"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

Friday, 26 December 2008

My Harold Pinter Story

Well, it's not a very good one but here goes. A couple of years ago I was at a benefit for P.E.N at the Gate theatre, Notting Hill, where a Pinter double bill [A Kind of Alaska and A Slight Ache] was on. At the interval a surge of literati flowed into the tiny bar of the Gate and I found myself thrown against the playwright in a tight corner. Saying something seemed unavoidable but what? I suddenly recalled the opening of the British Library in the mid-1990s, an event (for reasons too long and boring to go into) to which I had been invited. On that day a crowd of writers and scholars, at a given signal, flowed into the virginal Humanities One Reading Room and the Library was declared open. Listening to the boring speeches, I exchanged a brief nod with the man (HP) standing next to me who seemed to share my ennui. So on that night in the Gate my mouth opened and out came the inane words: "Do you remember that day the British Library opened?" Famous for his fierce strategic rudeness to bores and people who irritated him I waited for some put down. Instead, with a broad, gnomic smile he declared in a wonderfully sage-like voice: "I remember many things."

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Literary Crunch: the prospect f0r 2009

Another year ends and the prospects for what I generally call "serious writing" – which amounts to books actually written by the people whose names are on the spine with some impulse of imagination or truth behind them – seem as bleak as ever. One would like to be jolly and optimistic and Positive but the evidence simply smacks you in the face. The bookshops really say it more eloquently than I can: shelves filled with celebrity memoirs and cookery books often ghosted by someone else, a handful of 'literary novelists' allowed at the feast, and the products of marketingthink everywhere to be seen in the form of books cloned to look and feel like previously high-selling books and the really interesting and original ones hiding somewhere out of sight. As a member of the Society of Authors I undergo a regular mediaeval penance of self-flagellation called reading The Author which merely catalogues the decline of serious publishing and in particular the so-called "midlist" of not-quite-best-selling but decent books where most authors live and where the axe is increasingly going to fall. I would like, as I said, to offer a happy seasonal thought but it is impossible. In fact my Christmas Message is: things are far worse and far more alarming than anyone dares to say. This thing I was given to hang around my neck at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer should perhaps have been a necklace of thorns. Cheers!

Thursday, 18 December 2008

No Comment

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Travel Writing: Good or Bad?

A year or so ago when I was doing some writing tutoring at London University under the Royal Literary Fund scheme I was pulled up sharply by a postgraduate student in the middle of a riff of praise for DH Lawrence as a travel writer. She made clear that she thought the kind of thing I was praising (that marvellous passage in one of his Italian books where he becomes aware of an old woman sharing the terrace in front of the church with him above the lake and the abandoned lemon groves and starts to imagine what she might be thinking) was a kind of offensive or neo-colonial invasion of the victimised Other. Vainly, I tried to argue that humane empathy is what makes us different from the fascists but this is the sort of argument one is always destined to lose. The self-righteous always triumph. And I gave up.

I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Morocco before which I actually managed to do what I often fail to do: viz. read a few relevant travel books in advance. Elias Canetti's brief but brilliant The Voices of Marrakech, Peter Mayne's The Alleys of Marrakech [now trading under the title of A Year in Marrakech], Edith Wharton's In Morocco, and, best of the bunch, Paul Bowles's Their Heads Were Green all helped me understand the place and its people better. Of course the 'traveller's tale' with its British variant the funny-foreigner narrative can often distort and misrepresent but these four writers, it seemed to me, had both knowledge and empathy and a real desire to understand what they saw. Obviously they generalise and make judgements about another people but the same thing happens in the opposite direction. It's called being human and I can't help feeling that when it stops and the world judders to a halt under the weight of homogenizing cultural globalisation I shall stop travelling and retreat to a hermit's cell in the desert. In the meantime real, as opposed to silly and gimmicky, travel books will always be worth doing.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Regular Motions: Choosing the Poet Laureate

Yes, thank you, Marrakech was fine (and I may come back to that) but my post-holiday mail included a request from the Poetry Society, of which I am a member, to express a view about a successor to Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate, a blanket request to all members. I think I will be proposing Private Eye's E.J.Thribb whose evocative minimalism has always entertained me. But, before we forget about Andrew, I recall that in September 1999 I made the following observation in my book on Andrew Marvell: "Marvell saw the function of the artist at a time of revolutionary change as being...a witness to the true inner nature of the conflict...Two centuries later another English poet, Matthew Arnold, would argue that a society in the process of rapid change needed at least a few voices prepared to step back from the immediate call to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils". Nicholas Murray: World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell (September, 1999), p38

A few months later in The Guardian Andrew Motion made the following observation:

"Living through a time of revolutionary change, Marvell does not respond as a propagandist for one side or the other, but as someone bearing witness to interior realities...Matthew Arnold...also reminds us of Marvellian virtues when he tells us that during periods of turbulence and rapid change, artists should avoid the temptation to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils". Andrew Motion, The Guardian, 11 March 2000.

Now I know there will be crude, unsophisticated minds who will call this plagiarism but I prefer to see it as a tribute and I am honoured.

And, of course, the new Laureate - seriously - should be female.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Are Computers Bad for You?

Having just experienced an enforced 10-day separation from my computer during which I discovered the pleasures of the internet café and silence I have to say I am delighted to be re-united with my trusty 12-inch Apple iBook. This is not because I am a compulsive geek but because that is where all my stuff appears to be these days and being shut out of it was very frustrating. So thank you Micromend of Tottenham Street, W1 for finally putting me out of my misery late yesterday afternoon.

Like most literary folk I have always had some worries about the computer - not the fogeyish ones about the superiority of the fountain-pen but more seriously about what they are doing to the nature of our minds. I mean that the constant state of alert that permanent broadband connections now put us in, with a PING! every so often as a new email arrives, is at war with the more sustained kinds of concentration and long-haul mental engagement that serious reading demands. The screen is always there and the web's culture of links which makes intellectual grasshoppers of us all is an added threat to the long, slow silences which reading needs. What am I saying? Junk all computers? Of course not. They are useful and we can't do without them but I think we need to devise some strategies for keeping them at bay. Like switching them off (or not switching them on) more often and for longer periods. I know that people who study the brain are examining the issue of how our whole mode of thinking may be undergoing a transformation as a result of the formation of young minds especially by the net and it's a very important issue that could determine the whole future of literacy and intellectual culture. Meanwhile, here's an interesting discussion of the issue if you didn't see it.

Me, I'm off to Marrakesh for a week where I don't expect to take my laptop with me nor cross the threshold of an internet hubble-bubble café.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Of Trains and Alice and the Travelling Zoo

Having just returned from Liverpool on a nightmarish journey on Sunday night of well over six hours as a result of engineering works and a deceased train on the line ahead, my dyspeptic-traveller's reflexes are buzzing. We were diverted to Manchester to board a Virgin train for Euston where the barrier ticket collectors were backed up, menacingly, by a platoon of police in high-viz jackets (and bullet-proof vests?). Once on board, the overcrowding was horrible on these newish but cramped and overloaded trains. How nice therefore to open up Through the Looking Glass and catch this picture by Tenniel of a lost world of rail travel when compartments were spacious and comfortable and civilised. It's true that the Guard who was pursuing Alice for her ticket was deploying means of surveillance which we would judge "inappropriate" today in relation to a female passenger, but the goat and insect add a realistic touch - often these days one feels that railway compartments resemble a zoo. My theory of Technological Regress - that while some things like mobile phone or computer innovation go forward, other things are hurtling backwards - is brought out by contemporary rail travel. Only on those slow trains that glide around the Riviera does one see any more these spacious, comfortable compartments in place of tightly-squeezed seats aiming to make trains as uncomfortable as planes.

