The Association of Literary Urban Studies organised a symposium last week at the Institute for Historical Research at the University of London. Scholars came Finland, Estonia, Australia, Italy and all over the UK to share their research. The theme was The City: Myth and Materiality. There were excellent papers on a wide range of topics. The ones that resonated with my own interests were those that explored how stories are told about the metropolis by marginalised groups, and how those stories – sometimes nostalgic – can be employed to challenge official urban histories. The city, as so many urban commentators have argued, is unknowable in it scale and complexity. Stories, then, become a strategy for controlling and ordering the seeming chaos of urban life. Diverse papers on urban planning in Rochdale, anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens and New York baseball in Don DeLillo’s Underworld revealed the power of personal myth to comprehend the materiality of the city. Jennie Bailey (MMU) described her project to capture the stories of social housing tenants displaced by regeneration projects in Rochdale. Markuu Salmela (University of Tampere) explored a ‘Subway playoff’ between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, portrayed in DeLillo’s epic novel, to reveal the nostalgic narratives of sports teams after they have been relocated away from their original communities (work which echoes my own concern with portrayals of the Dodgers and Ebbets Field in Paul Auster’s fiction and films). Maria Mitsoula’s (Edinburgh) paper on the marble mythologies of Athens, and particularly how protesters used marble from a recently regenerated city square to violently challenge the authorities, showed how unofficial mythologies can remake city spaces and provide a radical alternative to official myths of the city.
Tom Wolfe, the American writer, has died this week at the age of 88. He is known as the author of two significant novels: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (recounting his experiences with Ken Kesey and the Merry Tricksters in the 60s) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (made in to a movie starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith in 1990). But his greatest influence has been on the writing that he termed New Journalism. The movement has given us Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (about a quadruple murder in Kansas), Michael Herr’s Dispatches (recounting his experiences of reporting the Vietnam war) and Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (an account of a drug-fueled trip to report on a motorbike race in the desert) – these works have the quality on a ‘non-fiction novel’ (Capote’s term) because they reimagine or report upon actual events. Wolfe anthologised the writing of these authors, himself and others in The New Journalism (1975) and gave a name to a style of writing that had emerged as a response to the 1960s. Wolfe claimed that the novel was bankrupt, and called instead for a form of writing that was as accurate and neutral as journalism, but as creative and involved as the novel written by the realists and naturalists of the nineteenth century (Balzac, Zola and Dickens). Wolfe rejected the experimentation of postmodernity, preferring the conventional linearity and representational strategies of realism, seeing in it an immediacy and emotional involvement that gives the work greater authenticity. Readers of The Bonfire of the Vanities (the topic of a chapter I am writing for a new monograph on the contemporary New York novel) will know from its epic scale and reach that it has more to do with Dickens’ panoramic views of London than it does with the fractured narratives of contemporaries such as Thomas Pynchon or E L Doctorow, whose experimentation he rejected as artificial.
I don’t think that I can do justice to Paris in writing. Even Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century poet of Paris (the poet of Paris, note, rather than a Parisian poet), was sensitive to the troubling nature of writing about Paris when he asked in Le Spleen de Paris (1869):
”Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive idea is above all a child of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.”
A group of 1st and 2nd year students set off at way-too-early O’clock on Saturday morning and reached our hotel near the Gare du Nord in the early afternoon, leaving time for a trip to Montparnasse and the Sacre Coeur, followed by dinner in a properly Parisian bistro.
Sunday morning we were at the Musee d’Orsay to see the great impressionist and post-impressionist works of Monet, Manet, Gustave Caillebotte (it’s important to have a bottle of wine when doing a spot of sanding) and Van Gogh (amongst many others).
In the afternoon we found ourselves underground with the Paris dead in the catacombs (we suspect that some of the inhabitants hadn’t survived the queue outside) and in the evening saw Paris at night from the Eiffel Tower.
Monday morning we visited Notre Dame and the famous hang-out of Paris’s modernist literati (Joyce, Hemingway and Stein amongst them), the Shakespeare and Co bookshop (with Aggie the book-loving cat).
All this in 48 hours! Time for a sit down.
In Act 3, Scene 2 of Hamlet, the prince asks a troupe of players to use their performance ‘to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’. He wants to show his adulterous mother and murdering uncle the truth of what they have done in killing his father and taking the throne of Denmark.
Drama, then, should show us the world, so it is appropriate that the RSC production of the play, currently touring, should reflect the realities of the global culture and multi-cultural society in which it is being performed. The cast are mostly black actors and Elsinore transported to an African country (still, conveniently, called Denmark) where the action is accompanied with African drumming and singing.
