Paul Auster

In his last novel, Baumgartner, Paul Auster contemplated the nature of loss and mortality. Auster had been ill with lung cancer for some time before his death this week, and this novel now, in retrospect, has the feel of a love letter and a farewell to his wife, the novelist and academic Siri Hustvedt. Death has haunted Auster and his work. In the early autobiographical meditation on writing, The Invention of Solitude, Auster recounts the tale of his grandmother shooting his grandfather and the effect on him of the early death of his own father. In The New York Trilogy, the novel that brought him to international attention, Quinn, the central character in the first part of the trilogy, has become isolated and alienated from his New York environment by the unexplained deaths of his wife and son. Quinn recounts how he can still feel the impression of his young son, Daniel, on his chest. Auster’s own son, Daniel, died in adulthood of a drugs overdose. Auster’s life, then, was lived in the shadow of death and tragedy, and we can see more than the traces of that experience in his novels.

That isn’t to say that his substantial body of work will only be remembered for its focus on loss. Many of his works employed his beloved New York City as both a setting and a character. I met him on a research trip to the New York in December 2001, just weeks after 9/11, and we shared a cab back from Manhattan to Park Slope in Brooklyn, where he lived in an impressive brownstone with Hustvedt. We looked back from the cab window as we crossed the East River and mourned the loss of the towers and the dead of that terrible day.

Auster’s early life was peripatetic and adventurous. He grew up in New Jersey and went to Columbia University in New York. He was fluent in French and spent time in Paris on his degree and returned there to work as a translator. He collected and edited the works of French modernist poets in translation, particularly Mallarmé. At the same time he was writing his own poetry, which he considered his best work. The poems are small, taut, and intense. He also worked on merchant ships and as a census collector back in the US. These episodes provided him with rich material to shape his characters.

It is possible to distinguish – a little arbitrarily, perhaps – four phases to Auster’s career. The work has moved from poetry and non-fiction (collected in Ground Work and The Art of Hunger), through the early fictions (The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace and others), to the films of the mid-1990s, and subsequently to the later novels (including The Book of Illusions – my favourite from this period – and 4321). Each phase is distinct in the form and the themes the work interrogates, while key themes of language, identity, solitude, and the power of writing and storytelling are held in common, explored, and developed.

One of the most distinct features of Auster’s early work is the way the lives of his writer-characters frequently collapse into the lives of the characters they create, consistently calling into question the boundaries of where the “real” world ends and the fictional world begins and, in a postmodern way, questioning the capacity of literature to represent reality at all. Auster’s struggle toward reality is problematised by anxieties about the capacity of language to represent, language as a way of being in the world.

Auster’s films, Smoke and Blue in the Face (1995), represent a shift in both medium and tone. There is a warmth and optimism about the films which is felt only occasionally in the preceding novels. This optimism expresses itself through community and, in particular, in the representations of Auster’s own home borough, Brooklyn.

After the films, Auster’s fiction takes on a distinct change in subject matter, tone, and address. Two themes dominate this body of work. The idea of a place of imagination to escape to and remake the self comes to dominate Timbuktu and 4321, while an exploration of the genesis of a story and the essence of literary art are at the center of Oracle Night and Travels in the Scriptorium.
Auster’s body of work is impressive and it reminds me of the work of Fanshawe in The 3rd part of the Trilogy, which fills two suitcases and is as heavy as a man. All told, there are sixteen novels, nine non-fiction and autobiographical works, six collections of poetry, four films and many collaborations.

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy, one of the most important American writers of the last 50 years, has died at the age of 89. His writing career spanned from 1965 until the publication of his last novels in 2022. He is best known for the novels The Road and No Country for Old Men, both adapted successfully for the screen. His work, certainly in style, is often compared to that of Faulkner, in that his control of language and punctuation defies our conventional expectations but maintains the reader’s attention and understanding. His use of language and imagery, and his comparison to great writers of the early 20th century, has led to critics labelling him a late modernist who challenged the emerging orthodoxies of postmodernist indeterminacy. It was the Border Trilogy novels – All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998) – which brought him to public prominence. These novels reflect on the frontier as a key part of America’s founding myth. The best of these, for me, is All the Pretty Horses. A revisionist Western, it transplants the battle between man and the wilderness from Texas to Mexico. John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins cross from modern Texas into what the sixteen year olds hope will be the unspoilt wilderness that their predecessors tamed on the American frontier. The novel is a quest narrative and a bildungsroman.

