An interview between Nicholas Murray and Matías Serra of the Buenos Aires Herald, conducted by email from Argentina, 26 January 2006.
When did the idea of becoming a biographer appear? Were you already dreaming of being one before coming across Arnold, Marvell et al? Any other biographers/ies that inspired you?
I had always been interested in autobiography and memoir and in the way writing about a life is part of the process of shaping it. In this form one senses the tension between our partial representations of ourselves and of others and the notion of a more objective representation. I remain of the view that biography is provisional – an essay or an attempt on the truth about a life. I reject utterly the idea that there could be a “definitive” biography of anyone. Of biographers of the past I admire Lytton Strachey. I wish it were possible again to attain that spirited elegance and lively iconoclasm but contemporary literary biography seems to aspire to a more portly magnificence and its readers want more not less.
Which of your biographical subjects do you feel closest to?
In what way did writing those lives modify your sense of your own?
That is very hard and raises the question, I suppose, of how desirable it is for a biographer to identify too closely with his or her subject. There is a scale running from intelligent empathy to sycophancy and I think I would want to be closer to the first of these poles. Huxley, I suppose, was attractive to me, in spite of the great differences in culture and upbringing, because I admired the sorts of things he cared for and the range of his curiosity about literature and life. I cannot say if living with a biographical subject modifies one’s own life. Perhaps it should, but I can’t say. Renewed acquaintance with someone like Arnold in the 19th century or Huxley in the 20th reminds one of how important it is for the literary intellectual to engage with society and politics and shows how it can be done, how it was done. It undoubtedly makes one think about how it could continue to be done.
What do you feel is the strongest argument for biography, and which the strongest against the genre?
The strongest argument for literary biography is that it surrounds the work with a nourishing stream of relevant background information that cannot fail to increase understanding of the text. In addition, I think that the record of how a literary life was lived is always instructive, it has an intrinsic interest quite apart from its hermeneutic value. And let us be candid: we are inescapably interested in our fellow human beings. The case against has been put – with terrifying persuasiveness – by Proust in Contre Sainte-Beuve where he says that the life and the work are independent of each other, that the work proceeds from l’autre moi not the man or woman we meet convivially in the street.
When was the first time you read Kafka’s work and what happened that day?
What “attractions” did your other subjects present from the first?
Many years ago, as a student, I first read the “Metamorphosis/Die Verwandlung” and it impressed me but I cannot remember the circumstances so perhaps it was not a lightning strike. Kafka is so much a part of 20th century consciousness (even down to the jokes made about him by those who have never read him or who use, loosely, the word “kafkaesque”) and so much a part of the atmosphere we breathe that it is hard to be precise about the moment when we first became aware of him. In the case of Arnold I was attracted to his cultural criticism at a time when I was interested in these issues and when he was constantly misrepresented (sometimes quite scandalously) in academic circles. I wrote the book with a slight dash of missionary zeal, to put the record straight – or at least to offer an alternative view. Marvell was a poet I have loved all my life (and another writer who engaged with the public sphere). Chatwin (this was a short, introductory book) was a travel writer whose prose style attracted me by its elegant brevity.
If Boswell and Johnson’s friendship serves as a “matrix” for biographers, what kind of imaginary friendship did you strike up with each of your subjects?
I think it was not an intimate relationship with most of my subjects. I did believe in some degree of distance rather than seeing myself as an amanuensis or spokesman – though the fact that Huxley had been alive in my lifetime and that I spoke to his wife, son, and some close friends, made me feel that there was some living link. Enjoying (I think) their respect made me feel that they recognised that I might have understood some of his intellectual concerns. I felt at one or two moments a ghostly contact with that vanished world of early and midtwentieth century English liberal intellectual life – its idiom and flavour – that I still think deserves respect. Others would say, no doubt, that it deserves to be mocked.
Once Ellmann wrote: “Ultimately what the biographer seeks to elicit is less the events of a writer’s life than the “mysterious armature”, as Mallarmé called it, which binds the creative work. But writers’ lives have their mysterious armatures as well.” Do you agree?
In so far as I understand the point I do agree. The writer’s struggle to sustain and develop the life that permits the work matches the maturation of the oeuvre itself. The physical conditions of writing (the desk, the chair, the page, the arrival of silence) are of vital importance to the act of creation and the life that allows that “room of one’s own” to be unlocked has to be fought for. The ways in which the fight is carried on are nearly always interesting and sometimes exemplary.