Paapa Essiedu was sublime as Hamlet, while Ewart James Walters excellent as both the ghostly king and a reggae gravedigger (this felt familiar. Did I see it, perhaps, in the Manchester Royal Exchange production recently?). Buom Tihngang as Laertes was at his best as the bereaved brother and son, while Mimi Ndiweni’s sung lament to her thwarted love for Hamlet’s was mesmerising.
The Lowry is a big space, and the atmospheric soundtrack which accompanied the action created unnecessary competition for the actors to be heard in some of the more subdued moments.
If the RSC are passing your way, I suggest that you take the chance to see a great production; one that may be talked about in the future as a defining take on Hamlet.
Today is Virginia Woolf’s 136th birthday (b. 1882). She is a significant figure in literary modernism and somebody who gave us a number of ways to think about it from both a creative and critical perspective.
Woolf was highly conscious of the changes in social and cultural arrangements in the early decades of the 20th century.
In her influential essay on the novels of (Stoke’s own) Arnold Bennett, she wrote:
On or about December 1910 human character changed. All human relations shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations shift there is at the same time a change in religion, politics and literature.
(‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ 1924)
As a result of these shifts and changes, Woolf saw that the modern writer had a responsibility to represent the world in a new way because, as she put it:
Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. (Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’)
One way of thinking about the effects of these social transformations was the way in which artists represented the human form. Under the stresses of rapid change the body is distorted. Munch’s The Scream, Picasso’s figures and portraits, and Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ are all familiar examples.
Artists responded to this by adopting new and innovative forms appropriate to the dynamic nature of the new world
Writers turned to the internal lives of their characters to record the impressions of the world rather than attempt to represent an unrepresentable reality
Modernist artists such as Woolf were themselves at the forefront of the processes of modernity, attempting to make sense of the disorder of a complex and confusing world, and seeking new modes of representation appropriate to this flux and fragmentation.
Woolf was the author of influential texts, such as Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and the peerless Orlando (1928). Orlando, in particular, plays with ideas of time (a central character who lives from the time of Elizabeth I to the Great War), identity, sexuality and gender (the central character is, at turns, a man, a woman and androgynous).
There has been much controversy this week over the diversity of the undergraduate syllabus at Cambridge. Here, some Staffs Uni lecturers dwell on the ways in which we hope to make our teaching relevant to the complex world we all live in:
“I was just reading about this in the Evening Standard, and thinking about my own list of 5 set-text novels for the Adaptation module. James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room), and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) rub shoulders with Camus, Doris Lessing & Edith Wharton (the main criteria for their selection was that they be short ‘modern classics’ (ones that I love), and adaptable to cinema.
Interstingly (or ironically), both Baldwin and Achebe fall foul of political correctness in their own right (Baldwin sinning against cross-dressers, Achebe asking us to sympathise with a wife-beater), which in no way detracts from their greatness, any more than Kipling’s colonial perspective detracts from his.
All v interesting. I was discussing the concept of the canon with 3rd years in week 1 and it was generally agreed it should simply be added to – don’t throw baby out with bathwater.” Margaret Leclere.
“I also teach Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and 4 others from that list of 10 (Beloved, Lonely Londoners, TGOSTings, Wide Sargasso Sea – and Jean Rhys was white, by the way!, not BMEthnic as the article claims).
I run a year-long module called Global Voices: Stories of Empire which contains only two white writers – Albert Camus and Jean Rhys, both of whom write prose which mines deep into the complex cultural psychology of the colonised nation. My module on Magical Realism also features the work of so-called “BAME” writers such as Amy Tan (Chinese-American), Toni Morrison (African-American), Salman Rushdie (Indian) and Luke Sutherland (black British). On this module we also read work by Laura Esquivel (Mexican) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombian); although these writers might not be thought of as ‘minority-ethnic’ in the UK, Hispanic cultures are aligned as ‘minority-ethnic’ in the USA.
As you can see from my job title – “Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies”- , I even reject the term “English Literature” to describe my subject area: Camus and Marquez we read in translation – how on earth can we consider them to be “English” in any sense, and a lot of the literature which I put on my modules may have been written in English, but it is written in countries a long way from England where the main language may not be English at all. In my view, the label “English Literature” gives a sense of primacy to the English language, English culture and British (English) imperial practices of the past from which I like to distance myself in my work in order that I can more clearly understand the ‘voices’ and the literary art of people so long considered to be ‘Other’ to all that is English.” Melanie Ebdon.
