"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

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A New Year Resolution

It sometimes seems as though 2009 has been the year of Lists. Endless lists, with The Guardian and The Observer particularly obsessed with this form of rather childish journalism. Instead of articles of intellectual discovery or exploration we get endless drilling into rows of the usual suspects, the same old names, the same old cultural 'celebrities', the safe choices. And we stop caring. It has been made worse by the fact that this year's lists can play the end-of-the-decade variation as the "noughties" vanish unlamented. Can it really be a decade since I was on the streets of a little market town in the Welsh Marches at midnight celebrating the end of the 20th Century? And what are centuries anyway? – 500 years ago this pew end in my picture (I seem to be right out of robins) was carved in Geneva cathedral and it's still there, looking well on it.

So, no lists from me for 2009 (oh, all right then, three novels slug it out for first prize: Colm Toibin's Brooklyn which everyone else seems to have chosen; Coetzee's Summertime which no one, amazingly, seems to have chosen; and Jean-Philippe Toussaint's electrifying La Vérité sur Marie which probably wins in the end, an astonishing novel).

So a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year to everyone.

Monday, 14 December 2009

James Hanley: The Closed Harbour

The writer James Hanley (who always pretended he had been born in Dublin in 1901 but who was actually born in Liverpool in 1897) is one of those (all too numerous!) interesting authors who achieve a great deal of respect from their peers and a discerning readership but who never quite succeed in breaking through to a wider public. I wrote about him in my book on Liverpool and its writers So Spirited A Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool (2008). The latest of his novels to be reprinted is The Closed Harbour (1952) set in Marseilles not long after the war and centring on a sea captain, Eugène Marius, who is desperately seeking work from the city's shipping offices but whose career has been blighted by a seeming error of judgement (shades of Conrad's Lord Jim) involving the death of a relative at sea under his command. It is a characteristic Hanley study of a haunted individual battling against the odds and the grimness he relishes is augmented by an effective portrait of an unforgiving and vengeful mother who arrives in Marseilles to rub salt in the old salt's wounds. This is not, you will have gathered, a light and entertaining read but as an unflinchingly realistic portrait of a man struggling (and failing) to defeat his demons it has undeniable power. With news that the "Faber Finds" series is about to re-issue some of his earlier work might a Hanley revival, always promised but never delivered, be on the way?

Hats off to One World Classics for bringing out this handsome paperback (£7.99) with useful appendices on Hanley, including a biographical and critical summary by Chris Gostick and some fascinating photographs.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Laugh? I Nearly Cried.

Geneva, where I have spent the past week (don't ask) is a peaceful sort of place, I thought, until I got a whiff of teargas earlier. The city is so neat and tidy and full of solid bourgeois moneyed Calvinist respectability that even the yobs and hoodies look positively unthreatening but today there seem to have been at least three manifestations: one was a string of tractors chugging through the city centre (farmers doing what they do so well, asking for more); people protesting against people protesting against mosque-building ("a third Crusade?" asked one poster on a neat set of boards provided by the municipality – we don't do flyposting in this town); and a march against the arms trade. I think it was the latter that brought out the heavy police in crash helmets and visors and tear-gas guns at tea time. I was waiting for a bus outside the central station when they started firing tear gas canisters at the demonstrators, without bothering to warn the public. Imagine British riot police (not exactly covered in glory) exploding tear-gas canisters on the concourse at Paddington without bothering to tell anyone. It's horrible stuff, stinging one's cheeks, making one's eyes red, naturally, and bringing on the swine-flu-style coughs. And my crime was waiting to catch a flipping bus to Ferney-Voltaire where the great man of the Enlightenment stands on at least two pedestals in the town. Moi, I'm flying back tomorrow!

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Bartók: 'Not for the Faint-Hearted'

Bartók's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" currently being staged by the English National Opera at The Coliseum and paired in a double bill with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" – that score still breathtaking after all these years – is a powerful work, dramatically and musically, and everyone acquits themselves well has been the general opinion.

Based on Perrault's fairy tale about a woman fatally drawn into the orbit of an evil man, it's a grisly tale but the staging by Daniel Kramer concentrates on the sexual violence and his climax is particularly unpleasant and disturbing. The crowd loved it of course as they always do and the whistling and joyful stamping of feet that accompanied the closing image of a woman's genitals on the point of being attacked by Bluebeard's drawn sword, knew no bounds. One shouldn't read too much into this, perhaps, and it's worth remembering Patrick White's acid comment about theatrical audiences "suffering from the clap". Moreover, violence against women is so much an integral part of popular culture that one can't expect the desperately crowd-pleasing opera managements to buck lucrative trends. I was nevertheless glad to see that at least one critic had the courage to challenge this scene which The Guardian blandly called "not for the faint-hearted". In the Independent on Sunday Anna Picard pointed out that this "pornographic flourish" was what it was and said: "a line is crossed that no excellence of musicianship or stagecraft can mitigate". Even if you don't agree it is good to see a critic having the independence of mind to dissent.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Georges Perec: Still Crazy After All Those Years

The media obsession with cultural anniversaries is not always complete – look how the books pages missed the fact that this year, nearly over, has been the centenary of Malcolm Lowry – but here's one you definitely haven't thought of. This month is the 35th anniversary of a literary experiment by that delightful and inventive French writer, Georges Perec. In October 1974 he decided to station himself for three days in the place Saint-Sulpice in the posh 6th arrondissement of Paris in St Germain just north of the Jardin du Luxembourg and make a record of everything he saw. Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien (Attempt to exhaust all the possibilities of one particular spot in Paris) his little book is a record of what he saw. All those apple-green 2CVs, buses, Japanese tourists, aubergines (I'd forgotten that's French slang for a traffic warden), taxi-drivers, flâneurs, children, dogs, dossers passed by as he sat in cafés drinking coffee or vittel. Perec loved to tease out the poetry of the ordinary and what might sound like an exercise in obsessive tedium is in fact fascinating as we see a little quartier of Paris under the microscope. The artist, of course, sees what we don't always see and this is of course selective and proves that, in writing, the glory is in the detail and in what is selected rather than left out. This tiny book, with its occasionally glittering observations, has made my week, in that glum period after the clocks went back.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Martina Evans: Facing the Public

