"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
click HERE and access his website
Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

A Poem by Thomas Hardy

Can one ever recapture the emotion triggered by one's first experience of a poem, a painting, a piece of music, a song? I was pondering this recently when I came across Thomas Hardy's poem "The Voice". I first read this when I was about sixteen and it knocked me over. Reading it again...it still knocks me over. It is a poem to his first wife and, as well as being a powerful love poem, it has a wonderful (rugged, Hardyesque) music that made the first stanza pass straight into my memory without my even trying to memorise it. It is one of those "bus-stop poems" that I keep for use when I have no books with me and memory has to take the place of a shelf of books.

The Voice

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

December 1912

Thomas Hardy

Friday, 26 October 2007

Virginia Woolf and Writing

I have an old habit of keeping a book of quotations that interest me and I just came across this one from Virginia Woolf from her diary of 31st May 1933:
I thought, driving through Richmond last night, something very profound about the synthesis of my being: how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless I am writing; now I have forgotten what seemed to be so profound.
I can't say why I find such observations so arresting but, whatever you think of the antics of the Bloomsbury group, there is something remarkable about her.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Frankfurt Bookspeak

While we are on the subject of the idiocies of the book business there was a very funny article in last Friday's Le Monde des Livres by Alain Beuve-Méry decoding the things people say at the Frankfurt Book Fair (and based apparently on an anonymous photocopy doing the rounds). The English used there is, he said, un idiome très particulier. For example to describe a book as "literary" means "people might like it but it will be harder to sell". Worse than this is "experimental" which decoded means "unreadable, difficult to sell, and possibly capable of pleasing a few critics". A book that is said to have "wonderful descriptions" is probably "boring and useless". If it comes garlanded with "excellent recommendations" this means that "other authors represented by the same agency declare it's a masterpiece". "I'm expecting an offer" means. "I haven't had a flicker of interest from anyone." One of my favourites is: "It's completely different from his last one" which really says: "His previous books did not sell well." And: "I couldn't stop reading it," means "I had to stay up all night reading the thing in order to put in a bid the next morning." Finally: "It was so good I immediately had to read it again." What this is saying is: "I could make no sense of it at a first reading." I'm glad to learn that publishing folk have, after all, a sense of humour.

A Grumpy Git Writes

Yes, but your little Catalan bookshop also had this in the left hand window!!! And how can you call Perpignan a provincial town when Salvador Dali said it was the centre of the world?

Are Bookshops Dead?

Of course not, but some are more healthy than others. What do you notice about this picture (apart from the lousy lighting)? I took this at the weekend in a back street of the provincial south west town of Perpignan in France and it shows (what is normal in most European countries) a unique display of about 30 new books chosen by the owner. In Britain bookshop windows are both boring and dishonest. Dishonest because the books are not chosen by the bookseller but rather space is bought and sold with bribes paid by publishers to get exposure in the window. The same old predictable clutch of best-selling titles, marketed like baked beans in "3 for 2" clumps, duly appears in every chain bookshop window from one end of the country to the other. In this case there are some best-sellers, of course, like Daniel Pennac, and there is Marie Darrieussecq (one of the few contemporary French literary novelists to be translated into English) with her controversial new novel Tom est mort that has provoked one of those bogus 'plagiarism' rows. (I may blog about it later when I've read it.) But it feels like someone's thoughtful choice and it was interesting to browse. Of course the ease with which we can order books through Amazon at drastically reduced prices is changing everything. Most of the hardback Man Booker titles are available at paperback prices at Amazon and you won't need your brolly to go out and get them so quite how any bookshop, even an independent, is going to survive beats me.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Marvell's Coy Mistress

Listen in on Sunday evening, 21st October, to BBC Radio 4's Adventures in Poetry at 16.30 for a whole 30 minute programme given over to Andrew Marvell's great poem, To His Coy Mistress. I will be contributing, alongside Marvell scholar, Nigel Smith, the poet and critic Deryn Rees-Jones, and the veteran critic Al Alvarez. We all liked the poem and here it is!