The opening pages encourage us to think that we are in the 19th century. The candle, the hat, the portraits of ancestors all signify an earlier time than the actual setting. Death, repeated here, suggests a finality, an ending; but also the possibility of new beginnings. The calf bawling and the prairie reveal to the reader that this is an agricultural area and that we are in American West. Also, the train challenges our expectations. It symbolises change and industrialisation, reinforced by the language: ‘boring’, ‘howling’, ‘bellowing’. That the train comes from the East, all that the West has stood in contrast to, is important. The ‘endless fenceline’ demonstrates the scale of the landscape. Fences are also symbolic of the taming nature and the domestication of the land. Later, the boys have to pull out the staples to allow the horses to pass through fences. The Mexican cook suggests that the boundaries between the cultures either side of the border are no longer as distinct as they used to be, and also Texas’ history as a part of Mexico.

The themes of the novel are very much those of the conventional Western; the battle between man and nature, a nostalgia for a simpler way of life that is attuned to the rhythms of the land, and established beliefs. Grady is trying to locate himself in relation to the wilderness in which he finds himself. He feels that the wildness inside him, a sort of primordial urge, needs to be reflected by the landscape. The narrative suggests that Mexico offers this possibility in ways that Texas couldn’t, particularly when he hears a wolf howl. The contemplation of God and religion is important as the westward expansion of America was often seen as religious obligation. The boys are to be transformed by their encounter with the pristine wilderness of Mexico, which substitutes for the Old West, into self-reliant, independent and resourceful cowboys. The zacateros they encounter on the Mexican plains represent simple agricultural workers responding to the shifts of the seasons. While they are friendly, they are not represented in a romantic way, instead being dishevelled and dirty.

Their exploration of this ‘new Eden’ are punctuated with places that represent both the garden and hell. The Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion (I’ll leave you to do your own translation. The reader is pushed to translate a lot of Spanish dialogue, forcing us into active readers) is vibrant and abundant with nature’s bounty. America is a nation whose identity is shaped through this idea of the battle between the settlers and nature. The horses are symbolic of nature and the wilderness. Grady’s ability to subordinate the horses reflects the ambitions of the early American settlers. However, there are two ambiguities here: the horses were introduced by Europeans and, crucially, once nature has been tamed, the frontiersman must move on to seek out new challenges and new wildernesses. This section is a biblical allegory here. We can see Grady as an American Adam in this Edenic landscape, Alejandra as the sexual temptation and Don Hector is the God-like authority who casts Adam from paradise.

In contrast, the prison the boys end up in as punishment for their transgressions demonstrates that Mexico is not a savage wilderness where they will find challenges on the journey towards manhood, but is a society they are unable to interpret. In Part III they virtually abandon travel by horse and instead become very 20th century, riding in trucks and travelling by train.

As Cole rides back through northern Mexico it reveals itself to be far more industrialised than the idealised natural landscape he had seen it for on his journey south. The crossing back into Texas is less detailed, more matter of fact. That it is Thanksgiving, an American holiday celebrating the expansion of the nation is symbolic. We see that Cole is a cowboy out of his time. Towards the end, a number of thematic concerns combine. The industrial nature of the Texas landscape is illustrated by the city lights, the highways and the oil fields. When Cole speaks Spanish to the Mexican girl at the judge’s house, she responds in English.

The certainties of the American West as a place of mythical origins is dismantled by the book’s temporal moment (mid-20th Century) and the harsh realities of Mexico. However, as a bildungsroman, it traces Cole’s development from the innocence of youth to the self-reliance and self-knowledge of manhood.

Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems

This week, in 1956, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights in San Francisco.

This was a revolutionary collection of poems that connected Ginsberg’s poetic present to an American tradition that included Alt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, and also created the conditions for new forms of poetry.

Ginsberg was part of the group of writers who would come to be known as the Beat Generation – beaten down, the beat of the still marginal jazz music, beatific. 1957 would see the publication of other seminal (I use that word deliberately, as all of these texts have sex and sexuality as persistent and dominant themes) Beat texts – Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957 and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1959.

Ginsberg and his fellow writers attempted a radical critique of their conformist, Cold War times. They did so by inheriting their ideas in, modified form, from the madmen and outlaws of the previous generation, to paraphrase Fitzgerald (who belonged to his own generation, the inter-war Lost Generation).

The Beats adapted their modes of expression to distance their work from the aesthetic orthodoxy: they introduced new rhythms and measures, new prose styles and vocabularies, new underworld themes and settings. Their work was to be spoken and heard, freeing it from the constraints of publishing and the academy.

Beat writers sought to expand consciousness – their own and that of their readers – through the experience and representation of travel, sex, drugs, Eastern mysticism and new literary forms; all of which appear in ‘Howl’.

‘Howl’ is a courageous response to the dominating passivity of the Cold War culture of conformity that succeeded the war, typified by the TV appearances of Senator McCarthy waving his evidence of communist infiltrators into American government.

