "Characters in Order of Appearance"), Wilson manages to depict the infighting at an academic department, provide one of the first inside portraits of a gay demimonde in English fiction and imitate an impressive variety of voices, both human and institutional. As Jane Smiley notes in her introduction, Wilson may have loved Dickens above all other writers, but in its attentiveness to the mingling of characters in intersecting groups, Wilson's fiction most resembles that of another eminent Victorian, Anthony Trollope.

The reissue of another masterly novel, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian (FSG Classics, $15), translated from the French by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author, enhances the text not only with photographs pertaining to the memoirist's reign as Roman emperor but also with the author's "Reflections on the Composition." In the latter, Yourcenar tells of the fits and starts, blockages and sudden cascades of progress that marked the three decades in which she worked on a novel that takes the form of a long letter from Hadrian to his successor-to-be, Marcus Aurelius. Her perfectionism comes across in this excerpt from the "Reflections": "Do the best one can. Do it over again. Then still improve, even if ever so slightly, those retouches. 'It is myself that I remake,' said the poet Yeats in speaking of his revisions."

The archaeology at the heart of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes has to do with the presence of a priapic idol in a Christian tomb, which in turn may upset the whole chronology of early British Christianity. Controversial archaeology (not to mention hieroglyphics -- see The Linguist and the Emperor, below) also figures in Arthur Phillips's The Egyptologist (Random House, $13.95), in which an Oxford-educated scientist sets out to find the tomb of an apocryphal Egyptian king. This comic novel comes complete with diagrams of King Atum-Hadu's tomb, the first of which, tantalizingly, contains a Chamber of Confusion with an unopened door. As the story progresses, the diagram gets fleshed out, as it were, and the door is opened, but the Chamber seems to remain in a state of Confusion. But then, why shouldn't it? As the Egyptologist notes in his journal, "The ancients believed that at the moment the tomb was sealed, it became a hive of activity."

Nonfiction

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, by Mark Abley (Mariner, $14), takes the reader to, among other places, the Isle of Man, where the recently deceased language is Manx. It was a long time dying; its last native speaker, one Ned Maddrell, fell silent in 1974, aged 97, leaving only a recording to indicate how this Celtic tongue sounded. (We obviously can't reproduce the sound here, but for what it's worth Teiy yn coghal ass bee oo kiart dy liooar means "Pick the dead flesh out and you'll be all right.") Strictly speaking, Manx still breathes. It is being spoken today, but the chain of those who had mastered it lapsed with Maddrell's death, and those conversing in Manx today are doing so as a hobby. When the author questions the viability of a tongue that is treated as a kind of patriotic curio, one of its boosters replies, "It's always worth continuing the fight to save a language."

Still on the subject of lost languages, Daniel Meyerson's The Linguist and the Emperor (Random House, $13.95) recounts the unraveling of the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics. The emperor was Napoleon, whose soldiers unearthed the fabled stone at the Mediterranean port of Rosetta, Egypt, in 1799. The linguist was Jean-Francois Champollion, a brilliant scholar who relied on the presence of both hieroglyphics and Greek on the stone to make shrewd guesses about the signs' meanings. Eventually, he figured out that the hieroglyphics intermingled rebus-like pictures and script. Outsiders tend to stereotype men like Champollion as pedants leading desiccated and soporific lives -- "scholar-squirrels," in Gore Vidal's sassy phrase -- but in fact he took his work so all-fired seriously that it aged him prematurely. As he noted in a letter to his brother, what was at stake for him, in this race to unscramble the pictures, was a "calling card on Immortality."

-- Dennis Drabelle