I have just finished a fine new collection of poems by the Irish poet and novelist, Martina Evans, called Facing the Public and published by Anvil (£7.95). This is one of the best collections I have read for some time, drawing deep on her experience growing up in Ireland, the youngest of ten children, in a bar and shop in Cork in wonderfully deft and supple narratives. "These look like easy, anecdotal poems," Alan Brownjohn said of an earlier collection, "but they bite." That's certainly true of the new collection too – for beneath the swift-flowing narrative surface lie the raw anguish of childhood experience, and of family life, and the wider political legacy of sectarian and political violence. There's fine, dry humour here that suddenly lays bare the shock of raw experience or betrayal as when she tells of being invited to sit on the knee of a rather too friendly pseudo-progressive Franciscan at her boarding school: "I thought he was the liberated uncle I never had/so when he asked me to sit on his lap/I was genuinely sorry that I couldn't oblige." These are unillusioned pictures of Irish family life, with a sharp political perspective that is taken in by no one. Some of the short prose-poems made me impatient for more of those equally skilful and sharp-seeing novels like Midnight Feast that made Evans's reputation. "Tragedy and cheerfulness are inextricable," Bernard O'Donoghue has said about her poems. The mixture is compelling.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Is this It?

I step into Stanford's travel bookshop in Covent Garden and what do I see: I have finally become part of that doubtful company: the Three For Twos! The evidence is in this picture that my A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire (Abacus, 2009) is on the front table as part of a 3 for 2 promotion. 16 years after my first book was published I have finally crossed this Rubicon. Will life ever be the same again? Have I joined the fraternity of schlock? Well, not if being adjacent to Mark Mazower's Salonica is what it entails. I must digest this.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Elizabeth Bishop: A Poem to Wake Up To

One of the joys of having finally turned into my publisher a big non-fiction book is that I can return to poetry and I have just come across a glorious (untitled) poem by Elizabeth Bishop written some time in the late 1930s and published for the first time in Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters which came out last year in the Library of America series.

Here is the opening stanza:

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

Read on p217ff

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Lowry Ale in Liverpool


I have already written about the Malcolm Lowry Centenary Exhibition at Liverpool's Bluecoat Arts Centre but forgot to mention that there is a special ale (appropriate given Lowry's favourite leisure activity) brewed by the local Wapping microbrewery available in the Bluecoat bar . A crowded schedule prevented me from imbibing any of this ale at the opening night but I managed to snaffle an empty bottle whose contents had just been poured into the glass of the Bluecoat Director, Bryan Biggs (who drew the label) and here it is.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Win a Free Copy of de Bernière's New Book!

A free copy of Louis de Bernière's new collection of stories, Notwithstanding will be sent to the first person who identifies the location of this watercolour by Herbert Davis Richter R.I. (1874-1955) which my wife and I recently acquired. The painting is untitled and my guess is somewhere in Corsica but I could be wrong. It's a lovely picture and I'd like to know which waterside spot it represents. Thanks to Random House for the copy of the book.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Manoly Lascaris, Partner of Patrick White

I have just received a fascinating book about Manoly Lascaris who was for many years the partner of the Australian novelist Patrick White. The book consists of records of the conversations its author, Vrasidas Karalis, associate professor in Modern Greek Studies at the University of Sydney, had over a seven year period as a young man with Lascaris, or "Mr Lascaris" as he insisted on being addressed. The conversations took place in Greek but the writing here in English is sharp and vivid. Vrasidas Karalis, whom I met in 2007 in Oxford when we were both delivering papers at a conference on Bruce Chatwin, is a very engaging, lively, and, on the evidence here, deeply tolerant thinker who put up cheerfully (mostly!) with the haughty patrician putdowns of Lascaris – who considered that he was descended from the Byzantine aristocracy. His bark, however, may have been worse than his bite and, in spite of his constant rebukes to his young interlocutor he clearly enjoyed the opportunity to talk about life and art in what is no less than a modern Socratic dialogue. One learns little about Patrick White, whom Vrasidas Karalis was translating at the time, and nothing about what Lascaris referred to as "the erotics" of his partnership with White, but it is a fascinating encounter with a provocative thinker who has previously not been allowed to come out from under the shadow of the Great Novelist. As Vrasidas Karalis says at one point: "Like Socrates, Lascaris was a wise old man who revealed unexpected truths through whimsical jokes and clumsy gestures." And again: "Manoly Lascaris never wrote anything, but he was a truly eloquent talker. He went directly to the heart of the matter, avoiding the periphrastic mannerisms of professional thinkers. He was a catalyst; his observations reduced everything to the basics." I strongly recommend this vigorous dramatic enactment of a surprising and unusual intellectual encounter.
The book is published in Australia by Brandl & Schlesinger

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Who's Afraid of Malcolm Lowry?

2009 is the centenary of the birth of Malcolm Lowry but you could be forgiven for not knowing this fact as it has attracted little attention so far. But a new book by many hands, Malcolm Lowry: From Mersey to the World is just about to be published by Liverpool University Press and there's an accompanying exhibition opening at the Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool on 24th September when the book is launched. I have contributed a chapter on October Ferry to Gabriola with an autobiographical introduction explaining my choice of this, probably one of Lowry's lesser read works. There are lots of essays by a very varied cast of contributors under the helmsmanship of Bluecoat Director Bryan Biggs and Helen Tookey so don't delay!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

John Banville in Bloomsbury

Hot on the heels of J.M. Coetzee's Summertime comes another new novel from a contemporary master of fiction, John Banville. I have only just acquired The Infinities so I have nothing yet to say about its content but Banville himself was in London last night at the London Review Bookshop in Bury Place, Bloomsbury talking to a sell-out audience and reading from the book. Banville was on sparkling and witty form, and, after reading a self-contained section of the book he answered questions with great aplomb. Aplomb and tact, one might add, as the inevitable bores who are attracted to this kind of event put their long-winded and self-regarding "questions" to him. In a sense these "meet the author" sessions have little to do with the book (which most people would not have had the chance to read) and everything to do with the author's performance and my own reasons for being there were, I imagine, no different from most people's: to get a squint at a writer I have admired for many years. Engaging and funny with lots of pithy comments and lively opinions, Banville gave us our money's worth and we all dispersed into the muggy Bloomsbury night air clutching our signed copies of the book.

Ah, yes, the book. Now I shall open it at page one...

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Summertime: the New Coetzee

From time to time some under-employed journalist writes one of those standard pieces about what is wrong with the contemporary novel and the diagnosis is always the same: let us have a grand state-of-the-nation panorama and all will be well in the best of all possible worlds. I gather that, even as I speak, Sebastian Faulks has obliged. I have never been convinced by this to-hell-with-Dostoevsky-let-us-have-Trollope thesis. I think the art of fiction is different from documentary and that the difference matters.