That small but perfectly formed readership which subscribes to the Rail for Hereford Bulletin will shortly be able to enjoy/suffer my diatribe against First Great Western in a piece called "Mr Grumpy Goes to Paddington". How could we get through life if there were nothing to moan about?

Friday, 7 November 2008

The Long Day Closes: The Liverpool Literary Festival

One of the consequences of being "an author" is that you get invited to appear at literary festivals to talk about your latest book. I seem to have done a lot of these over the summer and the last one is on Saturday and Sunday at Liverpool, the inaugural Shipping Lines festival. It's a surprise that this is the first in the city but it's nice to end the year's run of (gigs?) in one's home town where I'll be talking about my recent book on Liverpool as part of a panel that will be attempting to see if there is a distinct 'Liverpool voice'. I think the answer is yes but we'll see. That's on Sunday. On Saturday I am on another panel looking at "the books that built me" where we will be talking about the influential books in our lives. Get along there, er, wack.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

La Rentrée Littéraire No 2: The New Echenoz

My second toe dipped into the water of the new French publishing season is the new Jean Echenoz, Courir, about the legendary 20th Century Czech runner, Emil Zatapek. The last novel of Echenoz, Ravel, was singled out by Gabriel Josopovici as his TLS "International Book of the Year" in 2006 and the new one has some similarities. It is a beautifully executed portrait of a man and his art (running where the last one was about composing) written with what Le Monde in its review calls sa manière élégante et joueuse – his playfully elegant style. There is an exquisite subtlety and pace and the driest and most delicate of ironies in Echenoz's unfolding of the story of this extraordinary athlete who broke all records, was fêted by the régime then sent to work in a uranium mine when he supported the Prague Spring. Disdaining style as a runner, his arms flailing like a windmill and his face contorted with pain, Zapatek's stolid determination [a metaphor for writing's solitary assault on the stark cinder path?] is conveyed by Echenoz in a style which, says Le Monde, weighs every word, if not every comma, with scrupulous exactitude.

Will it translate? One of the best contemporary French novelists, Jean Echenoz has been translated (though Ravel waits) once or twice but he is hardly a name to British readers. We seem to like our novels laid on with a wee trowel and this minimalist finesse is, perhaps, not what the British bookbiz scouts have been told to look for.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Anne Stevenson: A New Interview

I interview the poet Anne Stevenson in the latest issue of Planet magazine and I think she has some very interesting things to say about her own poetry and the poetry scene in general.

Planet, as I have observed before here, is one of the indisputably Good Things about Welsh culture and is always worth a read.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Down by the Old Canal: Poetry in Venice

I am just back from Venice where I had a very enjoyable experience reading from my poetry collection The Narrators and from some more recent work. My host was the poet and bookseller John Francis Phillimore, seen here attempting to translate the last of a group of my poems into Italian, an hour or so before the event at his HQ, Old World Books on the Ponte del Gheto Vechio in Venice. A phrase from my slightly fanciful poem "Landscapes" that reads "the man with khaki shorts who writes books in the winter" was exercising John and his assistant at this point while I cowered in another corner of the shop clutching a glass of Prosecco. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening in which we took over a local trattoria and enjoyed a splendid meal and wine. I hope the poems flowed too.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The Novel Still Works: Official

"Mon message est qu'il faut continuer de lire des romans car c'est un bon moyen de comprendre le monde actuel. Le romancier n'est pas un philosophe, ni un technicien du langage, mais celui qui écrit et pose des questions."

This attractive thought comes from the new Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Jean-Marie G. Le Clézio. We are accustomed in Britain to greeting Nobel Laureates with baffled incomprehension on a sliding scale from guilty ignorance of the range of world writing to (more often) defiant parochialism. In this case I am ashamed to say I hadn't even heard of Le Clézio but he sounds interesting.

He delivered this quote yesterday to a firework display of popping flashbulbs at the headquarters of his publisher Gallimard

"My message is that we have to go on reading novels because it is a good way of understanding the real world. The novelist is not a philosopher or a technician of language but someone who writes and asks questions."

Friday, 3 October 2008

How Much Should you Write?

In this morning's Independent books pages, literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, struck by Tony Blair's claim to have written the first 16,000 words of his memoir in 4 days, asks: "How quickly should authors write?" In my experience the most common question asked when a writer meets the public at a bookshop or signing is: "How long did it take you?" I find the question impossible to answer. Firstly, my time, as a full time freelance author gets better results than an academic who has classes to take, essays to mark, admin to perform. So my two years might be equivalent to a don's five years. In addition, most of the time on a non-fiction book is spent on research. The writing is the shorter bit. But the real problem is that no one wants to be honest. With the example of these Flaubertian perfectionists who write 150 words a day who is going to admit to 1500? Actually, I think that figure is probably the truthful norm. A non-fiction writer can produce more, not least because cutting and pasting quotations of 200 words or so isn't exactly creatively exhausting and it boosts your word count. On the other hand, you can actually achieve minus figures if you approach your desk and find that the 1500 words you had built up since the start of the week are actually no good and you must delete them. Sometimes, in writing you go backwards in order to advance.

I once created great amusement with one of my writing students by comparing myself to a carpet-layer. If I had to fit a carpet it would take me a week to do one room. I watch with amazement, therefore, when professionals whip in and do it in less than an hour. If you are skilled, gifted and have a natural aptitude for something you will do it more quickly than someone who writes only one letter or email a week with laborious slowness. Don't believe them if they tell you they just write 400 words a day for a living.

[The above took me nine minutes!!]

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Exposure: Catherine Millet The Sequel

There has been a fair amount written about the current literary season or rentrée in France and one of the high profile titles is by Catherine Millet, author of the notorious The Sex Life of Catherine M. which was translated, for reasons that aren't hard to find, into 45 languages. It contained a remarkably frank account of her lifetime of sexual libertinage and perhaps some of her readers were expecting more of the same with her latest. It is called Jour de souffrance or Day of Suffering (but an epigraph from the standard French dictionary Robert points to another meaning of that phrase - a window that looks out on to someone else's property without giving right of access). The theme of the book is sexual jealousy, the bit that got left out of the last one. CM's discovery of this phenomenon dates from her discovery, on the table of her grand Paris flat that she shared with her long term partner, the writer Jacques Henric (who presumably consented to join her in this act of intimate self-display) of a photograph taken by her husband of a naked young woman, pregnant, together with a notebook in which he records another sexual infidelity. The book is about the shock of this discovery, its effect on her subconscious life, the series of "crises" it puts her through, and her ultimate survival. The irony that someone attached to her own "vie libertine" should be outraged by someone else doing the same thing should properly flash at us in large neon letters. But CM doesn't see it this way. In one passage she disdains on aesthetic grounds to go down the trite and commonplace road of "what is sauce for the goose etc" and seems to argue that her varied sexual life was her thing or "truc" and that everyone knew about it which makes it OK but Jacques' secret sexual life was not on the table so she is right to be devastated by the discovery of it.

