Sunday, 16 July 2017

Doing The Rounds: Part Four #2

There is a special shelf here, in a cupboard, reserved for books by Shena Mackay and John Murray. If one tries hard enough it would be possible to find plenty of similarities between the two great writers. While it is unlikely either have made much money from their novels and short stories, they at least have the consolation of being enthusiastically reviewed on a regular basis, often by their fellow authors.
This, for example, is taken from a review of John’s Jazz etc. which was published in The Independent in May 2003. The reviewer is D.J. Taylor, who has been a big supporter of John’s comic classics: “Since his mid-Eighties debut, Samarkand, John Murray's career has followed a predictable path. Every three years or so, Murray produces a novel, published by a small provincial press and dealing, generally in surreal-to-magic realist terms, with some aspect of his native west Cumbria. On publication, the half-dozen or so critics who regard him as, in Jonathan Coe's words, the nearest thing we have to a modern-day Flann O'Brien, turn pink with excitement. The book sells a thousand copies, and then everything goes quiet for another three years.”
In an almost wistful, envious tone, he adds: “There are advantages, of course, in this kind of tenuous barnacle-hold on the national literary consciousness. For one thing it means that, within certain broadly defined limits, you can write what you like. You can write in the way you like, too, with the result that Murray's novels digress all over the place, ramble drunkenly through forests of phonetically rendered Cumbrian dialect, and frequently stop dead out of sheer exhaustion. This is part of their charm, while calculated to alarm the general reader avid for plot, pace and resolution.”
Another respected writer, Andrew Martin (best loved here for his old Tube Talk columns in the Evening Standard magazine), in a Telegraph review of John Murray’s 2004 novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels, said: “John Murray is a grizzled, handsome fellow in a flat cap. He lives in Cumbria, and seems to do exactly what he wants in print, which amounts to formal experimentation combined with an exquisite, dryly comic tone. He has been compared to Flann O'Brien, although I admit that my first thought was of Les Dawson giving one of his deadpan, wordy monologues. (Well, all right then, Les Dawson with a PhD.).” He concluded: “Certainly a weight of poignancy accumulates as the book progresses. And for all its problematic nature, this is the funniest novel I've read for a long time.”
The poet and critic William Scammell once wrote that John provided “a direct line to Rabelais and Flann O’Brien”, while closer to home, on the Tangents website in April 2005, John Carney claimed: “Let’s be bold and say he’s our Jim Dodge.” It is a good line, but does it work? Well, perhaps John Murray is the only Englishman who would be capable of writing Fup, Not Fade Away, or Stone Junction, which is not quite the same as saying Jim Dodge’s books are like John Murray’s. Possibly a case could be made for John’s old rural North Cumbrian farmhouse being related to Jim’s isolated ranch in Sonoma County. And they are both rebels and outlaws, magicians in their own way, with their beards and recalcitrant hippy contrariness, and they are both gloriously funny and rude and profound, so perhaps the chap had a point.
Between 1993 and 2009 John Murray published seven novels that are life enhancing, and particular favourites here. His books tend, or tended, to be 200-odd pages of comic extravaganza, featuring ridiculous realism, and grotesque spiritual slapstick, with a dissenting political undercurrent. To use a phrase that appears on the back cover of the Rebel inc. edition of Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away, John has given us “bawdy folk tales, packed with gags, raunchy misadventure, and a mordant wit.” (and it will probably turn out John Murray wrote that Scotland on Sunday review the quote is taken from). And what a great series that Rebel inc. Classics one was: Nelson Algren, Barry Gifford, Richard Brautigan, Emmett Grogan, John Fante, and Jim Dodge being the favourites here.
Undoubtedly John Murray is a smart arse, a right old clever clogs, who studied Sanskrit at Oxford. He is also a great storyteller, with a wonderful habit of telling several tales at once, who is very funny, ribald, earthy, wise, argumentative, opinionated, intolerant, open-minded, and something of a seeker who possesses an intimidating intelligence. His books are never arid, abstruse academic works, and they suggest he would be great company.
In photos on his books he looks a genial geezer, with a big bushy beard and a nice line in flat caps. His works are slightly spiritual, in a non-specific way, and they are filled with words, words, words, though as he would point out he is not fascinated by words for their own sake but where they and what they lead to, what can be done with them. Unlike most theorists he is a great communicator. There is poetry in his writing, a very definite rhythm, which makes it great to read aloud, in a rapping sense, and one confesses to loving phrases about “esurient, edacious earthworms”
There are certain patterns, tropes, themes in his writing, like the recurring Cumbrian location, use of Cumbrian dialect, deeply-flawed heroes or narrators who are usually highly-educated failures (but not everyday ones), and nostalgia for childhood which is used as a tool for making sense of what life has turned into. His ‘heroes’ seem to share similar passions, which presumably overlap with John’s: fine food, cooking, Greek islands (John now lives and runs writing workshops on the island of Kythnos), retsina and other wonderful wines, languages, literature, films, and regular reading of The Guardian and New Statesmen, though that really refers to how those publications were rather than are.
Joe Gladstone, the central character in John’s 2009 (and seemingly most recent) novel The Legend of Liz and Joe, makes the case that a guy in his 70s is no different than someone much younger, and makes a list of his passions which may not be at all different from John’s own and several of his other leading men: “I for one like unpackaged foreign travel, all-night card games, original birthday presents, wild electric jazz and serenely harmonious classical music, and for that matter lots of pungent physicality.”

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