Monday, 17 February 2014

rain, high winds, 21st fiction from latin america, palabras errantes, weinrebe lecture, edward st aubyn, hermione lee

















It hardly needs saying but this has been another week of atrocious weather - torrential rain with the addition of very high winds on Friday night and Saturday morning. Mercifully, Bampton continues to avoid house flooding, although local farmers are facing heavy losses because their fields have been under water for six weeks - some fields higher up the valley look like old gravel workings and lower down it is as if a dam has been built and a reservoir created.

What it must be like in Somerset and beyond Reading is hard to imagine, nevertheless.

Travel to London on Wednesday was by coach - I'd originally booked train tickets but services between Oxford and Didcot then between Reading and London were severely disrupted. I was heading for a one-day seminar on 21st Century Fiction from Latin America. This was a wonderful, informative and enjoyable event. Well-attended and thoroughly stimulating. Great to see friends too and to meet new colleagues working in the area of Latin American Studies. It's hard to isolate highlights from this event but I was particularly struck by Professor Claire Taylor's talk entitled From Print to Hypertext: Digital Media and New Literary Genres in Latin America in which she emphasised the continuity between born digital works and the rich traditions of Hispanic literary experimentalism. Professor Taylor's presentation was complimented by Edward King's exploration of critical approaches to comics and graphic fiction in Latin America, in which he quoted Professor Jared Gardner of Ohio State University (a quote that seemed to sum up nicely some of the things that are happening in the cultural sphere globally as result of the digital revolution):

'...we are in the  midst of a major sea change in the ways in which our culture represents itself to itself, moving from the traditional, linear, cause-and-effect narrative towards the database (multilayered, non-hierarchical navigable archives.' Archives, Collectors and the New Media Work of Comics, Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (Winter 2006)

I was also delighted to discover the amazing website Palabras Errantes, which was introduced by its editor Cherilyn Elston, a Cambridge University PhD student. The site publishes new work by Latin American authors who are largely unknown to British audiences. Each story is published in an English translation and in the original Spanish. The objectives of Palabras Errantes are explained on the website:

'Palabras Errantes is a collaborative online project that publishes contemporary Latin American literature in translation.  Born in 2011 in Cambridge, England, the project was created with the goal of forging a dialogue between Latin American writers and Anglophone readers interested in getting beyond Borges and BolaƱo. To this end, we publish writers who thus far have had little or no exposure in Anglophone literary circles, while serving as a forum for translators interested in Latin American literature.'

Some terrific stories - a website well-worth a visit!

On Thursday evening I walked to Wolfson College for the second of this term's Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Weinrebe lectures, which took the form of a fascinating discussion between the college's President, Hermione Lee and the novelist Edward St Aubyn. The discussion focused on St Aubyn's five-novel series featuring his fictional alter ego Patrick Melrose. Lee praised St Aubyn's abilities as a mimic - the title of the four Hilary Term Weinrebe lectures is Voicing the Self - and was interested in his decision to write the Patrick Melrose novels in the third person. St Aubyn said that he was attracted to the freedom of the third person and being able to drop into consciousnesses, write multiple points of view and also maintain a sense of distance (from the highly disfunctional family he writes about, presumably). He also discussed his preference for setting the novels in a single place over a short space of time. He felt that in following the classical unities of place and time he created strong structures for each novel, which he needed in order to contain the chaos of emotions. He was in any case drawn to compression - the condensing of many years' worth of experience into a few days. When discussing the autobiographical background of the novels, he revealed that he had never talked about what had happened to him as a child until he was twenty-five, something that had led to strong feelings of isolation. Reading had been almost the most intimate communication he had experienced - though he regretted that since becoming a novelist he read with a 'technical gaze' and could no longer read in a receptive way. He cited as key influences Racine, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady (adding that A level set texts were bound to be influential because that period of one's life was the only time when one spent two years studying the same books). At Oxford (he was at my old college, Keble), he had valued Joyce (who he had written about for the entrance exam), Yeats and Eliot. He praised Beckett's starkness and purity and said that he liked Thomas Pynchon, who had been recommended to him by a friend. (On the subject of Joyce, Lee made an intriguing comparison of a scene in which Patrick Melrose experiences an episode, close to Schizophrenia according to St Aubyn, in which he hears voices and his personality fragments, to the effects found in the Nighttown sequence on Joyce's Ulysses.) However, St Aubyn disagreed with Lee when she suggested that his novels were satires, saying that to him they were tragedies - although their surface did explode into forms such as satire. Lee suggested that a compromise position might be that the novels were tragedies with a comic surface. St Aubyn said that he had been afraid that he would be ostracised by family and friends when the novels came out but on the contrary people had seemed to vie for the honour of being the model for certain characters. He had also received a lot of compassionate support for the true-life suffering he had endured as a child. He said that there were, nevertheless, only three direct portraits in the novel series, while most characters were either combinations of real people or invented (Nicholas Pratt had been an invented character). With a new book coming out shortly, St Aubyn was keen to emphasise that although like many novelists he had started out writing inquiries into his identity, he was not just an autobiographical writer.

St Aubyn proved a very entertaining and congenial interview subject and Lee struck a good balance between insightful questioning and allowing the author to be himself.

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