"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, 9 December 2015

Huxley the Controversial Prophet

To Bath to deliver a lecture on "Aldous Huxley: Writer and Prophet".  As Huxley's biographer I try to avoid becoming too partial towards my subject but the reaction of some people to the writer does occasionally surprise me and make me want to come to his defence.  I am particularly struck by the reaction of some academics to Huxley and their readiness to brand him a "fascist". This has happened twice now at public events and I wonder what it is that makes people in universities so hot under the collar at his critique of 20th Century consumer culture.  In terms very similar to Arnold, Ruskin and Morris before him and the Marxist critic Adorno after him Huxley argued that the culture of the free and independent-minded individual that he favoured was being challenged by mass cultural forms that turned the individual into a passive recipient of what the controlling providers wanted him or her to consume.  This is the theme of Brave New World (1932) with its dystopian vision of a society controlled by deceptively benign manipulators of consciousness, wielders of 'soft power' who control us through the brainwashing of advertising and commercialisation of every natural experience ("a love of nature keeps no factories busy" is one of the jingles heard in the novel).  I must say that this seems very prescient to me as we look out on the world controlled for us by the digital oligarchs of today. But certain academic critics (who I hope are in a minority) beg to differ. These self-hating custodians of high culture rage against his 'fascist' critique that would insist on the individual's right and power to choose. They claim that Huxley was an 'elitist' who wanted to force decent people to have richer cultural lives. One senses that they like the lower orders to know their place and not to assume that they can come barging in through the front swing doors of the palace of the culture normally reserved for the toffs. Their business is to stay where they are and not get above themselves.  People like me, by contrast, whose slogan is "nothing is too good for the working class" beg to differ. Everyone has a right to a slice of the cultural cake. The debate will continue. Meanwhile I wonder what these spluttering dons would do if they met a real fascist.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Secrets of the Sea: New Poetry

My new poetry pamphlet, The Secrets of the Sea (Melos) is launched on 8th September in London but if you would like to buy a copy now you can do so, post free, from Melos direct.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Poetry and Politics

Below is a contribution I made to Poets for Corbyn  an e-book of 21 poems by various hands, just published, expressing support for what seems to be, to this contributor at least, a new movement on the left of British politics towards remaking the Labour Party after the fiasco of the recent election.  I don't like personality cults in politics but this seems to be different and an important re-alignment about which the conservative Labour pragmatists and old-fashioned Blairites seem to have nothing useful to say except to blow raspberries.

There are those who argue that, in Auden's much-quoted line, "poetry makes nothing happen", and the English, as opposed to many European or Latin American poets, have (nearly) always preferred this elegant fence-sitting to any kind of vulgar engagement.  Poetry can be crude and propagandist.  It can also be subtle, intelligent and resourceful when it engages with politics and partisanship is no worse for a poet than a citizen.  I am not a purist.

My contribution is in the Burns stanza I have used before, notably in my long poem Get Real! (2011). Burns didn't actually invent this stanza, though he was its best known practitioner.  It is sometimes called "the standard Habbie",  after the piper Habbie Simpson (1550–1620) about whom a Lament was was written in the form.  It's great fun to use. I hope it is also entertaining and amusing to read.

The ebook can be downloaded for free by following the link in my opening sentence.


Like sheep who’ve scattered to the field’s high corner,
the commentariat – now hunted fauna –
together cling.
The practised put-downs, and the usual sneers,
predictable pandering to baser fears,
the lazy tricks that served for years
no longer sing.

Pundits and pollsters, penny-a-liners,
effortless liars and maligners,
pieces pitched,
to Guardian or 4 no longer hack it.
The zeitgeist’s moved; they can no longer track it
and there’s a note inside the salary packet:
you’re ditched!

Chancellor Osborne’s undeterred,
and gives his underlings the word:
Class-warrior of an antique kind
he makes his colleagues of one mind
to hound the workers from behind.
A pack

of snapping Tory dogs
emerging from the autumn fogs
The ‘enemy within’ attracts their curses
(that’s dinner ladies, carers, nurses
who learn there’s little in their purses).
It’s the cult

of settling scores, unleashing dogs of war
(though strikes are fewer than before).
They winch
their arses to the saddle, salivating,
excited by the prey that’s waiting,
eased by commentators’ Left-baiting:
a cinch.