To his Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Booker Baloney: Chasing the Feelgood Factor

Congratulations to Anne Enright for surprising everyone by winning the Man Booker Prize for fiction last night with The Gathering. Like most people I haven't read this yet but I will rectify the omission forthwith. What struck me, however, were the terms in which this book was described. The chairman of the judges, the economist Sir Howard Davies, described it as "unflinching" and went on to admit it could seem a bit "depressing" and "a little bleak". We have been here before, on a shimmy down Feelgood Close, that little English cul-de-sac where everything must be cosy and comforting and even serious literature must conform to the happy norms of the feelgood culture. I am glad that Anne Enright has been robust in batting back this particular observation, cheerfully stating that of course her book is not comfort reading. If we banned from the bookshops any writing that failed to avoid confronting the harsher aspects of human existence what would we be left with? My message to Howard Davies: we are grown-ups, mate, and we don't need to be protected from the realities of life.

Much has also been made of the poor bookie odds for Enright and the fact that "only" 3000 copies have been sold so far (that will change this morning). Actually, for new British fiction that's not too bad, but what does it mean? Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is said to have sold 100,000. Does that mean it is 33 times better than The Gathering? Er, no. It might actually be 100 times better. Or 700 times worse. These figures prove nothing. There is nothing wrong with large sales figures (to say so would be a kind of snobbery) and equally nothing wrong with small ones. The quality of the work of art is always the only thing that matters. Let's end with a great big steaming platitude: THE NUMBER OF COPIES SOLD OF A BOOK HAS NO RELATIONSHIP WHATSOVER WITH ITS INTRINSIC QUALITY.

Have a nice day!

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Pawel Huelle: New Polish Fiction

Estimates seem to vary between 600 and 800,000 but we can all agree that a great many Polish people have come to live in Britain in recent years. Combined with the long-standing and deep-rooted Polish communities already here, maybe up to a million Poles are living in Britain but what do we know about them apart from the fact that they are filling the Catholic churches to bursting and persuading shops in far-flung rural parts of Britain to advertise in their windows that they stock Polish specialities? Where is the Polish equivalent of Brick Lane, a book that will give us an insight into the thoughts and feelings of this substantial migrant community? Perhaps it is being written even now. We may not be sure what we think of them but what do they think of us?

Meanwhile, to try to understand Polish culture, we have the usual very limited supply of translated fiction (poetry in the past has always seemed to do rather better). The most recent example is Pawel Huelle’s Castorp and if it is all as good as this let us have more. This is Huelle’s second novel and his first, Mercedes-Benz was shortlisted for the Independent foreign fiction award last year. Born in 1957 he has been a lecturer in philosophy, head of a TV station, and press officer for Lech Walesa’s Solidarity trade union in Gdansk where he lives and where the novel is set.

The new novel takes as its starting point a glancing reference in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) to the character Castorp’s having spent a few semesters at Danzig polytechnic learning shipbuilding. Out of this conceit Huelle weaves an amusing, inventive, often very funny tale imagining Castorp’s student days as a rather priggish German from Hamburg here at the edge of the Prussian empire at Danzig/Gdansk. His explorations of the atmospherically conjured up Baltic city and the neighbouring health resort of Zoppot, his odd relationship with his landlady, his oblique attitude to his fellow students, and his pursuit of the beautiful and enigmatic young Polish woman, Wanda Pilecka are intriguingly related by Huelle. Quite apart from its implicit commentary on Mann’s book this is a lightly-serious, witty and amusing read and I would highly recommend it. It is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Serpent’s Tail at £8.99.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

British Library Readers Get a Voice

Just in case you didn't know there is an independent Forum for British Library users which is free to join and which takes up lots of issues concerning readers. It is needed!