The new novel from J.M. Coetzee, Summertime, is not a huge Balzacian portrait of South Africa in the 1970s but it seems to me in its brilliantly elliptical way to say more about contemporary life and literature than most of what is indulgently hyped in the books pages. And the good news is that this is vastly better than his last novel Diary of a Bad Year which some (but not I) found too tricksy with its 'split-level' narrative that ran three strands simultaneously on the page. I wanted more depth of human insight than I got and the second bit of good news is that the new novel has that in spades. It also has more humour, some of it exquisitely subtle irony, some of it just good old-fashioned funny – and a writer without humour is like a painter with one of the colours missing from the palette. The prose, too, is razor-sharp, glittering like a finely cut diamond – but then what else would one expect from Coetzee? Yes, I liked this one!

Summertime ostensibly picks up where two previous volumes of fictionalised autobiography left off, Youth and Boyhood, taking the story up to around 1977 when Coetzee emerged as a writer. Those books pages this weekend will be awash with speculation about how far the fictionalised Coetzee here is the real one, and to what extent, by writing his own version of his life, he is pre-empting future biographers. Watch out for the copious use of the word 'self-indulgent'. The form of the novel is a series of interviews by an English literary biographer, "Mr Vincent" with people who have known John Coetzee (like Morse, Coetzee has come out about his first name at last) in these years. Most of them are women and their memories and judgements are designed to be as unsparing as possible. It is as if Coetzee wants us to know that he understands the worst that can possibly be said about himself but at the same time these rueful, sharp self-presentations are the source of some of the finest humour in the book. Look for example at page 242 where, through the eyes of a French former academic colleague with whom he had a brief affair: "As a writer he knew what he was doing, he had a certain style, and style is the beginning of distinction. But he had no special sensitivity that I could detect, no original insight into the human condition. He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant." Can you imagine such a passage being written by Amis? McEwan? Even in jest?

What emerges from these reminiscences and stories of his thirties in South Africa in the 1970s is also a deep love of the landscape of the Karoo, however much he despises the politics of his country pre- and post-liberation, and his inability to break the emotional ties that bind him to the Afrikaner culture he came from, symbolized by his relationship with his father, whom the buttoned-up, emotionally cold son cannot reach and who becomes, the last sentence seems to suggest, a metaphor for his native land: his need for it and his need to escape it, the dilemma eternally unresolved. This is an honest, moving, unflinching book and, though "John Coetzee" is dead as the biographer does his work, I sincerely hope there are many more to come.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Pietro Grossi: An Interview

Bibliophilic Blogger hosts its first ever Virtual Book Tour. Scary!


Pietro Grossi's second book Fists, first published in Italian as Pugni in 2006 and now receiving its first English language publication by Pushkin Press, translated by Howard Curtis, has won great acclaim in Italy, winning many distinguished literary prizes. It consists of three novellas, all of which explore male rites of passage into adult life. The first story, “Boxing”, is about the confrontation between two young boxers who learn the hard way that life is about winners and losers, the second, “Horses, is about two brothers exploring the adult world together through the world of horses, and the third, “Monkey” is about a young man whose friend withdraws from life and starts behaving like a monkey, an unsettling experience that forces him to evaluate his own life and values. These three narratives are spare and swift and compelling and the influence of American masters like Hemingway has been noted by critics.


Pietro very kindly agreed to be interviewed by email in English by the Bibliophilic Blogger.



B.B: It seemed to me that this was a very masculine book in the sense that women hardly feature in the first two stories and when they do assume a larger role in the third story the male characters are not entirely at their ease with them. Nor are they free from some rather old-fashioned macho ideas – assuming a woman's difficult behaviour in one case proceeds from premature menopause, for example. And there's that rather shocking sentence about a woman film agent:"She was one those overweight women with their wombs full of cement who at some point in their lives have decided that a good business deal is better than sleeping with a man." [p121] Was this deliberate,? It is clear that each of the three stories is in some sense an exploration of the male rite of passage but were you also trying to conduct an implicit critique of masculinity?


PG: My grandparents, on my mother's side, gave life to a 65 person family, still increasing. Most of them are females. I just think that in my book I was trying to forget women. Joking apart, I found out along the way that my stories have a deep connection with my dreams, more than with my life. In this sense I am sure that the main characters of Fists are all people that somehow or another I dreamt of being. I would have loved to live their experiences, have their guts or their will or their talent or their madness. And yes, also the opportunity to simply live their changes as young men, with all its power and its loneliness. An older Italian author once, presenting me and my book at a festival, said that he loved “Boxing” so much because he thought it was mainly a duel story and that in duels – when it's a duel between men – women have to be

left aside. I remember smiling when he said this. Anyway, to be honest, I don't know: most of my stories come out in their own way and once they are written I just can sit there and read them like anyone else. Then think about what I read and decide if keep it as it is or not. Women weren't there that much and I guess I simply didn't miss them.



B.B: You have expressed your imagination for Salinger and Hemingway and Italian critics seem to have concentrated on the influence on your writing of various other American authors, but what of European authors? Which do you admire? And which Italian authors?


P.G: When you start talking about literature it is always difficult – if not impossible – to compress in a bunch of seconds or a bunch of words all the books and the authors you loved and who influenced you and your life and your writing. This is why next to my name always popped out American authors: because, at least for the moment, if I have to highlight the literature that mostly influenced me it is definitely 20th century North American literature. Having said that, there are endless European authors that made the man and the author I am: Tolstoy, Dumas, Svevo, Pirandello, Conrad, Austen, Shakespeare, Dante, Hesse... The list is so long that I really wouldn't know where to start from, and to be honest the greatness of these authors is so huge that to me talking about them is very difficult: it would be like a sailor trying to explain the importance of wind.



B.B: You are evidently attracted to the shorter novella form. Is this more congenial to you? Are you tempted by the idea of a longer novel?



P.G.: Yes, apparently for the moment novellas are a lot more congenial to me. Which wouldn't be a big problem if I was one of those people who love to sit on what they are good at. Sadly I am not that kind of person, so I keep on trying to write longer and more complex stories, which intrigue me a lot more but for the moment don't come out as smooth. The book I published after Fists is actually a longer story (not really a novel by my point of view) and among other things I am working now on a book that could probably be the closest thing to a novel I ever wrote.