Their anti-union bill’s revealed,
and like a rotten fruit when peeled
it’s vile
inside: more harsh than any iron regime
has yet to implement, or even dream,
where strikers must declare the theme
of any Tweet

before releasing it or face a fine or gaol:
that’s Britain now where oppositions fail
to fight.
Until J.C. discovers that the old and young
are eager to bite back, give tongue
to protest, scrap the song that’s sung
stage Right.

Its mandate twenty five per cent of votes,
the Government each day emotes:
until our ears become resistant to the sound,
detect the lie that is its constant ground,
refuse the claim that they have found
a ‘norm’.

Corbyn’s no knight in shining vest,
or bright Messiah from the West
(he’d say)
but someone who has found a way to voice
a fractured country’s need for choice,
to say we’ll make another kind of noise:
No way!

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Losing Israel: Jasmine Donahaye

There's a delightful bird (illustrated on the jacket of this book) called the Palestine sunbird. Or is it? An Israeli twitcher would call it an orange-tufted sunbird.  Even the birds of the air are drawn into the contested space that is Israel/Palestine and it is this world that Jasmine Donahaye explores in this fascinating memoir of her troubled and difficult relationship with modern Israel.

Born in England of parents raised on a very hard line kibbutz (where parents greeted other people's children before their own in order to demonstrate their fealty to collectivism) Donahaye has spent much time in Israel (and California) and now lives in a peaceful but rain-soaked valley in Mid Wales.  This book is the story of her gradual discovery that the narrative of happy enterprising peasant communitarianism promoted by the kibbutz masked another story of the destruction of Arab villages in what is now Israel.  Guided by her mother's revelations, Donahaye returns to Israel with many questions to be answered and the time that interests her is that of the early days of the founding of Israel in the late 1940s when the British Mandate in Palestine was ending.  She learns from historical accounts, archives, maps, that the Arab villages on which the kibbutz-dwellers built were not depopulated by some form of natural wastage or voluntary emigration but their inhabitants were expelled, the names of the villages erased and renamed.

What makes this book so absorbing is the author's unflinching honesty about herself and her Jewish family, its powerful moral clarity never wobbling off into priggish self-righteousness. She simply looks at the evidence and it is unmistakeable. She also has a gift for describing people and places and presenting her conversations in vivid dialogue so what might have been an over-earnest endeavour stays alive and readable. She describes the moment when she first spoke to her mother in Hebrew: "there was a look on her face, in the hesitation before she answered, of nakedness. It felt like a transgression, this entry into who she was not possible except in her first language. It shocked her. It shocked me too. For one unguarded moment her deep past, her buried childhood rushed up in her and responded, and I witnessed it; for a brief moment, before she once again guarded herself, there was an intimacy I had never before known. And then it was gone."  Discovering her family's "culpability in the displacement of Palestinians" she finds eventually that "my sense of who I was came undone".

But it is not a simple matter of going to Israel, finding, on foot, the slight vestiges of the old Arab settlements that were not officially there in the environs of the kibbutz which her grandfather helped to build.  There is a whole family and national history to come to terms with.  Donahaye firmly rebuts the standard charge of "Jewish self-hatred" levelled by the Israeli right when such matters come up. "According to that view, any criticism of Israel is a criticism of your Jewish self, shows a disconnection and corruption in your Jewish core, and yet because I cannot hate my Jewishness, and cannot hate Israel that I feel conflicted." In her lyrical passages about her current Welsh home and about the wonderful richness and variety of Israeli birds which, as a birdwatcher from childhood, she describes so well and so accurately Donahaye is not offering us a 'misery memoir' but she is trying to reverse a process which she calls "telling one story and erasing another".

Has she reached the point suggested by her title?  It is hard to imagine that she would ever, could ever, cut Israel out of her life but: "My country is leaving me because its story is ceasing to exist, and because of what it has strangled out of existence. I grieve the loss, I grieve its departure from me, but it's a grief coloured darkly by shame."

Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye is published by Seren (£12.99 hardback).

