"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Monday, 19 January 2015

Houellebecq Strikes Again (Again)!


Published on the very day of the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Michel Houellebecq's new novel, Soumission (Submission) could not have been more timely and as the gunmen burst into the office of the magazine the author himself featured on the cover of the then current issue with a mocking caricature of himself as a fortune teller or mage.  For his new novel is placed in the very near future after François Hollande's second term ends in 2022 with an Islamic President of the Republic who gets in as a result of doing a deal with the imploded parties of centre right and left after the refusal of the second largest bloc, the Front National, to contemplate a coalition. Whether this is a plausible scenario even in the context of a work of fiction is for the reader to decide but the donnée is at the very least an interesting one.

The novel is due to appear in an English translation in the autumn and already everyone is getting very excited at the "offence" it will putatively cause.  But apart from the tiny minority of fanatics who would derive "offence" from a fly settling on their windowsill, I imagine most moderate Muslims will read this with an air of baffled surprise for the Muslims in this novel are far from being represented as fanatics or jihadists.  On the contrary, the new President is a model of moderation and tact, distancing himself firmly from the madmen, and his minister for the universities, soon to be Foreign Minister, is represented as a man of exquisite civilisation and courtesy.  True, the Sorbonne is now under Islamic colours and women are absent from the university cocktail parties, but the central character, François, an academic specialising in late 19th century literature, ends by contemplating conversion himself, resolving a midlife crisis by accepting an arranged marriage with an attractive and accommodating young undergraduate (or three, which appears to be the limit under the rules of polygamy).  Why not, is the novel's final unanswered question? "Je n'aurais rien à regretter."  I would have nothing to regret.

Anyone familiar with Houellebecq's work (and I confess to being a long term fan of the sacred monster) will of course have noticed the feline ironies which sustain this narrative.  It is, in effect, a massive wind-up.  But the author's fondness for more or less plausible futuristic scenarios in his fiction does enable him to float some very interesting ideas.  The new President, Ben Abbes, dreams of, in effect, recreating the former Roman empire by shifting the centre of gravity of the European Union south, embracing north Africa and even Egypt, and his first step is to propose a move of HQ from Brussels to Athens.  This is not a rough derisive polemic (Houellebecq has done those in his time) but one that forces people to think about what the future might look like.  It is also a novel about religion and it is, like all his books, a novel about Michel Houellebecq.

Taking the first of these, religion, we are introduced to the central character, François, a specialist in the late 19th Century decadent, J.K. Huysmans, who after a lifetime as an atheistical aesthete, ended up embracing a fervent Catholicism.  François makes a pilgrimage to the abbey where Huysmans was received and where he is moved by the black Madonna and the general religious atmosphere.  He is stirred by the idea that what sustained European civilisation was Christianity and its collapse in the current consumer-individualist culture of 21st Century Europe (cue some characteristic bashing of "les baby-boomers" and much sardonic, sharply-observed descriptions of contemporary life; Houellebecq has a keen sociologist's eye for social trends).  The hypothesis, whether we take it seriously or not as a recommendation for our approval, is that Muslims at least are secure in their faith and know what they believe in.

Huysmans comes over in this book as a kind of proto-Houellebecquian solitary, disenchanted with the world around him, and turning to religion, in the end, as his only hope.  And this, for me was the chief pleasure of the book, not the Islamic theme, but the portrait of the central character who, like all Houellebecq's central characters, is a thinly disguised version of the author himself.  His dry humour, his sardonic exactness in puncturing the fatuities around him, are endlessly diverting and often made me laugh out loud.  The author, I read, is now 56 and he is starting to register the fact.  François still manages a sex life of a sort (and there are the usual graphic passages which his readers have got used to expecting) but even though he is in his mid-forties he feels himself to be physically falling apart, facing a future alone in his flat with his take-away food, booze, and occasional resort to escort girls after his young girlfriend emigrates in fear to Israel.  The relaxed, smooth, seemingly effortless life that awaits him if he converts to his university boss's form of Islam is a temptation, at the end of the novel, that he looks like being unable to resist.

