"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

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Damn You England: The Latest Version

The news that Martin Amis is to leave Britain again, in disgust at his native land, has been greeted with the usual round of derision from journalistic commentators.  It is what always seems to greet the public pronouncements of Amis.  Several have referred to John Osborne's notorious "A Letter to My Fellow Countrymen" published in Tribune half a century ago in August 1961 at the worst period of the Cold War. Describing this as "a letter of hate" to his fellow countrymen by which "I mean those men of my country who have defiled it. The men with manic fingers leading the sightless, feeble, betrayed body of my country to its death.  You are its murderers..."  it goes on in similar vein rather too long.  Osborne was only 31 at the time so this is not the ranting of an Amis who feels that he has had enough after a lifetime of watching his country go to the dogs.  "Damn you, England," said Osborne. "You're rotting now, and quite soon you'll disappear."  Well, as we all know, England hasn't disappeared.  The tradition of hating England has deep roots.  See for example the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton, or more recently the writers of the 1930s like Lawrence Durrell.  But it is always difficult to know where hate ends and love begins.

We all have our Meldrewish moments and I notice that over in the Twitter aviary I have been sounding off in recent weeks about aggressive London cyclists, contemporary pub culture, and so forth.  In a sense Amis has a point but his manner is against him.  There is quite a lot about contemporary English life (I am deliberately avoiding conscripting Wales, Scotland and Ireland into all this) that is hard to take and, reflecting on it here in the Welsh countryside in glorious weather in recent days, I have been trying to get in touch with my mellow side and put it all in perspective.  I think it mostly boils down to a prevailing lack of adequate socialisation.  In the cities we seem to have lost the art of negotiating one another's space, the small courtesies and urbanities that make life tolerable when we are herded together.  The cyclist with his shrill whistle or deep aggressive bellowing at a pedestrian perceived to have committed some misdemeanour or the crowd of people blocking the pavement outside the pub and forcing a blind person to walk into the road (I am not making that one up) are people who have allowed themselves to get trapped in their own egos and we need to find a way to let them out.  Oh dear, what am I saying? We need to be nice to each other?  Can't I come up with something less bland?  The social psychologists tell us that people aren't really happy, in spite of all the material benefits we shower ourselves with, and I suppose this is it.  All that manic, competitive stuff on the city streets, isn't an index of personal contentment.  If you are a rich writer you can move abroad, put it all behind you, start again somewhere else.  The rest of us just need to keep on battling.  Osborne and Amis are perhaps fortunate in finding someone they can blame.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Elizabeth Bishop: On Not Saying Too Much

I recently reported a comment from Bruce Chatwin's letters about writers needing to write only what there is a compelling urgency to write (an echo of Kafka's famous apothegm about a book needing to be an axe for the frozen sea within us).  In the penultimate issue of the New York Review of Books [March 24-April 6 LVIII (5)] there's an excellent piece by April Bernard about two new editions of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry and prose.  Bernard worries that too much of Bishop's ephemera, including drafts not intended for publication and stuff she herself did not allow into print for good reason, has been made available and turned into part of the Bishop canon.  She quotes Bishop, after a meeting with her mentor, the poet Marianne Moore, saying that she never left the latter's house: "without feeling happier: uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought, never to try to publish anything until I thought I'd done my best with it, no matter how many years it took – or never to publish at all."

Or never to publish at all! 

Friday, 8 April 2011

Kafka Again

My comment in the Guardian's "Comment is Free" section appeared yesterday:-

The remarkable announcement this week by the Bodleian Library and the German Literary Archive at Marbach that they have agreed jointly to purchase a collection of more than 100 letters and postcards from Franz Kafka to his sister Ottla will cause great excitement amongst Kafka biographers and scholars. New archival material about this exhaustively covered writer is an increasing rarity.

The new material will offer a chance to learn more about Kafka's favourite sister, who is a remarkable woman in her own right. Ottilie ("Ottla") David was totally dedicated to her brother. She divorced her non-Jewish Czech husband, Josef David ("Pepa") in order to save his life, declared herself a Jew to the Nazi authorities and, on arrival at Theresienstadt concentration camp, volunteered to accompany around 1,200 children on a "special transport" to Auschwitz, where she was gassed to death on arrival.

The Bodleian has not yet itemised the material in detail so it is difficult to know exactly how much of this material is genuinely new (a volume Letters to Ottla and the Family was published in 1974) but it is clear from the joint statement by the two institutions that there is at least some brand new material unseen by any scholars and biographers to date. In particular there are said to be new letters from Kafka's last lover Dora Diamant and the young Hungarian medical student and friend of Kafka's on his deathbed, Robert Klopstock.

In a novel arrangement, the Bodleian and Marbach are to share ownership of the new letters, which would otherwise have been auctioned off on 19 April in a sale in Germany by family descendants.

Part of the deal is that the financial sums involved remain secret. Almost all the newly acquired papers have actually been sitting in the Bodleian archive for 40 years. They were acquired by the enterprising Kafka scholar and translator Professor Malcolm Pasley, who had earlier rescued other Kafka manuscripts, including the famous 'blue octavo notebooks', which I remember handling with awe when researching my biography of Kafka.

This bold and unusual initiative points to a sharp contrast with the seemingly endless and bitter wrangles over that other collection of Kafka papers, currently in Israel in the firm possession of the daughters of Esther Hoffe, former secretary and putative lover of Kafka's friend Max Brod, who famously defied Kafka's request that he destroy all his unpublished manuscripts.

In Israel the row is about Who Owns Kafka?, as Judith Butler titled her sardonic London Review of Books lecture given on the subject in London last month, with the National Library of Israel and the Marbach archive in Germany slugging it out in the courts over who should get custody of the papers. The Israelis appear to argue that Kafka's Jewishness (avowedly important to him) makes him the property of the state of Israel. Those who see him as a master of modern German prose see his allegiance as being to the German language. The Czechs, of course, have always been lukewarm in their designs on him. In my view Kafka belongs to no one but himself. A writer is not the property of the state, and his true curators are his readers. Kafka, like Joyce, flies past those nets of nationalism that would seek to bring down his flight. He belongs to the imagination of the world.

Back in Oxford it is to be hoped that, as well as offering valuable new material on Kafka, this new cache of papers will help to give more prominence to Ottilie David, who, however hard I struggle to overcome vulgar biographical reductionism, is always present in my mind when I read the "soft, plaintive voice" of Gregor Samsa's sister in Metamorphosis asking, after his transformation into a repellent thing: "Gregor? Aren't you well? Is there anything you want?"

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Monday, 4 April 2011

Elizabeth Bowen: The Difference a Word Makes

The sense you get with a lot of currently hyped British fiction that the writers are straining too hard, that the writing has been overcooked, strikes you more forcefully when you confront the opposite: writing that seems perfectly in control of itself. Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations (1932) opens with a wedding that is realised with extraordinary economy of means.  At one point the sister of the bride, Janet Studdart, looks into the marquee on a couple who have been more or less abandoned, without chairs, without anyone speaking to them, alone in the empty tent.  "'It's a pity,' she added, looking dispassionately round the marquee, 'you can't sit down.'"  That single word "dispassionately" animates the cliché: "speaks volumes".