"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 September 2008

Exposure: Catherine Millet The Sequel

There has been a fair amount written about the current literary season or rentrée in France and one of the high profile titles is by Catherine Millet, author of the notorious The Sex Life of Catherine M. which was translated, for reasons that aren't hard to find, into 45 languages. It contained a remarkably frank account of her lifetime of sexual libertinage and perhaps some of her readers were expecting more of the same with her latest. It is called Jour de souffrance or Day of Suffering (but an epigraph from the standard French dictionary Robert points to another meaning of that phrase - a window that looks out on to someone else's property without giving right of access). The theme of the book is sexual jealousy, the bit that got left out of the last one. CM's discovery of this phenomenon dates from her discovery, on the table of her grand Paris flat that she shared with her long term partner, the writer Jacques Henric (who presumably consented to join her in this act of intimate self-display) of a photograph taken by her husband of a naked young woman, pregnant, together with a notebook in which he records another sexual infidelity. The book is about the shock of this discovery, its effect on her subconscious life, the series of "crises" it puts her through, and her ultimate survival. The irony that someone attached to her own "vie libertine" should be outraged by someone else doing the same thing should properly flash at us in large neon letters. But CM doesn't see it this way. In one passage she disdains on aesthetic grounds to go down the trite and commonplace road of "what is sauce for the goose etc" and seems to argue that her varied sexual life was her thing or "truc" and that everyone knew about it which makes it OK but Jacques' secret sexual life was not on the table so she is right to be devastated by the discovery of it.

If this sounds like a bit of highbrow smut it isn't. Catherine Millet is a distinguished art critic and writes with forensic insight into her own mental processes and reactions in a way that could easily have become narrow and obsessional but somehow it doesn't. Her references to artists are always relevant and insightful and there is more about her early life as a rebellious schoolgirl in a Paris suburb falling in with poets and artists and becoming an art critic and editor of art press and her dreams of becoming a writer. There are some fine Proustian moments as when she picks out a long blonde strand of hair from what she thought was her motorcycle helmet (she is short-haired) and realises she can never wear it ever again. As a companion piece to the earlier shocker it is more reflective and more introspective. It won't sell like hot cakes like its predecessor but I think it is the better book.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Unrelated: the movie

How important is point of view in a movie? This was the question I found myself asking after escaping the nightmarish labyrinth of the Barbican cinema in London last night (we emerged through exit doors into a network of underground carparks, desperately trying to find our way out this notorious complex like the stars of some second rate noir thriller). I had been to see Joanna Hogg's 'acclaimed' new film Unrelated about an extended family on holiday in a lush Tuscan villa near Siena - not long after seeing Olivier Assayas's film Summer Hours starring Juliette Binoche. [The less said about the latter's dance collaboration at the National Theatre just now the better.] Both films put on display middle-to-upper middle class families most of whose members one would gladly strangle with one's bare hands. In both cases the slowly unspooling narcissism of these people - lovingly attentive camera shots bringing out every detail of their lives and, more to the point, possessions - has one crying out for a Truffaut, for example, who would have ensured some of them came to a nasty end. As the film proceeded, one realised that this longed for resolution (I would have settled for an If-style massacre) was not going to happen and that the film-makers were actually in love with these people. I had a similar moment of revelation half-way through Ian McEwan's novel Saturday when I realised that the smug and self-regarding surgeon, Perowne, was probably not intended by the author to revolt us but on the contrary was to be seen as a hero. The critics have labelled this film "subtle" and it is beautifully filmed and delectably pictorial (hard to get the Tuscan landscape wrong) but only Kathryn Worth as Anna, the fortysomething with an obscure marital problem that sends her holidaying on her own with these characters, is explored in any degree of depth. It's a sort of posh Mike Leigh film without the humour and, from one point of view it has a sociological interest, fixing perfectly the face of The New British Crudity, the middle-class yobs boasting of having pissed against the baptistery door in Siena, the hideous party games, the obsessive alcohol consumption, the whining, the general oafishness in luxurious surroundings of moneyed people who would once have boasted of their grace or elegance and sneered at the chavs instead of trying to emulate them.