If this sounds like a bit of highbrow smut it isn't. Catherine Millet is a distinguished art critic and writes with forensic insight into her own mental processes and reactions in a way that could easily have become narrow and obsessional but somehow it doesn't. Her references to artists are always relevant and insightful and there is more about her early life as a rebellious schoolgirl in a Paris suburb falling in with poets and artists and becoming an art critic and editor of art press and her dreams of becoming a writer. There are some fine Proustian moments as when she picks out a long blonde strand of hair from what she thought was her motorcycle helmet (she is short-haired) and realises she can never wear it ever again. As a companion piece to the earlier shocker it is more reflective and more introspective. It won't sell like hot cakes like its predecessor but I think it is the better book.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Unrelated: the movie

How important is point of view in a movie? This was the question I found myself asking after escaping the nightmarish labyrinth of the Barbican cinema in London last night (we emerged through exit doors into a network of underground carparks, desperately trying to find our way out this notorious complex like the stars of some second rate noir thriller). I had been to see Joanna Hogg's 'acclaimed' new film Unrelated about an extended family on holiday in a lush Tuscan villa near Siena - not long after seeing Olivier Assayas's film Summer Hours starring Juliette Binoche. [The less said about the latter's dance collaboration at the National Theatre just now the better.] Both films put on display middle-to-upper middle class families most of whose members one would gladly strangle with one's bare hands. In both cases the slowly unspooling narcissism of these people - lovingly attentive camera shots bringing out every detail of their lives and, more to the point, possessions - has one crying out for a Truffaut, for example, who would have ensured some of them came to a nasty end. As the film proceeded, one realised that this longed for resolution (I would have settled for an If-style massacre) was not going to happen and that the film-makers were actually in love with these people. I had a similar moment of revelation half-way through Ian McEwan's novel Saturday when I realised that the smug and self-regarding surgeon, Perowne, was probably not intended by the author to revolt us but on the contrary was to be seen as a hero. The critics have labelled this film "subtle" and it is beautifully filmed and delectably pictorial (hard to get the Tuscan landscape wrong) but only Kathryn Worth as Anna, the fortysomething with an obscure marital problem that sends her holidaying on her own with these characters, is explored in any degree of depth. It's a sort of posh Mike Leigh film without the humour and, from one point of view it has a sociological interest, fixing perfectly the face of The New British Crudity, the middle-class yobs boasting of having pissed against the baptistery door in Siena, the hideous party games, the obsessive alcohol consumption, the whining, the general oafishness in luxurious surroundings of moneyed people who would once have boasted of their grace or elegance and sneered at the chavs instead of trying to emulate them.

Back to my question. I could just be missing the subtlety here. Perhaps the film was making a satirical point, just not choosing to do it with a heavy hand. Possibly, but the evidence is slight. The tenor of a lot of criticism, in the wake of the decades of Theory, has been to deprecate strong opinions, stances, commitment, "grand narratives", political engagements, in favour of a non-judgemental showing. With hierarchies of value no longer attractive in the intellectual sphere there is a kind of loose, post-modernish tolerance or letting-it-all-hang-out with everything "equally valid", no course of action privileged over another. So this is the kind of cinema we increasingly get. For those of us more inclined to be engagé, perhaps the answer is to supply our own imaginative retributions. Here was one cinema-goer directing in his head a scene of carnage from the rear of the Barbican cinema!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Funky Fogeyless New Book Website

I have just been sent details of a new book website called www.untitledbooks.com whose sales pitch is below. It looks pretty funky to me and is run by two literate young women who say they are aiming at a "young" audience with their "young" site. Very exciting and I wish them the best of luck but, hey, what about us post-twenty-year-old fogeys? Don't we read too? I just typed in my name in the search box and guess what came back: "Sorry, nothing was found on this search. Please try again with an alternative keyword." Sob, sob, I have ten titles to my name. [On reflection, maybe I didn't use the bookshop-bit-of-it box. Vanity on hold.]

Untitled Books is a young, hip, beautiful new web site bringing the most exciting authors and their work to a young, discerning audience. It is a literary service and online bookshop that combines an authoritative selection of book recommendations, with continually updated, exclusive editorial content.

Great reads from the entire spectrum, from classics and forgotten gems to new titles, are handpicked by literary experts and brought together in one place to provide simple, quick and insightful advice for anyone seeking that next unputdownable read. Books are arranged in themes such as Desire, Intoxication, Great Adventures and Violence, to encourage the type of browsing associated with real life bookshops and guiding you to the best in non-fiction, fiction and poetry.

This digestible approach is complemented by the online magazine, featuring articles, author recommendations and interviews with big names such as Julian Barnes, Philip Gourevitch and James Frey, and championing the writers producing the most exciting work at the moment. You will also find articles, interviews and new short fiction published on the site each month. Authors recommend their favourite books, what inspires them and who to watch out for. Untitled Books also aims to find, support and promote the work of up and coming and new authors. Every featured author’s work can be bought via the site, making Untitled Books an essential destination for readers, authors and publishers.

And for the literary lonely there is a brilliant, offbeat, occasionally extraordinary lonely hearts page.

Untitled Books values its independent approach; there are no incentives to publicise certain books, nor pressure to follow trends. The articles and the recommendations are produced purely in the interests of those who love books and want to discover great reading and new writers from around the world and across the genres. Untitled Books brings you the best writing out there.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Intelligent Literature and the e-book

The Independent on Sunday ran a feature yesterday asking whether "intelligent literature" could survive the e-book future. I think the answer turned out to be Yes.

One of the more notable contributions to this Sunday morning symposium was from Sue Thomas, who "teaches the world's only MA in creative writing and new media at the Institute of Creative Technology at De Montfort University".

She explained:

"The aim of my course is to produce 'transliterate' writers – ie, literate across many different kinds of media. When we think 'literacy' we think about print and transliteracy is about shaking off that domination of print which has, in a sense, I think, been a distraction.

"The internet has caused us to rethink what we mean by literacy: the [traditional] idea of literacy implies that before print people were illiterate – but, in fact, people simply were literate in many other things, such as oral and visual culture.

"One of the writers from my course is Alison Norrington, a chick-lit author: she learnt how to take her stories beyond the book on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, by making little movies, by sending her heroine into Second Life. Another is Christine Wilkes, who has a filmmaking background and wrote an interactive memoir using design and programming. You don't need to be able to read and write much to tell a story.

"Will books exist in 50 years? Definitely, but they will also be just one of the many ways we experience art. I feel quite cynical about the cloak of preciousness that's been woven around the novel: it's such a recent medium – we've only had it a few hundred years and yet you often hear people say, 'We've always had novels.' No we have not!"

My problem with this is not its argument that we take non-print culture seriously. Of course we should. It is with the language here. Why has the "domination" of print been a "distraction"? Why is one "cynical" about the supposed "cloak of preciousness that's been woven around the novel"? Shouldn't writers and people concerned with the future of "intelligent literature" be able to write clearly and logically and use words with a little more precision?

