"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

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Telling the Truth Must Stop!

First the Wikileaks, telling us mostly what we already knew or what was utterly plausible and now Lib Dem politicians speaking the unvarnished truth that everyone also knows: Murdoch must be resisted in his bid for global media power, Osborne is a fatuous and out of touch toff, politicians in a coalition disagree with each other about one or two things,  etc etc.  Behind the synthetic outrage of the Daily Telegraph lies an assumption that politicians are not meant to be frank and truthful but to put up a deceitful show.

Prepare for shock revelations on Christmas Eve that snow on one's boots melts when they are put in front of the fire.

Joyeux Nöel, comrades.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

No Books of the Year?

Once again the "Books of the Year" features are upon us and soon we will have the "Books to Come in 2011" on their heels.  I did my best and supplied my choices for the P.E.N. newsletter but, in truth, once again I spent more time this year in the company of the illustrious dead than with the dazzling talents of the books pages.  Perhaps next year will be different...

Meanwhile I am about to disappear into the snowy hills of Wales.  So adieu and Season's Greetings to one and all.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Real Bloomsbury

This week sees the publication of my latest book, Real Bloomsbury, from Seren Books.  It's the newest in a series edited by Peter Finch that began in Wales with his pioneering Real Cardiff and the idea is that writers respond to a place in a very personal or offbeat way.  It was great fun to research and write and I hope you will enjoy it.  The Bloomsbury Group (Virginia et al.) obviously figure though I try to stop them hogging the stage and there's plenty of other interest, associations, present day diversions to fill a book even without them.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Andrew Marvell: Can I See Your Pass?

I have, so far, read only the preface to Nigel Smith's new biography of Andrew Marvell but, if it is anything like his splendid annotated edition of the poems, it is going to be a treat.  But there is an odd passage in that preface in which he looks coldly at the last published biography, er, mine: World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell (1999).  Smith is alarmed that this book was written by a professional literary biographer who had completed lives of Matthew Arnold, Aldous Huxley etc etc.  He says, in fact, that I make Marvell "sound like a modern man of letters" and asserts that I am "no early modern scholar".  As regards that last point I agree, and would point out in passing also that there is an accumulating body of evidence, increasingly difficult to ignore, that points inescapably to the Pope being a Catholic.  As regards the former, whilst I am as critical as the next person of silly or coy anachronisms in writing about the past, to consider what Marvell as a poet means to a present day readership, a lyric poet who was also a politician, juggling two vocations, seems to me to be a wholly legitimate thing to do. And to seek for points of contact between a writer of the past and writers who may be engaged in similar searches today is, I submit, perfectly proper. I was writing a life of a poet.  Reading the reviews of the new biography (which seem to indicate that in its outline Smith's Marvell is very similar to mine, notwithstanding the greater scholarly ambition and accomplishment of his book) which had mostly been given to specialist "early modern" historians, I began to notice a second form of condescension from this tight little trade guild.  Smith himself was effectively patronised in the Independent and London Review of Books for being a mere literary scholar.  And this is the nub.  The historians see Marvell as their property and resent the fact that literary scholars (not to mention poets) have had the temerity to take possession of him.  It rankles with them that the early 20th Century "New Critics", with their downgrading not just of biographical chatter but, arguably, historical context, in order to focus on "the words on the page", on the work of art pre-eminently as a text in which to search for aesthetic meanings (I oversimplify of course), sidelined historicism.  Marvell was the property of historians after his death and throughout most of the 18th century.  His rediscovery as a poet came later, sealed by the approval of T S Eliot.  The battle continues and will run and run.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Chatwin Under the Sun

The publication of Bruce Chatwin's letters, Under the Sun, edited by his wife Elizabeth Chatwin and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, has led to the usual assertions about (a) his being the most wonderful, magical being that ever wrote in the late 20th century or (b) his being a precious pain in the neck.  The letters, which are well-edited, giving helpful linking passages and crisply informative (and often, in Elizabeth's case, sharply funny) footnotes, build up to a picture of Chatwin, that once again emphasises his originality and interest.  Yes, he can seem precious, especially when talking about his art collection, his writing materials, even his rucksack (hand made to his instructions by a Cirencester saddler) but people sometimes forget that his first job after leaving school was to work for the auction house Sotheby's where his job involved writing copious and detailed descriptions of rare and beautiful objects.  You and I can get away with saying "that green marble thingummy" but Chatwin was trained to do the exact opposite of this vague approximation and was at home with dates, attributions, provenance, materials etc.

It is possible to quote some rather absurd passages, but usually Elizabeth has got there first with a  wryly deflating footnote.  And there are some unexpected moments, such as his discomfort at emerging as "a writer" in the 1980s, a role, relished by his friend Salman Rushdie, but one that he hated.  He didn't want to be lionised, televised, invited to review books and so forth.  He just wanted to disappear and write his next book.  There are contradictions of course.  He was televised. He did court the rich and famous and his friends always seemed to have been utterly exceptional in his estimation, the dull and the pedestrian members of the population never seemingly coming to his attention.  But one day he had a group of writers around to lunch at his Oxfordshire home and found their noisy, shrill posturing unbearable: "a lot of egos sounding off, but we were able to open the windows so all the talk blew out over the sheep..."

And I can forgive him everything for writing: "With so many 'cooked-up' books knocking around, I don't really believe in writing unless one has to."

Monday, 8 November 2010

Houellebecq: I Was Wrong

Well, he did win the Goncourt and, unlike the Man Booker where the right people so often win with the wrong book here is a case where the right book of the author has won.  That's enough prize-babble - ED.

Echenoz Completes His Trilogy

In complete contrast to the noise that surrounds the productions of Michel Houellebecq (see below) the French writer Jean Echenoz, whose books appear without any fanfare or author information or marketing blurb, between the austere white covers of Les Éditions de Minuit, has produced, over the last six years three short, beautifully written and observed biographical novels.  The first, Ravel, in 2006, the second, Courir, in 2008 on the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek, and now the third, Des Éclairs, on the inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) have given me a lot of understated pleasure.