Back to my question. I could just be missing the subtlety here. Perhaps the film was making a satirical point, just not choosing to do it with a heavy hand. Possibly, but the evidence is slight. The tenor of a lot of criticism, in the wake of the decades of Theory, has been to deprecate strong opinions, stances, commitment, "grand narratives", political engagements, in favour of a non-judgemental showing. With hierarchies of value no longer attractive in the intellectual sphere there is a kind of loose, post-modernish tolerance or letting-it-all-hang-out with everything "equally valid", no course of action privileged over another. So this is the kind of cinema we increasingly get. For those of us more inclined to be engagé, perhaps the answer is to supply our own imaginative retributions. Here was one cinema-goer directing in his head a scene of carnage from the rear of the Barbican cinema!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Funky Fogeyless New Book Website

I have just been sent details of a new book website called www.untitledbooks.com whose sales pitch is below. It looks pretty funky to me and is run by two literate young women who say they are aiming at a "young" audience with their "young" site. Very exciting and I wish them the best of luck but, hey, what about us post-twenty-year-old fogeys? Don't we read too? I just typed in my name in the search box and guess what came back: "Sorry, nothing was found on this search. Please try again with an alternative keyword." Sob, sob, I have ten titles to my name. [On reflection, maybe I didn't use the bookshop-bit-of-it box. Vanity on hold.]

Untitled Books is a young, hip, beautiful new web site bringing the most exciting authors and their work to a young, discerning audience. It is a literary service and online bookshop that combines an authoritative selection of book recommendations, with continually updated, exclusive editorial content.

Great reads from the entire spectrum, from classics and forgotten gems to new titles, are handpicked by literary experts and brought together in one place to provide simple, quick and insightful advice for anyone seeking that next unputdownable read. Books are arranged in themes such as Desire, Intoxication, Great Adventures and Violence, to encourage the type of browsing associated with real life bookshops and guiding you to the best in non-fiction, fiction and poetry.

This digestible approach is complemented by the online magazine, featuring articles, author recommendations and interviews with big names such as Julian Barnes, Philip Gourevitch and James Frey, and championing the writers producing the most exciting work at the moment. You will also find articles, interviews and new short fiction published on the site each month. Authors recommend their favourite books, what inspires them and who to watch out for. Untitled Books also aims to find, support and promote the work of up and coming and new authors. Every featured author’s work can be bought via the site, making Untitled Books an essential destination for readers, authors and publishers.

And for the literary lonely there is a brilliant, offbeat, occasionally extraordinary lonely hearts page.

Untitled Books values its independent approach; there are no incentives to publicise certain books, nor pressure to follow trends. The articles and the recommendations are produced purely in the interests of those who love books and want to discover great reading and new writers from around the world and across the genres. Untitled Books brings you the best writing out there.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Intelligent Literature and the e-book

The Independent on Sunday ran a feature yesterday asking whether "intelligent literature" could survive the e-book future. I think the answer turned out to be Yes.

One of the more notable contributions to this Sunday morning symposium was from Sue Thomas, who "teaches the world's only MA in creative writing and new media at the Institute of Creative Technology at De Montfort University".

She explained:

"The aim of my course is to produce 'transliterate' writers – ie, literate across many different kinds of media. When we think 'literacy' we think about print and transliteracy is about shaking off that domination of print which has, in a sense, I think, been a distraction.

"The internet has caused us to rethink what we mean by literacy: the [traditional] idea of literacy implies that before print people were illiterate – but, in fact, people simply were literate in many other things, such as oral and visual culture.

"One of the writers from my course is Alison Norrington, a chick-lit author: she learnt how to take her stories beyond the book on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, by making little movies, by sending her heroine into Second Life. Another is Christine Wilkes, who has a filmmaking background and wrote an interactive memoir using design and programming. You don't need to be able to read and write much to tell a story.