Most people know the first lines:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in

the machinery of night

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of

cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz

The poem is in 4 sections, including the later ‘Footnote’. This first section is a list of the fallen – Neil Cassidy, Burroughs, Kerouac, Naomi Ginsberg. They are American aesthetic and intellectual exiles whose joy, emotional and sexual appetites, hunger and despair set them apart from what has been termed ‘the republic of mere logic’.

In Part II, Ginsberg posits Moloch, a tyrannical Hebrew deity who demands child sacrifice, as the personification of the capitalism and uniform consumption, which banishes deviance, improvisation and spontaneity in all its forms.

Part III takes Carl Solomon, the lunatic saint who was inspiration and publisher to the Beats. ‘I am with you in Rockland’, Ginsberg declares – allying himself with the mental patient in the asylum (to employ the vocabulary of the time).

Part IV, or ‘Footnote’, is Ginsberg’s solution to the oppressions of his contemporary American culture and his attempt to escape from the rationality of the machine. Instead of Moloch, he proposes a society of spiritual grace which celebrates the sexual, behavioural, artistic and political deviances that Part I and Moloch seek to destroy – these then become ‘Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy….’. In Part I the soul, the spirit and the body are profane and transgressive, here they are spiritual and sacred. This reappraisal will result in a new American society that will accept Ginsberg and his friends who have previously been excluded.

Instead of embracing Ginsberg’s new poetic vision of citizenship – where deviance is holy – America banned his poem for obscenity.

You can find out more about why ‘Howl’ was banned with Dr LIsa Mansell at

The Element That Stands Beyond the Critical Eye (Reflections on the British Library Treasures Room)

In being taught how to read a text critically, the student learns how to see beyond what is presented on the page. That is, they may read the sentences that are written in black and white, but they will see the colour of socio-economic-historical contexts that frame the work in a time and place. Such a practice has a twofold benefit: the first is that it illuminates the text to show what treasures are nestled within; and the second is like it, that it illuminates the time and place in which the authors of those works lived and worked. This dual illumination stretches the imagination of the reader backwards and forwards, seeing the arc of change that has occurred over the years, and it is the literary critic who sets out to enable those changes to become more clearly recognised. The illumination of the past is that history is not always told as it should be, and the authors of the time help to bring true history to us, the illumination of the future is that we can see what the future may look like under the same arc, and these illuminate the present so that we recognise that we live in a moment of influence. That things were what they were is one thing, but things do not have to become what they appear to be heading towards. The track of our society can be given a junction to enable it to move in a new and better direction. 

Yet for all that literary criticism does, there is an element of textual creation and engagement that stands alone — an element which illuminates the space around it in a completely unique manner. The element is noticeable whenever it is encountered, and undeniable to those who have experienced it. Such an element is readily available to see in places where old and precious books are displayed. One such place is the British Library, which displays works of great thinkers and creators from years gone by. There a visitor can see the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, handwritten lyrics by John Lennon, manuscript paper of Mozart and the sketches of Da Vinci. These and more are housed in a gallery named ‘Treasures of the British Library’, which is as apt a name as could possibly be given to such a gallery.

As with all old books and manuscripts, the room has to be kept quite dim. The lights are not garish and brutal, but soft in a way that enables them to display the cases without causing too much damage to the things contained therein. Yet even for the room being in semi-darkness, there is an undeniable light that seems to shine from the very essence of the room, and which has a quality of staying with the one who views those works. The quality, or the element as it may also be called, is a difficult one to describe. It is a curious blend of these works being defining moments in the history of literature, the ways in which they have been crafted and the finality of them that makes them so appealing. That Austen sat down and wrote books that are still read two hundred years later, the original, neatly handwritten pages of which are shown clearly in a case, and that she will not write another ever again, cause an illumination to come to the text that cannot be emulated in any other fashion. Perhaps this is what Walter Benjamin meant when he spoke against reproduction of art. There is something more brilliant about seeing the original workmanship than could ever be attained by cratefuls of printed editions of those same books. The grandeur is not in the number of copies of the texts, but rather in the entirety of that person’s work and craft being contained by pen and ink on a handful of pages, and the enduring effects that those scribbles had. Though publishers will always seek sales, mere numbers hold no sway over the power of the original manuscript. Though literary criticism may help to bring context and understanding to a text, it stands separate from what the text in its own original manifestation can bring. 

All this to say that when the Staffs Uni English students visited that room earlier this year, it was a sunny day. We exited the building, but there was a difference. On any other occasion, when exiting a building into sunlight, there is a point where the building appears very dark as the internal light pales in comparison to the brightness of the sun. Ordinarily, the dark building and the things within it are left behind as the person enters into glorious sunlight. But on this occasion the difference was that the building did not become dark. For behind us light was shining from the ‘Treasures’ gallery. And in some way, we didn’t leave that building and the things inside it behind, but we have taken it with us.

