"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, 13 September 2007


My Aegean journey which begins in Athens will end in Istanbul, that amazing city which was captured as it was in 1874 in a brilliant verbal painting by the Italian writer Edmondo de Amicis in his Constantinople (1877). In that old cliche he makes Istanbul "come alive" in all its multicultural, teeming sprawl. It reminds you that a good travel book is far more vivid and present than the sort of loose, baggy TV travelogue that sometimes seems to have become its successor.

The book, translated in 2005 by Stephen Parkin, is published by the estimable Hesperus classics press which comes up with so many good things.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The Wanderings of Odysseus

As I'm shortly off to the Aegean for my annual immersion in sea, retsina and crumpled paperbacks, I am reading JV Luce's book, Celebrating Homer's Landscapes, which argues, against the weight of much current scholarship, that Homer's poetic landscapes are real ones (ah, the Literature and Life theme again!).

The cover shows the glorious harbour at Ithaca which allows me to quote one of my own poems from my collection The Narrators.


A harbour so perfect in its enclosing arms
we arrogant humans say: is it natural?
and think of Ulysses with his salt-caked skin
enjoying the long aftermath of war.
Travelling (as Cavafy says in his wise poem)
being much the better part of arriving:
like a book whose last chapter we evade,
recalling a need to put a light to the gas ring
or accomplish any of a dozen light tasks
that might include placing a log on the dying stove.
After that, the tucking of a bookmark in the page
and tapping the closed book on one's knee,
admiring the jacket design which tempted us
in a shop of piled volumes, all deliciously unread.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

The Imaginary Elephant: Literature and Life

I have noticed some discussion recently in the literary blogs about that old chestnut: literature (or 'writing' as it is now more fashionable to call it) and Life (which always seems to deserve a special initial capital all of its own). The sentimentalists say that literature must be subordinate to Life (aka 'the real world') and the flinty highbrows say that Literature (with an initial capital to retaliate) is sufficient unto itself. It doesn't have to justify itself by being seen to be 'realistic'. It doesn't have to be 'about' anything except itself and its own processes.

I am saying nothing, but here are three quotations:-

1. James Joyce, Stephen Hero: "But that is wrong: that is the mistake everyone makes. Art is not an escape from life."

2. Same guy, same place: "For Stephen art was neither a copy nor an imitation of nature: the artistic process was a natural process."

3. Virginia Woolf, Essays: "Why should the final test of plot, character, story, and the other ingredients of a novel lie in their power to imitate life? Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?"

Friday, 7 September 2007

Paula Rego: O Vinho

To Marlborough Fine Art in Piccadilly for the private view last night of a new exhibition of lithographs by Paula Rego. Showing what the catalogue discreetly terms "the transforming effects of wine" (but looking rather more like a Hogarthian catalogue of the horrors of its abuse) the series of lithographs accompanies a short story by the Portuguese novelist Joao de Melo called O Vinho [Wine]. Waiters deftly circulated in the crowd at the opening party topping up our bumpers of champagne and we tried hard not to make a connection! The lithographs, each one of which is a story on its own, are part of an artist's book, produced in a limited edition of 100 copies and available between now and the end of September at a special pre-publication price of £650. Paula kindly said I could reproduce one of the pictures here, "The End of the Story", and the exhibition, which is well worth a visit, is open at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 6th October. Highly recommended.

The Discreet Charm of Mr C

How does one conquer the urge to say too much about a book whose virtue is in its restraint, its dry, elliptical, pared-down quality? JM Coetzee’s latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year - which like most of his recent work mingles an autobiographical persona with the more ‘normal’ procedures of fiction - centres on the reflections of an ageing novelist (closely resembling Coetzee himself) who has been invited by a German publisher to contribute to a collection of “Strong Opinions” alongside five other eminent writers. The writer, John C, has no problem with generating such material and his views on the contemporary university, Tony Blair and George Bush, and a host of others matters are nothing if not strong and opinionated. They are probably also Coetzee’s own views and they are expressed in a style which will be too unadorned for some but which for me has an attractive pithiness. The dryness of his reflections and his tentative awareness of the shortcomings of his world view modulate into the driest of humour as these essayistic passages are coupled to parallel passages in which the subplot develops of his relationship with Anya, a cheerfully direct young Filipina woman hired as a typist but also for her attractiveness (a bargain about which she is quite unillusioned). Her contemporary idiom (“At a personal level, things are going well with my life”) and the law-of-the-jungle outlook of her boyfriend Alan bring both an unexpected humour and a dash of realism to the emotionally underdeveloped older thinker. Given that this under-story is told in short fragments it develops a surprising interest and is in the end deeply moving.