B.B: Stylistically you prefer a relatively spare, unadorned style. Is this simply a matter of personally feeling more comfortable with that way of writing or are you reacting in any sense against prevailing styles in contemporary Italian fiction?



P.G. I think I am just reacting against what is going on inside my own head. As a kid I was very presumptuous and thought that I had some very good ideas about the world and all its matters. Than I realized that my ideas weren't that bright, they were just complicated. So I tried to write without thinking and things came out much smoother: everything was very simple and the world appeared like a pretty nice place. I thought I could live with that for a while.



B.B: The translation of your book by Howard Curtis reads very well and is very pacy. Do you have any apprehensions about being translated? Do you fear that something can be lost in the process?



P.G: No, not really. I don't want to sound immodest but I don't feel any apprehension about being translated. I have translated some books myself and I know that something is always lost. Something else, on the other side, is found. I just think that translated books are somehow different animals and have to be read in a different way: they will probably find different kinds of readers and give slightly different emotions. This anyway happens to every reader: the story is somehow told to me by the narrator, I put it on paper the best I can, then I start reading it and I discover a lot of surprising things I had no idea about; then somebody publishes it and thousands of other people read it and find thousands of other surprising things. I guess this is just the whole big magic about literature.



B.B: What are you working on now?



P.G: I am as always working on different things. I write my first draft by hand and without thinking about anything, then some time or another I have to bring the story to the computer and start thinking about it. So it ends up I am always working on two or three different things, at different stages. Lately I am mostly working on the book I was previously talking about, my probable next novel. If it will keep the way it is it will be pretty different from the way I have been working till now, so I am very excited and very anxious. Anxiety pills work very well.



B.B: In the UK, notoriously, fewer European authors are translated than in any other European country, and in Italy there is probably more curiosity about foreign writers. Which contemporary British writers interest you?



P.G: At the top of my list I have to put Nick Hornby, especially High Fidelity. I have no idea how he is seen in the UK but I definitely would have never written the way I write if I hadn't read the book four or five times. Its wit and its simple style struck me at the time. Then probably, out of all, the two authors I find most interesting are Zadie Smith and Martin Amis. The latter's The Information is probably one of the most important European books of the past twenty years, at least for an author.


B.B: Thank you Pietro, and thanks to Pushkin Press.


For details of the Virtual Blog Tour see:


August
Wednesday 19th Alma Books Bloggerel
http://www.bloggerel.com
Thursday 20th Bibliophilic Blogger
http://bibliophilicblogger.blogspot.com
Friday 21st Nihoni Distractions
http://nihondistractions.blogspot.com
Monday 24th The Truth About Lies
http://jimmurdoch.blogspot.com
Tuesday 25th Pursewarden
http://pursewardenblog.blogspot.com
Wednesday 26th The View From Here
http://www.viewfromheremagazine.com
Thursday 27th Bookmunch
http://bookmunch.wordpress.com
Friday 28th Notes in theMargin
http://christopherschuler.independentminds.livejournal.com
September
Thursday 3rd Lizzy’s Literary Life
http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com








Thursday, 6 August 2009

I Remember, I remember

Remember the 1980s? Remember feminism? Remember 'gender-specific language'?

Clearly they don't in the Ask restaurant chain.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

An Instant Poem

From my desk at the British Library:

A Wish


Outside the Library in Euston Road

a girl is running in a shower of rain;

on the taut canopy of her umbrella

the multi-coloured letters spell:

PLEASE RAIN ON ME.

In the long dampness of an English summer,

may her wish be granted.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Blogging and the Real World

I see that the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has attacked young Facebook users for letting the site cripple their social skills and stop them forming meaningful relationships. I can see a glimmer of truth in this and I know that many thoughtful people (eg Susan Greenfield) are worried about the impact of computers and internet use on our brains and personalities and much else. But the debate always seems to polarise between Luddites and Panglossian geeks, the latter regarding any reservation about internet use as a kind of blasphemy or letting the side down. I simply don't know but I am struck by the high proportion of my literary friends who are active users and bloggers.

Vincent Nichols is famous in my family for having stopped my three-year-old self in a Liverpool street when a nut fell off my yellow tricycle and effected an emergency repair. It is thus hard for me to criticise him, but another schoolfriend who lived next door to him when they were kids tells me that he thinks Nichols will be the next English Pope. If ambition were all that were required I am sure it's in the bag.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire Pastoral by Peter J Conradi

Today's Independent has a review by me of Peter J Conradi's At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire Pastoral published by Seren Books at £9.99. This is an excellent book about the Welsh Marches. Inevitably, reviews are cut down, even given the tiny word allocation of contemporary newspapers so here's my original version:-

At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire Pastoral

by Peter J Conradi

Seren, £9.99. 240pp


The last dragon in Wales sleeps in the Radnor Forest – a seven mile long upland area of East Wales that most Independent readers would understandably be unable to pinpoint on a map. The creature will not wake so long as he remains ringed by the multiple churches of the dragon-slayer, St Michael (Llanfihangel). In the lee of one such church, at the end of a two and a half mile hedged cul de sac, and itself ringed by 1000-year-old yews in a circular churchyard (the devil enters at corners) lives Peter J Conradi, a mild-mannered Prospero summoning up the benign spirits of Radnorshire past: writers, poets, historians, anchorites and mystics.


Conradi is alive to the magical and other-worldly dimension of the hauntingly beautiful Welsh March – the Elizabethan magician, Simon Dee may have been born here – but this is not a flaky or New Age treatise – and he acknowledges the mixed benefits of the incomer invasions which somehow have never swamped the locals, whose characteristic speech patterns, weathered obliquity, and gift for slow living he captures well. He is also keen to refute the idea that this is some sort of anglicised margin rather than, as he contends, a central repository of the true spirit of Welshness since the 12th century. He presents in sequence writers like Gerald of Wales, a suitably mongrel Welsh/Norman border figure, the poets Herbert, Traherne, Vaughan who sought and found “the Paradise within” in this numinous landscape, the attractive figure of the Reverend Francis Kilvert whose humane curiosity and kindness appeal to him and who provokes one of his rare personal lyric flights. There is Chatwin of course, and a contemporary trio of poets, R.S.Thomas, Roland Matthias, and Ruth Bidgood who have celebrated what Conradi calls 'the March', an area he has known for 40 years. Wales “has absorbed many English enthusiasts for its scenery and history: it can in me find room for one more”.