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Turn Those Pages: More from the Booker Circus

Imagine a major prize for new discovery in quantum physics in awarding which the chair of the judges announced proudly: "Actually I have never heard of the Big Bang theory." But in the wacky world of British book culture other rules apply. Michael Portillo, now Mr. Nice Guy having shed his horrible Thatcherite associations and having been on the telly a lot, is this year's Chair of the Man Booker fiction prize judging panel. He announced on Tuesday at the unveiling of the shortlist of six authors: "I am not a literary expert." Louise Doughty, one of the other judges, who, though she doesn't say so herself, I should have thought from her work is 'a literary expert' explained (helpfully for anyone with hopes of being a future Man Booker winner) that what she was looking for was a "page-turner". Having myself just re-read Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground with the pages flying out of my hands as I was whipped along by his astonishing flow of words, I have never understood this "page-turner" notion which is so often deployed as a weapon in the war against serious writing. But Louise Doughty had more insights for us: "The ability to come up with a good plot and create a good structure are great literary qualities - it is not just about how to make a finely turned sentence. The ability to move a story on in an engaging way, and the creation of character - these are great literary skills." Damn those finely-turned sentences!

The other casualty of the day was Salman Rushdie, grand old man of the litprize culture, who was left off because his work is "patchy" and, presumably, the pages hadn't moved for Michael and his team in this instance. The Guardian called this a "rebuff" but maybe his "great literary skills" were simply having a holiday from the Booker. A holiday from the Booker. Now there's a good plot idea.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Are there too many books?

This cartoon from last Friday's Le Monde makes fun of that annual French ritual la rentrée littéraire [the new publishing season] into which are packed, it seems, most of the year's new literary titles in order to have everyone lined up for the autumn literary prizes. Each year there is the same article concentrating on how many titles are coming out. I have tried to get comparable figures for the UK but my Googling skills are evidently not what they were. The headline news is that 676 novels are published this year in France compared with 727 last year, a seven per cent drop. Back in 1998 there were only 488. Of this year's 676, 466 are French and 210 by foreign authors. It goes without saying that the British proportion would be a lot less than this.

The cartoon shows an unmistakeable Gallimard book cover with the title: "Take me, everyone!" with the implication that this is a publishers' orgy, throwing themselves at the public.

Yeats once announced, in the Cheshire Cheese, as he looked around at the massed ranks of poets thronging the bar: "There are too many of us." Obviously, he did not consider himself supernumerary and this is the point surely: that if we say too many books are published we never actually mean our own. And in one sense not enough books are published if we fail to find truly excellent ones in the cascade of trash.

As I keep saying in this space, the problem with contemporary publishing is the narrowing of range, the lack of ambition, the failure to encourage real originality and real innovation, the playing safe with more-of-the-same which is what you get when the marketing people rather than the people with genuine literary taste are calling the shots.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Does Anyone Edit Books Any More?

Having shelled out £14.99 for a new hardback book - in this case the 'controversial' new polemic Excavating Kafka by James Hawes - one doesn't really expect to come across a sentence like this: “It’s the K.myth, with its mania for a rose-tinted obsession with Kafka’s emotional and family life, that is to blame for this incredible blindness of Kafka scholars." This horrible prose is characteristic of the slapdash style of this book, for which, of course, the author is to blame, but did no one read the text before it slipped out of the publisher's hands? Grr!

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Stephen Romer: Poetry Doesn't Bite

I've said here before how puzzled I am that most literary bloggers seem to run a mile from contemporary poetry. Stephen Romer's Yellow Studio might be worth trying if you are suffering from this particular phobia. It's one of the best collections of 2008 and a substantial volume where all his skills of tender eroticism and lovely fluency of line are on display. The final section of the book, which contains a series of poems written after the death of his father, is particularly striking. Published by Carcanet under its "Oxford Poets" rubric (an obscurity explained by the fact that they bought up Oxford University Press's outstanding poetry list a few years ago when the venerable OUP's marketing people told them to junk their poetry) this volume was even reviewed in The Observer when it came out, a treatment normally reserved for the poetry celebs. Go on, try it.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Country and The City: Liverpool in the Welsh Marches

If you are contemplating a wet Bank Holiday weekend in Wales then you might like to consider at least one event that is under cover. I shall be talking at the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts on Friday 22 August at 4pm about my book on Liverpool, So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool. The photograph here shows a display in Waterstone's main shop in Liverpool where it has been designated "A Waterstone's Best-Seller" in the local books section as you enter the shop. The Festival is set in the beautiful countryside of the Welsh Marches and, being on the borders, some events are in venues in England and some in Wales. I think this one will be in England. You will be welcome.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Edinburgh Book Festival: Tales from the Yurt

I wished I could have spent longer at the Edinburgh Festival yesterday where I took part in two events: one about travel writing (see previous post) and the other an Amnesty event of readings from imprisoned writers. The hospitality was excellent and here I am outside the "Authors' Yurt", a splendid concept, where authors go to be briefed about their events, meet each other, and, after the event, to consume a noggin or two of the sponsor's whisky. The word 'civilised' springs to mind.

Out in the Edinburgh streets one is accosted by performers handing out flyers for their shows and one man (whom I suspected of being a religious zealot rather than a mime artist) stopped me and said: "Are you interested in the Truth?". Entering into the ludic spirit of things I replied: "No, I prefer Lies." What larks.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I am dashing (here is one of the live sprinters in Martin Creed's installation at Tate Britain today doing what we'd all like to do, sprint down the main hall at the Tate) off tomorrow (Monday 11 August, 8pm) to the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss my book A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire. Agnostic about the usefulness of book festivals I am nonetheless looking forward to this event which I am sharing with Ted Jones, author of The French Riviera a literary guide to that very literate part of the globe.

Get your running shoes on and get down there!

Monday, 4 August 2008

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: The Infinitesimal Novel

It is that season of the year when the Man Booker Prize longlist is released and this time I find it hard even to stifle a yawn. In the search for some interesting contemporary fiction away from those dismal 3 for 2 window displays in Waterstone's, it is sometimes helpful to compare what is happening elsewhere. I have just read Jean-Philippe Toussaint's wonderfully original novel L'Appareil-Photo which is to be published in November by the estimable Dalkey Archive, translated by Matthew B Smith as Camera. This short novel was first published in 1989 and it is an exquisitely funny book that is at once about everything and nothing. Its immaculate descriptions of the banality of the quotidian are, I feel, a kind of subversive attack on realism and it is just the sort of perfectly written, original, intellectually stimulating fiction that one would love British publishers to let us read.

The current éditions de Minuit paperback comes with a fascinating interview with Toussaint by Laurent Demoulin in which the author talks about his approach to fiction. They discuss how this kind of writing can best be labelled. One possibility is to call it, as some French critics have done: "Le nouveau 'nouveau roman'" or even "école de Minuit" after the publisher who has promoted it. British critics would probably plump for "minimalist" but Toussaint himself has proposed "roman infinitésimaliste" which I don't think needs translating. As he puts it in the interview [my translation]: "The term 'minimalist' merely suggests the infinitely small, whereas 'infinitesimalist' refers as much to the idea of the infinitely large as the infinitely small: it contains the two kinds of infinity that one should always encounter in a book." His art of maximal suggestion through minimal means works for this reader.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

V.S.Naipaul or Does Genre Matter?

