"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

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Summertime: the New Coetzee

From time to time some under-employed journalist writes one of those standard pieces about what is wrong with the contemporary novel and the diagnosis is always the same: let us have a grand state-of-the-nation panorama and all will be well in the best of all possible worlds. I gather that, even as I speak, Sebastian Faulks has obliged. I have never been convinced by this to-hell-with-Dostoevsky-let-us-have-Trollope thesis. I think the art of fiction is different from documentary and that the difference matters.

The new novel from J.M. Coetzee, Summertime, is not a huge Balzacian portrait of South Africa in the 1970s but it seems to me in its brilliantly elliptical way to say more about contemporary life and literature than most of what is indulgently hyped in the books pages. And the good news is that this is vastly better than his last novel Diary of a Bad Year which some (but not I) found too tricksy with its 'split-level' narrative that ran three strands simultaneously on the page. I wanted more depth of human insight than I got and the second bit of good news is that the new novel has that in spades. It also has more humour, some of it exquisitely subtle irony, some of it just good old-fashioned funny – and a writer without humour is like a painter with one of the colours missing from the palette. The prose, too, is razor-sharp, glittering like a finely cut diamond – but then what else would one expect from Coetzee? Yes, I liked this one!

Summertime ostensibly picks up where two previous volumes of fictionalised autobiography left off, Youth and Boyhood, taking the story up to around 1977 when Coetzee emerged as a writer. Those books pages this weekend will be awash with speculation about how far the fictionalised Coetzee here is the real one, and to what extent, by writing his own version of his life, he is pre-empting future biographers. Watch out for the copious use of the word 'self-indulgent'. The form of the novel is a series of interviews by an English literary biographer, "Mr Vincent" with people who have known John Coetzee (like Morse, Coetzee has come out about his first name at last) in these years. Most of them are women and their memories and judgements are designed to be as unsparing as possible. It is as if Coetzee wants us to know that he understands the worst that can possibly be said about himself but at the same time these rueful, sharp self-presentations are the source of some of the finest humour in the book. Look for example at page 242 where, through the eyes of a French former academic colleague with whom he had a brief affair: "As a writer he knew what he was doing, he had a certain style, and style is the beginning of distinction. But he had no special sensitivity that I could detect, no original insight into the human condition. He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant." Can you imagine such a passage being written by Amis? McEwan? Even in jest?

What emerges from these reminiscences and stories of his thirties in South Africa in the 1970s is also a deep love of the landscape of the Karoo, however much he despises the politics of his country pre- and post-liberation, and his inability to break the emotional ties that bind him to the Afrikaner culture he came from, symbolized by his relationship with his father, whom the buttoned-up, emotionally cold son cannot reach and who becomes, the last sentence seems to suggest, a metaphor for his native land: his need for it and his need to escape it, the dilemma eternally unresolved. This is an honest, moving, unflinching book and, though "John Coetzee" is dead as the biographer does his work, I sincerely hope there are many more to come.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Pietro Grossi: An Interview

Bibliophilic Blogger hosts its first ever Virtual Book Tour. Scary!

Pietro Grossi's second book Fists, first published in Italian as Pugni in 2006 and now receiving its first English language publication by Pushkin Press, translated by Howard Curtis, has won great acclaim in Italy, winning many distinguished literary prizes. It consists of three novellas, all of which explore male rites of passage into adult life. The first story, “Boxing”, is about the confrontation between two young boxers who learn the hard way that life is about winners and losers, the second, “Horses, is about two brothers exploring the adult world together through the world of horses, and the third, “Monkey” is about a young man whose friend withdraws from life and starts behaving like a monkey, an unsettling experience that forces him to evaluate his own life and values. These three narratives are spare and swift and compelling and the influence of American masters like Hemingway has been noted by critics.

Pietro very kindly agreed to be interviewed by email in English by the Bibliophilic Blogger.

B.B: It seemed to me that this was a very masculine book in the sense that women hardly feature in the first two stories and when they do assume a larger role in the third story the male characters are not entirely at their ease with them. Nor are they free from some rather old-fashioned macho ideas – assuming a woman's difficult behaviour in one case proceeds from premature menopause, for example. And there's that rather shocking sentence about a woman film agent:"She was one those overweight women with their wombs full of cement who at some point in their lives have decided that a good business deal is better than sleeping with a man." [p121] Was this deliberate,? It is clear that each of the three stories is in some sense an exploration of the male rite of passage but were you also trying to conduct an implicit critique of masculinity?

PG: My grandparents, on my mother's side, gave life to a 65 person family, still increasing. Most of them are females. I just think that in my book I was trying to forget women. Joking apart, I found out along the way that my stories have a deep connection with my dreams, more than with my life. In this sense I am sure that the main characters of Fists are all people that somehow or another I dreamt of being. I would have loved to live their experiences, have their guts or their will or their talent or their madness. And yes, also the opportunity to simply live their changes as young men, with all its power and its loneliness. An older Italian author once, presenting me and my book at a festival, said that he loved “Boxing” so much because he thought it was mainly a duel story and that in duels – when it's a duel between men – women have to be

left aside. I remember smiling when he said this. Anyway, to be honest, I don't know: most of my stories come out in their own way and once they are written I just can sit there and read them like anyone else. Then think about what I read and decide if keep it as it is or not. Women weren't there that much and I guess I simply didn't miss them.

