Nicholas Murray, the acclaimed biographer of Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, Andrew Marvell and Aldous Huxley, which was shortlisted for the Marsh Biography Award, and most recently the author of Kafka, kindly answers a few of our questions.
Mark Thwaite: Why Kafka? Was he a more interesting subject than Huxley!?
Nicholas Murray: Kafka is a fascinating subject. The resources a biographer can draw on - the remarkable letters and diaries for example - are very rich indeed and enable us to explore and share the intimate life of Kafka in a way that is simply not possible with a writer like Huxley who was far less self-analytical.
MT: Is Kafka the quintessential 20th century writer or is he overrated? What is it about his talent that makes it understandable that he is so well known and, say, Hermann Ungar is so forgotten?
NM: I'm not sure that any writer should have to bear the burden of being the "quintessential" writer of his or her time. But great writers usually carry the imprint of their era more markedly than others and Kafka did succeed in articulating the fears and anxieties, the sense of alienation, and the perplexity of the individual in the face of totalitarian power, that are characteristic of the modern period.
MT: Novelist or merely good short story writer - discuss!?
NM: It's certainly true that all Kafka's major novels are strictly speaking unfinished and that some of his most perfect works are short stories. I think his shorter fiction, like Metamorphosis and The Judgement and In the Penal Colony, is as important as his full-length novels and he could often achieve in a short space what other novelists would take a whole book to do. Much of the best twentieth century literature has been short fiction - think of Beckett or Borges - and it's a great pity that short fiction isn't more highly regarded just now and encouraged. A short story can have the concentration, precision andpower of a poem.
MT: What is your favourite Kafka story and why?
NM: I think my favourite short story by Kafka is Metamorphosis. Its startling originality (though as I show in my book it is deeply rooted in the circumstances of his own life in Prague), its narrative economy, its wonderfully strange imaginative life, the way in which he finds a metaphor for his own (and modern man's) sense of alienation and estrangement, is quite brilliantly done.
MT: How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?
NM: I write all my fiction and non-fiction directly onto computer. I have recently acquired an Apple iBookG4 which is slowing me down usefully as I learn the ropes, after a life with PCs. I also write and publish poems and in that case I compose them all in longhand in pencil. If you ask me why I can't quite say. Perhaps it's superstition!
MT: What is coming next?
NM: I am just finishing my third novel and then it will be back to a new non-fiction subject. A lot of ideas are flying around and I hope soon to settle on something. My books tend to emerge out of this process ofdiscussion and debate with myself and with publisher and agent.
MT: What is your favourite book? Is Kafka your favourite writer?
NM: My favourite book, because it was one which hit me at a crucial time as a sixth former, seeming to speak to me in the way certain books do at certain times, is James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was very Joycean at the age of seventeen! Kafka is certainly one of my favourite writers but I am a very promiscuous reader and keep changing partners unpredictably.
MT: What book do you wish you had written?
NM: Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray which I recently re-read always strikes me as a perfect book, beautifully written and achieving that magical balance of lightness and profundity which only the very best writers can carry off.
MT: Do you have any tips for for the aspiring writer?
NM: My advice to young writers is very very simple: read, read, and read again. If you are saturated in the very best writing some of it will rub off.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
NM: Everyone should go out immediately and buy Moris Farhi's latest novel Young Turk (Saqi Books) which I have just finished. Warm, witty, wise, humane, it's a delightful and moving book.
MT: Thank you so much for your time Nicholas - all the best!