The idea that literary genres have fixed rules and determined boundaries, infringing which is a kind of solecism, an offence against classical decorum, would be thought laughable in any contemporary critical forum. Aristotle is dead and a playwright is more likely to be applauded for exploding dramatic conventions than for observing the 'Unities' of the old textbooks. My own 'novel' of 2001, A Short Book About Love, in its unclassifiability - it mixed fact, fiction, humour, seriousness, autobiography, the essayistic - is a case in point. If 'postmodernism' leaves one legacy it's the idea that mixing it is OK. I largely go along with this but I know there is an argument, occasionally heard, that genre is actually a useful concept, that it works, and is something a skilful writer can exploit with great success. The sonnet, for example, in its strict Shakespearean form, still has life in it and poets can get something out of it (see my forthcoming example in the Autumn issue of Poetry Salzburg Review!).

All this is by way of saying that I have, belatedly, caught up with V.S.Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival (1987) which is marketed as a novel but is plainly an account of his own arrival in the Wiltshire countryside in the mid 1980s to witness changes in that rural society in the shadow of a crumbling country estate on which he lives in a rented cottage. It could easily have been marketed as a straight autobiography but the publishers aren't daft and it's subtitled "A Novel in Five Sections". I doubt if a single 'fact' has been changed and - this is the crucial thing - reading it one is convinced that this is a book about Naipaul himself at every stage of the way. On the other hand, the fictional format (or willing acceptance of its ground rules one might say) works perfectly. It's an expansive novel that repeats and recapitulates and does its business at leisure. In the end it works as a reading experience so what more could one want?

Monday, 21 July 2008

Hammershoi: the Poetry of Silence

Discovering a new artist is like discovering a new writer: a whole world of expression and consciousness suddenly opens up before you. The Royal Academy's current exhibition of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi [I can't do the oblique accent across the 'o'] is just such an opportunity. Working in the first couple of decades of the 20th Century, Hammershoi (1864-1916) painted endless interiors of his Copenhagen house - as the RA brochure puts it: "quiet, haunting interiors, their emptiness disturbed only occasionally by the presence of a solitary, graceful figure, often the artist's wife. Painted in the subtlest tones of silvery grey, these sparsely-furnished rooms exude a sense of melancholy, introspection and hypnotic quietude". The exhibition is subtitled appropriately: "The poetry of silence." As well as these expressive interiors there are some equally evocative landscapes, including a wonderful view of Montague Street in Bloomsbury 102 years ago, down the side of the British Museum. The exhibition is on until 7 September.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Chatwin Uncovered

The picture here shows some of the participants in the Chatwin Symposium at Oxford today. The gentleman in the white jacket is Bruce Chatwin's younger brother Hugh and the lady in blue is his widow Elizabeth, talking to Symposium organiser, Jonathan Chatwin, who is not actually related. The Symposium heard papers from me, Susannah Clapp, author of With Chatwin, and several international scholars and Chatwin specialists. It was a very stimulating occasion and I learned a lot. The picture here was taken in the Divinity School, Old Bodleian Library, where there was also a display of some Chatwin items, including notebooks and photographs.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Iliya Troyanov Reviewed

My review of Iliya Troyanov's The Collector of Worlds, a fine novel about the Victorian traveller, Richard Burton, is in today's Independent book section.

See below for an earlier posting about this book.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Bruce Chatwin: First Ever Conference

If you are interested in the life and work of Bruce Chatwin you may want to know about this day conference on Saturday 19th July in Oxford. It is organised by Jonathan Chatwin (no relation!) of Exeter University in conjunction with the Centre for the Book at the Bodleian Library and New College Oxford. Chatwin's widow, Elizabeth Chatwin, will be speaking alongside various other scholars and critics. As the author of the first book on Chatwin (in 1993) I shall be presenting a paper myself and taking part in a panel at the end of the day with Elizabeth Chatwin. There is a useful Chatwin website by the way.

The Conference is the first ever in the UK though I recall having attended one in Turin on 11 December 1997 called "Chatwin: oltre il viaggio..." [Chatwin: Beyond the Journey] and have the T-shirt to prove it. I nearly brought the house down by addressing the conference in Italian (coached by my wonderful interpreter) with the words: "I am sorry that I cannot talk to you tonight in Italian." I then delivered my paper in English. It was also the first time I have written an article in a continental newspaper because that morning I had an article in La Stampa. I wonder what Chatwin's current stock is like in Europe? On that evening in 1997 he was the last word in literary chic.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Happy Birthday, Mr Blogger!

Today is the first anniversary of this blog and this is the 99th post. I was about to deliver myself of some profound reflection on the art of literary blogging but then I suddenly, and uncharacteristically, decided to honour the virtues of silence. Instead contemplate this image of Venus from the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Blast! Wyndham Lewis at the NPG

After a rather jejeune display of the annual BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery (very conventional, almost photographic realism has made a massive comeback in this annual exhibition) it was a delightful shock to step into the new Wyndham Lewis Portraits exhibition at the opposite end of the corridor. Many of these are familiar, not least as Penguin and other bookjackets, but they really do confirm Lewis's mastery of draughtsmanship. Modernist greats like Eliot, Pound and Joyce are here and, er, Edith Sitwell and there is a magical drawing of Rebecca West I hadn't seen before. Lewis lived at an extraordinarily exciting epoch of artistic vigour and newness. His aesthetic battles seem like real ones where ours are with triviality, crass marketing and the invasion of the arts by celebrity culture. It's a tiny exhibition for a fiver but still unmissable. It's on until 19th October

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Do I Like Science Fiction?

Thanks to the Oxfam Bookshop in Hereford for this 1963 Penguin edition of John Christopher's 1956 novel, The Death of Grass. I remembered I had been looking for it ever since it was mentioned on a Channel 4 series about science fiction last year in which I took part (very, very briefly to say something, mostly edited out, on Huxley's Brave New World). Christopher's novel was said to be one of the classier examples of the genre which I'm not normally a fan of, except that if you start to include Huxley, Orwell etc then I suppose I am. This chilling novel is about the effect of a plant virus that kills off grass, wheat etc etc and results in millions dying of starvation in Asia before it reaches Europe. Britain's Government makes arrangements to atom bomb the cities to get rid of hungry mouths and the citizens overnight take up arms and start looting and killing each other. One family and friends get through the road blocks thrown up around London and head for a stoutly defended Lake District valley, murdering all sorts of innocent folk along the way without compunction, in order to reach the haven of their brother's secluded Westmorland farm. That summary makes it sound garish but actually the USP of this fiction is its quiet, intimate realism, the way it shows horrifying things happening in a familar English landscape with familiar English characters. It's at the opposite pole of the flashy techno-fantasy of Hollywood scary movies and somehow more disturbing and terrifying as a result. Overnight, it suggests, civilisation can mutate into barbarism. Very effective.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Biography, again.

Sorry to return again to the subject of literary biography but there was a long article in the Guardian book section on Saturday by Kathryn Hughes about the fortunes of literary biography. She seemed to be saying (what many of us literary biographers have been saying for some time) that literary biography is entering into choppy waters. She made the surprising claim that such biographies were still holding up in sales which is certainly not my reading of the situation and most publishers and agents, I think, would now agree that literary biography - which formerly enjoyed very high prestige, is in the doldrums and not smiled upon by the sales and marketing people who drive contemporary publishing. Hughes spoke to several fashionable metropolitan names in the biography field who said everything in the garden was lovely which, for them, I am sure it is, but in the more bleak and windswept parts of Grub Street it is a different story. Many publishers simply will not commission a new literary biography of a classic writer. Does this matter? If everyone has been 'done' then probably not. Hughes, associating herself with the above Fashionable Names, claimed that many recent offerings had not been very good (naming no names). I am not sure about this but where I really differ from her is in her argument that biography is some kind of special calling and not something any good writer can turn her or his hand to. I did, however, like her admission that on her "life-writing" course (teaching people to write biography just now is a bit like teaching people to drive a pony and trap) she recommends Lytton Strachey. His revolutionary approach just after the First World War involved breaking with the tombstone-like "Life and Letters" two volume literary lives that were the norm at that time in order to be short, esssayistic, sharp and iconoclastic. This was a wonderful tonic. We need it again.