"Will books exist in 50 years? Definitely, but they will also be just one of the many ways we experience art. I feel quite cynical about the cloak of preciousness that's been woven around the novel: it's such a recent medium – we've only had it a few hundred years and yet you often hear people say, 'We've always had novels.' No we have not!"

My problem with this is not its argument that we take non-print culture seriously. Of course we should. It is with the language here. Why has the "domination" of print been a "distraction"? Why is one "cynical" about the supposed "cloak of preciousness that's been woven around the novel"? Shouldn't writers and people concerned with the future of "intelligent literature" be able to write clearly and logically and use words with a little more precision?

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Turn Those Pages: More from the Booker Circus

Imagine a major prize for new discovery in quantum physics in awarding which the chair of the judges announced proudly: "Actually I have never heard of the Big Bang theory." But in the wacky world of British book culture other rules apply. Michael Portillo, now Mr. Nice Guy having shed his horrible Thatcherite associations and having been on the telly a lot, is this year's Chair of the Man Booker fiction prize judging panel. He announced on Tuesday at the unveiling of the shortlist of six authors: "I am not a literary expert." Louise Doughty, one of the other judges, who, though she doesn't say so herself, I should have thought from her work is 'a literary expert' explained (helpfully for anyone with hopes of being a future Man Booker winner) that what she was looking for was a "page-turner". Having myself just re-read Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground with the pages flying out of my hands as I was whipped along by his astonishing flow of words, I have never understood this "page-turner" notion which is so often deployed as a weapon in the war against serious writing. But Louise Doughty had more insights for us: "The ability to come up with a good plot and create a good structure are great literary qualities - it is not just about how to make a finely turned sentence. The ability to move a story on in an engaging way, and the creation of character - these are great literary skills." Damn those finely-turned sentences!

The other casualty of the day was Salman Rushdie, grand old man of the litprize culture, who was left off because his work is "patchy" and, presumably, the pages hadn't moved for Michael and his team in this instance. The Guardian called this a "rebuff" but maybe his "great literary skills" were simply having a holiday from the Booker. A holiday from the Booker. Now there's a good plot idea.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Are there too many books?

This cartoon from last Friday's Le Monde makes fun of that annual French ritual la rentrée littéraire [the new publishing season] into which are packed, it seems, most of the year's new literary titles in order to have everyone lined up for the autumn literary prizes. Each year there is the same article concentrating on how many titles are coming out. I have tried to get comparable figures for the UK but my Googling skills are evidently not what they were. The headline news is that 676 novels are published this year in France compared with 727 last year, a seven per cent drop. Back in 1998 there were only 488. Of this year's 676, 466 are French and 210 by foreign authors. It goes without saying that the British proportion would be a lot less than this.

The cartoon shows an unmistakeable Gallimard book cover with the title: "Take me, everyone!" with the implication that this is a publishers' orgy, throwing themselves at the public.

Yeats once announced, in the Cheshire Cheese, as he looked around at the massed ranks of poets thronging the bar: "There are too many of us." Obviously, he did not consider himself supernumerary and this is the point surely: that if we say too many books are published we never actually mean our own. And in one sense not enough books are published if we fail to find truly excellent ones in the cascade of trash.

As I keep saying in this space, the problem with contemporary publishing is the narrowing of range, the lack of ambition, the failure to encourage real originality and real innovation, the playing safe with more-of-the-same which is what you get when the marketing people rather than the people with genuine literary taste are calling the shots.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Does Anyone Edit Books Any More?

Having shelled out £14.99 for a new hardback book - in this case the 'controversial' new polemic Excavating Kafka by James Hawes - one doesn't really expect to come across a sentence like this: “It’s the K.myth, with its mania for a rose-tinted obsession with Kafka’s emotional and family life, that is to blame for this incredible blindness of Kafka scholars." This horrible prose is characteristic of the slapdash style of this book, for which, of course, the author is to blame, but did no one read the text before it slipped out of the publisher's hands? Grr!