Echenoz is drawn to these solitary, strange, obsessive characters in what his publishers call "fiction sans scrupules biographiques" and he recounts the story of Tesla, here called Gregor, with economy, dry wit, and a nice sense of period flavour (early 20th century New York).  Exquisite.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Houellebecq Strikes Again

Any day now they will be announcing the results of the Prix Goncourt, whose recent prize winners, I have to say, have been more interesting to me than the Man Booker's in the UK.  One title being tipped is enfant [well he's actually 53] terrible Michel Houellebecq's new novel La carte et le territoire.  The low argument (and literary prizes of this kind are usually about low arguments) is that it will win because (a) it is long overdue (b) it's crazy that one of the most read French novelists worldwide hasn't won it and (c) under Buggins' turn it's Flammarion's turn, that being the way French literary prizes work, and MH is their big one this season.  The argument against is that (a) Houellebecq is far too politically incorrect (b) he has upset too many people and (c) the Ben Jelloun Question.  The last of these is the only one that matters.  In his regular column in an Italian newspaper, the French North African novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun (whom I admire far more than Houellebecq) laid into MH's latest novel saying he had wasted three days of his life reading it and that its trick of inserting real people into the narrative simply revealed a lack of inventive power.  Ben Jelloun matters because he is on the Goncourt jury.

So what about the novel itself?  I found it better written than his previous novels, both at the level of its prose, and in its tighter construction.  Some have found it less obviously provocative and, even more surprisingly, it is almost equable in parts.  There is also almost no sex in it which is a turn up for the books.  I think these critics who imply that the fire has gone out of him are wrong and that the old provocations are there even if they are a little less in-your-face.  The MH we love, mordant, savagely deadpan in his satirical swipes is very much in evidence and I found it very funny for that reason.  Yes, he inserts himself in the narrative but not in some sort of arch metafictional manner.  He does it to send himself up as a smelly, unwashed slob living in a hideous bungalow in Ireland feeding himself on cheap charcuterie, swilling cheap south American wine, and being generally surly and unattractive.  It's an old joke but it works.  The book sends up the contemporary art market through its central character Jed Martin, an artist with a touch of the master about him, and also aims at a range of Houellebecquian targets like assisted suicide, cremation, "inherently fascist" airlines etc etc.  It is also about ageing and death and his usual big subjects and it is about NOW.  He loves to describe, with toxic accuracy, the mediocrity of so much in the contemporary world.  Much of his "provocation" resides in his inability to praise what we know shouldn't be praised but regularly is.  Unfortunately I can't tell you what happens in the final third section of the novel because it will spoil your enjoyment but it is brilliantly done and funny.  It also made me think that he could have a future as the author of romans policiers.  But it probably won't win the Prix Goncourt.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Twenty Thousand Stars In the Sky

About eighteen months ago I installed a stat counter on this blog and I see that I have at last exceeded 20,000 hits since then.  Thank you to everyone who has thought it worthwhile to pay a visit and just imagine if each of those constituted a book sale....

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

What is a Best Selling Author?

Later this month a book, Writers in Black and White, is published which includes interviews with a range of contemporary British authors, described as "best-selling", in which they talk about their writing lives.  It is a beautifully produced book with stunning black and white photographs and I am very honoured to be one of the subjects.  But a "best-selling author"?  I think there's a mistake but I am happy to go along with it.  I really feel, as Matthew Arnold once put it, that: "I am the most unpopular of authors."  Bruce Chatwin, when his Songlines became an authentic best-seller, asked himself: "Have I joined the trash artists?"  Typically, he wanted his cake and eat it.  Every writer wants his or her book to sell, not out of vanity, but because books need the co-operation of readers to come alive.  An unread book is simply a heap of paper and glue until another's imagination comes along to breathe life into it.  No doubt there are some authors who like the idea of not being appreciated by the vulgar, of being a rarified taste, but I think they are very few.  So I am going to enjoy my slightly fraudulent status as a "best-seller" for at least as long as it takes for anyone to look up my sales figures.  Oh, and do go out and buy this lovely book.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Kadare and Kafka: an Update

The Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare [seen here on the right, with his fine translator, John Hodgson, on the left of the picture and me in the middle] has been in London this week at a number of events to promote his gripping new novel, The Accident (Canongate).  He was in conversation on Tuesday with Julian Evans at the Free Word Centre (and at the Cheltenham Festival today).  Yesterday I interviewed him on behalf of English P.E.N. as part of the 'Bloomberg Bites' lunchtime series of talks at the finance house Bloomberg in the City.  Kadare, whose relationship with the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha has always been controversial, came over as a very charming personality and he was in reflective mood, offering us some very interesting 'bites'.  One of these came when I asked him how much he felt he had been influenced by Kafka, a name that is invariably mentioned in interviews with Kadare, often by the author himself.  He revealed that he had not read the banned Kafka until the early 1980s, or rather that he had read very limited extracts as a student where Kafka was presented in order to be repudiated as an example of capitalist decadence.  Which of course simply made young people all the more anxious to read him.  Not very bright these dictators.

Bloomberg's HQ in Finsbury Square is a marvel.  Through its stage-lit spaces, where copious security people stand every few yards like flunkeys at a Versailles court ball, and where in the refreshment area everything is free, including great domed piles of bananas, cookies, apples and cherry tomatoes, and large screens everywhere broadcast the latest share prices and financial news (and the breaking news that Mario Vargas Llosa had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) the bemused Kadare, his interpreter and his interviewer moved as if through the film set for a remake of Brave New World.   But Bloomberg are generous hosts and it was good to learn that The Accident is being discussed at their next in-house book group.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Other Hay-on-Wye

Each year around the May bank holiday the literary world descends on the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye for the annual literary festival and the town assumes a different character.  But yesterday, as the rains came sheeting down and the river Wye looked very turbulent and brown and dangerously high, the twice yearly Hay Horse Fair took place and I wandered into the auction arena where dozens of these tiny Welsh mountain ponies (left) were being sold.  They are beautiful creatures, full of excited nervous energy and, as the auctioneer put it at one point, "straight off the hill".  The going rate for a small chestnut pony was only £10 but one or two were clearly marked much higher by the cognoscenti and attracted five times that price.  One lot was a mare in foal accompanied by one of her earlier offspring.  "Three for the price of one," declared the auctioneer who had clearly been determined to outdo the marketing tactics of the British book trade which manages only three for two.  His auctioneer's gavel was a marvel.  I couldn't get near enough to see exactly what it was made of but it looked like, if not the jawbone of an ass, then a bone of some kind.  It added to the slightly wild, primitive flavour of the event.  As I cast my eye around the ring there was little sign of the literati and it was definitely an outing for the folks.