In the end the article pointed to what I see as an optimistic future. The wind will blow around the establishment biographers but the field may become open to writers who do it differently, taking an unconventional angle, and rejecting the standard cradle-to-grave life. New forms, new ways of discussing the writing life, are welcome. It goes without saying, however, that the work remains the thing and the only book about a writer worth reading is the one that sends you scurrying back to the texts.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

How Pedantic Should We Be?

There seems to have been a sudden small eruption of interest in the Victorian traveller, Sir Richard Burton, with a recent TV documentary by Rupert Everett (which I missed because I was travelling myself in Turkey) and now a new novel by the Bulgarian-born novelist Iliya Troyanov who writes in German. I have just filed my review of The Collector of Worlds for The Independent so I will keep my powder dry for the moment except to mention in passing that Burton of course features substantially in my new book about the Victorian travellers, A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire.

I just wanted to say that the translation by William Hobson is fluent and readable and achieves what all translators want to achieve I would guess: the feeling that one is actually reading the novel in its original language. The production is also up to Faber's customary standards except that I noticed several examples of what are traditionally regarded as grammatical howlers: use of "comprised of", "totally disinterested" to mean "totally uninterested" and "dependent" where it should have been "dependant". Apart from demonstrating that one has been paying attention to the book under review is anything served by pointing this out? (For the record I didn't in my review.) Or should one take up the cudgels on behalf of 'proper English'? Some things can no doubt be dismissed as pedantry (except that the 'disinterested' issue results in the stripping of a useful word of its entire meaning) and if, overall, the prose is excellent, why cause trouble? Also, with growing evidence that undergraduates are struggling with basic English (I have direct experience of this) perhaps these nit-pickings are a luxury we can't afford. Bigger problems need tackling. Or should it be zero tolerance?

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Slightly Foxed

Back refreshed from my two weeks in Turkey and Greece the padded envelope spills out the latest issue of Slightly Foxed where you can read my short piece on Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals as well as many other interesting pieces such as Jeremy Noel-Tod taking a slightly sceptical line about W G Sebald. Slightly Foxed has the strap line "The Real Reader's Quarterly" which is reminiscent of another magazine called The Reader. Both seem to assume that there is such a thing as a "reader" which the people who read more self-consciously literary or intellectual periodicals are presumably not. I can't fathom this odd premiss but that doesn't matter, because Foxed is a a good read and is good at resurrecting sometimes neglected classics.

After torrential rain on Monday in Saloniki it was nice to get back to sunny English weather.

Friday, 23 May 2008

The Survival of the Essayist

Reading John Gross, author of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, in today's TLS, on the continuing role of the essayist (he was reviewing Stefan Collini's Common Reading collection of essays) at a time of high academic specialisation, I shared Gross's (and Collini's) uncertainty about the future of this phenomenon. As a non-academic writer (in the sense of not having any university affiliation) I have sometimes fallen into the trap of academic-baiting. But the old conflict between Grub Street and Academe now seems merely self-indulgent. All those who care about literature and its continuing life in modern societies need to pull together these days. Trying to think of a good example I decided that Primo Levi was a fine representative of the essayist and his "To a Young Reader" in Other People's Trades was one of his best. One of his pieces of advice in this essay was to show work to other people but: "Not another writer: a writer is not a typical reader, he has preferences and peculiar fixations, faced by a beautiful text he is envious." Levi also added that his stylistic goal was "that of maximum information with minimum clutter". That wouldn't have got him a job in a department of English in, say, 1990.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Trop Chérie

Perhaps the phenomenon of political memoir or "bystander political memoir" is not a worthy subject for a literary blog because it has more to do with just about anything other than literature but there have been so many of these recently that they are hard to ignore. That by Chérie Booth has attracted a lot of vitriol, in part because (seemingly innocent of British social history since the 1944 Education Act) she seems to think that there is something unusual about a bright working class kid getting a classy education and ending up in Connaught Square. She still believes that it is a miracle that "someone from Liverpool" (where seemingly everyone is an ill-educated slum-dweller) could end up enjoying the high life. Here I declare an interest, having been brought up a few streets away from Chérie in the north Liverpool suburb of Waterloo. Let the benighted working class girl take up the story, in a speech given on 17th June 2004 to the Literatures of the Commonwealth Festival in Manchester:

"I myself have been an avid reader from the day I first learned to read at the age of five. My mother and grandmother were also great readers and I am proud to carry on the family tradition. I read voraciously all kinds of books from different genres. By the time I was ten years old, I had read every single book in the children's public library in Waterloo Liverpool where I was brought up, and the librarian finally gave way to my pleading and allowed me to join the grownups' library where I continued to take out the maximum five books every week until I left school. I believe it is one of the great sadnesses of today that fewer young people, particularly boys, are reading books."

I used the same Library (I'm a couple of years older) and I'm sorry that all that reading didn't rub off on this memoir which sorely needs some literary panache (say I, having read only a few pages standing in a chain bookstore).

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Come Back Leavis All is Forgiven

Sorry, that was naughty of me, a catchpenny headline, for poor Frank L is no longer a force in the world of criticism. But the recent "Booker of Bookers" ballyhoo set me wondering about the perennial obsession with rankings and prizes and names excluded from or put in a canon which, supposedly, the last decade or two of High Literary Theory was meant to have put paid to, with everyone "equally valid". When it came to defining an exclusive canon the critic F.R. Leavis (who cast a long shadow over anyone "doing English" in the post-war school and university system) was up there with the best of them. My old Prof. of English at Liverpool University, Kenneth Allott, complained that Leavis wanted literature to be "like a well-swept room" that contained only a few exquisite pieces of furniture. Another word for this is English Puritanism which Leavis (of Huguenot stock actually) embodied - open neck shirts when collars and ties were the norm and a clean-limbed muscular approach to the business of literature. I used to have problems with my chums on the Left in my Bennite days because, as a dedicated hedonist, I found the puritan streak of the progressive classes got up my nose (especially when the latter was buried in a decent beaker of wine) but it's still with us. Leavis's famous "Great Tradition" published in the austerity year of 1948 was his triumph of lofty prescription. Moving some books the other day I found that I had it still, a second hand copy of the first 1962 Peregrine edition, which, as you see, has three of his superstars on the cover (and cost its first owner only nine bob!). There ought to be a word to define this accidental rediscovery of the contents of one's own library (biblioserendipity?) where one opens up at page one and reads: "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad..." That's FRL for you, shooting from the hip. No prisoners, no argument, this was the Great Tradition. Then you notice something about this list of the great English: half of them are, er, not exactly English. An American and a Pole sit alongside Jane Austen and George Eliot. One doesn't normally think of Leavis as a multicultural kind of guy but, look, he also ticks the gender positive box with half of his Gang of Four women. And here's another thing you didn't know: old man Leavis ran a piano shop in Cambridge with the slogan: LEAVIS SPELLS PIANOS. It's a funny old world.

