"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, 30 August 2007

A Fine and Private Place

What was I doing today lurking suspiciously in the churchyard of St Giles-in-the-Fields in London? The explanation was the man with a yellow-tipped microphone from BBC Radio 4 who was doing a programme on Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. Having written Marvell's biography in 1999 I was being interviewed at the church where the poet was buried in 1678. We started outside, setting the scene, and remarking that "in-the-fields" was not quite the right term for this church behind Tottenham Court Road and a stone's throw from Tin Pan Alley with a grinding set of road works outside replacing the Victorian water pipe system. It was a relief to get inside the church and have our chat about the poem in front of the poet's memorial. But before we did so I noticed that the recording equipment was laid out on a gravestone. What did that remind me of? Yes, Marvell's poem itself where he urges his mistress to seize the moment for pleasure because after death it will be too late: "The grave's a fine and private place/But none I think do there embrace."

The programme, in the Adventures in Poetry slot, will be broadcast on Sunday 21st October.

The Latest Prints in Town

Last night at the Bankside Gallery next to Tate Modern I was at the private view of a new exhibition, "Eyeplay", of prints featuring established and up and coming artists. The exhibition described itself as "A Playground of the Latest Prints in Town". One doesn't want to go on about this awful summer but it was a joy to see the evening sunshine spilling at last on the crowds along the South Bank of the Thames where the gallery is situated. I used to live around here in the late 1970s and 1980s when it was not yet transformed from a rather atmospheric cityscape of crumbling warehouses and empty wharves into its current lively scene of restaurants, bars, galleries, upmarket shops and...people, lots and lots of them. It is hard to recall that it was once a rather deserted and empty place. It was also the site of some vigorous battles by the local community to hang on to their neighbourhood before City money and speculative office-building drove them out of the area. They even campaigned against the reproduction Globe Theatre, now doing a roaring trade, because its site had been earmarked by the local authority for public housing. The nearby Coin Street Community Builders' development of affordable public housing remains a tribute to those campaigners. Cities need this mix of people if they are remain living communities rather than becoming one vast wine bar. The Bankside Gallery, home to the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, was full last night of artists and visitors and the prints were of excellent quality and wide-ranging. The Eyeplay exhibition, curated by Bula Chakravarty Agbo, Frank Kiely and Temsuyanger Longkumer, runs until 9 September.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Au bord de la mer

Now that the summer has returned after all that grey, wet weather here in the UK is it time to think of going down to the sea? I intend to return soon to the Royal Academy's superb exhibition of 19th Century representations of the northern coastline of France from the 1860s and 1870s when Parisians descended on places like Trouville with their parasols and highly unsuitable clothing. There are a couple of stunning Whistlers and others by Monet, Manet, and Renoir. Hurry because it finishes on 30th September.

I seem to have received a lot of invitations to private views over the next seven days (watch this space) so this literary blog will have a flavour of the visual arts for the coming week.

Italo Svevo: Girl Trouble

One of the most enduring - and usually comic - situations in Western literature is when an older man forms a relationship with a younger woman. From the Latin and Greek comedians and satirists through Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" to Nabokov's Lolita, and right up to the present with Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) writers have revelled in this particular stereotype - for stereotype unfortunately is what it usually turns out to be. The man is invariably presented as a hopelessly infatuated and undignified old goat and the young woman as a scheming trollop. But Italo Svevo's As a Man Grows Older, which I have just put down, is one of the most subtle explorations of such a relationship I have come across.

Beautifully written with an exactness of insight into human psychology, Svevo's novel was first published in Italian in 1892 as Senilità and translated by Beryl de Zoete in 1932. It was re-issued in 2001 by New York Review Books with a brief but incisive introduction by James Lasdun. It is about a fortysomething insurance agent in Trieste, Emilio Brentani, who falls for an eighteen year old girl "with big, blue eyes and a supple, graceful body". They meet in the street in Trieste (one of my favourite cities) and he announces rather drastically: "I am very much in love with you, but it is impossible that I should ever consider you as more than a plaything. I have other duties in life, my career and my family." So far so clichéd. But the novel soon develops a rich complexity as the tables are deftly turned. Although the beautiful Angiolina is serially unfaithful she is also presented as a real living character and when Emilio resolves to renounce her after discovering the truth about her he realises, too late, that he cannot live without her. Svevo's first novel (this is his second) was rubbished by the critics and he abandoned writing for 25 years to work for his father-in-law's paint firm. Deciding that he needed to learn English he hired an obscure 25 year old Irishman who taught English in Trieste. His name was James Joyce. It was Joyce who came up with the English title of this book and who helped Svevo to get the second novel published (though he refused to break his rule of never puffing other writers' works in print and wouldn't write an introduction). It is refreshing to see a writer taking an old theme and completely recasting it. Highly recommended!