As Hay and its puffed-up booksellers (whose absurdly climbing prices are presumably a desperate attempt to stem the tide of loss from rival internet book-dealing) continue on their journey upmarket it was nice to be rubbing shoulders with down to earth people with a practical job in hand who remind you that Hay was a Welsh market town long before it became a synonym for bookishness.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Polyglot Music: Joseph Roth and the Imbecility of Patriotism

With the current spectacle of the French Prime Minister (himself of immigrant stock) hounding the Roma and even Labour leadership candidates talking solemnly of the need to address public "concern" about immigration it is time to listen to the bracing good sense of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth:

One might say: Patriotism has killed Europe...European culture is much older than the European nation states. Greece, Rome, Israel, Christendom and Renaissance, the French Revolution and Germany's eighteenth century, the polyglot music of Austria and the poetry of the Slavs: these are the forces that have formed Europe...All are naturally opposed to the barbarity of so-called national pride.
The imbecile love of the "soil" kills the love of the earth. The pride of being born in a particular country, within a particular nation, wrecks the feeling of European universality."

Joseph Roth, "Europe is Possible Only Without the Third Reich" (1934) from The White Cities

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Borges and the Toothbrush or What to Read on Holiday

The BBC recently aired a documentary about Bruce Chatwin (about whom I have an interest since I wrote the first book about him, photographed here by a friend of mine in an African schoolroom) to co-incide with the publication of Chatwin's selected letters.  One of the clips was from a TV chat show where "Bruce" was holding forth on Borges whose work, he said, should always go into the traveller's knapsack, as an essential "like a toothbrush".  I see his point and it raises the old question of what one does take on holiday.  I am off to Corfu for a week and the choice, as usual, is between a big fat serious book and more "entertaining" matter.  I usually choose the former and I was about to pack Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus, having been alerted to it by Gabriel Josipovici in his new book (see recent post) and having realised I hadn't read it.  But I have an hour or two to decide.  I am hovering over Labyrinths and a book or two of poems.  With memories of a whole holiday dominated by the 1000 odd pages of Dombey and Son I am leaning towards some elegant brevity.  Aldous Huxley's recommendation was for Boswell's life of Johnson, in the portable Oxford india paper edition, which I have somewhere, but this is a short trip and I will be doing a lot of lazing and daydreaming so something a little more dilettante is going to end up in the bag I can see.  Plenty of time to get serious again when I am back. (But I'll slip in the Mann anyway as an insurance policy.)

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Hell of Forgotten Books

For the true bibliophile the book is sacrosanct and destroying books is as monstrously unthinkable as a pet lover dropping their pussy cat into a wheelie-bin. Or is it?  This snap is from the Honesty Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye ("the town of books") a kind of sump where books that have nowhere else to go end up.  Stacked in the open air and exposed to the weather, they are battered and warped and abandoned and, if you care to have one, you drop a small sum in the honesty box.  Why not just pulp the lot and start again with freshly recycled paper, blank pages, awaiting the arrival of new text?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Josipovici and the Story of Modernism

One of the unexpected pleasures of the recent silly season was witnessing the emergence of Private Eye after all these years as a Leavisite organ.  Its Literary Review section, written anonymously but probably by the ubiquitous scribbler D.J. Taylor, with whom Craig Raine in a letter to the current issue of the Eye ironically identifies himself ("I am a very very minor writer like D.J.Taylor"), took on a new book by the critic and novelist, Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?  The Eye could not be expected to endorse anything so un-English as the European avant-garde and Josipovici was accordingly sneered at for criticising the sacred cows of contemporary British fiction whilst writing fictions of his own which had not won any awards (seemingly the way one distinguishes merit ).  But the review concluded that Leavis had pointed out a long time ago "the essential difference between Joyce and Shakespeare.  Joyce, Leavis remarked, wrote to extend his technique; Shakespeare laboured under the pressure of something that had to be conveyed."  So many non sequiturs are released from the bag by this that it is impossible to catch hold of any of them.