Monday, 5 May 2008

The Uses of Literary Biography

The always stimulating blog of Stephen Mitchelmore, This Space, is currently growling [correction: see Stephen's post below, he was not 'growling' merely demurring] at a recent defence of literary biography, citing Proust, who in his essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, attacked the famous French critic for his belief that the biographical method was the only one for critics. Proust disagreed, arguing memorably that his work proceeded not from the bundle of accidents that sat down for breakfast in the Proust household, but from "l'autre moi". Proust, it seems to me, was absolutely correct so how can I justify earning my living as a literary biographer? The answer is that biography cannot "explain" or account for a work of art but neither can criticism.

This is what I was asked in 2006 by the Buenos Aires Herald in an interview, together with my reply: "What do you feel is the strongest argument for biography, and which the strongest against the genre?

The strongest argument for literary biography is that it surrounds the work with a nourishing stream of relevant background information that cannot fail to increase understanding of the text. In addition, I think that the record of how a literary life was lived is always instructive, it has an intrinsic interest quite apart from its hermeneutic value. And let us be candid: we are inescapably interested in our fellow human beings. The case against has been put - with terrifying persuasiveness - by Proust in Contre Sainte-Beuve where he says that the life and the work are independent of each other, that the work proceeds from l’autre moi not the man or woman we meet convivially in the street."

I would add to this that Kafka (one of my subjects) and the beauty and transcendent mystery of his work remains above and beyond any explication based on his biography but that if we know about his Prague background, his Jewishness, his relationship with his father, his frustrated love affairs, his existential fears, we approach his work a little better-prepared, a little less thick-witted, a little more alive to its textures and meanings. It's a modest aim (and some biographers in recent decades have been very immodest indeed) but it is, I would contend, a perfectly decent one.

Monday, 28 April 2008

The Joys of Book Signing

To Stanford's Travel Book shop in Covent Garden to sign some copies of my new book about the Victorian travellers, A Corkscrew is Most Useful. Then on by foot (rather than being slung from a pole carried by native bearers) to Hatchard's in Piccadilly to do the same again. Fortunately for my signing hand half the stock had been sold (no, Madam, I will not reveal how many they had ordered in the first place) and I was provided with a neat little éscritoire at which to sign with my fogeyish fountain pen containing sepia ink. Actually this wasn't one of those glamorous signings where the public come to press the flesh, more a workaday thing of signing copies to be put on display. One dignified and ancient Piccadilly lady approached tentatively but thought better of it. The whole thing reminded me of the time I signed some copies of my biography of Matthew Arnold in Blackwell's in Oxford in 1996. The staff told me that a few years previously they had sent someone a signed copy of a book and it had been returned angrily with the outraged comment that "someone had written in it". Probably "I Murdoch" or "S Heaney" I don't doubt.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Cry God for Harry, England and St George!!

Today, apart from being my birthday and Shakespeare's, is St George's Day, and the Prime Minister has been instructing us to celebrate it - no doubt in the interests of "national identity" on which he is so keen. Having been aware of this day for the past 50 plus years (for obvious reasons) I have watched with fascination as this obscure feast has gradually become a major date in the calendar. This is due mostly to the fascists and the brewers who have been most assiduous in promoting that chap from Asia Minor, George, and his red and white flag which the Union Jack, one thought, had superseded as a symbol of the unity of this fractured isle. Anyway, in the spirit of things here are some good solid old English oak leaves to look at. Well, actually, they are Welsh ones, from the Radnor Forest, and are the logo of my poetry press, Rack Press. What complicated things nations are. No wonder people wrap themselves in the mindless comfort of the flag. Have a nice day!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Sartre and the Season of Literary Parties

To Random House HQ in London for the launch of a new book about the partnership of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, A Dangerous Liaison, written by Carole Seymour-Jones. This was my second literary bash in one week and one's sense that the world is smaller than one thought was reinforced by the reappearance last night of some well-known faces from Tuesday (eg Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd). Carole's book has been widely praised and she is that marvel in the world of metropolitan letters a nice friendly person! Finding myself thrown against one or two publishers I was pleased to have confirmed that it is not just me: there is a widespread feeling that the obstacles to publishing serious books as opposed to celebrity or TV tie-in trash are growing by the day. One of these gents who is just about to take retirement said that we shouldn't just blame the publishers (or their corporate bosses who are the source of much of the rot). The whole culture is furiously dumbing-down and the days when large numbers of people snapped up Pelicans by Leavis or Hoggart or Raymond Williams (for example) are long gone. At least the wine flows and the canapés circulate at these events in the good old way.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Georges Perec: The People in the Street

It's always good to find an excuse to refer to that quiet genius of twentieth century European literature, Georges Perec. I recently turned up this postcard which I think I bought in one of those tourist shops in Les Halles in Paris and it has a quote in which Perec asks: "The people in the street: where have they come from? Where are they going? Who are they?" It was Perec's gift to make the quotidian seem exotic through the fantastic power of his imagination and his literary invention. His question is really about realism itself. This is one of the most slippery terms in the literary lexicon. When Wallace Stevens writes: "The humble are they that move about the world with the lure of the real in their hearts," he is not in the same boat as those weekend supplement reviewers who berate novelists for not writing about "real people". Realism in literature is not for me reportage or naturalism but something much more elusive which I can't define but I know it when I find it. I find it in Perec.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Poets Descend on Swansea

The 2008 Rack Press poets are appearing at the

Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea

Friday 11 April

It will be a chance to meet the poets and hear them read and have a free glass of wine.
Byron Beynon's Cuffs, Steve Griffiths' Landing and David Wheatley's Lament for Ali Farka Touré will be launched at the Centre at an event starting at 7pm.
We look forward very much to seeing you there.

Contact: 01792 463980

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Liverpool: The Book and the Bistro

To Liverpool's Everyman Theatre Bistro for the launch of my book So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool from Liverpool University Press. A good crowd turned out and my signing hand was kept busy (thanks, Steve, for that gargantuan order for 10 copies!) and someone told me that the famous Everyman Bistro was the first bistro outside London when it opened back in the 1960s. Is this true, and what exactly defines a bistro? Thanks to either (a) the miracles of modern technology or (b) my unfortunate descent into geekdom I am writing this blog, via what is called a dongle inserted into my iBook, on a train from Liverpool to London. The train was delayed because "a male person", in the words of the official announcement over the pa system, threw himself off a bridge and caused the power supply to be turned off temporarily. That's enough excitement for one day, I feel. I shall switch this off now and sink back into the calming pleasure of my As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Oxford Here We Come

What has this man got to look so animated about? The answer seems to be that he has penetrated one of the more traditional Oxford colleges, Christ Church (it is a hideous solecism to say "Christ Church College", as opposed to "Christ Church", a crime for which those men in bowler hats prowling the quad would probably disembowel you) in order to deliver a talk to a lively, intelligent, enthusiastic audience about his new book on the Victorian travellers. It was a beautiful day in Oxford, feeling like the first day of spring, and it reminded me, as I explained, of the day I came to Oxford in 1996 to launch my biography of Matthew Arnold ("the line of festal light in Christ Church Hall" - The Scholar Gypsy) at Blackwell's to an audience of three and a half people. Yesterday's event by contrast was a sellout but let me be the first to point out it was a very small venue. Tomorrow, Liverpool!