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Square Eyes: Rosie Millard's New Novel

Rosie Millard at the launch

To Soho for the launch of Rosie Millard's highly entertaining new novel The Square at the House of St Barnabas aka The House of Charity as it was known in the Victorian era.  Under the splendid rococo ceilings even the Bibliophilic Blogger who normally doesn't get out much was seen quaffing beakers of wine (thanks to the kindness of Legend Press in inviting me) and applauding this witty and clear-eyed satire on the life of a London square.  It was the same night as the first episode of Life in Squares, the BBC drama on the Bloomsbury set about which the less said the better. Rosie Millard has a very sharply observant eye for the vagaries of London bourgeois behaviour (she said she started writing by looking out of the window and trying to imagine the life that was going on behind those Georgian facades) and this one will be a perfect summer read as the publishers very properly suggested.

I met one of the author's neighbours from, as Thackeray would have written it, Th**********Square, N*, who said he had asked the author whether he should have brought his libel lawyer with him. She assured him it wouldn't be necessary. In spite of the presence of her children and parents beneath the St Barnabas chandeliers Rosie read some of the mildly naughty bits and a great time was had by all.

The Square by Rosie Millard is published by Legend Press in paperback at £8.99

The calm before the book-signing storm

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Why Do You Blog?

Looking at the date of my last blog entry this might seem a question over which a little irony has been scattered.  I do find my posts seem to appear at longer and longer intervals.  A question put to me by a fellow writer in all seriousness when I started blogging was: why do you do it? I can't see the point. Presumably his argument was that a writer should, as Dr Johnson enjoined us, be writing only for money as any professional should.  I do write for money.  I publish books and articles and reviews and the quality, I hope, of what I write here is equal to what I write for 'published' occasions.  So why do it if you are not being paid?

I think payment isn't the issue, rather it is the nature of the writing and whether it is making the impact it should or whether one is merely engaged in a refined form of striking one's head against the wall.  By "impact" I mean doing what writing should do, having some sort of resonance or presence in the larger world, rather than being a silent muttering to oneself.  The evidence is that some people do read one's blog because you get feedback, occasional comments, and even solicitations from publishers and publicists who seem to think you might be a useful vehicle for them.  But things have changed since I first started this blog.  The "intelligent internet" as one might call it has exploded and there is an extraordinary amount of material worth reading (we don't need to add that it jostles against the 90 per cent of drivel).  Only this week I discovered a site new to me called Partisan which seems to be worth anyone's while to read: short, sharp, well-written and pertinent.  The original idea of literary blogs, that they would say the unsayable and be a free critical space in a world of whirling, skirling hype, may have become clouded and many are long-winded, self-referential and otiose, but there is still stuff worth reading.  The problem is the amount of it.

It would be very easy to spend all one's day chasing up links provided by Twitter and many links would reward the effort but when would one have the time to read anything else?  I think most of us are too exhausted by all this matter coming at us to read it all (this being one of the reasons why blog comments have declined in numbers, people are just too overwhelmed by the tidal wave of words to be able to swim against it).  I am constantly surprised by certain active minds on Twitter who seem to be tweeting 24/7 yet who are also writers and poets.  When do they find time actually to write anything?

A key element in literary publishing has always been the editor and editors can often be vexing for writers because they have a habit of saying: no, this will not do.  The internet never says no and all doors are wide open. I am currently reading Eileen Simpson's fascinating memoir of the post-war American poets, Poets in Their Youth (she was married to John Berryman) and their struggle to get past editors and get themselves published is a major theme in the story.  But as readers aren't we  glad that there are some gatekeepers?  The true literarybloghead would say very firmly no.  Gatekeepers are censors, partial or biassed establishment police officers who curb and suppress the free flow of thought and opinion (the latter what really counts for many).  Let a thousand flowers bloom even if some of them are rotting on their stalks.  There is a lot in that but in the end the sheer profusion is self-defeating.  We can't keep up and the jam is, in my view, spread too thinly.

So that is why I do not blog daily, or even weekly.  In fact the chance of monthly would be a fine thing.  I will continue to do so, but I still can't answer my friend's question, and I think I never will: why do you do it?

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Talking About Edward Thomas 17 June

I will be talking to Jean Moorcroft Wilson, author of a new biography of Edward Thomas, at an event at the London Review Bookshop on 17th June.

