A renascence for Arnold Bennett

Catherine Burgass has given another paper on Arnold Bennett, ‘The House That Bennett Built: Material Culture in Clayhanger’ in the swanky environs of Keele Hall (‘Arnold Bennett and His Circle’ conference, 18th October).  Catherine discussed the function of furniture (chairs, shelves and domestic plumbing) in Bennett’s romantic realism.

Catherine has been invited to contribute to a forthcoming volume of essays, edited by the distinguished Bennett scholar John Shapcott.  She is also giving a talk next February for the Arnold Bennett Society on food in Bennett’s fiction: http://www.arnoldbennettsociety.org.uk/?page_id=5

A Good Week of English Lit. Teaching

I had a good week of teaching (and learning!)  last week, which meant I (and my students) benefited greatly from student input, with particular highlights of two Seminar Presentations, one in my module Modernist Prose Writing on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the other, in the core module level 5 Literature and Modernity, on Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’.

The first two presentations of the season, these were of the highest standard immediately, hopefully setting the gold standard for the rest to follow. Both were delivered in a ‘thinking aloud’ manner, either  by way of (one person) speaking to Power Point slides (Conrad; mostly highlighted text passages), or to memorising notes (Poe; pair presentation with pre-arranged part allocation). Both presentations cut to the chase of the two texts. On a very high level, the Conrad one dealt with the complexities of the text’s existentialist message as it cuts across the binary divide, before a backdrop of colonial capitalism, between black/white, individual/mass, first world/third world, primitive/civilised etc.. It also opened up in an ananlytical way the detail in the Modernist techniques of Conrad’s innovative (1899!) prose style. – The Poe presentation delivered a fascinating reading of this short tale, by ‘presenting’ the seminar with more than one option of meaning, before homing in on a number of central points. The prophetic ‘textuality’ (almost post-modern?) of the piece was highlighted. The man of the crowd was identified as a symbolic (Allegory!) incarnation of the new socio/psychological identity model of ‘the crowd’. In the light of this monstrous phenomenon, symptomatic of the late modern age, writing cannot function any longer according to the tried and trusted models of ‘simple’ symbolisation. Symbolic representation (this is Poe’s point, it seems) needs to be designed to incorporate difference. Extended systems of interlinking symbols are needed. The ‘Man’ is an anorganic hybrid of contradictory attributes (‘dagger/diamond’) belonging to different class categories as they are listed with almost sociological precision in the middle section of the story. The possibility was offered that the ‘Man’ could also be read (Poe says, as part of the text of the story in German [missing Umlaut over the ‘lasst’], that he ‘cannot be read’; : “Er lasst sich nicht lesen”) as the narrator’s shadowy alter ego. Reconvalescing from a strange fever: opium, most likely, or syphillis as was suggested, he is obsessively following a figment of his own dark imagination which takes him  into the innermost recesses of his half-crazed mind: the horror of modern crowd identity/ nightmarish loss of individual identity boundaries etc.: ‘ a shadow chasing shadows’, the team said.

Both presentations initiated powerful seminar discussion. In a wonderful way, to me at least, and also to those students, I assume,  who are taking part in these two of my modules, a bridging link became visible between the two texts: the horror at ‘the heart’ (wrong symbol?!) of them both.

Martin Jesinghausen

Maxine Peake in Hamlet

I was at the Manchester Royal Exchange (just 45 minutes up the West Coast Mainline) to see Maxine Peake play Shakespeare’s Danish prince. Peake was mesmerizing as she strode the stage, at once sinister in her madness and profound in her insights. The run is extended, and sold out.

The production was very special, but I have yet to arrive at a satisfactory explanation for the translation of Polonius into the female counselor, Polonia, while Peake’s Hamlet remained a Prince. The reverence to tradition is neatly complemented by some neat contemporary gestures (such as the Liverpudlian gravedigger with an ipod), but I’m not convinced by the play-within-a-play scene.

Ibsen’s Ghost at the New Vic

Students from all years joined staff at the New Vic theatre near the uni for a staging of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881). A revival of Richard Eyre’s excellent production explored issues of generational conflict, rapidly changing social conventions, and moral hypocrisy at the end of the 19th century (http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/sep/20/richard-eyre-spirit-ibsen-ghosts). A few of us then had a bite to eat and a pint at the Polite Vicar next door, and caught the 2nd half of Stoke City v Newcastle (which was a lot less exciting than Ibsen).

We’ll be taking in the excellent Northern Broadside’s production of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer at the Vic in November (http://newvictheatre.org.uk/she-stoops-to-conquer).