Generally, Conradi doesn't thrust himself on the reader, and writes a thoughtful and non-judgemental prose even when dealing with what have been highly contentious matters of Welsh politics and cultural identity. He judges (in a gentle slight to the more famous Thomas) R.S. Thomas (who supplies the book's title) to be the greatest 20th century Welsh poet writing in English but is unillusioned about what he calls tactfully, Thomas's “human frailties”. He is glad to quote Bidgood's declaration that she did not come to this area to escape the world: “This is the world.”


Conradi has written the perfect primer to this quiet stretch of Wales and Simon Dorrell's exquisite pen and ink miniatures complete what must be the best introduction to this area ever written.


Nicholas Murray's Bruce Chatwin (1993) is to be re-issued later this year.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Can Anyone Save Publishers from Themselves?

Contemplating (above) the fresh honeysuckle in my Radnorshire garden I try to hold on to some sanity in a world where publishing seems intent on a course of wild self-destruction. In today's Independent a two-page spread with a silly heading: "Two Weeks to Save Britain's Book Trade" attempts to say what is wrong with the business [meaning: the big hitters like Coetzee will all be published in our equivalent of the French rentrée littéraire in September in a two week period hoping to stem the losses so far this year being incurred by publishers]. Conventional wisdom says that publishing always rides the recession but this time it isn't happening and sales have slumped. Publishers are sacking their staff, advances are crashing down and things, as this blog has been saying for some time, are looking very grim indeed. Even Richard and Judy seem to have retired from the fray. In this article, however, one ray of light shines out. Someone actually enunciates a simple but incontrovertible truth about how we got into the mess that is contemporary British publishing. Step forward Jonny Geller, managing director of the books division of the Curtis Brown literary agency who tells it like it is: "Publishing has become quite reactive. It is sales-led. We need publishers to start taking risks again." He is saying that publishers should become publishers again. Give that man a gong.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Tsvetaeva in Pimlico: Russian Poetry at the Tate

To Tate Britain for the launch of the newly revised and expanded edition of Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva translated by Elaine Feinstein. This was a very swanky venue at the Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain so I assume some Russian cultural foundation or other was footing the bill for a small poetry press (Michael Schmidt, the boss of Carcanet had to double up, in more traditional small press style, as his own photographer for the evening). Lots of poets and writers turned up, including Ruth Padel, no doubt relieved to have the Oxford Professor of Poetry debacle put behind her, Dannie Abse, Michèle Roberts, Ruth Fainlight, Peter Robinson, Anthony Rudolf and others.

It was good to be reminded again how good, how powerful and moving this great 20th Century Russian poet is:-

In a world

In a world where most people
are hunched and sweaty
I know only one person
equal to me in strength.

In a world where there is
so much to want
I know only one person
equal to me in power.

In a world where mould
and ivy cover everything
I know only one person – you –
who equals me in spirit.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Some Heatwave Recommendations

It must be the heat – over 30 degrees today in London – that is slowing down the blogbrain but I seem to be writing less here these days. Here, however, are two recommendations following people kindly sending me copies of their publications. The first is the latest issue of The Reader. This is a very nicely produced magazine with an odd title and the issue I have been sent has articles on Milton (see right), poems, fiction extracts, celebrity columns (Ian McMillan etc) and reviews. And what's more it originates from my old university Department of English at Liverpool.

The second item, also with a Liverpool connection, is the latest poetry book from Donut Press (run by a very good poet, Julia Bird) and it is called Field Recordings: BBC Poems (1998-2008) by Liverpool poet Paul Farley. Donut editions are beautifully produced and the poems are good (including the first poem I have ever read on the subject of 'blind scouse' ) so get along there pronto.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

New Music at the War Museum

To the Imperial War Museum last night for a fine concert of newly commissioned pieces for strings played exquisitely by the Solaris Quartet. The Museum decided to launch a Young Composer Competition with the commission to write a piece prompted by the current "In Memoriam" exhibition at the Museum until September.

The winner was Ben Cox for his piece with that name. Four other young composers (Richard Norris, Robert Peate and Edward Nesbitt and Duncan Ward) had their shortlisted pieces played and I particularly liked Ward's, "Eugene Cruft's Radio" which was clever and original.

Three things struck me about these five composers: they looked very young indeed, they were very good, and they were all male. How many young women entered I wonder?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Marbles and the Cultural Elite

I have been a very dilatory blogger recently (reading too many damned books) but I am forced to write today having read a piece by Stephen Moss in this morning's Guardian about the Parthenon/Elgin marbles. A spokesperson for the British Museum is quoted and one can hear the fluting tone in this spectacularly arrogant piece of nonsense: "In Greece the sculptures can be viewed as part of the history of Athens and the Acropolis; here, they can be seen as part of a world history." Where does one begin to respond to such clottish impertinence?

Perhaps by contemplating quietly the island of Sifnos in the sun last week (see above) where, just as Lord Elgin wrenched off a caryatid from the Parthenon and hoiked it back to his Scottish mansion, breaking it in the process, a citizen of Kastro, the twisting medieval town on the promontory shown here, long ago borrowed a classical pillar to support their balcony in the main street. Yes, it should have been in the little archaeological museum but it looked nice in the sun where it originally sat.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Rupert Brooke And Other Matters

A blogless two weeks comes to an end as I return from 13 days drifting lazily through the Greek islands. I started at Skyros where Rupert Brooke ("some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England") is buried in a solid marble tomb set in a local olive grove some distance from the shore but well known to the local (highly-priced) taxi drivers like Manolis who paces up and down having a fag while we pay our homage.  Brooke's heroic patriotic stuff was written in the first phase of the Great War when this was what was wanted from the poets pre-Somme but actually he did not die like some Arthurian knight in the lust of battle (yes, my holiday reading included Malory's Morte d'Arthur) but from blood-poisoning from an insect bite on 23rd April 1915 the night before his fellow sailors left the island for the Dardanelles and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.  The bronze statue seen here of an "ideal poet" absurdly romanticises Brooke and it was interesting to discover that when it was unveiled in 1931 some of the locals were unhappy about its anatomical specificity.