This is, finally, a book in which not much happens.  Like the eighteenth century French dialogue novels it consists mostly of conversations – with the head of the Sorbonne, with a retired security agent who has spent a lifetime observing "extremists", with colleagues and lovers – that are always interesting and amusing even if they sometimes read like small essays or polemics.  Houellebecq may be an ageing enfant terrible but he is always intellectually stimulating and, at his best, a master of sardonic humour.  This one is as good as anything he has done in the past.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Happy New Year

Wished a Happy New Year yesterday by a drunk on a bus in the Old Kent Road I realise that my last post was in December.  The 'holiday period' and its aftermath has meant that I have written nothing here in 2015 so far.  This will be remedied shortly when I give my verdict on the new Michel Houellebecq novel, Soumission (Submission) which was published on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo killings and in which, with characteristic sardonic directness, he deals with an imaginary future, not far from now, when a new Fraternité musulmane is holding the balance of power.  You can imagine some of the rest...

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Meeting a Poem Again

I was surprised and, as they say on Facebook, delighted (or is it 'thrilled'?) to learn last night that a poem that appeared first in the Times Literary Supplement in 1986 has been chosen as Poem of the Week on the TLS website this week.  It was the TLS that published my very first poem back in 1981 and I well recall that, having forgotten to tell me that they had accepted it for publication, the proof dropped through my letterbox in a brown envelope one Saturday morning.  I don't think there will ever be another morning surprise quite like that one.  The poem was chosen by TLS poetry reviewer Andrew McCulloch who explains his choice on the website.  It is reprinted in my collection, Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos) and you can buy that volume direct from Melos online.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Innovation-lite

This year's £10, 000 Goldsmiths prize "set up to recognise fiction that opens up new possibilities for the novel form" as The Guardian puts it, has just been won by Ali Smith for her novel How to be Both. The previous year, the first of this particular prize, it was won by Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. McBride's novel was originally published by a small press in Norfolk, Galley Beggar Press, and allegedly took nine years to find a publisher.  It has been re-issued by Faber (who presumably had turned it down during that nine year search) and, in spite of its radical formal qualities (essentially a technique of fractured syntax) that might be thought off-putting to the general it appears to be selling very well.

The Poetry Society also has an award which looks as though it is designed to foster innovation, the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry which says that it is looking for the poet who has made "the most exciting contribution to poetry this year".  In the words of one of this year's judges, Kei Miller:
"It’s hard to say what I would look for in terms of ‘innovation’. A lot of things are conventionally innovative – a bit of multimedia, a bit of hyperlinks thrown in. Perhaps then I’m just looking to be surprised, in a good way, and by something that accentuates the poetry rather than detracting from it. So much is available to us today – not just technology, but everything in the material world. The truly innovative poet will know how to choose carefully. That’s I’m looking for – careful choices, surprising choices, smart choices."
I must say I like the relaxed tone of this, its recognition that innovation comes in all shapes and sizes. Another judge, Julia Copus, says she is looking for work that "leaves me more keen-sighted, able to see the world newly and distinctly".  But isn't that what most of us thought any work of art in any medium was trying to do?

In a broadly sympathetic review of McBride's novel in the New York Review of Books Fintan O'Toole observed that: "The originality of this method has been greatly overstated – a mark perhaps of how far the mainstream of fiction has drifted from the modernist aesthetic."  He seems to be saying that most current fiction is "conventional" so any attempt to dislocate the form starts to look bold and dangerous. He goes on to say that: "McBride's gamble with the reader is that we will form meaning even when she does not quite give it to us."  This accurately describes my experience in reading the book.  I confess that the method nearly made me stop reading but I was eventually hooked by the compelling power of the story and 'got used to' the formal innovation which perhaps wasn't quite how it should have been.  The story (of childhood rape, a life of casual self-hating sexual encounters on waste ground, the dysfunctional family) was of course just the sort of underclass fable the metropolitan literati loves to read, innovation or no innovation.