Seemingly, as a biographer looks back, s/he is able to reshape a life in a particular way, by shading this or lighting on that. Were you conscious of that “power” as you went along, or was it the material itself that forced a form for each life?
I was conscious of this but also very wary of it. I don’t like it when biographers try to pretend they are novelists. I think a certain modesty is in order. I believe that the biographical data should dictate the shape of the biography and that one should concentrate, in Arnold’s famous phrase, as far as possible on “the object as in itself it really is”. By this I mean that you should let the evidence speak and try to answer the question: what was this life actually like? One is, at the humblest, a reporter.
Whenever your lives were praised, did you ever feel as a biographer that your were hearing, as Arnold wrote, “the world applaud the hollow ghost / which blamed the living man”?
Yes, indeed, most of my subjects were controversial in life. British journalists sometimes ironically dub radical or controversial politicians who have left office and joined the lecture circuit as “national treasures” – the former firebrand sanitised and no longer a threat. My subjects made British culture what it is but they are not always given credit for what they did. Safely entombed, they can be discreetly praised or regarded as amusing historical curiosities.
Ian Hamilton regarded Arnold’s talent as a gift imprisoned. a) Do you agree? b) Do you feel he had any affinity in this respect with Kafka? c) How do you feel Huxley and Chatwin got on with their respective gifts?
One of my treasured possessions is a postcard from Ian Hamilton written not long before he died after I reviewed one of his books in the TLS. Written in tiny, faint handwriting, it was very generous about my book – which preceded his. He was a poet I admired greatly and I think he understood Arnold’s poetry profoundly. I had more time than he did for Arnold the social and cultural critic and therefore, I suppose, was less ready to see that side of him (and his moral and intellectual inheritance) as an obstruction or diversion of his gift. It is undeniable, however, that he wrote his best poetry before he emerged as a critic of society. Huxley, I think, managed his gifts well. He overcame a lot of difficulty (partial blindness) to become a polymath and he was very judicious in his view of himself, realising that as a novelist he was closer to being an essayist. He did most of the things that he wanted to do and ended his life, by all reports, in a well-earned serenity. Chatwin was a more secretive, edgy figure, whose undisclosed sexuality (he died of AIDS) and restless nature led to anything but serenity yet, in a short creative span, he wrote some remarkable and utterly distinctive books. As a writer he could feel content with what he had realised, however unsettled his interior life must have been.
Arnold was Huxley’s great uncle… Huxley seems to have been influenced in some ways by Kafka… It’s nice to find these connections between your books.
Yes, it seems at first sight a happy accident but (we haven’t touched on this) the silent call of sympathy that draws one to a biographical subject (the intuition that your interests connect with theirs) may have been operative here. The connection between Arnold and Huxley is reasonably obvious but Kafka’s influence on Huxley was more difficult to be precise about. It is, however, oddly gratifying to come across these correspondences.
One usually finds heavy shadows or plain “enemies” among predecessors. It was nice to read that Sybille Bedford was generously ready to collaborate.
I cannot praise Sybille Bedford too highly for her generosity (towards someone who turned up on her doorstep with no introduction, an unknown quantity to her) and her passion for Huxley’s writing and his life which she communicated to me on the repeated occasions I saw her both before and after my book appeared. I intend to write about this in the future.
Some other times, it is almost simultaneous publications that one struggles against, as in the case of Reiner Stach with Kafka, no?
Reiner Stach’s monumental work (we have only a part of it so far) is obviously of great significance but I was aiming at something very different: a concise, one volume, fresh portrait for what we call “the intelligent general reader”. In that sense I don’t believe we were in competition (quite apart from the different capacities and skills we bring to bear).
I wonder, similarly, what you think about Nicholas Shakespeare’s full-blown Chatwin biography.
That book obviously eclipses – in its detail, its access to documents and people (some of whom were told not to speak to me!) and its extent – my book as a biography. I am relaxed about that because mine was never intended as a rival, it was a short introductory biographical and critical essay which is still in print,
by the way.
I was struck by Michael Hofmann’s objections in his review of your Kafka. Do you agree with any of his observations?