I leave you with a quotation from his fragment of autobiography The Childhood of Edward Thomas (1938) where he describes himself as “a citizen’s son of London in the ‘eighties of the nineteenth century".  Reading that book and the biography one realises how much this great celebrant of the English and Welsh countryside was a child of the south London suburbs (and explicitly saw himself as such).

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Rupert Brooke is Dead

The grave of Rupert Brooke on Skyros
This Thursday (23rd April) is (in addition to being Shakespeare's birthday and mine) the 100th anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke in 1915.  Probably his most famous words are those about the corner of a foreign field that is for ever England and here it is on the Greek island of Skyros where he died from a blood infection on his way to the Dardanelles.  Plonked in the middle of an olive grove, this marble and wrought iron tomb seems to belong to a home counties churchyard not this plain, rough olive grove on a Greek island and it was a strange experience to visit it back in May 2009.

His obituary in The Times written by Winston Churchill (Brooke was very well-connected) began with a fine rhetorical flourish: "Rupert Brooke is dead."  The Brooke myth was born and the infinitely complex man behind that golden Apollo image remains fascinating.  The poet Isaac Rosenberg (who did not have such famous and influential friends) demurred at Brooke's "begloried sonnets" and I will be exploring some of these aspects of Brooke's reputation in a lecture to the Dymock Poets Association in early October.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

H is for Hare

The first paperback edition 1974
As an article in today's Observer reports, nature writing is the current non-fictional vogue – that is to say articles are written about it in the Observer, its authors are winning prizes, and clone after clone is being born.  There has always been nature-writing and its most famous examples like Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne, the nature writing of the Northamptonshire poet and naturalist John Clare or the essays of Edward Thomas (which preceded his emergence as a poet of the First World War) are classics of English literature.

'Nature Writing' (the genre so cleverly mocked in its newspaper Nature Notes manifestation by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop; the twee vocabulary and laughable purple prose) has always been a bit of a hybrid, combining sharp scientific observation of nature in the field with a whole range of personal obsessions from the thought-provoking to the plain dotty.  Even the great Gilbert White was obsessed by the idea that swallows didn't actually migrate in winter but  went into hibernation somewhere not very far away from their spring and summer homes.  Today it is more likely to be holding up the natural world as an alternative to our consumer capitalist obsessions or as a place to soothe our poor, bruised little selves.  Traditional nature writing was not much concerned with the political world (The Natural History of Selborne appeared in 1789, the same year that a certain upheaval took place in France) but today, sharpened by our ecological sense of what we are doing to the natural world, the broader context is unavoidable.

What we might call The New Nature Writing has certainly broadened the scope of the genre in very welcome ways.  It can cover traditional natural history, environmental politics, exploration of urban spaces and edgelands, travel, autobiography and just about anything else.  One of the best of the living British nature writers is Richard Mabey who was quoted in the Observer article as saying: "Nature writing ought to be writing about nature. I'm not sure books about pets ought to qualify, nor do I think books that are principally about the nature of the self ought to qualify."  Mabey doesn't exactly mention H is for Hawk but I think we know which kind of writing he has in mind.  He adds that nature writers should concentrate on being "the translators of the natural world...The highest objective is to let what is out there speak to us clearly in its own terms."  I couldn't agree with Mabey more but I don't think that is how many of the New Nature Writers see themselves.

As it happens I had just finished Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk when, by what process of serendipity I don't know, I plucked off my shelf a book that has sat there unread for several years, The Leaping Hare (1972) by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson.  Evans was the author of many books about traditional rural life based, like Ronald Blythe's Akenfield often on oral history interviews (Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay etc etc) and David Thomson is the author of a haunting and beautiful memoir of youth and love in Ireland, Woodbrook (1974).  This is a quite fascinating book about the hare, a creature about which we still don't know everything and which has been mythologised and made strange down the centuries.  The authors tell us about its natural history, its habits and behaviour, the way in which it has been incorporated into myth and legend, its life as the hare-witch of folktale, and so much else.  They have talked to countrymen as well as zoologists and there is nothing about the hare that they seem to have missed.  The contrast between this book of informed and attentive inquiry and Helen Macdonald's part-misery memoir of using the training of a hawk to exorcise her grief is, it seems to me, significant.  There are some similarities.  Both books talk about the history of their subject and the traditions surrounding it, both are based on some real research and thinking about the context in which their subject lives.  But where Evans and Thomson concentrate on telling us as much as it is is possible to know about the hare and its life in our imaginations, Macdonald's obsessive need to talk about herself, and the hawk in relation solely to herself, gets in the way of learning more about the goshawk, the history and practice of falconry, the stories that have grown up around it.  There is too much of the writer (and too many words) and although when she writes directly about her loss of her father she is convincing, honest and moving, as a book about a living creature it cannot compete with the book about the hare.