  Over at The Literary Review, where Josipovici was equally unwelcome, John Sutherland took the predictably sarcastic line that the author had been let down by England and its indifference to Modernism.  He complained about Josipovici's familiarity with European writers and critics, some of whom he appeared to read in their original languages which horrified Sutherland, described as Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL.  In spite of that status, the "world class" professor emeritus described Josipovici as "not a man many of us can meet on level terms".  That a leading academic could loudly boast of his ignorance in such a way speaks volumes.
  Actually, Josipovici writes in a very engaging and lucid way, so much so that he had his knuckles rapped by Tom McCarthy in his Guardian review: "Adopting the vocabulary of the middlebrow in order to legitimise the vanguard merely robs it of what animates it most," observed McCarthy disdainfully.  Caught thus between the populists and the snooty avant-gardists, and saddled with a massive non-controversy that the newspapers before his book's publication tried to whip up (his dismissal, actually more in sorrow than in anger, of the currently fashionable English novelists in a page or two towards the end of the book) Josipovici's argument has had to struggle to be heard.
  It is an interesting one.  Instead of the usual argument in defence of Modernism that involves bashing us over the head with someone (usually Ezra Pound) in order to reprimand us for being so insular and resistant in a way that can sometimes come to seem like our failure to toe a party line, Josipovici offers a persuasive and generous narrative of what he thinks modernism is about and why so much contemporary writing in Britain doesn't persuade him (and me).  He has also upset the modernist fundamentalists by choosing as one example of proto-Modernism the poet Wordsworth.  I thought it entirely appropriate in the context of his overall argument to do this and it is characteristic of his open and enquiring mind that he should seek more widely for his examples (though writers like Kafka and Proust and Woolf, Mann and Beckett, if not Joyce, are at the forefront of his mind).  "He has much to teach us about the paradoxes of the freed imagination, that poisoned chalice passed on from Romanticism to Modernism, " he writes of Wordsworth.
  For Josipovici, the essence of Modernism (and he reaches back to Cervantes to pinpoint its beginnings) is that it is "a response to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them" and its hallmark is an awareness that, for the artist (painters and musicians being as much a part of his argument as writers) things can never be the same again.  He quotes Beckett: "I speak of an art...weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road."  Or as Barthes put it: "to be modern is to know that which is not possible any more".  Josipovici himself sees in Modernism something absent from so much lauded contemporary writing (though William Golding and Muriel Spark from an earlier period are allowed through his net), namely "neither illustration [Francis Bacon's dismissive term for too facile art] nor abstraction but the daily struggle of a dialogue with the world, without any assurance that what one will produce will have value because there is nothing already there against which to test it, but with the possibility always present that something new, something genuine, something surprising, will emerge."
  I remain cool towards the football supporter's view of Modernism: we support our eleven lads and despise all eleven on the other side.  But faced with the Private Eye canon I think I know which scarf I would wear if I had to.  "Reading Barnes," Josipovici writes towards the end of the book, "like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner...The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language, which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism, which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world."

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

La rentrée littéraire

Paris is sleeping now during August with the blinds pulled down on businesses en vacances but soon the annual burst of publishing, la rentrée littéraire will explode in France and the event is celebrated in The Independent with a piece about a new novel by a 15-year-old who has written about a 14-year-old who has lost her virginity.  Yes, folks, our equivalent of the rentrée is the silly season.  The article that we should have read was the one that said what was being published in France just now that was of interest, who were the serious novelists, what was the general literary health of France.  Admittedly we heard last week about the new Michel Houellebecq but then he has long been a news item in himself so we expect gossipy broadsheet pieces on him as a matter of course.  Given that a million British people are said to be living in France why is its literature so invisible in this country?  Why is so little translated?  We get the French movies in our art houses so why not more of its contemporary writing?

Recently, the critic and novelist Gabriel Josipovici, was reported as having said that contemporary British writers weren't up to much though, as he explained last week in a letter to the TLS, the reporting of his comments, buried in a serious work of criticism forthcoming from Yale UP, trivialised them.  He bravely refused to be dragged on to Newsnight to take part in a shallow staged debate about the merits or otherwise of Amis, Rushdie, McEwan et al.  His apparent argument that, in the wake of the great moderns, contemporary writing in Britain doesn't measure up, misses some vital dimension, sounds interesting and highly plausible.  So what of the comparable position in France?  Will we be told?  I doubt it.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Tony Judt and Reminiscence

The death at the weekend of Tony Judt, the author of Post War and Ill Fares the Land and a lively polemicist, who was always ready, from a broadly Left starting point, to tackle some of the Left's sacred cows, was suitably noted by the broadsheets.  I have enjoyed particularly his recent short pieces of reminiscence in the New York Review of Books and there's a good item today in the Le Monde blog where he is described as the "archétype de l’intellectuel engagé “à la française”".  The fact that one senses a gap now is eloquent.  The papers are full of opinionating pundits and the blogosphere is loud with noisy folk with things to say but here was someone who wrote, as in those recent NYRB pieces, with superb clarity and directness but with a wider sense of where things might fit in.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Josipovici And Other Animals

In my last post I commented laconically on coverage of a very interesting-looking book by the writer and critic Gabriel Josipovici, Whatever Happened to Modernism? which I will talk about later when I have caught up with it.  But I have just read his 2001 memoir A Life which I found a delightful book and perhaps a surprising one for someone whose reputation is as a somewhat austere and rigorous critic.  It is the life of his mother, Sacha Rabinovitch, as much as his own, their lives being entwined by the facts of history and exile, and he makes use of her (excellent) poems and family photographs to build up a picture of a remarkable woman.  Both were passionate animal lovers and there are some marvellous descriptions of the various dogs they owned and, inevitably, grieved over.  It's a story that passes through Egypt, France and England and I found it deeply absorbing.

Josipovici, in spite of having written an affecting memoir claims that he is suspicious of the genre.  He quotes his mother's view: "...to write one's memoirs is to cease to look forward.  It's a form of nostalgia and self-indulgence."   He says much later in the book that autobiography is unsatisfactory because: "A person can never grasp the trajectory of their own life, not only because that trajectory is not over till their life ends, but because a life is more than what one can say, it is more than one can think.. It can only be lived, not told – not told by the liver, that is, but only by another."  That is why he chose to write another person's life.  Again, he says: "A memoir would have left me to wallow in my sorrow; writing the life of another, of that other, was what I needed to do, and I now see why."  We can only be grateful that he overcame his reservations and wrote this book.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Kafka Again

The recent non-story about Kafka's papers which involved (apart from repeated wince-making use of the word 'Kafkaesque') various talking heads telling TV interviewers that they had nothing to say – but they were going to say it –  about what the disputed trunks of hitherto unopened papers might contain had one interesting contribution from John Banville which I recommend for its view of what is best in Kafka and its encouraging re-iteration of the fact that the greatness of Kafka's art lies in his lack of a 'message'.  To see his contribution click here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Bruce Chatwin by Bike and Who Owns Kafka?