A Note on Twitter
I have dabbled in Twitter but returning to a thicket of tweets and chirps I realise that this is something I can no longer sustain if my brain is to be kept in one piece so I am retiring from the battlefield.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Other Bloomsbury or H.D. in the Square

The Imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) was also a novelist and I have just finished her roman à clef entitled Bid Me to Live, not published until 1960 but probably drafted in the late 1920s around the time her former husband, Richard Aldington, was writing his powerful and acerbic war novel, Death of a Hero (1929).  Set in Bloomsbury in 1917-18, H.D.'s novel is a more subtle work of art and has the finely crafted patterning of a poem as it tries to capture the fragile mood of poets and painters and musicians in wartime London in Queen's Square (confusingly this is what she calls Mecklenburgh Square where she lived with Aldington while he was a soldier as there is also a Queen Square nearby).  Thinly disguised pictures of these two plus Dorothy Yorke, D.H. and Frieda Lawrence ("Rico"), the composer Cecil Gray and Ezra Pound fill out a story of what used to be called 'free love' and higher Bohemian behaviour a little apart from the Big Guns of posh Bloomsbury not far away.

H.D.'s very fine novel has a passage where the authorial persona describes her work on a poetic chorus-sequence: "It would take forever to get what she wanted, to hew and chisel those lines, to maintain or suggest some cold artistry."  The 'cold artistry' of this novel is a subtle and precise instrument.  

The book also reminds one what a great thing those Virago Modern Classics were, putting out work like this with an intelligent introduction by Helen McNeil and a fascinating afterword by H.D.'s daughter, Perdita Schaffner.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

'I Am Just A Writer': Tahar Ben Jelloun in London

To the Institut Francais in London to hear the Moroccan novelist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, being interviewed by The Independent's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin about his latest novel to be translated (in French he's two books ahead of us).  There were some jokes about the Englishing of Partir as Leaving Tangier – the Anglo-Saxons generally needing things to be laid on with a trowel (in this case through the name-check of a tourist destination) rather than putting up with the spare toughness of Partir.  It's a novel about emigration set in the mid 1990s and couldn't be more relevant to these displaced, people-trafficked times. Tahar Ben Jelloun wryly observed that Moroccans wistfully stared at the lights of Spain, 14 kilometres away across the sea but he doubted that anyone from Spain gazed longingly in the other direction.  The leading character of the novel, Azel, is a young Moroccan who sells his soul and body to get to Spain, away from a country that seems to offer him nothing.  The author is unsparing in his candour about the shortcomings of Morocco in general and the Moroccan male in particular (he thinks it is the women who are its salvation) but admitted he had been criticised for "revealing" (he used the French verb dévoiler which has a nice extra nuance) too much in that regard but the European reader will learn a lot from this book.  He also said that Europeans anxious about population movements in their direction might consider investing in Morocco so that people didn't have to leave. Tonkin asked if James Joyce had been a model as a writer and Tahar Ben Jelloun said that although when he was in prison and banned from reading and had asked his brother to smuggle in the fattest paperback he could find (which turned out to be a Livres de Poche translation of Ulysses) he felt Joyce was from a different world.  At question time he was asked whether he saw himself as a Moroccan who happened to write in French and therefore part of "post-colonial literature" or a French writer.  He smiled his charming smile and broke into English for the first time, giving his translator a rest: "I am just a writer".
Leaving Tangier is published by Arcadia Books at £7.99

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Exercises in Style: Raymond Queneau

Reading John Calder's obituary of the translator Barbara Wright in today's Guardian co-incided with the arrival in the post of a review copy from One World Classics of her translation of Raymond Queneau's Exercises de style (1947) which she translated first in 1958 and then re-issued in 1979 for John Calder but which is re-issued once more in a revised translation by One World at £7.99.  In his obituary Calder describes Exercises in Style as "the banal story of a minor incident on a bus, told in 99 different ways".  Queneau's madcap inventiveness must have created many headaches for the translator but Calder continues: "The author encouraged her invention of new English equivalents for those chapters that were too embedded in idiomatic French to be transcribed. A working relationship was established and she went on to translate many of Queneau's works."  Wright's Cockney version of the story (one of the 99) is a tour de force and very funny.  Highly recommended – as is One World's blog.  One World have acquired John Calder's backlist and therefore there are lots of pleasures to come.

People like me who issue regular lamentations about the dumbing-down of British publishing have to admit that in the field of literary classics there are some very exciting developments like One World and Hesperus and many other smaller imprints doing their bit for real literature in attractive editions.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Leaving Tangier: Tahar Ben Jelloun in London

The Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun will be in London next week at the Institut Francais talking with Independent Books Editor, Boyd Tonkin, about his latest book to be translated into English by Linda Coverdale, Leaving Tangier. I look forward to reading this new book from the excellent Arcadia books and have been preparing myself by finishing his searing and brilliant earlier novel This Blinding Absence of Light/Cette aveuglante absence de lumière (2001) which was also translated by Linda Coverdale.  More next week after the event on Friday 15th May at the Institut Francais (tickets £5).

Friday, 1 May 2009

Off with Their Heads or Advice to the New Poet Laureate

It's good news that Carol Ann Duffy is to be announced today as the new Poet Laureate, not because she ticks all sorts of boxes, but because she is a real poet.  The papers have been full of praise for Andrew Motion's distinguished ambassadorship for poetry during his stint (no one talks much about the poems) and he seems to have done exemplary service on boring committees, going on the stump, pressing the flesh etc., etc.  I know nothing about Carol Ann Duffy except her poetry which I have been reading since her Anvil days but I suspect she might be a little less the efficient bureaucrat and more the poet at large and I hope for a little discreet subversion.  Poets shouldn't be on message.

But most of all let us have no more bad poems on Royal occasions. Let us think of the Poet Laureate as a national poet, writing, if the spirit moves her, about important national themes.  There's nothing wrong with 'occasional verse' – any poet worth her salt should have the craft to handle that  – but there is no reason why even royalists (of whom I am not one) should expect a national poet to write silly poems about Windsor weddings.  Public and political poetry (think of Marvell's "Horatian Ode", for example) is an important and major genre.  I would like to see some more of it.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

London's Second Hand Bookshops: No 2

Continuing my occasional series about the vanishing species of second hand bookshops, this is the Marchmont Bookshop at 39 Burton Street London WC1 (0207 387 7989.) It's the nearest to the British Library (if you discount the remainder shops) and is tucked away behind Cartwright Gardens.  Those trays you can see outside often turn up literary gems.  Just now I was tempted by the first Penguin edition of William Golding's Pincher Martin at £2.50 until I remembered I already had a copy.  Inside, the emphasis is mostly literary with a remarkable selection of 20th century poetry.  This shop seemed to go very quiet a couple of years ago and I thought it was defunct but it is now trading regularly again and well worth a poke about.  And it has the best wisteria of any bookshop in town.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Wales Book of the Year 2009

It may not have much visibility in the literary blogosphere but Wales palpably exists and today the longlist for the Wales Book of the Year is announced.  Ten books in English and the same in Welsh were announced and a record five in the English language section are volumes of poetry. I have to admit that I have so far read only one of them, Matthew Francis's fine poetry sequence Mandeville about the fourteenth century traveller but the list looks interesting and substantial. It will be whittled down to a short list of three titles in each language, to be announced at a special event at the Hay Festival on 25th May (these guys certainly know how to delay a climax) and then the final Wales Book of the Year winner will be announced in a glitzy ceremony at a swanky Cardiff hotel on 15th June.