Of course we cannot be strictly objective.  Like the mediaeval bestiaries which described animals partly in natural history terms, partly in terms of their moral symbolism, and partly in relation to their religious or sacred significance (as when the red breast of the robin is accounted for by its attempt to pluck out the bloody thorns from Christ's calvary crown, a hypothesis that wouldn't cut much ice with Prof. Dawkins) we bring ourselves and our assumptions and our anthropomorphising tendencies to the way we think and write about our fellow creatures.  I have done it myself in my Of earth, water, air and fire: animal poems (Melos, 2013) where I have implied a moral relationship between humans and animals.  I think it is natural, inevitable, to do this but it works only if we keep our eye firmly on the object and try to learn.

I give the last word to Richard Mabey.  The best nature writing, he says, lets what is out there speak to us clearly in its own terms.  I take this to mean that the hare and the hawk are interesting, in the end, for what they are and not solely for the ways in which our ego uses them.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Basil Bunting Award 2015 winner announced

Basil Bunting
The 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry was announced today (Friday 20th March) at the inaugural Newcastle Poetry Festival.  This is the first time I have ever won a poetry competition or indeed any other literary prize in a long writing career (though I achieved second place last month in the inaugural University of Roehampton Ruskin Prize) so it was doubly welcome.  It was also a special pleasure to win a prize named after the poet Basil Bunting, whose work I have long admired.

The £1000 award was announced at the Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 20th March where the winning poem was read out alongside the other shortlisted entries.

I am the author of several poetry collections, the most recent being Of earth, water, air and fire: animal poems (Melos) and a satire on World War 1 commemoration mania, Trench Feet (Rack).

The prize was awarded for the poem below.


En quoi un homard est-il plus ridicule qu’un chien, qu’un chat, 
qu’une gazelle, qu’un lion ou toute autre bête dont on se fait suivre ? 
J’ai le goût des homards, qui sont tranquilles, sérieux, 
savent les secrets de la mer, n’aboient pas…

I see de Nerval coaxing his lobster,
on a leash of blue ribbon.
He has made his case
for preference of pet:
because it does not bark
and knows the secrets of the sea.

In this morning’s market
the great crustaceans twitch;
a pair of claws squeezes the air;
liquid eels in slippery ranks 
slither on stainless steel;
a salmon sleeps in a drift of ice.

Those bloody aprons, 
that pink tump of guts
coiled like a frivolous dessert,
enforce a preference for
the Bois – poet and homard,
like a pair of lovers, hand in hand.

Friday, 6 February 2015

A Short Book About Love

When my not-quite-a-novel-well-sort-of A Short Book About Love was published by Seren in 2001 it was described by a reviewer in The Independent on Sunday as “profound, warm and witty” and Boyd Tonkin also declared in The Independent: “this multi-faceted jewel is a reader’s delight”.  Not long after publication it was on the shelves of Blackwell's in Charing Cross Road where a table groaning with books about love had also been set up in the run-up to St Valentine's Day. Needless to say A Short Book About Love was not amongst them. After all, with a title like that why would it be?  Always a friend of booksellers I lifted one off the shelves myself and added it to the 14th February display (someone needs to write an article about this phenomenon of gratuitous acts of charity by authors to booksellers, especially where their own books are concerned; it is always heartwarming to hear of it and most authors have similar tales to tell).

I was, therefore, delighted, in Facebook parlance,  to be invited to take part in an event on Thursday 12th February at Modern Art Oxford on the theme of love where I will be talking about the book and reading from it.  I will have copies with me and would be happy to sign a copy for you.