Women Writing War

To the Guardian Newsroom in Farringdon Road last night for a discussion, sponsored by Persephone Books and organised by English P.E.N., on the theme of the challenges faced by women war reporters. Actually, it wasn't the Guardian Newsroom itself but the building over the road with that name which they use for conferences. A panel of three women, Caroline Hawley the BBC's Middle East Correspondent, Maggie O'Kane of the Guardian famous for her reports from Sarajevo, and Ann McFerran who has reported on the aftermath of conflict in Uganda and Rwanda were interviewed by Anne Sebba, author of Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter. Anne put a series of sharp questions about whether being a woman made a difference to a reporter from war zones (the preferred term to "war reporter" which no one seemed to like much) but the three panellists remained stubbornly resistant to this line of questioning. They were just reporters, they said, and the most they could say was that in some areas of conflict in the Arab world as women they could get certain kinds of access to people, especially women, which would have been difficult for men. Maggie O'Kane, who halfway through the discussion actually used the prohibited word 'feminist' to describe herself, said that after she became a mother she did feel some anxiety about being separated from her son if she were arrested or detained. Her contribution was the most interesting and she no doubt shocked the cohorts of women journalism students packing the hall by saying that, actually, the game was up. "The time has passed for white Europeans, " she announced dramatically in response to an earnest inquiry about what made a good war reporter. What she meant was that we have entered a new phase of reporting from war zones in which white European journalists (male or female) would no longer be able to operate and it was the local reporters, the translators, or what she called "fixers", on the ground who needed to be trained and empowered to report. There was some anxiety that this might limit the ways in which wars were seen, if other perspectives weren't brought into play, but it seemed inevitable, certainly in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Another stimulating P.E.N. event.

Monday, 8 October 2007

The Limits of Writing

In the age of the celebrity author (the knowing coolness and self-satisfaction of the Famous Writer wheeled out in the book supplements to deliver another opinion on the world) it is refreshing sometimes to come across writers who acknowledge the limits of what one author can achieve. Proust famously compared himself to a flea and one of my favourite authors Georges Perec in his Espèces d'espaces (translated in Penguin by John Sturrock as Species of Spaces) had the following observation: "To write: to try meticulously to retain something; to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows; to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark, or a few signs."

I'd settle for that.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Reflections on the Bathtub of Ataturk

I thought that would secure your attention! Actually this is not a crafty attempt to offload my 84 holiday snaps but a thought about national identity. In Greece and Turkey such issues are impossible to ignore and nowhere more so than in Izmir (Smyrna to TS Eliot fans). During my recent imperial progress from Athens to Istanbul I stopped here and walked along the waterfront on a breezy Sunday afternoon amongst the courting couples, amateur fishermen, and boys on bicycles selling sandwiches or mussels. Evocative old photographs show the terrible sacking and burning of Izmir in 1922 after the Turks defeated the Greeks, whose ambitions to create a "Greater Greece" after the Treaty of Versailles ended in what is known in Greek as the Katastrofi (Catastrophe). This disaster resulted immediately in massacre and destruction and in a further social disaster when the two countries agreed a notorious "exchange of populations" by which millions of Muslims in Greece were sent back to Turkey and an equal number of Greek Christians went in the opposite direction regardless of the fact that these communities had in the past been happy to live alongside each other in their respective countries.

Most of the waterfront has been rebuilt but a couple of older houses remain including the stately marble facade of the house of Kemal Ataturk the great reforming modern Turkish leader who used it in the 1940s. It's a large but rather gloomy interior, full of dark, heavy, boring furniture (though I liked his bathtub) and the library seems to contain mostly endless dusty leather bound volumes of the Revue des Deux Mondes (heck, he was a man of action not a poet). Ataturk's modernising, secularist legacy is being challenged again by the new Turkish Government's greater Islamist sympathy but many in Turkey have no wish to ditch it. "A man's religion is between himself and his God," observed one elderly Muslim from Ankara to me in conversation and that's still how a lot of Turks feel.