Monday, 31 March 2008

Oxford Literary Festival: Imperial Progress

I shall be in Oxford at 2.30 on Tuesday 1st April to talk about my new book on the Victorian travellers, A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire which is published on that day. The event is part of the Oxford Literary Festival and I will be talking, taking questions, and signing books. I also intend to report here tomorrow on this April Fool's Day experience so watch this space!

The illustration here is of the frontispiece of a book of travels in India by Emma Roberts, one of many enterprising and insightful Victorian women travellers covered in my book.

Friday, 28 March 2008

The Blogger Awakes: On the Publishing Trail

Apologies for the low profile recently. Easter and overwork are the culprits but now there is to be a burst of activity according to a schedule that has arrived today from my publishers. This will enable me to do a bit more orthodox blogging as I set off promoting my new book, A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire about the Victorian travellers and explorers. Next Tuesday, 1st April, is publication day and I shall be launching the book with a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival. The next day, just to complicate matters, I am in Liverpool to celebrate the recent publication of my other new book about Liverpool (see details to the left here) at a reception at the Everyman Theatre at 5.30. Do come along if you are in the city on Wednesday. Production delays have caused this rare co-incidence. On Friday I shall be closeted at the BBC doing radio interviews. You lucky folk in BBCs Cambridgeshire, Cumbria, and Hereford and Worcester (so far) will be able to hear the interviews. Later in the year I will be at other festivals, including the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August and I will be sending dispatches from those fronts.

Yesterday I was at Queen Mary College University of London in Mile End being grilled by some very clever students about my Liverpool book as part of their course on Contemporary Writing. As well as studying contemporary writing the students have some visits from the live animal and I thoroughly enjoyed an interesting and lively discussion.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Liverpool: the author interviewed

My new book from Liverpool University Press, So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool is the occasion of an interview with Mark Thwaite at the Book Depository. It will be launched in Liverpool on 2 April at 5pm at the Everyman Theatre (where Peter Postlethwaite is due later in the year to wow the European Capital of Culture with his King Lear).

As Mark quite rightly points out below, he is another fine citizen of that great city, as well as a superlative bookman.

The picture, by the way, is of Liverpool's Liver Buildings topped by one of the famous Liver Birds.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Hanif Kureishi: The Vanishing Women

I think it was Hazlitt who said that whenever he heard about a new book he went and read an old one. Not exactly in that spirit perhaps but noticing that Hanif Kureishi had a new book out I realised I hadn't read the last one that was sitting on my shelf gathering dust. His memoir of his father, My Ear at His Heart: Reading my Father (2004) is one I should have read, having made a couple of attempts to write a little about my own father in two books, A Short Book About Love (2001) and my latest, So Spirited a Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool as well as in a couple of published poems. Where I made some fleeting references (in the future I will be doing this at greater length) Kureishi devotes a whole book to his father who worked at the Pakistan Embassy in London as a minor functionary but who harboured a life long desire to be a writer. His son discovers an unpublished manuscript by his father and it sparks a book-length interrogation supplemented by much autobiographical material. It's a fascinating book in many ways though Hanif K will strike some as not an easy person to love. There's a narcissistic streak as when he writes coolly: "I liked women, their bodies and their concern for me. Sometimes they liked me." Elsewhere he points out that working as an usher at the Royal Court Theatre was good for picking up girls and having sex with them in the toilets after the house lights went down. Kureishi has no problem about such revelations and it's not so much his rather glum accounts of sex and drug-taking in the suburbs but the strange absence of women in his description of his family life that is puzzling. His mother, for example, who was a painter and who took him every day to the library he says (a feat that surely merits a mention alongside his father's literary enocuragement) is virtually invisible and his only sister, Yasmin completely out of the narrative. An article in last week's Independent by her suggests that sibling rivalry is a big issue with the Kureishis and, if Yasmin's charges are true, he has misrepresented both his family and her as well as being cruelly nasty about her own writing career. Family feuds are best kept out of and the truth is always hard to establish but it's odd that someone so right-on as Kureishi is, without being actively sexist, so uninterested in the lives of women, particularly, it seems, those (including former partners) who have found themselves in his books. It's an old issue (he himself mentions Philip Roth's experience of being reviled by his extended family for the way in which he portrayed his community) and one that probably won't be going away.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Stefan Grabinski: the Polish Poe

Discovering a new writer is always a thrill: you are suddenly acquainted with someone you didn't realise you had wanted to know. CB Editions have just issued a selection of the strange supernatural stories of the Polish writer Stefan Grabinski (1887-1936) translated by Wiesiek Powaga. Critics have labelled him "the Polish Poe" for obvious reasons but, hard as it is to judge the quality of prose translated from another language, I wonder if there isn't a touch of Oscar Wilde in his sensual language. These stories, all with a bizarre twist, are beautifully realised and attentive to detail and I couldn't recommend them highly enough. Grabinski (sorry I can't do the accent on the 'n' here) was born in the eastern provinces of Poland which are now the Ukraine and moved to Lvov where he became a teacher and seems to have spent a lot of his life in relative obscurity. Other works have been translated and there's a website dedicated to him.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Joyce and Epiphany

I've just been thinking about James Joyce's notion of the "epiphany", that moment of illumination that every artist spends his or her time hoping for. In Stephen Hero Joyce writes: "By an epiphany he [Stephen] meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments." Photographers too have this hunger to seize what Cartier Bresson called "le moment décisif". Willy Ronis the photographer called his trade a "chasse aux images", during which it wouldn't surprise me if a lot of wily game got away from the huntsman. But I wonder how conscious all this is? Like happiness which can never be sought but which visits us as a gratuitous by-product of whatever thing it is we were doing, the artist's shaft of light just suddenly shines out at precisely the moment when it wants to. The trick of course is to be trained, poised, limber, for the moment when the heavens open. That is what differentiates an artist like Joyce from the rest of us, I suppose.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet: the plot thickens

The death this week of the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, credited with inventing the nouveau roman or 'new novel' in the 1950s, has once again highlighted the supposed differences between the 'traditional' and 'avant garde' novel. John Sturrock, that excellent interpreter of French culture to the reluctant British, wrote in his Independent obituary: "He had come to literature, unusually, from mathematics and the hard sciences; and rather than perpetuate it, his declared intention was at long last to bury it." As Sturrock goes on to show R-G softened over the years and it was a late novel, La reprise (2001) that I last read and found it actually richly imaginative, mysterious and atmospheric in its immediately post-war setting, and the plot (the bit that is always the bone of contention between the Anglo-Saxon realists and those pesky continental 'experimentalists') was intriguing - though don't, please, ask me to summarise or explain it! I wonder if some of this is just a storm in a teacup, especially when many of the 'avant garde' techniques have been quietly appropriated by the 'mainstream' novelists. I am currently re-reading, and finding myself lost in admiration for, E.M. Forster's Howards End. Written in 1910 before the nouveau roman circus arrived in town it gives me as much pleasure as La reprise. As with those people who hate contemporary classical music because it doesn't sound like Mozart I feel that you don't need to choose. You can have both. You can double your pleasure. As a professional hedonist I wouldn't want it any other way.