"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, 29 November 2010

Andrew Marvell: Can I See Your Pass?

I have, so far, read only the preface to Nigel Smith's new biography of Andrew Marvell but, if it is anything like his splendid annotated edition of the poems, it is going to be a treat.  But there is an odd passage in that preface in which he looks coldly at the last published biography, er, mine: World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell (1999).  Smith is alarmed that this book was written by a professional literary biographer who had completed lives of Matthew Arnold, Aldous Huxley etc etc.  He says, in fact, that I make Marvell "sound like a modern man of letters" and asserts that I am "no early modern scholar".  As regards that last point I agree, and would point out in passing also that there is an accumulating body of evidence, increasingly difficult to ignore, that points inescapably to the Pope being a Catholic.  As regards the former, whilst I am as critical as the next person of silly or coy anachronisms in writing about the past, to consider what Marvell as a poet means to a present day readership, a lyric poet who was also a politician, juggling two vocations, seems to me to be a wholly legitimate thing to do. And to seek for points of contact between a writer of the past and writers who may be engaged in similar searches today is, I submit, perfectly proper. I was writing a life of a poet.  Reading the reviews of the new biography (which seem to indicate that in its outline Smith's Marvell is very similar to mine, notwithstanding the greater scholarly ambition and accomplishment of his book) which had mostly been given to specialist "early modern" historians, I began to notice a second form of condescension from this tight little trade guild.  Smith himself was effectively patronised in the Independent and London Review of Books for being a mere literary scholar.  And this is the nub.  The historians see Marvell as their property and resent the fact that literary scholars (not to mention poets) have had the temerity to take possession of him.  It rankles with them that the early 20th Century "New Critics", with their downgrading not just of biographical chatter but, arguably, historical context, in order to focus on "the words on the page", on the work of art pre-eminently as a text in which to search for aesthetic meanings (I oversimplify of course), sidelined historicism.  Marvell was the property of historians after his death and throughout most of the 18th century.  His rediscovery as a poet came later, sealed by the approval of T S Eliot.  The battle continues and will run and run.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Chatwin Under the Sun

The publication of Bruce Chatwin's letters, Under the Sun, edited by his wife Elizabeth Chatwin and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, has led to the usual assertions about (a) his being the most wonderful, magical being that ever wrote in the late 20th century or (b) his being a precious pain in the neck.  The letters, which are well-edited, giving helpful linking passages and crisply informative (and often, in Elizabeth's case, sharply funny) footnotes, build up to a picture of Chatwin, that once again emphasises his originality and interest.  Yes, he can seem precious, especially when talking about his art collection, his writing materials, even his rucksack (hand made to his instructions by a Cirencester saddler) but people sometimes forget that his first job after leaving school was to work for the auction house Sotheby's where his job involved writing copious and detailed descriptions of rare and beautiful objects.  You and I can get away with saying "that green marble thingummy" but Chatwin was trained to do the exact opposite of this vague approximation and was at home with dates, attributions, provenance, materials etc.

It is possible to quote some rather absurd passages, but usually Elizabeth has got there first with a  wryly deflating footnote.  And there are some unexpected moments, such as his discomfort at emerging as "a writer" in the 1980s, a role, relished by his friend Salman Rushdie, but one that he hated.  He didn't want to be lionised, televised, invited to review books and so forth.  He just wanted to disappear and write his next book.  There are contradictions of course.  He was televised. He did court the rich and famous and his friends always seemed to have been utterly exceptional in his estimation, the dull and the pedestrian members of the population never seemingly coming to his attention.  But one day he had a group of writers around to lunch at his Oxfordshire home and found their noisy, shrill posturing unbearable: "a lot of egos sounding off, but we were able to open the windows so all the talk blew out over the sheep..."

And I can forgive him everything for writing: "With so many 'cooked-up' books knocking around, I don't really believe in writing unless one has to."

Monday, 8 November 2010

Houellebecq: I Was Wrong

Well, he did win the Goncourt and, unlike the Man Booker where the right people so often win with the wrong book here is a case where the right book of the author has won.  That's enough prize-babble - ED.

Echenoz Completes His Trilogy

In complete contrast to the noise that surrounds the productions of Michel Houellebecq (see below) the French writer Jean Echenoz, whose books appear without any fanfare or author information or marketing blurb, between the austere white covers of Les Éditions de Minuit, has produced, over the last six years three short, beautifully written and observed biographical novels.  The first, Ravel, in 2006, the second, Courir, in 2008 on the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek, and now the third, Des Éclairs, on the inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) have given me a lot of understated pleasure.

Echenoz is drawn to these solitary, strange, obsessive characters in what his publishers call "fiction sans scrupules biographiques" and he recounts the story of Tesla, here called Gregor, with economy, dry wit, and a nice sense of period flavour (early 20th century New York).  Exquisite.