What is the connection between Bruce Chatwin and cycling?  And you thought the exams were over now? The answer is that he pops up on next week's (27th July) episode of Britain by Bike, a series in which presenter Clare Balding follows in the footsteps (or is that pedals in the groove of?) a 1950s classic bicycle tour guide.  The series opens tonight on BBC 4 at 20.30 and next week's show at the same time has Clare striding across a lawn in the Welsh borders to encounter me just about to spout on the subject of Chatwin (about whom I wrote a book in 1993) who stayed at the house in the Welsh Marches where the filming took place, while writing his novel On the Black Hill.

[You can now see this in BBC iplayer for a limited period. Click here

Yesterday I had a call from the BBC World Service to appear live on their early evening news programme to be interviewed about the controversy surrounding the Kafka archive.  Ten boxes of material formerly owned by Esther Hoffe, secretary to Kafka's friend, Max Brod, who left them to her and who famously defied Kafka's request that all his unpublished writings be destroyed, are being currently fought over.  Hoffe's two daughters are engaged in legal battles to stop the boxes being opened but no one knows what they contain.  Yesterday one of the boxes, in a bank vault in Zurich, was being examined by a scholar under the instruction of the court so we may still not know for some time what is on the inventory.  On the programme I suggested that it is unlikely that they will contain any major unpublished work, since Brod dedicated himself to promoting and massaging Kafka's reputation and would surely not have missed a chance to publish more of it.  Probably, they will contain Brod's own diaries and letters, though "drawings" have been mentioned in the press.  There is bound to be much of interest but we will have to wait.  Meanwhile both the Jewish National Library in Israel and the German Literary Archives in Marbach are fighting to acquire the eventual material.  As I suggested on the programme, Kafka's body is spread out on a table, all four limbs being tugged in different directions: born in Prague in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1883 and thus an Austrian, waking up in 1918 to find himself a citizen of the Czech Republic, a Jew, and a master of modern German prose.  According to the Israelis his archive belongs as of right to them, but the Germans surely have an equal right since language is always the defining issue when considering a writer, and what about the Czechs?

We will have to be patient.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Craig Raine and The Critics

It is a basic rule of this blog that I only talk about books I have read and so I can't say anything about Craig Raine's new novel, Heartbreak, because I haven't yet read it.  Like everyone else, however, I have read Terry Eagleton's hatchet-job in the London Review of Books, and it has reminded me – to compare great with small – of my own 2001 novel, A Short Book About Love which also provoked the comment that it was "not really a novel".  Raine is not shy of controversy of course and can look after himself.  I have to declare an interest in that his magazine Areté published two pieces by me (one very long, one very short) and in consequence I was invited to his lovely house in Oxford for the 10th birthday bash of the magazine where many famous literati pullulated.  Since both pieces were published not as a result of any currying of favour with this charmed literary élite whom we all love to hate (I didn't know any of them so there were no strings to pull) but by the simpler expedient of putting them in an envelope addressed "Dear Sir" I salute his openness to unsolicited material, always the mark of a good editor.  As former poetry editor of Faber and Faber and putative founder of the Martian school of poetry, and chum of Martin, Ian, Julian etc, Raine was bound to attract enemies but I can only say he was very nice to me.

The new book, which appears to be a series of episodic reflections and digressions on the subject of love (a fair description also of my book) raises the question of what is and is not a novel.  The epigraph to my book was taken from Dr Johnson, who defined the novel in his A Dictionary of the English Language as "A small tale, generally of love."  My definition would be "whatever you want it to be".  Aldous Huxley said there are no rules governing the novel except that it must be interesting and I agree.  What we want writers to be is inventive, original, entertaining.  If they don't have plots – or beginnings, middles, and ends – then so be it, as long as they are a pleasure to read.  In my last post about Isaac Bashevis Singer I said how much power there still is in realist fiction and I believe this.  But there is also scope for the sort of writing that takes liberties and gives pleasure in the process.  So let people break the rules and let the puritans be discomfited.

Now I will go and read Raine's book...

Friday, 2 July 2010

Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Vitamin Pills

Isaac Bashevis Singer said that he preferred to write in Yiddish because it was a language that contained more vitamins.  Reading his great saga of early 20th Century Polish Jewish life, The Family Moskat (1950) whose translation by A.H.Gross he personally supervised, I can't judge the quality of the Yiddish but it is certainly a powerful and absorbing read and, unlike some family historical sagas, you never get confused about who is who, thanks to Singer's gift for rapid thumbnail sketches of people and scenes.  I hauled this substantial book around with me on a recent trip to the USA and it made me realise that the realistic novel, sometimes thought to have been usurped by modernist experiment and innovation, still has a lot of life left in it.  Singer builds up a vividly felt picture of a world that was doomed as much by the forces of modernity unleashed within it as the external threat without.  It runs from the start of the 20th century to the rise of Hitler and is saved from any kind of romantic nostalgia for a lost culture by the fierceness and candour of its realism but nonetheless I still find it profoundly moving to reflect that this Jewish world of pre-war Warsaw no longer exists.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

How Was Your Bloomsday?

Being reminded, during the research for my recently completed book about Bloomsbury, that Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married on 16th June 1956 in St George the Martyr church (see picture) in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, on Bloomsday, has triggered some thoughts about literary anniversaries.   Is it just a weeny bit silly to celebrate today as Bloomsday, a fictional day across which the narrative of Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses, unfurled?  I think it isn't – because to say that today is Bloomsday is to allow the imagination to prevail over mere fact and routine.  A work of art has managed to usurp the work diary.

The sun is shining, the longest day is still to come, and I have a feeling that a re-reading of Ulysses is on the way.  My lovely green Bodley Head 1960 edition [I don't give a fig about the 'Joyce Wars' of the scholars over which text is to be preferred] is on the shelf, waiting to be taken down: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed..."


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Life-Writing: The Arvon Book

I am glad to break a long silence here at this blog (I have been finishing two books and making a trip to the USA) by announcing that the new Arvon Book of Life-Writing (Methuen) written by Sally Cline and Carole Angier has just been published and I am honoured to be one of 32 biographers whose brief reflections on the genre have been included.  The book, by two experienced biographers, will be indispensable for people doing courses on life-writing and covers practical and theoretical issues raised by the genre of biography, autobiography and memoir.