Tim Lucas (2nd Year English and Creative Writing)

International Women’s Day

Here in the English and Creative Writing department, we like to think we celebrate amazing women every single day. From our brilliant staff and students through to the wonderful female novelists, poets, playwrights, short story writers, essayists, and literary critics featured on our modules, we are surrounded by amazing women all the year round.

That said, we are not ones to pass up an opportunity to shout even louder about amazing women in literature so, to mark International Women’s Day this week, we asked some of our team to tell us about their favourite novels by female authors:

Phillipa Holloway

Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing (Fiction)

My favourite book is The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. This novel follows Rachel as she moves back from her job on a wolf reserve in the USA to the borders of England and Scotland to run a rewilding programme. Dealing with her mother’s death, and reconnecting with her estranged brother as she negotiates the project and the politics of wealthy Lairds and local communities, Rachel is a character of great strength and humanity: flawed, intelligent, determined, and responsive.

Hall’s ability to portray a woman so genuine and uncompromising in the face of so many literary tropes about motherhood, relationships, and landscape is thrilling. Her prose is precise, and her evocation of place and people captures the nuances of both.

Talking about her process, she says: ‘I’m interested in the working nature of the land as well as its resistance to what we place upon it, metaphysically, and sometimes physically. This is what I’ve grown up with when it comes to Cumbria – farming, sheep, rain, difficulties travelling, self-sufficiency, obduracy, respect’ (Hall, 2009), and this close attention to details shines through in her clear depiction not of only of place but the emplaced human within it.

This is an author and novel I return to over and again.

You can read more of Sarah Hall’s 2009 interview with the Lunecy Review at:

Mark Brown

Senior Lecturer in English and Course Director for Sound and Communication

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is an exploration of the social, economic, and sexual pressure on young women that seems as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, when the book is set.

At first glance, The Bell Jar does not strike the reader as an overtly political novel. The key themes that present themselves, and for which the book is popularly renowned, are the explorations of growing up in America, mental illness, teenage suicide, and the angst of a young woman finding her way in a large and scary world of work, fashion, education, and relationships. Consequently, The Bell Jar is often seen as a rites of passage novel.

These concerns are given added interest for the reader by the autobiographical detail that haunts Esther’s Greenwood’s narrative and continues to hold the public’s attention.

The novel was originally published in 1963 under a pseudonym. At the time critics found the book to be a thoughtful exploration of a young woman’s mind. However, when the book was published under Plath’s own name in 1966 its reception was strongly influenced by the circumstances surrounding her suicide at the age of 30in 1963, just after the book’s original release. Much attention, unsurprisingly, has been given to the stormy relationship with her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes, and her relationship with her two children.

But is all the biographical attention to the novel justified. Well, to some extent it is. The Bell Jar is an account of Esther’s time at college, her experiences as a ‘guest editor’ on a New York magazine and her subsequent breakdown – all supported by a wealthy sponsor.  Plath too went to an all-girl college, won a scholarship to Mademoiselle magazine and attempted suicide.

The title itself speaks of both clarity and constriction. The bell jar is a glass container in which the contents can be seen clearly but can also be read as the shop windows in which the fashion-conscious characters check their reflections.

But it is also about the suffocating constraints of Esther’s situation and society: fashion and commodity as part of 50s social ideology in America, the role of the patriarchal medical profession in Esther’s illness, and the constraints of the social and political environment on Esther’s gender role and in her relationships with men.

The novel’s opening reflects on the execution in the electric chair of the Rosenbergs for spying for the USSR and goes on to explore the effects of Electro Convulsive Therapy on Esther.

The issue of gender roles and freedom for women in this book is specifically related to the issue of sexual freedom. Before the pill, sexual and moral politics revolved around ideas of health, hygiene, and conformity. Esther’s mother, for example, sends her an article entitled ‘In Defense of Chastity’, which concludes that the best form of birth control is abstinence.

At the conclusion of the novel Esther is assessed by the hospital board for a return to the society that she has rejected. To do so she must show that she is a well-adjusted, socially integrated, mentally well citizen of 1950s American society. You will have to read the book to find out if she succeeds.

Amy Louise Blaney

Associate Lecturer in English

There are so many literary works by female authors that I adore: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World…the list goes on.

For this piece, though, I wanted to share my love of Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History. Partly because it is a brilliant piece of fiction that playfully inverts the rules of genre and can be seen to have kick-started a trend for so-called ‘dark academia’, but also because its conflicted central characters – and their struggles to find their place and identity within the world – continues to resonate with me in new ways every time I re-read the novel.

Set at an elite New England university, The Secret History tells the story of a close-knit group of six classic students who, it becomes apparent, have committed a terrible crime.