I have forgotten who it was who said of experimental writing that the experiment should be over by the time we are invited to read it but I have some sympathy with that idea.  Words like 'experimental', 'avant-garde', 'left-field' are often tendered in a spirit of self-satisfied defiance.  Too many suburban Rimbauds are too quickly pleased with their ground-breaking attempts.  Too many currently vaunted 'modernist' novels simply cannot be weighed in the same scale as Joyce.  The assumption that writing that does not proclaim its innovatory qualities is conservative, traditional, conventional etc etc in my view doesn't follow.  Such limp writing does exist and I am not advocating it but equally the innovation-lite works don't always strike me as an improvement on the jejeune traditionalists.

Which brings me back to the comment of Julia Copus about new work that "leaves me more keen-sighted, able to see the world newly and distinctly".  That seems to me the real 'innovation' that formal experiments are there to enact.  Any artist, in words, music, paint, film, is trying to produce something creative and original which is literally innovative because it makes something new that was not there before.  It makes us see, feel, hear in fresh ways.  There should be no prizes for innovation; there should simply be genuinely new work.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Pelmeni Poets 2nd December: Come Along!

The Pelmeni Poetry Series

Please join us for the sixth in this series of poetry readings
on
Tuesday 2nd December, 2014
at
The Duke of Wellington
119 Balls Pond Road
London N1 4BL

020 7275 7640
6.30pm for 7.00pm
http://www.thedukeofwellingtonn1.com/how-to-find-us/
Featuring the work of
Eve Grubin, Kathryn Maris, Nicholas Murray and Chrissy Williams
Plus Special Guests from Pelmenis Past!
Pelmeni Poetry aims to bring together poets from the US, South America,
Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East to audiences in London, hosting
the best international voices and visions at a variety of venues in the city.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Dylan Thomas, like, wow, could write!

Strolling through Bloomsbury today what should I see, parked in a piece of open space on the very cusp of Fitzrovia, but Dylan Thomas's writing shed.  Except that, er, it wasn't.  It was a faithful reproduction that is being towed around these islands, having started out of course in Wales where I should have caught up with it before.  It is being called The Pop-up Writing Shed and inside (I learned when I read the handout after I had left the scene) visitors were being asked, "in honour of Dylan Thomas' love of words" to help to compile a dictionary of fresh new words.  "Be playful," the Shed's curators say, "be rhythmic, be onomatopoeic, be brave".  Had I noticed this option I think I would have posted to the projected Dictionary of Dylan the word "shamshed".  Instead I pottered amongst the reproductions of letters, photographs, and what may have been actual books from his boathouse.


It was very popular and it was soon difficult to turn round in the small space for fear of treading on eager poetry, or at any rate, Dylan lovers.  One woman expressed astonishment at the sight of his neat, legible handwriting on a letter spread out on the table.  "That's amazing, I didn't think he would write so clearly if he was drunk all the time."  I scanned her face for signs of irony but no, this is what she genuinely believed.  "Perhaps he had an old-fashioned Welsh education, taught how to write in pen and ink," I offered primly.  This earned me an old-fashioned look.  It's true that I may not have been careful enough in my perusal of the shamshed, but I couldn't see any poetic manuscripts about. But in a sense that's not the point.  DT is the point.  He is, as Cliff Richard said of Elvis "a phenomena".  He is popular, unlike most poets, so let's not carp.  And if you are in Fitzrovia this weekend there's a special "Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia" festival which should be a lot of fun.  But get to the shamshed early before it's crowded out.

Monday, 13 October 2014

War, war

I am looking forward to taking part with some other writers and anthologists in an event on the First World War at the Working Men's College in Camden organised by Lucy Popescu on Thursday 6 November.  I won't actually be talking about my book on the war poets (illustrated here) but will be reading Trench Feet my verse satire on an academic who decides to turn the clichés of the Great War into a TV career opportunity and comes badly unstuck.  I am also talking, but this time about the more serious book, at the Special Forces club on Monday 10th November and I have a forthcoming review in the Times Literary Supplement on some recent books of war poetry.