Anyone in London interested in this subject might like to know that I am teaching a 12-week course on it at The City Lit this autumn.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The British Library: Work for Free!!!

We are now in the era of the new progressive politics with everyone championing "fairness" at every turn so hats off to the British Library which has just sent me news of a job I might like to apply for.  Actually it turns out not to be a job at all but a chance to be a work-donor.   The "job" is for someone to work in the internal communications department and the job description is a serious one that looks as though it might require some skills and experience.  Here's an extract from the advertisement:

"writing for our staff intranet and newsletter; creating intranet pages; monitoring the team’s day-to-day work; updating notice boards and generally helping out with the administration in our department.  We’re looking for someone with great communication and interpersonal skills...An interest in marketing communications and/or public relations, an excellent standard of written English and the ability to use a PC and the internet would be of advantage."

There's just one catch: you don't get paid.  This is of course a job for an unpaid skivvy, aka "intern".  Once upon a time young graduates (for that is my guess as to whom the likely appointee will be) got real work experience by doing a real job (in fact this one sounds a bit like my first media job) but now a public body like the British Library (Chief Executive's salary £195,000) is cynically hoping to get work done by not paying someone at all.  Did the staff unions agree to this?  Where will the employee live? How will they pay the rent?  How will they eat?

It could be worse because there are reports that in the US, graduates actually pay in some cases for the privilege of being a work-donor.  But is this going to be the pattern now in the British public sector?

But I agree, "fairness" is a good thing.  I can't get enough of it myself.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Gillian Tindall: A Microhistorian in Paris

Having recently read Gillian Tindall's The Fields Beneath about the rural  roots of Kentish Town I was glad to receive as a birthday present her latest, about the Latin Quarter of Paris, the changes to it over two centuries since an ancestor of hers, Arthur Jacob, arrived there in 1814, and her own family history: Footprints in Paris.  It's an attractive, slowly-unfolding book, that gets under the skin of a place where she lived as a young woman in the 1950s and reveals her skill at teasing out the history of place that is so strikingly done in The Fields Beneath. In the throes myself of writing a book about Bloomsbury, I am fascinated by this kind of "microhistory" as it has been called, that reads the urban landscape with minute attention.  Quieter in tone than the more hyped "psychogeographers" of London, I found this a very moving book about how one tries to imagine other lives and their passage through history.  I was struck particularly by her observation that the Latin Quarter has slowly been emptied of its working class or ordinary population as gentrification, the surest of urban trends, removes the cheap "hotels" or long-term lodging houses, places where people without lots of money (students, workers, artists, writers, recent migrants) could once live.  Their future is to be shipped out to the suburbs and tower blocks with their "social problems" (which really amount to a rupture from real living communities and the difficulty of re-inventing them in concrete jungles).  Public housing at affordable rents once enabled a range of social classes to live in the heart of London.  This is not about sentimental nostalgia; it's about the idea that communities are just that: organic patterns of multi-cultural, multi-class, living where change is of course part of that organic life but also variety, social mix, and even a bit of scruffiness.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Who Will Give a Fig for Figes?

The recent "squalid little story" as Robert Service put it, of the writer Orlando Figes paying lawyers to silence other writers who had alleged someone was rubbishing his rivals' work on Amazon – before he then first blamed his wife then admitted he was the culprit – is a very nasty one and will have ruined his reputation for good.  Obviously anyone who takes an anonymous Amazon review seriously has got problems that they need to address for themselves but the case does highlight two things (a) writers should conduct their intellectual disputes with each other in the fresh air of print and not in the courtroom and (b) anonymous blogging (something that mystifies me) has no intellectual validity in serious criticism of books: someone who is too cowardly even to stand by their own words cannot expect to be taken seriously by anyone.

This reminds me of a review (not anonymous) that appeared on Amazon in 1999 when my life of Andrew Marvell was published.  It wasn't vindictive, just vaguely sneering, and contrasted with the very pleasing reviews the book received generally.  Since no other Amazon review ever appeared this slab of disparagement has stood on the site for eleven years to confront anyone thinking of buying the book and will, no doubt, remain there across the "deserts of vast eternity".  At the time, I entered the name of the self-appointed reviewer into a search box and up popped a long, laudatory review of his own book – written by himself.  Now why didn't I think of that?

My fault in this instance was to have written a book about a 17th Century poet without seeking permission from the relevant academic 17th Cent. Lit. trade guilds and annoying an ambitious would-be media don on the rise by writing the book he wanted to be commissioned to write.  I am always amused by academics who sneer haughtily at the general Grub Street author then go running as fast as their little legs will carry them into the nearest TV studio or literary festival tent if there is the slightest chance of being on the telly.

Monday, 19 April 2010

We're the Tops – Well, Near the Bottom, Actually

You may have noticed a small logo that has appeared in the top right-hand corner of this page announcing that this blog is (just!) one of the 100 top Uk and Ireland literary blogs at No 91.

Some years ago I read an article suggesting that there were so many literary prizes and awards that you had to try pretty hard to avoid securing one.  Having never won a literary prize (though I was once on a shortlist of six for the Marsh Biography Prize alongside weighty literati like Roy Hattersley) I assure you that it is easier than people claim to avoid winning anything.  So let's throw our hats in the air to Wikio (whomsoever they be) for this unexpected garland.

It makes me feel I should be blogging more regularly.  I have, like many literary bloggers, been flagging a bit recently so let this be a wake-up call.

