"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

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Other Bloomsbury or H.D. in the Square

The Imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) was also a novelist and I have just finished her roman à clef entitled Bid Me to Live, not published until 1960 but probably drafted in the late 1920s around the time her former husband, Richard Aldington, was writing his powerful and acerbic war novel, Death of a Hero (1929).  Set in Bloomsbury in 1917-18, H.D.'s novel is a more subtle work of art and has the finely crafted patterning of a poem as it tries to capture the fragile mood of poets and painters and musicians in wartime London in Queen's Square (confusingly this is what she calls Mecklenburgh Square where she lived with Aldington while he was a soldier as there is also a Queen Square nearby).  Thinly disguised pictures of these two plus Dorothy Yorke, D.H. and Frieda Lawrence ("Rico"), the composer Cecil Gray and Ezra Pound fill out a story of what used to be called 'free love' and higher Bohemian behaviour a little apart from the Big Guns of posh Bloomsbury not far away.

H.D.'s very fine novel has a passage where the authorial persona describes her work on a poetic chorus-sequence: "It would take forever to get what she wanted, to hew and chisel those lines, to maintain or suggest some cold artistry."  The 'cold artistry' of this novel is a subtle and precise instrument.  

The book also reminds one what a great thing those Virago Modern Classics were, putting out work like this with an intelligent introduction by Helen McNeil and a fascinating afterword by H.D.'s daughter, Perdita Schaffner.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

'I Am Just A Writer': Tahar Ben Jelloun in London

To the Institut Francais in London to hear the Moroccan novelist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, being interviewed by The Independent's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin about his latest novel to be translated (in French he's two books ahead of us).  There were some jokes about the Englishing of Partir as Leaving Tangier – the Anglo-Saxons generally needing things to be laid on with a trowel (in this case through the name-check of a tourist destination) rather than putting up with the spare toughness of Partir.  It's a novel about emigration set in the mid 1990s and couldn't be more relevant to these displaced, people-trafficked times. Tahar Ben Jelloun wryly observed that Moroccans wistfully stared at the lights of Spain, 14 kilometres away across the sea but he doubted that anyone from Spain gazed longingly in the other direction.  The leading character of the novel, Azel, is a young Moroccan who sells his soul and body to get to Spain, away from a country that seems to offer him nothing.  The author is unsparing in his candour about the shortcomings of Morocco in general and the Moroccan male in particular (he thinks it is the women who are its salvation) but admitted he had been criticised for "revealing" (he used the French verb dévoiler which has a nice extra nuance) too much in that regard but the European reader will learn a lot from this book.  He also said that Europeans anxious about population movements in their direction might consider investing in Morocco so that people didn't have to leave. Tonkin asked if James Joyce had been a model as a writer and Tahar Ben Jelloun said that although when he was in prison and banned from reading and had asked his brother to smuggle in the fattest paperback he could find (which turned out to be a Livres de Poche translation of Ulysses) he felt Joyce was from a different world.  At question time he was asked whether he saw himself as a Moroccan who happened to write in French and therefore part of "post-colonial literature" or a French writer.  He smiled his charming smile and broke into English for the first time, giving his translator a rest: "I am just a writer".
Leaving Tangier is published by Arcadia Books at £7.99

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Exercises in Style: Raymond Queneau

Reading John Calder's obituary of the translator Barbara Wright in today's Guardian co-incided with the arrival in the post of a review copy from One World Classics of her translation of Raymond Queneau's Exercises de style (1947) which she translated first in 1958 and then re-issued in 1979 for John Calder but which is re-issued once more in a revised translation by One World at £7.99.  In his obituary Calder describes Exercises in Style as "the banal story of a minor incident on a bus, told in 99 different ways".  Queneau's madcap inventiveness must have created many headaches for the translator but Calder continues: "The author encouraged her invention of new English equivalents for those chapters that were too embedded in idiomatic French to be transcribed. A working relationship was established and she went on to translate many of Queneau's works."  Wright's Cockney version of the story (one of the 99) is a tour de force and very funny.  Highly recommended – as is One World's blog.  One World have acquired John Calder's backlist and therefore there are lots of pleasures to come.

People like me who issue regular lamentations about the dumbing-down of British publishing have to admit that in the field of literary classics there are some very exciting developments like One World and Hesperus and many other smaller imprints doing their bit for real literature in attractive editions.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Leaving Tangier: Tahar Ben Jelloun in London

The Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun will be in London next week at the Institut Francais talking with Independent Books Editor, Boyd Tonkin, about his latest book to be translated into English by Linda Coverdale, Leaving Tangier. I look forward to reading this new book from the excellent Arcadia books and have been preparing myself by finishing his searing and brilliant earlier novel This Blinding Absence of Light/Cette aveuglante absence de lumière (2001) which was also translated by Linda Coverdale.  More next week after the event on Friday 15th May at the Institut Francais (tickets £5).

Friday, 1 May 2009

Off with Their Heads or Advice to the New Poet Laureate

It's good news that Carol Ann Duffy is to be announced today as the new Poet Laureate, not because she ticks all sorts of boxes, but because she is a real poet.  The papers have been full of praise for Andrew Motion's distinguished ambassadorship for poetry during his stint (no one talks much about the poems) and he seems to have done exemplary service on boring committees, going on the stump, pressing the flesh etc., etc.  I know nothing about Carol Ann Duffy except her poetry which I have been reading since her Anvil days but I suspect she might be a little less the efficient bureaucrat and more the poet at large and I hope for a little discreet subversion.  Poets shouldn't be on message.

But most of all let us have no more bad poems on Royal occasions. Let us think of the Poet Laureate as a national poet, writing, if the spirit moves her, about important national themes.  There's nothing wrong with 'occasional verse' – any poet worth her salt should have the craft to handle that  – but there is no reason why even royalists (of whom I am not one) should expect a national poet to write silly poems about Windsor weddings.  Public and political poetry (think of Marvell's "Horatian Ode", for example) is an important and major genre.  I would like to see some more of it.