Monday, 20 August 2007

The Hygiene of the Soul

Next year is the tenth anniversary of the death of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert who provides today's poem in the translation by Peter Dale Scott from Al Alvarez's Penguin Modern Poets selection of 1968 when "dissident" poets were all the rage in Hampstead and beyond. A more subtle and nuanced picture of the Polish literature of today still awaits us. Publishers take note.

The Hygiene of the Soul

We live in the narrow bed of our flesh. Only the inexperienced twist in it without interruption. Rotating around one's own axis is not allowed because then sharp threads wind themselves on to the heart as on to a spool.
It is necessary to fold one's hands behind the neck, half-shut the eyes and float down that lazy river, from the Fount of the Hair as far as the first Cataract of the Great Toenail.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Thoreau Gets Into the IT Debate

There's an interesting article over at the incomparable ReadySteadyBook site by Alan Wall on the future of the book. It has attracted some interesting discussion. If the technophobes sometimes sound a bit reactionary the technophiles on their side are sometimes uncritical in their adulation. It pays, pace McLuhan, to think about ends as well as means. I am currently reading Henry David Thoreau's 1854 American classic, Walden, about the life of self-sufficiency in the woods "on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts". Discoursing on "modern improvements", by which he probably meant the Atlantic telegraph rather than text-messaging, he wrote: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an improved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York." A valuable thought which put simply is: let's judge things by how useful they are rather than just by the fact that they are here.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The End of Ink?

Iris Murdoch said that she could not conceive of writing with anything other than a fountain pen, a view that must seem impossibly fogeyish in an era of daily internet activity at the keyboard or of fingers flashing over the keypads of mobile phones, sending text messages. In those features in the newspapers that show a picture of the Writer's Room and in which various celebrity authors describe their writing habits, a surprising number of Bookerbookmen admit to writing still in longhand and then transcribing it on a keyboard for the final version. I can't imagine that anyone under the age of 25 would think of doing this and even nearly a hundred years ago young novelists like Aldous Huxley would sit at a typewriter in their rooms on the Tuscan coast bashing out the words. The simple answer is that there are no rules. Whatever works for you. I look at those writers' rooms and think: all they would have to photograph in my case is whichever flat space my 12 inch Mac i-Book is currently resting on. All I have ever needed to be able to write are two things: time and an absence of interruption. The means of writing are irrelevant (a quill pen if necessary) as is noise (a pneumatic drill outside the window is no problem, an unwanted phone call a catastrophe).

In one area of my life, an occasional diary, I write in longhand with a fountain pen filled with sepia ink. I don't know why I do this. Maybe because I always have done so. Inertia. I certainly couldn't erect a theory of literary creation based on the flow of ink through a nib. Without wanting to sound pretentious the act of literary creation is a bit of a mystery and if we could isolate the things that make it work we really would be on to something. In reality we can only wait for the spark to come. As Philip Larkin put it, being a poet is often a matter of "waiting for poems to turn up". It's the same for prose too though compositional habits are more regular - if not industrial. One simply has to be prepared for that moment, like firemen ready to slither down the greasy pole when the klaxon sounds.

Monday, 13 August 2007

A Beautiful Sorbet

After that glimpse of people being horrible below here are some roses, blowing in the breeze yesterday in my Welsh garden. Have a nice day!

The God-Monster of Hampstead

In the last post I talked about Elias Canetti (seen here) whom John Bayley, husband of Iris Murdoch, one of his lovers, called "the god-monster of Hampstead". Canetti, the Austrian writer, lived in England from 1939 to the 1980s and his sharp pen in Party in the Blitz digs into several high literary reputations including Murdoch's. In an excellent introduction to the book Jeremy Adler tries to draw the sting of some of these attacks by suggesting that Canetti is in fact describing himself when he savages other writers. It's a fascinating read and one of the interesting threads is the writer's distaste for the English literary party of which he saw many in his Hampstead years. Instead of the civilised café culture of Vienna he went into various crowded rooms full of people standing up and being rather cold and unpleasant to each other. I attend as few of these things as I can myself but I can report that nothing has changed. One comes back on the Tube thinking: wouldn't it have been more productive to have spent the evening in a darkened room hitting myself over the head with a mallet every ten minutes?