The book weaves together three strands: a light-hearted re-telling of the medieval legend of Tristan and Iseut, a series of short reflections [that's the 'multi-faceted' bit] on the theme of love, and fragments of fictionalised Liverpudlian autobiography from a character called Felix who can reasonably be identified with the author.

This was great fun to write and in its digressive, amusing (I hope!) and slightly mad way it was the sort of book I always wanted to write and would do so again if the ludic were a little more popular in 2015 with publishers than it is.

If you can't come to Oxford then you can buy it from Seren or even from Amazon at the exacting price, fourteen years on from publication, of £0.01 – worth every penny, I should say!

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Ruskin Prize Announced

The Empress Theodora in mosaic at the
church of San Vitale, Ravenna
The winners of the inaugural Ruskin Prize, organised by the University of Roehampton Poetry Centre, have been announced.  First prize went to Claudia Daventry, joint second prize was awarded to Chloe Stopa-Hunt and myself and third prize went to Tania Hershman.

Apart from a misspent youth winning New Statesman competitions in the 1980s and 90s I have never won a literary prize in my life so this is a great pleasure.

The version of the poem, "Annotations of Byzantium",  printed on the Roehampton website has some typos so the full version is presented below.

It will be published later in Poem magazine.

Annotations of Byzantium


I am woman and you call me names:
circus dancer, whore, magician…Empress.

Beneath my chamber, secret tunnels run
where men are shut to waste or die;

where night dissolves in day like powders
losing presence in a lethal glass.

They wander in the dark, go mad, lose sight;
I tether them like cattle to a manger

where they feed, a rope around their neck,
who thought they could resist my power.

This I do for Antonina, consort of Belisarius, 
the man who cowers while she slakes her lust 

with Theodosius the Thracian boy;
I am woman; I know need and strength.


Beneath the dome of Wisdom, 
coming from shadows, we greet the patriarch.

Look at our work, great canopy of stone,
mathematics of magnificence.

Later, the salt sea whips my cheeks;
the wind streaks madly from the Dardanelles,

nature and art in passionate contention
where I award, between them both, the prize.


He is in the marshes, hunting crane,
watching the violent beat of wings,

patient to cripple the great, beautiful bird
that rises in the mellow light of dawn.


They shall say that Theodora rose
‘from humble origin’, lap-dancer

in the royal eye, to take the purple;
add in ‘whore’, for it’s desire

that frightens them, the narrowed eye,
the jewelled goblet raised and aimed,

a rustle in the chamber’s passage
where a curtain billows, candle flame

trembles excitedly at what it sees;
lips sealed by willing servitude.

Historical Note

The principal source of this poem is the The Secret History by Procopius (translated as a Penguin Classic, by G.A. Williamson, 1966). Written around 550 A.D. it is a remarkably candid account of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora who is the narrative voice in the poem.  The most famous of the Byzantine emperors, Justinian assumed power in 518 and married Theodora in 523.  She died in 547 and Justinian in 565.  Justinian is seen as a great law-giver and the period of his reign saw the construction of the great basilica of Agia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’) completed in 537 but Procopius tells a story of vicious corruption and tyranny, greed and lust. behind the scenes. He also recounts the story of the general Belisarius whose secretary Procopius had been and of his wife Antonina who appears as corrupt as Theodora herself.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Houellebecq Strikes Again (Again)!

Published on the very day of the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Michel Houellebecq's new novel, Soumission (Submission) could not have been more timely and as the gunmen burst into the office of the magazine the author himself featured on the cover of the then current issue with a mocking caricature of himself as a fortune teller or mage.  For his new novel is placed in the very near future after François Hollande's second term ends in 2022 with an Islamic President of the Republic who gets in as a result of doing a deal with the imploded parties of centre right and left after the refusal of the second largest bloc, the Front National, to contemplate a coalition. Whether this is a plausible scenario even in the context of a work of fiction is for the reader to decide but the donnée is at the very least an interesting one.