“My PhD was in African American experimental poetry. I teach contemporary African American poetry (e.g. Nathaniel Mackey, Harryette Mullen– I’ve published a chapter on her for an edited collection with Ashgate), Black British and Asian poetry (e.g. Patience Agbabi, Nabila Jameel, Daljit Nagra). Like Mel, when anyone asks me what I teach, I tell them ‘Literature’ not ‘English Literature’ for the same reasons (though I can accept “Literature in English or English translation”). I also teach Pound, Eliot, Baudelaire, Whitman– there is a range of diversity in all the texts we teach.” Lisa Mansell
“American literature has always been open to the experiences of marginalised groups – regardless of the nature of the inequality. I teach the Harlem Renaissance (Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen’s beautiful and poetic Passing) and slave narrative (Frederick Douglas). More recently, Native American writers (such as Sherman Alexie) and African American writers (such as last year’s Man Booker winner, Paul Beatty) have revealed the stupidity of segregation and racism through humour. Toni Morrison’s Civil Rights era novel, Song of Solomon, is a powerful exploration of the tensions in the politics of race, identity and resistance, combined with a lyrical examination of the power and problematical nature of oral cultures.” Mark Brown
The Man Booker prize has been won by an experimental first novel that was 5 years in the writing. Lincoln in the Bardo is written from the perspective of Abraham Lincoln’s dead son and a host of other souls speaking from a limbo between life and death (the Tibetan belief of Bardo).
In interviews today Saunders has spoken about how the structure of the book – with dozens of narrative voices – has been a significant challenge, and how literature has the power to see the world from the perspective of others. Interestingly, President Trump is very proud of how few books he has read! Go figure.
Writing about his own creative practice in the Guardian recently, he said ‘An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” …. Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”
Saunders is the 2nd American to win the prize, after Paul Beatty last year.
We are in Week 4 already, and it’s now quite a while ago since we went to London with the Freshers in Welcome Week, on Thursday 21 September to be precise, to visit two venerable institutions associated with learning and culture in this country: the British Library and the British Museum. However, the memory of our trip still lingers pleasantly like a warm cloud of benevolence over this busy semester…
We took the slow train there and back which meant that we had plenty of time to get to know our wonderful new students.
Mark Brown about to teleport to the Metropolis
In town, highlights were the manuscript treasures of the British library (with, for example, the heavily annotated and worked over first page of Hardy’s Tess on display, and many more samples from the literary canon relevant to us, plus the priceless exhibits documenting British culture through the history of books), and an exhibition on print making and modern Western information culture in the British Museum (which had only opened that day!). Some of the group also used the opportunity to look at the infamous Mummies.. A nice lunch in the Library was thrown into the mix for good measure, before we walked through St Pancras Station (Neo-Gothic!), and from there in a 20 minute trail through Bloomsbury to the Museum. As we headed for the train back, we even managed to get a pint in at a hostelry near Euston. In summary, an altogether fruitful day, and time well spent with my students and colleagues.
Claybody theatre launched their new site-specific production this week. Dirty Laundry will be performed in the evocative China Hall at the Spode Factory in Stoke from October 11 to 21. The play, according to its creator, Deborah McAndrew (winner of the UK Theatre Award, best new play for An August Bank Holiday Lark), explores the effects of the industrial environment through the inter-generational tensions in a typical 1950s working class home. Rueben Moth is dying, and a secret hovers just beyond the grasp of his daughter, Nora.
The set, designed by Dawn Allsopp, will sit in the cavernous industrial space, and convey a sense of pot-war austerity and gloom.
At the launch, Conrad Nelson (director) introduced the professional cast and explained how the audience will be transported back to the 50s by local amateur actors, before entering the auditorium through the set itself, in a gesture that brings the audience into a much closer relationship with the drama than in a conventional theatre space. Some performances will be followed by panel discussions involving academics, theatre folk, and local people.
Many thanks to everyone at Claybody for an enjoyable evening at the Spode visitors centre. We’re really looking forward to bringing a group of students to a performance.
Click here to visit Claybody’s website and find out more.
We wake to the sad news that one of our greatest modern poets, John Ashbery, has died aged ninety.
He was a leading figure of the New York School of poetry in the 1960s, a group influenced by modernist and contemporary art (especially abstract expressionism and surrealism). The work that emerged from this movement was wide-ranging; forms of pastiche, non-narrative and anti-narrative text, a simultaneous return to and rejection of form all problematised the discipline of poetry—and in a good way. Complex new poetry for a complex new, postmodern world. An interest in contemporary culture provoked poems about the banal, every day, sometimes the throw-away. Art is life, and sometimes, life is dull. No more grand subjects and narratives, just life.
This is neither an obituary nor essay; it’s a remembering of my first encounter with Ashbery, and not an easy one to recollect since his poetic work has been so prominent in the study of contemporary poetics, but I think I can pin it down to a balmy late September in a seminar room when our tutor gave us crumpled photocopies of “The Skaters” (1964):
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.
The direct address, themes concerning sound and music and the rush of rich images made this early encounter with Ashbery’s text a meaningful touchstone for much of my later research concerning poetry, music, sound, and the every day. I return to Ashbery again and again in reading, research and in teaching (some of our students will know well the famous “Popeye” sestina: “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”).