Here is Canetti on "Misery at Parties": "It wasn't that you were treated sceptically, it was worse than that. You quite simply didn't exist...It would be an exaggeration to describe the exchange of a few sentences as a conversation, and in any case, the content of a conversation wasn't what mattered, so much as the confirmation of what remained unsaid. What was at issue was observing the proprieties. One mustn't on any account get too near. Edges and boundaries were the important things, and they existed so as not to be infringed."

I prefer real parties where you have fun. They do exist and perhaps there are even some of them in Hampstead.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Something for the Weekend

"The story of a life should contain many puzzles and leave much to guesswork...Some things should be presented in such a way that their nature is always concealed...The story of a life is as secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all." Elias Canetti.

As a professional biographer should I attempt to refute this proposition? I think not. Biography that claims to have penetrated the last mystery of its subject, answered all questions, achieved a 'definitive' account, is absurdly presumptuous. A biography is no more than an attempt on the truth, a brave try, but in the end it will be no more than a version (exact, scholarly, precise, insightful if it is worth anything at all, but never the last word).

This is by way of saying that I am reading Canetti's lethal Party im Blitz translated by Michael Hofmann (2005), the writer's memoir of his London years from 1939 to the Thatcher era. His judgements on individuals (has anyone written more scarifying criticism of TS Eliot?) and English society are fascinating and bracing (some stronger word is needed). I think I shall be coming back to this. I'd happily trade this slice of intellectual life in wartime for the latest 'debut novel' set in World War Two, as every second one seems to be just now.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Thoughts on the Booker Prize

The announcement yesterday of an oddly truncated long list of 13 names (instead of the usual list of 20) for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction has resulted in expressions of surprise at the omissions of famous names like Graham Swift (a previous winner, however). The Booker has always been a rather odd annual fixture and one characterised by often quirky decisions. If you made a list of the best fiction of the last twenty years and compared this each year with the Booker winner you wouldn't find universal correspondences. Sometimes people win with the book that is not their best and sometimes outstanding books are ignored. Sometimes a book which is over-hyped wins and dutiful readers shimmy down to Waterstone's only to find half-way through that the hype hasn't worked for them. Later, the paperback version is found in profusion in the charity shops. The cycle is complete. The good news is that many small publishers and lesser-known names are on the longlist which should mean that the judges have ignored the hype and gone straight to the real quality. Let's hope it does mean that. J.M.Coetzee, who has won the Booker twice, could hardly expect to win again even if his new book will probably be head and shoulders above the rest, so one can see that judges might consider passing him by to give the others a chance. But let's keep our heads. Book prizes can be an amusing diversion but they are as arbitrary as a game of roulette. Good luck to the person whose number eventually comes up.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that only 110 novels were entered. I thought the line was that we were being drowned in a sea of overproduction of books. I would have expected that number to have been higher.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Rack Press Launches its Blog!

Is there no end to the chutzpah of these poets? The Welsh poetry pamphlet imprint, Rack Press, has just launched its new blog. Just because it is one of the tiniest publishers in Wales doesn't mean it can't blog with the best of them from the side of a hill in Radnorshire!

At present its footprint on the blogosphere is very light indeed and the website of the Press is a better bet for immediate information about Rack Press but in the next 48 hours things will start to appear.

And, yes, as well as blogging in this space I am the publisher of Rack Press and I hope to wear my two hats in the future with ease.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

A New Thought for Today

"A work of art is 'good' only if it came into being out of some necessity. It is in this way and in no other that it can be judged."
Rilke Letters to a Young Poet

Like the Kafka quotation below this implies that all great works of art, all great books, are there because they have to be there. They are not superfluous. Though this is true, I wonder if it is perhaps too austere a view of all books - what of the light, the playful, the ludic? Do we always read at the most strenuous pace, at the demanding edge of things, or do we sometimes read to amuse or divert ourselves? Not that lightness of touch and seriousness of purpose are necessarily at odds with one another. Another quote, this time from Sterne's Tristram Shandy: "Sometimes, in his wild way of talking, he would say that Gravity was an errant scoundrel."