As a past judge of the Book of the Year I know that this award has a solid track record and the judging takes place in a hype-free atmosphere so it's worth looking out for the winner.  That said, there has been a debate in Wales, in which I have taken part, about the need for literary prizes and about the impact they have on serious writing.  Not to mention the edgy boosterism involved in the increasingly high profile of these awards ceremonies.  I have always liked the Prix Goncourt, one of France's most prestigious prizes, which is simply announced discreetly without any black tie and flashbulb.

When I was a judge a few years ago, I was sitting on the stage at Hay with Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan (who was actually presenting the prizes) just about to say a few words on behalf of the judges.  In those days the event was there to announce the winner rather than just the shortlist. Rhodri leaned across to me and asked in a confidential whisper: "Is there an envelope?"  There wasn't on the day, though there is a cash prize for the winners.

One minor cavil.  One of the shortlisted poets, Samantha Wynne Rhydderch, has her book described as a "debut collection for Picador". Actually she is an established young Welsh poet with at least one if not two earlier collections behind her so this is not a "debut".  This smacks of what the Australians call the "cultural cringe", seeking metropolitan approval by treating publication by a fashionable London imprint as some kind of initiation.  Wales has its own vibrant publishing and writing scene and doesn't need that sort of curtsey to the metropolitan establishment.


Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Beckett: Interim Thoughts on the Letters

One of the unexpected pleasures of 2009 has been the appearance of the first volume of Samuel Beckett's letters covering the period 1929-1940 when he was at work on what became More Pricks than Kicks and A Dream of Fair to Middling Women and the early poems. Normally I would wait until I had finished a book before committing myself to any opinion but I am reading this one in phases, trying to prolong the pleasure.    It is true that there is a bit of showing-off in these letters, especially the ones to his friend Thomas McGreevy, but isn't that the prerogative of brilliant young men aged 24 drunk on words and the discovery of literature?Beckett is wonderfully caustic on his contemporaries but he worries about the influence of Joyce.  His work, he says at one point "stinks of Joyce" and he wants to exude "my own odour".  I don't agree and I think the stories such as "Dante and the Lobster" written at this time are unmistakably his. 

What is fascinating so far is the record of his struggle to make his mark and get launched as a writer.  In particular his arrival in Bloomsbury in the sweltering heatwave of August 1932 to do the rounds of the literary editors, including a trek round to the Hogarth Press in Tavistock Square.  Leonard Woolf was away in the country escaping the 92 degrees in the shade temperatures but SB was informed that his stuff would be sent on to Woolf.  He doubted, reasonably, that this would actually happen.  Overall the humiliation ("This month of creeping and crawling and sollicitation has yielded nothing but glib Cockney regrets") made him feel like "a slug-ridden cabbage".  Some things don't change.  What he didn't know was Chatto's reader's verdict on his Dream, the reader being Edward Garnett: "I wouldn't touch this with a barge pole.  Beckett probably is a clever fellow, but here he has elaborated a slavish, & rather incoherent imitation of Joyce, most eccentric in language & full of disgustingly affected passages – also indecent; this school is damned – & you wouldn't sell the book even on its title. Chatto was right to turn it down."  The editorial apparatus gives us this quote and much more and I think it is well done (in spite of the restriction of the Estate on publishing any letter that doesn't have a direct bearing on his work, a distinction that is beyond me). We may get excessive detail like Virginia Woolf's date of birth and maiden name when all we want to know is that Leonard Woolf had been approached but better too much than too little and most of the annotation is vitally important to illuminate obscurities of reference to people and French slang we mightn't be familiar with.

More fun ahead...

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

William Gerhardie: the Pleasures of Accidental Discovery

When you are reaching the end of a long period of research on a book with masses of highly-targeted reading, it's one of life's great pleasures to discover when you were least expecting it, something absolutely new and unexpected and gratuitous. 

Rummaging outside a bookshop recently (one shortly to feature in my series of blogs about bookshops) I found one of those little green Penguin Modern Classics of the 1970s, William Gerhardie's Futility.  This book was first published in 1922 and the author was born in Russia of English parents which gives it the special flavour of a Russian novel.  Although he advertises at the beginning that: "The 'I' of this book is not me", the story clearly draws on his own experience.  Set around the time of the Russian Revolution it is both comic in its delineation of a vast extended family of hangers-on and spongers, dependent on Nikolai Vasilievich and the vaporous promise of his gold mines, and sad in its expression of the failure of the young narrator to win the beautiful and skittish Nina, middle of three sisters. Everyone waits for something to happen and nothing does and the humour is gentle and subtle, the mood bitter-sweet and the writing original and exact.  A very pleasant discovery.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

London's Second Hand Book Shops: No 1

Although websites like Abe Books have transformed the way in which we track down out of print books (you can find virtually anything without leaving home) some of us still get pleasure out of browsing and making unexpected discoveries in real bookshops.  In Central London there are still some interesting and quirky shops, though they are gradually disappearing.  In the first of an occasional series I want to start with one of my favourites, Walden Books, in Camden. Not quite "Central London" but easily accessible by a 168 bus from Bloomsbury to Chalk Farm, Walden Books in Harmood Street has a profusion of quality books for the literary forager.  It has a fantastic collection of Penguins classic and modern, and lots of literary criticism, poetry, and biography, and is just the place to go for a cheap reading edition of your favourite Tolstoy or Graham Greene or less well known 20th century writers in English or in translation.  The only downside is that, as you can see, a lot of the stock is kept outside and shows the effect of the weather sometimes, but it has a proprietor who understands the insides of his books and everything is reasonably priced.  Long may it survive, but remember it's only open Thursday to Sunday.
Walden Books, 38 Harmood Street, London NW1 8DP. 
Email: walden_books@tiscali.co.uk. 
Web: ukbookworld.com/members/waldenbooks.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Sweetness and Light:Matthew Arnold In Japan

