Saturday, 6 December 2014

frost, early walk, sunrise, hiroshima mon amour, images, life-writing lunch, jm coetzee, dr michelle kelly, confession, heart speech, trust, pint








A frosty start. The first time the pond has frozen over this autumn.

The roads were too treacherous for cycling - memories of coming off the bike the winter before last returned as a warning. So I went for a good walk - round the village, into the valley and back via the Millennium wood. A beautiful rich egg-yolk sunrise. Loved the effects of the frost on the post-top, the tyre track and the old roller.

Watched Hiroshima Mon Amour for the first time, midweek. I'd intended to watch just the first half but was so drawn into it that I continued to the end. Mesmerisingly photographed and acted. It reminded me slightly of In the Mood for Love. I read Marguerite Duras' screenplay about thirty years ago - more than that - several times and have always wanted to see the film. I had to wait for the convenience of iTunes to do so!

The copy of the script I had featured stills from the film. It was amazing to see the images in context - they kept cropping up and I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I could still identify the exact frame of each image.

On Tuesday I went to the Life-Writing lunch at Wolfson. I love this event, which always happens in the last week of term. This time, the speaker was Dr Michelle Kelly from the English Faculty. She talked about JM Coetzee and confession - she explained that her area of expertise was not life-writing as such but that she is currently working on a book about confession in literature. [With apologies for any transcription errors.]

She pointed to the paradoxical nature of confessional writing, which is on the one hand a free expression of the heart but on the other usually couched in formal ways, whether legal, religious or literary. In considering the aim of confession, she turned to Coetzee's essay, Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky (1985), in which he refers to the cycle of, 'transgression, confession, penitence and absolution...'

On absolution, Coetzee wrote: 'Absolution means the end of the episode, the closing of the chapter, liberation from the oppression of memory. Absolution in this sense is therefore the indispensable goal of all confession, sacramental or secular...' '...the closing of the chapter, the end of the downward spiral of self-accusations whose depths can never be plumbed...'

Dr Kelly turned to Coetzee's fictional-autobiographical trilogy, Scenes from Provincial Life, in order to examine ways that the author used confessional writing, or 'heart speech', through his literary counterpart (I hesitate to use the word alter-ego), John. In the books, writing becomes a kind of forgetting and sealing of experiences away.

The trilogy interestingly also leads to a conclusion that denies the catharsis of absolution. John confesses to his father that he broke a record that he had brought back from Italy at the end of the Second World War. Yet the father appears to ignore him and he is denied the hoped-for ending; denied forgiveness.

Near the beginning of the talk I was particularly struck by Coetzee's belief that 'all writing is autobiography', which I can clearly see the wisdom of - obviously in this blog, but also in my reviewing and my fiction.

During questions, the director of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Hermione Lee, wondered if autobiography was only about sin, shame, confession, forgiveness. In reply, Dr Kelly picked up on the therapeutic force and the legal force of confession as being other aspects of the subject. Confession might lead to therapy; legal confession might actually mitigate blame.

Another questioner was intrigued by the duality of ostensibly selfless confessional writing being also very much about the writer and an act of self-interest and exhibitionism. The questioner alluded to a confessional piece of writing being written in an author's style and being a text that advertises the writer.

Again things that resonate. Especially when I think of Trust: A family story, the life-writing work I am currently engaged in. The narratives contained within it are mine and I am aware that truth might be constrained by point of view, not to mention style, within them. These are difficult areas - in confessional writing and in something like Trust, which seeks to explain events in as truthful a way as possible. I would like to discuss these issues at the Centre when the work is in its developed form.

Meantime, on Monday I have a meeting about a possible Digital Humanities research project focusing on shape in fiction, which I am looking forward to and am excited about.

For now, though, a Saturday afternoon pint!

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