A Postscript on Literary Elections

I am currently reading V.S. Naipaul's 1958 novel The Suffrage of Elvira  and it is a wonderfully witty story about an election in Trinidad circa 1950.  Much more fun than page after page in the Sunday papers dribbling on about whether X looked better on TV than Y. Having not long ago read his first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957) I have become a great fan of Naipaul's early work.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Literature and the Election

Yesterday in the park I walked past the Labour MP who will be expecting me to vote for him on 6th May and he beamed at all passers-by with a universal, impersonal smirk.  Why am I so indifferent to this election?  Why does my heart sink at the preparations for "the TV debate" – a stage-managed process which I will certainly not be watching?  And will there be more features in the Guardian Review embodying novel ways of rounding up the usual suspects (Pullman etc) to offer their valuable contribution as "writers" to the understanding of a process which Dickens (see picture) dealt with more appropriately in The Pickwick Papers? 

I am not 'cynical about politics' or trying to dodge my civic duty.  I shall 'exercise my vote'.  But the spectacle of the issues that matter being daily evaded by all sides does not help the digestion.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Summer is y-comen in

Well, spring at any rate, as these wood anemone in the Welsh Marches seem to show.  How much more interesting than the British election campaign.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Luxury of Art

A clutch of letters in The Guardian has appeared on "the battle between arts and science" – a phoney war surely?  Many of us are the victims of a British educational system that created, around the age of 14, a division into arts and sciences that has been intellectually damaging and, of course, it is scandalous for artistic and literary people to be ignorant of science – or of anything else for that matter.  Although the queasy spectacle of watching Ian McEwan writing about brain surgery in Saturday could in itself constitute an argument for writers not attempting to mug up on science, clearly art and science are fundamental aspects of human knowledge and shouldn't be set against each other.

But one of the Guardian letter writers, Iain Morgan, Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Glasgow, insists that science is necessary, not to further knowledge, but because "without science and technology our country will lag behind others". Moreover – and this is his killer conclusion – "only by science and technology generating inventions and wealth can we afford the luxury of art".  Why do I find this such a miserable conclusion?

Because art is not "a luxury", a by-product of wealth-creation.  Art simply exists, it is. Art is fundamental, necessary, needs no justification, is the element in which sentient, intelligent human beings move like fish in a stream.  It is not a by-product or an incidental consequence of anything. Given the current state of British universities where money-making is the summum bonum, I suppose it is not surprising that such ideas as that of the Prof. flourish.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The Literature Sector: Production Values

The following appears in the latest newsletter of the Welsh Academi. Comment, I think, is superfluous:

"Creative & Cultural Skills is inviting the literature sector to contribute to a new plan to develop the skills needs of the industry. The Literature Blueprint will be a workforce development plan for literature in the UK. It will analyse the skills needs of the literature sector and propose key actions in response.
The plan is focused on creative writers and those who support them. They would like to hear a range of views from the sector, from writers across different disciplines to writers’ networks and anyone who works to support the development of the literature sector. The plan will be UK-wide.
Tom Bewick, Group Chief Executive, Creative & Cultural Skills, said: “The UK is rightly proud of its literature sector, which encompasses a range of working practices and business models. To ensure the continued success of the sector in a time of intense technological and economic change, we need to focus now on developing those skills that will be needed in the future.”
Antonia Byatt, Director, Literature Strategy at Arts Council England, said: “We are delighted to have been partners with Creative & Cultural Skills in developing the Literature Blueprint. To ensure that everybody can access high-quality literature experiences, both now and in the future, is at the heart of our work, and the development of skills is vital in this aim.”

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Paweł Huelle: Mercedes-Benz

Scanning the shelves of bookshops in Paris or Athens or Madrid it is always interesting to see what gets translated, what is considered canonical, from the UK.  And in the same way various random factors conspire to deliver certain foreign titles to us.  Is Orhan Pamuk the most important Turkish writer, for example?  The Nobel committee seems to think so.  I am reading another novel by Paweł Huelle, having enjoyed his Castorp, and this time it is an absorbing tale, Mercedes-Benz, of a man who takes driving lessons in the city of Gdansk (where Huelle comes from) with a crazy instructor, Miss Ciwle, just after the collapse of communism.  It's a lively, witty tale, juxtaposing, through the medium of the motor vehicle, three Polish generations: the pre-war brief period of independence, the communist years, and the new era of post-communist liberation.   The narrator is based on Huelle himself (that's his dad in this picture) and the stories he recounts as he drives around Gdansk with Miss Ciwle are addressed to the Czech master Bohamil Hrabal to whom this book is a kind of hommage. I have no idea how Huelle is seen in Poland but this translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones certainly glides along with the smoothness of a Mercedes and even someone like me who is about as far from being a petrol-head as it is possible to be can enjoy the ride. Recommended.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Amazing Amazon: Part Two

The Amazon saga continues as I discover their "three strikes and you're out" policy of dealing with customers.  I mentioned in my last post their appallingly discourteous policy of sending you an email that you can't reply to.  It is like talking to someone in a high-security compound through a tiny grille.  Each time they failed to answer my point I went laboriously back to their website to leave another comment but after my third attempt they sent a chilling statement: "We regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. Unfortunately, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters."  I think that what they were really trying to say should have been expressed with a row of asterisks.  

Amazon also claimed that once an order is placed: "we will try to source the item from our suppliers" which is indeed what has happened over the past five years of the Rack Press, but not any more because there has been no attempt to "try to source the item" from this year's titles as disgruntled customers have been telling me.  I know this for a fact because I am the person who would supply such a request.  The net result is that Amazon refuses to discuss the matter any further, refuses to remove my titles from the website, in spite of the inaccurate statements there, and refuses to source any of the items it insists on listing.  They are as responsive as an absolutist monarch or a Stalinist apparatchik.

Still, it is comforting to read their slogan: "We strive to be Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company. Your feedback helps us build it."