I think the reviewed should be gracious and forbearing about their reviewers. Petulance is not an attractive trait. But Hofmann is in a category of his own and I am afraid (this is more serious) I didn’t learn anything (which one should from one’s critics) from his strictures. The reviews of the book were so gratifying elsewhere – better almost than it deserved I sometimes think – that I needed at least one curmudgeon.
Adapting a novel to the screen is a hard enough task, let alone a biography. Would you like your Kafka or Huxley to be made into a film? (By the way, what do you reckon of Soderbergh’s film?)
I did like the restless, dark energy of that film but I suppose I prefer the cobbler to stick to his last. I am a biographer not a movie-maker but if the Hollywood moguls are interested I can let them have my bank details!
Clive James’ review of your Huxley hints at a possible movie and points out an important topic –because it covers a lifespan- beautifully: “Chief among the many merits of NM’s new biography of Huxley is that it appreciates the full weight of his early tragedies without overdoing the retroactive prediction of his future behaviour.”
Seriously, I think that’s right, there is a “human story” here that could be dramatised very successfully.
What would having known Kafka or Chatwin help confirm or alter your perceptions of their personality and work?
This is your hardest question. I simply don’t know. Common sense says that if you know someone your understanding of them should be vastly enhanced but when we compare biographies that have been written by friends and those written by authors who did not know their subjects the disparity is surprisingly small. Having said that, there were moments, especially with the enigmatic Kafka, when I wished that I had been in the Old Town Square in Prague in, say 1910, and had crossed the path of that tall, immaculately turned out young man on the way to his insurance office and found the means to exchange a few words. To have caught some of that famous light, ironic humour his friends talked about, to have heard him speak, to have seen him centre stage in that small theatre in which so much of his life was acted out, would have been a remarkable thing. But it remains an idle fantasy.
Would you like to say something about your modus operandi as biographer?
I am, I think, fairly methodical. I begin by re-reading the entire oeuvre. Reviewers who can’t think of anything else to say always blame literary biographers for failing to give enough space to the books. I avoid lengthy chunks of literary criticism in my books (preferring the glancing kind of critical insight) but they are rooted in a belief that the books justify everything and that in them is the author’s true signature. I read in particular letters and journals, taking copious notes. I travel as much as I can. I love to go to the places (like Huxley’s Forte dei Marmi) where my subjects lived and worked. I try to find (with more recent subjects!) anyone who knew the writer. I read any memoirs and reminiscences I can find. And I reflect a great deal on what these kinds of evidence amount to. What, collectively, do they say that will be valuable in evoking the particular flavour of the literary life? I gather all this information together (it used to be in cardboard folders, now it is in the files of a small white Apple i-Book) and then – the moment always takes me by surprise – I get up one day and discover that it is to be the day when I start writing. I write quickly and intensively and am usually utterly exhausted by the time I have finished but I like to paint the fresco while the plaster is still wet.
Are there any other lives you would also like to write? What other literary discoveries have been as important?
At present I am at work on something a little different – a big book about the English Victorian travellers and explorers. Its emphasis will be biographical but it will be a broader canvas. I am enjoying the research immensely. After this perhaps I shall get an intuition of another literary life that I would enjoy writing.
I think the field needs to lie fallow just now.
Would you kindly sum up in a few lines a day in the life of Nicholas Murray
I am a reasonably early riser and, when I am in London rather than in my home in Wales, I am at the British Library each morning as it opens. I work away without stopping until a very late lunch because my best work is always done in the first part of the day. In the mid-afternoon I take vigorous walking exercise (I am not the sort of person who frequents gyms) Then I resume business such as correspondence, emails, accounts. Then I return to more discursive reading. In the evening, conviviality takes over. When I am not researching or writing a biography I write novels (two have been published) and poems (my latest collection has just come out). Much of this creative work is done in the interregnum between biographies, ideas gathering momentum during the library sessions and research trips. I am very lucky to live such a life, and the opportunity to live like this has been hard-won. In England it is not a financially rewarding life, because literary biographies, though accorded a great deal of respectful attention by the editors of book pages, do not sell in large numbers and are never seen in that strange, exotic enclosure: the best-seller list
An interview between Nicholas Murray and Zeinab Badawi for BBC World News, on 23 November 2013.
An interview between Nicholas Murray and Mark Thwaite for literary website Ready, Steady, Book.
An interview between Nicholas Murray and Will Barrett of the Poetry School, on Campus the social network for poets.
An interview between Nicholas Murray and Planet Magazine.