The novel is narrated by Richard Papen: a young man from a modest background who finds himself, through an unusual twist of fate, becoming part of an elite clique of students, hand-picked by charismatic classics professor Julian Morrow.

Richard’s position as an outsider is crucial to the novel. As the reader, we see the events of the novel solely through his eyes and we are, initially at least, invited to sympathise with this awkward, isolated young man, marooned and adrift amidst an elite world of apparent social, intellectual, and financial privilege.

As the novel progresses, however, the novel plays with and inverts ideas of tragedy, melodrama, and detective fiction to rewrite this singular worldview. As readers, we begin to question the veracity of Richard’s narrative and the plausibility of his perceptions. As we follow this murder mystery in reverse, we are invited to consider not who the killer is – we know this from the outset – but who the victim is and, more importantly, why they are the victim and what the significance of their murder is.

Simply put, The Secret History is, like all the best novels, a book that merits repeated reading and that, as I age and evolve as a reader, unpacks itself in new ways with each revisit. Read it, think about it, then put it on a shelf and come back to it in five- or ten-years’ time. I guarantee you will experience it again anew.

Want More Female-Authored Fiction?

The longlist for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced on International Women’s Day and contains a fantastic line-up on contemporary novels written by women. Past winners of the prize include Madeline Miller, Barbara Kingsolver, Tayari Jones, Ali Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Helen Dunmore and Carol Shields, whilst this year’s shortlist features novels by Louise Erdrich, Ruth Ozeki, and Elif Shafak amongst others.

Dickens’ Birthday

7 Februarty 1812:

Dickens’ 210th birthday today, as good a reason as any to spend a thought or two on this outstanding writer. It’s even a platitude to say that the work of this most inventive of Victorian novelists has withstood the test of time (and shedloads of literary and autobiographical criticism to boot) and remains relevant, instructive and enjoyable to this day. Nothing could be a better reminder of Dickens’s art, of his extraordinary treatment of language, than the following excerpt from Oliver Twist of 1837-39, the foundational first of the whole host of new Realist Victorian novels to follow. As a fledgling text, this novel very much strikes us as experimental still, a laboratory of various narrative forms and styles, ranging from topical investigative journalism to educational journey, as in Bildungsroman, and allegorical morality tale.

The passage below shows Dickens’s full potential as narrative magician, with similar fireworks going off in all of his later novels. New Victorian Realism in full cry: London waking up in the in the early morning to the hustle and bustle of a crowded day… The reader wonders: who is talking? It is not Sikes, nor Oliver, who are walking across the stage here. When the prose heats up, the narrator does the vanishing act of much of later Modernist ‘free indirect discourse’. Whose consciousness is streaming here? Might it be that of the big city itself? I always ask myself in passages like this: was Dickens really in charge of his writing here, or was he being written (so-to-speak) by language that wants breaking out? One could say that langue is driving a coach and horses through the authorial project in sections like this….

Dr Martin Jesinghausen

From Oliver Twist,

Chapter 21: The Expedition.

It was a cheerless morning when they got into the street; blowing and raining hard; and the clouds looking dull and stormy. The night had been very wet: large pools of water had collected in the road: and the kennels were overflowing. There was a faint glimmering of the coming day in the sky; but it rather aggravated than relieved the gloom of the scene: the sombre light only serving to pale that which the street lamps afforded, without shedding any warmer or brighter tints upon the wet house-tops, and dreary streets. There appeared to be nobody stirring in that quarter of the town; the windows of the houses were all closely shut; and the streets through which they passed, were noiseless and empty.

By the time they had turned into the Bethnal Green Road, the day had fairly begun to break. Many of the lamps were already extinguished; a few country waggons were slowly toiling on, towards London; now and then, a stage-coach, covered with mud, rattled briskly by: the driver bestowing, as he passed, an admonitory lash upon the heavy waggoner who, by keeping on the wrong side of the road, had endangered his arriving at the office, a quarter of a minute after his time. The public-houses, with gas-lights burning inside, were already open. By degrees, other shops began to be unclosed, and a few scattered people were met with. Then, came straggling groups of labourers going to their work; then, men and women with fish-baskets on their heads; donkey-carts laden with vegetables; chaise-carts filled with live-stock or whole carcasses of meat; milk-women with pails; an unbroken concourse of people, trudging out with various supplies to the eastern suburbs of the town. As they approached the City, the noise and traffic gradually increased; when they threaded the streets between Shoreditch and Smithfield, it had swelled into a roar of sound and bustle. It was as light as it was likely to be, till night came on again, and the busy morning of half the London population had begun.

Turning down Sun Street and Crown Street, and crossing Finsbury square, Mr. Sikes struck, by way of Chiswell Street, into Barbican: thence into Long Lane, and so into Smithfield; from which latter place arose a tumult of discordant sounds that filled Oliver Twist with amazement.

