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

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Ruskin Prize Announced

The Empress Theodora in mosaic at the
church of San Vitale, Ravenna
The winners of the inaugural Ruskin Prize, organised by the University of Roehampton Poetry Centre, have been announced.  First prize went to Claudia Daventry, joint second prize was awarded to Chloe Stopa-Hunt and myself and third prize went to Tania Hershman.

Apart from a misspent youth winning New Statesman competitions in the 1980s and 90s I have never won a literary prize in my life so this is a great pleasure.

The version of the poem, "Annotations of Byzantium",  printed on the Roehampton website has some typos so the full version is presented below.

It will be published later in Poem magazine.

Annotations of Byzantium


I am woman and you call me names:
circus dancer, whore, magician…Empress.

Beneath my chamber, secret tunnels run
where men are shut to waste or die;

where night dissolves in day like powders
losing presence in a lethal glass.

They wander in the dark, go mad, lose sight;
I tether them like cattle to a manger

where they feed, a rope around their neck,
who thought they could resist my power.

This I do for Antonina, consort of Belisarius, 
the man who cowers while she slakes her lust 

with Theodosius the Thracian boy;
I am woman; I know need and strength.


Beneath the dome of Wisdom, 
coming from shadows, we greet the patriarch.

Look at our work, great canopy of stone,
mathematics of magnificence.

Later, the salt sea whips my cheeks;
the wind streaks madly from the Dardanelles,

nature and art in passionate contention
where I award, between them both, the prize.


He is in the marshes, hunting crane,
watching the violent beat of wings,

patient to cripple the great, beautiful bird
that rises in the mellow light of dawn.


They shall say that Theodora rose
‘from humble origin’, lap-dancer

in the royal eye, to take the purple;
add in ‘whore’, for it’s desire

that frightens them, the narrowed eye,
the jewelled goblet raised and aimed,

a rustle in the chamber’s passage
where a curtain billows, candle flame

trembles excitedly at what it sees;
lips sealed by willing servitude.

Historical Note

The principal source of this poem is the The Secret History by Procopius (translated as a Penguin Classic, by G.A. Williamson, 1966). Written around 550 A.D. it is a remarkably candid account of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora who is the narrative voice in the poem.  The most famous of the Byzantine emperors, Justinian assumed power in 518 and married Theodora in 523.  She died in 547 and Justinian in 565.  Justinian is seen as a great law-giver and the period of his reign saw the construction of the great basilica of Agia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’) completed in 537 but Procopius tells a story of vicious corruption and tyranny, greed and lust. behind the scenes. He also recounts the story of the general Belisarius whose secretary Procopius had been and of his wife Antonina who appears as corrupt as Theodora herself.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Houellebecq Strikes Again (Again)!

Published on the very day of the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Michel Houellebecq's new novel, Soumission (Submission) could not have been more timely and as the gunmen burst into the office of the magazine the author himself featured on the cover of the then current issue with a mocking caricature of himself as a fortune teller or mage.  For his new novel is placed in the very near future after François Hollande's second term ends in 2022 with an Islamic President of the Republic who gets in as a result of doing a deal with the imploded parties of centre right and left after the refusal of the second largest bloc, the Front National, to contemplate a coalition. Whether this is a plausible scenario even in the context of a work of fiction is for the reader to decide but the donnée is at the very least an interesting one.

The novel is due to appear in an English translation in the autumn and already everyone is getting very excited at the "offence" it will putatively cause.  But apart from the tiny minority of fanatics who would derive "offence" from a fly settling on their windowsill, I imagine most moderate Muslims will read this with an air of baffled surprise for the Muslims in this novel are far from being represented as fanatics or jihadists.  On the contrary, the new President is a model of moderation and tact, distancing himself firmly from the madmen, and his minister for the universities, soon to be Foreign Minister, is represented as a man of exquisite civilisation and courtesy.  True, the Sorbonne is now under Islamic colours and women are absent from the university cocktail parties, but the central character, François, an academic specialising in late 19th century literature, ends by contemplating conversion himself, resolving a midlife crisis by accepting an arranged marriage with an attractive and accommodating young undergraduate (or three, which appears to be the limit under the rules of polygamy).  Why not, is the novel's final unanswered question? "Je n'aurais rien à regretter."  I would have nothing to regret.

Anyone familiar with Houellebecq's work (and I confess to being a long term fan of the sacred monster) will of course have noticed the feline ironies which sustain this narrative.  It is, in effect, a massive wind-up.  But the author's fondness for more or less plausible futuristic scenarios in his fiction does enable him to float some very interesting ideas.  The new President, Ben Abbes, dreams of, in effect, recreating the former Roman empire by shifting the centre of gravity of the European Union south, embracing north Africa and even Egypt, and his first step is to propose a move of HQ from Brussels to Athens.  This is not a rough derisive polemic (Houellebecq has done those in his time) but one that forces people to think about what the future might look like.  It is also a novel about religion and it is, like all his books, a novel about Michel Houellebecq.

Taking the first of these, religion, we are introduced to the central character, François, a specialist in the late 19th Century decadent, J.K. Huysmans, who after a lifetime as an atheistical aesthete, ended up embracing a fervent Catholicism.  François makes a pilgrimage to the abbey where Huysmans was received and where he is moved by the black Madonna and the general religious atmosphere.  He is stirred by the idea that what sustained European civilisation was Christianity and its collapse in the current consumer-individualist culture of 21st Century Europe (cue some characteristic bashing of "les baby-boomers" and much sardonic, sharply-observed descriptions of contemporary life; Houellebecq has a keen sociologist's eye for social trends).  The hypothesis, whether we take it seriously or not as a recommendation for our approval, is that Muslims at least are secure in their faith and know what they believe in.

Huysmans comes over in this book as a kind of proto-Houellebecquian solitary, disenchanted with the world around him, and turning to religion, in the end, as his only hope.  And this, for me was the chief pleasure of the book, not the Islamic theme, but the portrait of the central character who, like all Houellebecq's central characters, is a thinly disguised version of the author himself.  His dry humour, his sardonic exactness in puncturing the fatuities around him, are endlessly diverting and often made me laugh out loud.  The author, I read, is now 56 and he is starting to register the fact.  François still manages a sex life of a sort (and there are the usual graphic passages which his readers have got used to expecting) but even though he is in his mid-forties he feels himself to be physically falling apart, facing a future alone in his flat with his take-away food, booze, and occasional resort to escort girls after his young girlfriend emigrates in fear to Israel.  The relaxed, smooth, seemingly effortless life that awaits him if he converts to his university boss's form of Islam is a temptation, at the end of the novel, that he looks like being unable to resist.

This is, finally, a book in which not much happens.  Like the eighteenth century French dialogue novels it consists mostly of conversations – with the head of the Sorbonne, with a retired security agent who has spent a lifetime observing "extremists", with colleagues and lovers – that are always interesting and amusing even if they sometimes read like small essays or polemics.  Houellebecq may be an ageing enfant terrible but he is always intellectually stimulating and, at his best, a master of sardonic humour.  This one is as good as anything he has done in the past.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Happy New Year

Wished a Happy New Year yesterday by a drunk on a bus in the Old Kent Road I realise that my last post was in December.  The 'holiday period' and its aftermath has meant that I have written nothing here in 2015 so far.  This will be remedied shortly when I give my verdict on the new Michel Houellebecq novel, Soumission (Submission) which was published on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo killings and in which, with characteristic sardonic directness, he deals with an imaginary future, not far from now, when a new Fraternité musulmane is holding the balance of power.  You can imagine some of the rest...