No comment.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Amazon The Corporate Behemoth

As a small publisher of poetry pamphlets (see Rack Press) I naturally seek as many outlets as I can for my titles.  Once a new title is registered with Nielsen Book Data it appears automatically on Amazon/Blackwell/Tesco etc.  You have no choice about this and there shouldn't really be any reason to object to more publicity and points of sale but Amazon, acting in their usual peremptory fashion, have indicated on their site that Rack Press titles are "Temporarily Out of Stock".  This is complete nonsense but the message is going out to all potential purchasers who are being told that new titles in plentiful supply are "out of stock".  I approached Amazon (you can't do this directly but only by using a web-based pro forma) and pointed this out and I was greeted with an automated reply not admitting that their previous policy had changed (for the past five years they simply source our titles from a wholesaler and I supply them, a system that has worked well) but inviting me to join something called Amazon "Advantage" where you pay money to them to keep stocks in their warehouse.  For a small poetry press with short print-runs of limited edition titles this is not realistic.  I persisted and received an email from a named person but the email was rigged so that one couldn't reply to it.  It merely repeated the standard response.  I have asked them to remove titles from their site because this is the only way to end this damaging falsehood that titles are out of stock.   One's sense of frustration is that Amazon appear to hold all the cards and not to care a jot about what they may be doing to small publishers.


Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Gazmend Kapllani and Border Syndrome

Little enough contemporary Greek writing is translated into English so it's always good to see something new.  Gazmend Kapllani's witty 2006 account of the life of Albanian migrants in Greece, translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, has now been published by Portobello Books.  Kapllani writes with bitter humour about the realities of being a migrant, shrewdly observing that some of the Greek hostility towards Albanians comes from not wanting to be reminded of their own history of having to migrate to survive.  If you were a tourist, he suggests, "your broken Greek would endear you to people...but when an Albanian speaks broken Greek, he is classed as nothing more than a 'bloody Albanian'. When an American speaks perfect Greek, he is an 'exceptional American', but when an Albanian speaks perfect Greek, all he hears is, 'You'll never be Greek!'

This short book is written in thirty sections which combine the stories of a group of those Albanians who, after the fall of the Communist regime, poured over the border with Greece, as Kapllani himself did in 1991, with reflections on what he calls "border syndrome" which is "an illness that's difficult to describe with precision".  There are vivid moments, like the first visit of the Albanians from a brutal and Spartan political regime to a supermarket in northern Greece, and overall the book offers an insight into the condition of the migrant in a week when British newspapers reported the deaths from hypothermia of some European migrants living in tents in the British countryside.  We tend to think that exploitation and hardship of a kind meted out to migrants in our midst happens elsewhere, not in the farms that supply our cheap supermarket fruit and vegetables, making us complicit in that suffering.  Fortunately, migrants of this kind conveniently stay out of sight so that we don't have to think about them and our responsibility for what they go through.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Clough and The Blue Plaque Business

To North London yesterday for the unveiling of a plaque to the poet Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) at the house in St Mark's Crescent, NW1 where Clough lived from 1854 to 1859. According to Clough scholar, Sir Anthony Kenny, pictured here, the poet didn't, er, actually write anything while he was here, but anything that raises the profile of this excellent and astonishingly modern-sounding Victorian poet must be a good thing. Talking afterwards to someone from English Heritage, the body that masterminds the plaque-business, I thought I sensed some scepticism about Clough's status, not so much in the canon of English poetry (the poet Christopher Reid who was there agreed with me that he is one of the best half dozen English poets of his period – which seemed to astonish the heritage people) as in the canon of The Higher Celebrity. When I suggested en passant that there should be a plaque to William Empson, author of that classic of 20th century literary criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity, on the house at 65 Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury where the book was written in 1929-30 I was the recipient of one of those oh-God-here's-one-of-those-loony-obsessives looks. I can see that it's hard for the adjudicators to judge who is deserving of this kind of honour but I had that feeling I often get in these situations of sudden gloom induced by the mournful tolling of the great lugubrious bell of English cultural populism. Just like being in a publisher's office and suggesting a life of Arthur Hugh Clough, for example, when embarrassed faces turn to the window and someone suddenly finds there is a phone to answer. In a culture of lists and rankings and "no one reads people like X" how can the heritage industry buck the trend of sticking with what's safe and consensual?

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Amis Strikes Again

Does Martin Amis have no friends who can have a quiet word with him? No sooner has he finished rubbishing that increasingly large and influential section of society, the elderly, who, he recently informed us "stink" (subtlety always his hallmark) than he turns his attention to his fellow writers. Prospect magazine in a preview of an interview it is about to publish with the Great Writer offers us a view of the second rate talents against whose mediocrity the talent of Amis shines out more brightly: "Coetzee, for instance—his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure,” he explained. “I read one and I thought, he’s got no talent. But the denial of the pleasure principle has got a lot of followers.” How did we get here – to a world where Coetzee is declared to have no talent and Amis is fêted? Answers on a postcard please.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A Poet Wins!

How nice that Christopher Reid's book A Scattering should win not only the Costa poetry award but also the overall Costa Book of the Year award. Poetry is often the poor relation of literary prizes (but the Costa, it must be said, has a better track record than most) so this is excellent news.

And I forgot to say, it's an excellent book of poetry!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Poetry Readings Are Cool OK?

One of my Christmas gifts this year was J. G Ballard's absorbing autobiography, Miracles of Life, which at one point presents his observations on poetry readings: "Most poets were products of English Literature schools, and showed it; poetry readings were a special form of social deprivation. In some rather dingy hall a sad little cult would listen to their cut-price shaman speaking in voices, feel their emotions vaguely stirred and drift away to a darkened tube station."

Tomorrow night, 14th January at 6.30, we have a chance to prove him wrong because Rack Press is launching its four new collections of poetry for 2010 at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury. With words like "cool" long back in fashion "groovy" must surely be the next to be retrieved from oblivion. Come along tonight. If not groovy it will be "fab" and we will prove Ballard wrong.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


I don't mean to be rude but when mid-Wales was covered in snow last week it somehow didn't seem to be as grave as when it actually fell in London – giving Gandhi in Tavistock Square, semi-naked on his plinth, a tonsure of white overnight. London and the south-east still think of themselves as the centre of the universe and until something occurs inside the M25 it's not judged a real event at all.

These sheep, however, in the Radnor Valley in the Welsh Marches, after most of it had melted, and before the second dose, don't seem offended.