"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

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.