It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

Mr. Sikes, dragging Oliver after him, elbowed his way through the thickest of the crowd, and bestowed very little attention on the numerous sights and sounds, which so astonished the boy. He nodded, twice or thrice, to a passing friend; and, resisting as many invitations to take a morning dram, pressed steadily onward, until they were clear of the turmoil, and had made their way through Hosier Lane into Holborn.

Poe’s Birthday

It’s Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Poe is a figure who has fascinated readers for nearly 2 centuries. His death at the age of 40, on a Baltimore street at election time, has led to speculation that he died of alcohol poisoning, in a political brawl or, more recently, a diabetic coma. His stories also remain enigmatic. He is best known for his gothic horror tales and as the inventor of the literary detective (in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’). The aristocratic and eccentric Auguste Dupin and his narrator-recorder-sidekick are the model for Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. His hysterical tale of incest and aristocratic decay, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, explores Freudian concepts of Oedipal conflict and the uncanny many decades before Freud even contemplated them. One of his most influential stories, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, combines both in the pursuit of a criminal figure through the labyrinthine streets of a gothic London night, lit by the flickering glare of early gaslight. Walter Benjamin sees this as a story that contains the origins of modernism that would take many decades to catch up with this literary genius.

image courtesy of wikicommons

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This week, it is 123 years since the birth of CS Lewis (B. Nov 29th, 1898). Children’s Literature provides a fascinating lense through which to view social attitudes to childhood and to explore the development of fantasy literature as a form. Here at Staffs Uni, we take a look at Children’s literature from both a critical and a creative perspective.

CS Lewis’ best known novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was written in the immediate post-War years (1948/9) and published in 1950.

The seemingly escapist fantasy of the novel – with its talking animals and fairytale story elements – looks at first like an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the grim reality of a scarred and austere society seeking to re-build after the catastrophe of the war.
However, there are many aspects of the narrative which reflect the time of its production. For example, the novel is a reflection on evacuation and its effects on children and the dislocation of family. These would have been familiar scenarios for child readers at the time of publication. It is a wartime narrative of children separated from parents – fathers at the front, women working for the war effort, fathers killed in action, parents killed in the Blitz. The children negotiate the world without adult supervision or authority. Now, this is a familiar trope that is familiar in everything from Alice to Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton, all the way to Harry Potter. The professor is a distant but comforting figure who is sympathetic to the children’s stories; he seems to understand children but not the wider social realm. He is a link between the world of fantasy and imagination and a primary or real world. In this respect, he is similar to the narrator who is also more concerned with the interests of children than the adult world. Finally, Turkish Delight reminds us that sweets, chocolate and biscuits were rationed into the 1950s and rationing didn’t entirely end until 1954, 9 years after the war had ended.

The most significant convention of children’s literature here is the movement between a primary world and one of fantasy or imagination. It is important to consider the journey through the wardrobe – this magical portal – as an ambiguous journey for the children, as both real and not real. It is significant, I think, that initially it is the younger children who are able to go through the wardrobe to Narnia. The balance between the children is interesting and symptomatic of some of the observations made by the critics whose definitions and approaches we have just looked at. We have two younger children and two older children, with a male and a female child in each. The older children take responsibility for their younger siblings, allowing the reader to see how the war is reshaping childhood and reshaping our understandings of knowledge and innocence. The younger children, however, have not lost their innocent trust in freedom and imagination, leaving them able to conjure other worlds. Does Narnia exist or do they encourage their big brother and sister to join them in a game so convincing it becomes real to them all?

The older children are caught between the world of adults and the world of children, while the younger children demonstrate the power of the childhood imagination over the rationality and diminishing creativity of adolescence and early adulthood. Equally, we see how gender roles are socially motivated and the ideologies of gender work at a very early stage in a child’s development.

The wardrobe – a portal between this world and another – is a familiar trope in children’s literature, from Alice’s looking glass (which gets an oblique reference here) to platform 9 and 3/4 in the Harry Potter novels. Here, the children travel from the corrupted world of war, violence and destruction to a wood – a natural world that should be a haven for them and provide protection. This, after all, is the Romantic view in children’s literature. The wood, in contrast to expectations, is itself riven by a battle between forces of good and evil and the children are forced to take sides and, crucially, take action to establish a moral principle. Again, a distinct echo of the real world beyond the wardrobe door and a recognisable one for the contemporaneous reader. The forces of good face an overwhelming and immoral foe who has all the characteristics of a charismatic and violent dictator. The animals of the wood along with their allies, the children, then become the plucky resistance able to challenge the occupation of the White Witch. There are, though, collaborators who must be punished at the end.

