"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 13 August 2007

The God-Monster of Hampstead

In the last post I talked about Elias Canetti (seen here) whom John Bayley, husband of Iris Murdoch, one of his lovers, called "the god-monster of Hampstead". Canetti, the Austrian writer, lived in England from 1939 to the 1980s and his sharp pen in Party in the Blitz digs into several high literary reputations including Murdoch's. In an excellent introduction to the book Jeremy Adler tries to draw the sting of some of these attacks by suggesting that Canetti is in fact describing himself when he savages other writers. It's a fascinating read and one of the interesting threads is the writer's distaste for the English literary party of which he saw many in his Hampstead years. Instead of the civilised café culture of Vienna he went into various crowded rooms full of people standing up and being rather cold and unpleasant to each other. I attend as few of these things as I can myself but I can report that nothing has changed. One comes back on the Tube thinking: wouldn't it have been more productive to have spent the evening in a darkened room hitting myself over the head with a mallet every ten minutes?

Here is Canetti on "Misery at Parties": "It wasn't that you were treated sceptically, it was worse than that. You quite simply didn't exist...It would be an exaggeration to describe the exchange of a few sentences as a conversation, and in any case, the content of a conversation wasn't what mattered, so much as the confirmation of what remained unsaid. What was at issue was observing the proprieties. One mustn't on any account get too near. Edges and boundaries were the important things, and they existed so as not to be infringed."

I prefer real parties where you have fun. They do exist and perhaps there are even some of them in Hampstead.

1 comment:

Ms Baroque said...

Poetry parties are much more fun than this. Even if you're filled with loathing and fear of the reputation/reviews/prize nomination/editorial job/looks/airs and pretensions of the person you're talking to, chances are you do at least like them, and anyway, everyone's getting very drunk.

I knew there was a reason I wasn't a biographer.