This isn’t a conventional novel (Hurrah!) and it freely mixes fictional and non-fictional elements but I found it a compelling read, a wise and profound book. There are not so many of those around that we can afford to pass on them.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Navel-Gazing: What is the Literary Blogosphere For?

Having launched this blog less than two months ago and still feeling my way I was interested to see a thread in the Book Depository Editor's Corner about a meeting in London of book trade people to discuss literary blogs that seemed to suggest some weren't of much value. I am sure this is true - some are pretty poor and some of the discussions at, for example, the Guardian books blog are ill-expressed drivel as far as I can see - but it does raise the question of what criteria you use to determine whether a blog is good or bad. Or put more simply, what are literary blogs for? In my case I was attracted in the usual internet way by the fact that it was possible, that it was there. By a few keystrokes, using design templates, one could create a reasonably stylish blog in a few minutes and using it is as easy as falling off a log. But what is it for? That's harder. Two key features of blogging - anonymity and extreme subjectivity - didn't attract me in the least, which probably means that for some people it isn't a real blog at all. Anonymity in particular (apart from those who are writing under censorship or who are whistleblowers) completely baffles me. As a published author I wanted to use it to maintain my profile and inform potential readers about what I was up to but that raises another question: who is the audience? Serious literary readership in the UK is very small as print-runs (I am also a small poetry publisher so I know all about that!) and sales of poetry and new literary fiction demonstrate. These are pitifully small so if you get a few thousand readers of a blog you are doing well (I have had less than 150 hits so far in nearly two months!). It's also quite fun to do which shouldn't be dismissed as a motive but I suppose one does want to stimulate a bit of debate and get some responses (other than those from people trying to sell their T-shirts) and that is proving harder. Some literary blogs are excellent and thought-provoking though some are very poorly written which is unforgivable for literary material and some are a bit manipulative - excluding posts because the comment doesn't fit rather than using that tool to keep out the flaky or obsessive. But on the whole they give a chance for some views to be ventilated and that has to be a good thing. So I shall press on for the time being. Please join in!

Monday, 3 September 2007

No, no, no: the McEwan problem that isn't

In an article in Sunday's Independent on Sunday John Sutherland swung to the defence of Ian McEwan whom he described as the best living English novelist (discuss). Sutherland's argument was that the circus surrounding McEwan's new film Atonement (that's funny, I thought it had been written by Keira Knightley) had been the occasion of an outburst of resentment against McEwan based simply and solely on envy. Managing to misrepresent a very perceptive review by John Banville in the New York Review of Books some time ago of his earlier novel Saturday, Sutherland lambasted those who had been attacking the novelist for being too rich, too successful etc etc. With friends like Sutherland, McEwan needs no enemies. They would do well to pipe down. The film (which I don't doubt will prove to be excellent) is being mercilessly over-hyped and if I were McEwan I'd quietly stand back and let it make its way. The debate about whether the short novella Chesil Beach, which I seem to have liked more than other literary bloggers, should win the Booker (it shouldn't, for reasons to numerous to go into here) is one thing but this familiar newspaper column obsession with stroking the bruised egos of those whose pain is to be insufficently loved at the moment of their triumph is another. Knock it on the head, is my advice to the North London literary gents. As Ms Winehouse observed on the question of rehab: "I ain't got the time, and if my Daddy says I'm fine." There isn't a problem here.

But excuse me, that's Amazon at the door with the new Coetzee...

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Nature Notes

Here is a heron enjoying the morning sun on a remote stretch of water in the depths of the English countryside. Er, not exactly, I sidled up to him this morning in Regent's Park, a stone's throw from the roar of traffic in Marylebone Road and the queues forming outside Madame Tussaud's. The miracle of central London's parks is easily overlooked.