So Narnia becomes the site of negotiation of the adult world of conflict and the expectations that are to be placed on our central characters as they mature. In this natural fantasy realm the children face challenges that children should not face. They challenge evil in battle and become fair and just when called upon to rule. The parallel or fantasy world functions as an alternative or symbolic site through which issues of growing up, responsibility and good and bad are explored and negotiated.

Beat Poetry Day

October 7th is Beat Poetry Day. It marks the anniversary Allen Ginsberg reading his radical poem, ‘Howl’, at the Gallery 6 in San Francisco in 1955. The poet and owner of the City Lights Bookshop (still there to this day, visit if you get the chance),
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was subsequently tried for obscenity and cleared. Here, Visiting Research Fellow, Martin Jesinghausen, reflects on Ferlinghetti’s influence.

New American Poetry against the Plague

Over the last year or so I found some relief from virally or politically induced nightmares in poetry. New American writing proved particularly good as antidote against the atrocities of budding US-style fascism.

I came across two new writers Ocean Vuong (born 1988) and Jennie Xie (no data), immigrants into the USA from Asia at an early age, one from Saigon, Vietnam, the other from Hefei, China. Both are offering new perspectives on global culture and on North America today, often by rendering strange the tropes and images from an unknown homeland they left behind, through blending them with material representing their new-world environment, at the same time alien and familiar to them. As child-migrant outsiders they have grown up inside an adopted culture, in language acquired and honed to standards of poetic expressiveness. This is poetry that offers fresh and raw vistas, new ways of seeing and feeling across divides. Vuong’s collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds came out in 2016, Xie’s is called Eye Level and was published 2017.

Awarding the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature to Louise Glück (born New York 1943) came as a lovely surprise, the second American poet in a row following Dylan’s selection of 2016. Glück’s poetry is dark post-modernist word-music, her special voice that of a peculiar stream-of-consciousness, often as if history itself were speaking or dreaming. Material from myth and the collective unconscious resurfaces, salvaged from an underground flow of cultural jetsam and flotsam reaching us from ancient times. She has not published much very recently; her career is fully documented with complete collections in Louise Glück. Poems 1962-2012. The latest title dates back to 2014: Faithful and Virtuous Night.

A few weeks ago I discovered Terrance Hayes’s prize-winning 2018 collection entitled American Sonnets for my Past and Present Assassin. The intricate and strict formal architecture of the Sonnet, a new poetic form originating at the beginning of the modern period with Petrarch, proved attractive for the expression of complex, often contradicting, or even paradoxical thoughts, ever since its heyday when it was adopted (and adapted) in Elizabethan poetry, and especially Shakespeare, of course. Hayes appropriates the Sonnet as an Afro-American form. He does so by breaking away from the prescriptive traditional rules of Sonnet-construction. He ‘deconstructs’ the Sonnet by overhauling its old formal parameters so that it becomes fit as a medium for debates of the aggravating contradictions in contemporary US-culture. Riveting stuff!

Two of my older favourites, rather well-known in this country because of their long-standing association with the London Review of Books, have also been publishing new work recently. The first of them, Frederick Seidel (born St Louis 1936!), especially appeals because his texts are irreverent, grumpy, sinister, funny, sarcastic, and often politically less than correct, a virtuoso technician of words with a sharp scalpel against the arteries of current pseudo-culture and ogre-politics. Check out his 2016 poem ‘Trump for President’ published first in the LRB 29, 2016.  Seidel is a city-jungle poet. His two last collections give evidence again of his deep attachment to New York: Widening Income Inequality, 2017, and Peaches Goes it Alone, 2019, are Seidel’s ‘late style’ monuments. Also search out perhaps ‘Karl’, ‘In memory of Karl Miller’, erstwhile editor of the LRB and friend of Seidel’s (first published New York Review of Books, November 20, 2014, also collected): a love letter from an American cosmopolitan writer to London as a hub of urban culture. Last month Faber published the latest selection of what Seidel deems fit for posterity: Frederick Seidel New Selected Poems, 2021. –  The second of the old guard close to my heart is August Kleinzahler (born 1949, New Jersey), more gentle than Seidel, and as accomplished and wide-ranging in themes and forms, perhaps with a more narrative scope. His latest collection Snow Approaching on the Hudson came out this year, and cuts to the chase of the situation.  The eponymous poem I found very touching. It chimes as a commentary on the current virus misery, a Covid winter-journey of the freezing mind.

Meanwhile, thankfully things have come to a head on the politics front, for the moment at least, or so it seems, with American fascism defeated on 21 January.  Can poetry save the world from evil and affliction? American poetry had certainly done its bit in the battle against populism as a form of public deception  and fascist dictatorship. A month after Bidens’s inauguration Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away, on 22 February, at the ripe age of 101. 