Thirteen years after its first UK publication, my biography of Matthew Arnold has just appeared in Japanese which raises the interesting question of how he is seen in Japan today. Perhaps someone will let me know.  Often seen in Britain in caricature as an "élitist" who defined culture as "the best that has been thought and said in the world", Arnold in fact remains an interesting and relevant thinker.  If his detractors just read his two essays, "Democracy" and "Equality" they would see an utterly different Arnold from the bewhiskered "elegant Jeremiah" attacked by one of his contemporaries.  And his belief that inequality damages everyone not just the disadvantaged is the theme, if I am not mistaken, of a much-praised book on equality published this month.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Michael Holroyd on the (Non-) Selling of Books

The grand old man of English literary biography, Michael Holroyd, was holding forth in The Guardian at the weekend on the collapse of literary biography as a result of publishers and booksellers giving up on it.  The word 'literary', he said, "is death to sales – and perhaps literary biography is worst of all".   He concluded – and who can contradict this: "Publishers seem to outsiders to be paralysed by caution in these difficult times, asking themselves what sold last year and hoping to reproduce it. How often have I heard them say: "this book did not sell". I have never heard them say: "we did not sell this book"."  To which I would add that phrases like "no one wants to buy a long Russian novel about a woman who ends up throwing herself in front of a train" become self-fulfilling prophecies.  If a publisher says that no one wants to buy X then that is exactly what will happen.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Public Language or Jargon Must Go

The Local Government Association has announced a list of 200 forbidden words that must go if councils are to communicate effectively with the public.  Quite how this ban will be implemented they don't say but anything that consigns the nasty, dishonest and duplicitous 'stakeholder' to oblivion will be worth any punishment they can devise.  But the BBC report on this mentions 'taxonomy' as one of the 'horrors' that must go.  With all due respect to the Plain English activists I don't find this horrific.  It's actually quite a useful word for 'classification' which has every right to exist.  I am all for plain speaking, lucidity, and clarity but let's not use it as an excuse to jettison perfectly valid words that enrich the language and give us more range of expression.
Good communication doesn't depend on using babyish words and 'exotic' vocabulary is one of the joys of life.

There is a sniff of puritanism here which I don't like.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Huxley and the Bookmen

I have just posted the following on The Observer website after Robert McCrum called there for a biography of Huxley – none, he said, having appeared since Sybille Bedford's in 1973/74.  Further words fail me.  I don't like, as it were, blowing my own trumpet but it is important to set the record straight.

I am astonished at Robert McCrum's comments. Does he not know that his own paper reviewed my major new biography of Huxley, "Aldous Huxley: an English Intellectual" in 2002, the first for 30 years, incorporating much hitherto unrevealed material? It was described by Roy Jenkins as "the best literary biography I have ever encountered" and is described in the DNB and the Oxford History of English Literature as the standard biography of Huxley and there are still plenty of copies of the paperback today in Foyle's. It also won the approval of Sybille Bedford herself. Has no one on The Observer heard of Google?

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

More Thoughts on the Novel

"The novel tells a story, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story."  From memory that is what EM Forster wrote in his treatise Aspects of the Novel.  I suppose he meant that what we want from a good novel is something more than just an efficient narrative.  A book is about more than its plot. Ideally, one might object, why can't we have both – and in the best novels that is what we get, a compelling narrative and all manner of additional richness.  When my 'novel' A Short Book About Love was published in 2001 several people said to me "It's not a novel" and they were right.  But what does one call imaginative prose fiction that makes up its own rules?  Borges' ficcion is not a bad one.  We know we oughtn't to be fixated on genre and its rules but we are nonetheless.

Reading for the first time Richard Aldington's pugnacious and racy 1929 novel Death of a Hero I found his prefatory remarks to echo the theme of the criticism of Malcolm Lowry in the last post of mine.  He writes: "This book is not the work of a professional novelist. It is, apparently, not a novel at all. Certain conventions of form and method in the novel have been erected, I gather, into immutable laws, and are looked upon with quite superstitious reverence. They are entirely disregarded here. To me the excuse for the novel is that one can do any damned thing one pleases...I am all for disregarding artistic rules of thumb. I dislike standardized art as much as standardized life...I knew what I wanted to say, and said it."

He certainly did!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Thinking About Malcolm Lowry

This year is the centenary of the birth of the writer Malcolm Lowry, one of a host of Liverpool (well, New Brighton if you are a pedantic Scouser) writers who featured in my book about the city last year So Spirited A Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool. In the book I relate the well-known story of Lowry's going away to sea at the age of 17 and being delivered to the Liverpool dock in his father's Rolls Royce.  Lowry senior was a wealthy Liverpool cotton-broker who paid his reprobate son an allowance all his life so that he never had to put up with that tiresome inconvenience that hampers the rest of us scribblers, a proper job.  According to Lowry's brothers this Roller was one of his tall tales – he liked nothing better to play the role of an old sea dog even though this was his sole professional voyage – and in fact it was a more humble vehicle that pulled up at the dock gates.

I have been commissioned to contribute a chapter to a new book of centenary essays on Lowry edited by Bryan Biggs and published by Liverpool University Press (more on this later in the year) and so I have been gathering my thoughts. Arthur Calder-Marshall who knew him once wrote:  "He was incapable of inventing anything. He couldn't take a character and/or a situation and elaborate it into a story...I think Lowry's deficiencies as a novelist were precisely the same as his virtues as a writer. I think he hadn't got any of the equipment that the ordinary secondary novelist has. I think telling a simple story, handling a situation, handling time – they provided problems for him which were absolutely insoluble unless he invented this peculiar form that he did..."   Discuss, as they used to say on exam papers.

Actually, reading even some of Lowry's lesser known prose pieces in Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (the words of an old Manx fisherman's hymn) one feels this is nonsense. Yes, he endlessly re-cycled and re-worked his own experiences, rather than making up fresh plots, but his prose is capacious, beautifully descriptive, rich.  Who needs the whodunnit element when one can have writing like this?  There is something haunting and compelling in particular about his writing from British Columbia where he and his wife lived on the beach in a squatter's shack from 1940 to 1954 in a threatened Eden.  As Aldous Huxley once remarked, there are no rules for the novel, it only has to be interesting.