The novel is due to appear in an English translation in the autumn and already everyone is getting very excited at the "offence" it will putatively cause.  But apart from the tiny minority of fanatics who would derive "offence" from a fly settling on their windowsill, I imagine most moderate Muslims will read this with an air of baffled surprise for the Muslims in this novel are far from being represented as fanatics or jihadists.  On the contrary, the new President is a model of moderation and tact, distancing himself firmly from the madmen, and his minister for the universities, soon to be Foreign Minister, is represented as a man of exquisite civilisation and courtesy.  True, the Sorbonne is now under Islamic colours and women are absent from the university cocktail parties, but the central character, François, an academic specialising in late 19th century literature, ends by contemplating conversion himself, resolving a midlife crisis by accepting an arranged marriage with an attractive and accommodating young undergraduate (or three, which appears to be the limit under the rules of polygamy).  Why not, is the novel's final unanswered question? "Je n'aurais rien à regretter."  I would have nothing to regret.

Anyone familiar with Houellebecq's work (and I confess to being a long term fan of the sacred monster) will of course have noticed the feline ironies which sustain this narrative.  It is, in effect, a massive wind-up.  But the author's fondness for more or less plausible futuristic scenarios in his fiction does enable him to float some very interesting ideas.  The new President, Ben Abbes, dreams of, in effect, recreating the former Roman empire by shifting the centre of gravity of the European Union south, embracing north Africa and even Egypt, and his first step is to propose a move of HQ from Brussels to Athens.  This is not a rough derisive polemic (Houellebecq has done those in his time) but one that forces people to think about what the future might look like.  It is also a novel about religion and it is, like all his books, a novel about Michel Houellebecq.

Taking the first of these, religion, we are introduced to the central character, François, a specialist in the late 19th Century decadent, J.K. Huysmans, who after a lifetime as an atheistical aesthete, ended up embracing a fervent Catholicism.  François makes a pilgrimage to the abbey where Huysmans was received and where he is moved by the black Madonna and the general religious atmosphere.  He is stirred by the idea that what sustained European civilisation was Christianity and its collapse in the current consumer-individualist culture of 21st Century Europe (cue some characteristic bashing of "les baby-boomers" and much sardonic, sharply-observed descriptions of contemporary life; Houellebecq has a keen sociologist's eye for social trends).  The hypothesis, whether we take it seriously or not as a recommendation for our approval, is that Muslims at least are secure in their faith and know what they believe in.

Huysmans comes over in this book as a kind of proto-Houellebecquian solitary, disenchanted with the world around him, and turning to religion, in the end, as his only hope.  And this, for me was the chief pleasure of the book, not the Islamic theme, but the portrait of the central character who, like all Houellebecq's central characters, is a thinly disguised version of the author himself.  His dry humour, his sardonic exactness in puncturing the fatuities around him, are endlessly diverting and often made me laugh out loud.  The author, I read, is now 56 and he is starting to register the fact.  François still manages a sex life of a sort (and there are the usual graphic passages which his readers have got used to expecting) but even though he is in his mid-forties he feels himself to be physically falling apart, facing a future alone in his flat with his take-away food, booze, and occasional resort to escort girls after his young girlfriend emigrates in fear to Israel.  The relaxed, smooth, seemingly effortless life that awaits him if he converts to his university boss's form of Islam is a temptation, at the end of the novel, that he looks like being unable to resist.

This is, finally, a book in which not much happens.  Like the eighteenth century French dialogue novels it consists mostly of conversations – with the head of the Sorbonne, with a retired security agent who has spent a lifetime observing "extremists", with colleagues and lovers – that are always interesting and amusing even if they sometimes read like small essays or polemics.  Houellebecq may be an ageing enfant terrible but he is always intellectually stimulating and, at his best, a master of sardonic humour.  This one is as good as anything he has done in the past.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Happy New Year

Wished a Happy New Year yesterday by a drunk on a bus in the Old Kent Road I realise that my last post was in December.  The 'holiday period' and its aftermath has meant that I have written nothing here in 2015 so far.  This will be remedied shortly when I give my verdict on the new Michel Houellebecq novel, Soumission (Submission) which was published on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo killings and in which, with characteristic sardonic directness, he deals with an imaginary future, not far from now, when a new Fraternité musulmane is holding the balance of power.  You can imagine some of the rest...