Ferlinghetti used poetry as a political weapon. As a publisher and in his own poetry he fought political authoritarianism. He advocated enlightenment values, breaking a lance for liberty, equality, justice, globally and at home, reason, internationalism, and, in true Californian spirit, free love, boundless imagination and expansion of the mind.  With  the slaying of the Trump dragon he lived to enjoy a small victory in his lifelong, nearly 70 year-fight against bigotry, obfuscation, dictatorship, war-mongering and media terror.  

A few more thoughts on this large figure of post-war poetry might suffice. Ferlinghetti entered the arena 1955 with a first collection called Pictures of the Gone World, published by City Lights Books Press, the printing-press side of the bookshop he founded in San Francisco in 1953.  The independent bookstore-publication model he had transplanted to San Francisco from good old Modernist Paris, Europe, where in 1919  Shakespeare & Company, was set up by the American Sylvia Beach: from Paris to San Francisco with love – a transatlantic shuttle that worked in both directions. Like Shakespeare & Company for new experiments in Modernist writing, City Lights Books turned into a laboratory for new forms and styles of post-modern writing, a locus/focus for the Beat Generation. And like the Parisian motherlode, before it was closed down by the Fascists in 1941, the San Franciscan franchise provided (they both still do; Shakespeare & Company re-emerged after the war! Go visit!) networking space and independent printing opportunities for artists and writers, with an agenda of broadening cultural and political horizons of readers, writers and small-gig audiences at readings and concerts. The publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 by City Lights Books press was as momentous for the burgeoning revival of post-modern American poetry as the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 by Shakespeare & Company for the elevation of the Modernist project on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ferlinghetti’s poetry always was political, in all senses of the word. Thus he flipped the notion of populism on his head in his Populist Manifestos, published 1976, when he demanded of poetry to get out there and go populist (First Manifesto):

‘Poets, come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open your doors,
You have been holed up for too long
in your closed worlds…’

In the Second Manifesto he asks the

‘Sons of Whitman sons of Poe
Sons of Lorca and Rimbaud
or their dark daughters, 
poets of another breath
poets of another vision
Who among you still speaks of revolution
Who among you still unscrews
the locks from the doors
in this revisionist decade?
“You are president of your own body America”’,

He here quotes a Mexican poet with a statement that he throws as a wake-up call at his North American poetic fellow travellers to start the fight for a political re-envisioning of a progressive America. I detect echoes here of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s dictum (in Defence of Poetry, 1821) that ‘poets are the legislators of the world’.

Ferlinghetti’s sees poetry as an ‘insurgent art’ (title of a poem of 2007), but he can also speak with a tender and intimate poetic voice, privately political, as in much of his work, notably in the aforementioned A Coney Island of the Mind, for example

A Coney Island of the Mind #20
The Pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
                       fell in love
                                        with unreality
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
                                              the licorice sticks
                         and tootsie rolls
            and Oh Boy Gum
Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun
A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room
Outside the leaves were falling
                                  and they cried
                                                       Too soon! too soon!

Conference on Architecture, Urbanism and Culture

It was a pleasure to meet architects, urban planners, artists and performers from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Sweden and the UK at the eurau conference over the last few days. Panels were held at Staffs and at Birmingham City University. The panel I chaired attended to the concerns of art and performance in engaging with the contemporary city and addressing issues of marginalisation and regeneration. Fabiano Miocci considered the historic and contemporary use of collage to imagine and re-imagine the city by juxtaposing images and symbols that relate to the experience of urban space in the context of 21st century Athens. Ludovica Campione and Giovangiuseppe Vanneli, both postgrads at the University of Naples, talked about the relationship between architecture and performative arts in articulating marginalised identities in heterotopic spaces in both conventional theatre spaces and site specific performance. Anna Moro told us about the fascinating new processes and methodologies being used in and around Milan to reconnect marginalised, disadvantaged and fragile communities to the wider city through community arts.

As part of the conference, we were treated to a fantastic meal at the sumptuous Potters Club near to the university and a performance on the last day exploring, through dance, play and multi-media (joined by the magic of the internet by artists from India) the relationship between the body and space. We concluded with a tour of the inspriring Stoke on Trent British Ceramics Biennial.

A new project has been conceived as a result of the conference. A Psychogeography of the 6 Towns will explore the polyvalent nature of Stoke on Trent’s historic six towns through urban exploration, architectural history, poetry and urban theory. The participants will be Maria Maria Martinez Sanchez (urban planning and architecture), Martin Brown (urban and architectural history), Lisa Mansell (geo-poetics) and Mark Brown (urban cultures and theory). We will deploy Situationist techniques to explore the centres, margins and inbetween spaces of the city to plot and map its history, culture and future.