B.B: You have expressed your imagination for Salinger and Hemingway and Italian critics seem to have concentrated on the influence on your writing of various other American authors, but what of European authors? Which do you admire? And which Italian authors?

P.G: When you start talking about literature it is always difficult – if not impossible – to compress in a bunch of seconds or a bunch of words all the books and the authors you loved and who influenced you and your life and your writing. This is why next to my name always popped out American authors: because, at least for the moment, if I have to highlight the literature that mostly influenced me it is definitely 20th century North American literature. Having said that, there are endless European authors that made the man and the author I am: Tolstoy, Dumas, Svevo, Pirandello, Conrad, Austen, Shakespeare, Dante, Hesse... The list is so long that I really wouldn't know where to start from, and to be honest the greatness of these authors is so huge that to me talking about them is very difficult: it would be like a sailor trying to explain the importance of wind.

B.B: You are evidently attracted to the shorter novella form. Is this more congenial to you? Are you tempted by the idea of a longer novel?

P.G.: Yes, apparently for the moment novellas are a lot more congenial to me. Which wouldn't be a big problem if I was one of those people who love to sit on what they are good at. Sadly I am not that kind of person, so I keep on trying to write longer and more complex stories, which intrigue me a lot more but for the moment don't come out as smooth. The book I published after Fists is actually a longer story (not really a novel by my point of view) and among other things I am working now on a book that could probably be the closest thing to a novel I ever wrote.

B.B: Stylistically you prefer a relatively spare, unadorned style. Is this simply a matter of personally feeling more comfortable with that way of writing or are you reacting in any sense against prevailing styles in contemporary Italian fiction?

P.G. I think I am just reacting against what is going on inside my own head. As a kid I was very presumptuous and thought that I had some very good ideas about the world and all its matters. Than I realized that my ideas weren't that bright, they were just complicated. So I tried to write without thinking and things came out much smoother: everything was very simple and the world appeared like a pretty nice place. I thought I could live with that for a while.

B.B: The translation of your book by Howard Curtis reads very well and is very pacy. Do you have any apprehensions about being translated? Do you fear that something can be lost in the process?

P.G: No, not really. I don't want to sound immodest but I don't feel any apprehension about being translated. I have translated some books myself and I know that something is always lost. Something else, on the other side, is found. I just think that translated books are somehow different animals and have to be read in a different way: they will probably find different kinds of readers and give slightly different emotions. This anyway happens to every reader: the story is somehow told to me by the narrator, I put it on paper the best I can, then I start reading it and I discover a lot of surprising things I had no idea about; then somebody publishes it and thousands of other people read it and find thousands of other surprising things. I guess this is just the whole big magic about literature.

B.B: What are you working on now?

P.G: I am as always working on different things. I write my first draft by hand and without thinking about anything, then some time or another I have to bring the story to the computer and start thinking about it. So it ends up I am always working on two or three different things, at different stages. Lately I am mostly working on the book I was previously talking about, my probable next novel. If it will keep the way it is it will be pretty different from the way I have been working till now, so I am very excited and very anxious. Anxiety pills work very well.

B.B: In the UK, notoriously, fewer European authors are translated than in any other European country, and in Italy there is probably more curiosity about foreign writers. Which contemporary British writers interest you?

P.G: At the top of my list I have to put Nick Hornby, especially High Fidelity. I have no idea how he is seen in the UK but I definitely would have never written the way I write if I hadn't read the book four or five times. Its wit and its simple style struck me at the time. Then probably, out of all, the two authors I find most interesting are Zadie Smith and Martin Amis. The latter's The Information is probably one of the most important European books of the past twenty years, at least for an author.

B.B: Thank you Pietro, and thanks to Pushkin Press.

For details of the Virtual Blog Tour see:

Wednesday 19th Alma Books Bloggerel
Thursday 20th Bibliophilic Blogger
Friday 21st Nihoni Distractions
Monday 24th The Truth About Lies
Tuesday 25th Pursewarden
Wednesday 26th The View From Here
Thursday 27th Bookmunch
Friday 28th Notes in theMargin
Thursday 3rd Lizzy’s Literary Life

Thursday, 6 August 2009

I Remember, I remember

Remember the 1980s? Remember feminism? Remember 'gender-specific language'?

Clearly they don't in the Ask restaurant chain.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

An Instant Poem

From my desk at the British Library:

A Wish

Outside the Library in Euston Road

a girl is running in a shower of rain;

on the taut canopy of her umbrella

the multi-coloured letters spell:


In the long dampness of an English summer,

may her wish be granted.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Blogging and the Real World

I see that the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has attacked young Facebook users for letting the site cripple their social skills and stop them forming meaningful relationships. I can see a glimmer of truth in this and I know that many thoughtful people (eg Susan Greenfield) are worried about the impact of computers and internet use on our brains and personalities and much else. But the debate always seems to polarise between Luddites and Panglossian geeks, the latter regarding any reservation about internet use as a kind of blasphemy or letting the side down. I simply don't know but I am struck by the high proportion of my literary friends who are active users and bloggers.

Vincent Nichols is famous in my family for having stopped my three-year-old self in a Liverpool street when a nut fell off my yellow tricycle and effected an emergency repair. It is thus hard for me to criticise him, but another schoolfriend who lived next door to him when they were kids tells me that he thinks Nichols will be the next English Pope. If ambition were all that were required I am sure it's in the bag.