Patrick Modiano, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, is a paradox

Akane KawakamiThis post was contributed by Dr Akane Kawakami, Senior Lecturer in  20th and 21st-century French and francophone literature in Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages. It was originally published on The Washington PostDr Kawakami’s books include A Self-Conscious Art: Patrick Modiano’s Postmodern Fictions

Patrick Modiano, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature, is a paradox. He writes bestsellers but shuns the media. His novels sound autobiographical, yet his declared subject is a historical period that ended just before he was born. His style is clear and simple, but it masks complex time frames, unreal scenarios and a narrator who often seems to know little about the story he is in charge of. He is a household name in France but almost unknown outside his own country. This is one reason why the recipient of this year’s literature prize may come as something of a surprise to the world at large, if not to his faithful and numerous Francophone readers.

Even for those of us who have been reading and loving his books for several decades, this honor establishing him as a “grand man of letters” seems somehow not to fit the media-shy author. Can it really be that this recluse — famously inarticulate on the French literary program “Apostrophes” and always reluctant to give interviews — has been dragged into the limelight to be given the greatest literary accolade of all?

Modiano himself has always played down his own achievements, as well as the status of his chosen medium, the novel. In 1975, after four successful novels, Modiano — in a rare interview — claimed that the novel was an “anachronistic” genre that had ”slipped away” from public view. His heroes are known for slipping away, too; they’re shadowy, furtive figures modeled on himself (they tend to be tall, dark, shy and not good at interviews). In story­lines that are reminiscent of classic detective novels, his heroes set off on their searches into the past, trying to solve mysteries rooted in the period of the Occupation, Modiano’s avowed obsession.

Modiano_Missing PersonThe Occupation of France by the Nazis during World War II — along with the collaboration of many French nationals and the murder of French Jews — is a dirty pocket of French history that was not much discussed following the Allied victory. After Charles de Gaulle inaugurated the Fifth Republic, the general tendency was to stop talking about les années noires. It was only authors of a later generation — such as Modiano, whose guilt was inherited rather than personal — who proved able to explore this painful period. His first novel, about an anti-Semitic Jew who leads a colorful and surreal existence during the war, was published in 1968. Missing Person, published in 1978, is another highlight, about an amnesiac detective who goes on a hunt for his own identity during the Occupation. Honeymoon (1990), the story of a young Jewish woman who disappears in 1942, is also a gripping read.

Modiano’s novels are usually built around several time frames. They might start off in the 1980s, go back to the 1960s to evoke his youth and then suddenly shelve down into the 1940s to reveal a crucial link between a friend of his deceased parents and the woman he is dating in the present. Or the link will not be crucial; it will simply be a case of what might have been, the possibility that one ephemeral life that was extinguished during the Occupation might have brushed past another who has happened to survive.

In Dora Bruder (1997), Modiano gave up fiction and tried to re-create the real life of the heroine of Honeymoon, relating the few facts he had recovered about her movements in 1941 to his own wanderings through the Parisian streets as an adolescent in the 1960s, and to his walks in the 1990s. Gaps in his knowledge evoke the poignancy of the subject, as, in the end, Modiano has to concede that he still knows almost nothing about the girl, except that she was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and ended her days in Auschwitz.

Modiano tells all this in a limpid, almost classical prose that belies the ugliness of the events and facts. His writing is extremely readable, which is perhaps the reason for both his popularity in France and his relative lack of academic recognition (his novels are taught more in English-speaking universities than in French ones). Yet his clear writing eases the reader through instances of formal experimentation that would not be out of place in a Paul Auster novel: bewildering shifts in time, multiple appearances of “Patrick,” who may or may not be the author, and apparently real settings transformed into strange, hallucinatory spaces.

Light is something Modiano is good at describing, and many of the scenes in his novels are almost cinematic in their visual impact. Modiano co-wrote the screenplay of Lacombe, Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle, and has carried on to make more films, such as The Son of Gascogne (Pascal Aubier, 1995) and Bon Voyage (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 2003).

His prose also achieves a difficult feat, which is to get French readers to face, time and time again, the unspeakable acts of betrayal and cowardice perpetuated during the Occupation. The detective novel framework, the clear style, the diffident narrators — all this makes it deceptively simple for readers to occupy the narrator’s seat in Modiano’s novels. The narrator of Missing Person introduces himself saying, “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the cafe terrace.”

The joy of reading a Modiano novel is to slip into that silhouette, to make the journey through the decades of French history and then — sometimes, suddenly — experience all the horror of the past at the same time as the immunity conferred by its distance.

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Can creative writing be taught?

Helen-Harris-Jul-2014-0366-smaller-versionThis post was contributed by Helen Harris (MA Oxon), associate lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Her new novel, Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart will be published by Halban Publishers on 13 November.

Creative writing lecturers are used to the scepticism – occasionally tinged with downright hostility – with which some people react when they reveal their profession. “Do you really believe you can teach someone to write?” Well yes, personally I believe that with patience and imagination it is possible to teach anyone to do anything.

What is more disturbing is when a successful writer who also teaches creative writing loudly announces – as Hanif Kureishi did earlier this year – that creative writing courses are “a waste of time.” Cue uproar. Even as he spoke, creative writing courses were proliferating in universities up and down the country.

What is perhaps even more puzzling is that this scepticism seems to be shared by a number of students who enrol on creative writing modules. Some of them insist to me, for example, that the marking of their coursework must be subjective, that their friends thought it was brilliant and if I have not given it the high mark it so obviously deserves, that is just because my taste does not coincide with their friends’. Reminding them that all the coursework is second marked has little effect; creative writing is an imprecise individualistic business they seem to believe, certainly not an exact science with its own measures and its own criteria.

I could not walk into the classroom, certainly not at 7.30pm on a wet and windy November evening, if I didn’t believe I was teaching my students anything worthwhile. But what do I think I am actually teaching them?

For the past three years I have been delivering an introductory creative writing module which is part of Birkbeck’s BA English: “Writing Fiction”. My students are second to fourth year undergraduates. I begin the module by outlining what I believe I can – and what I can’t – teach them. The “can’t” list is actually quite short. I can’t teach them what to write; the story comes from them. Similarly, just as they all speak in their own voice with their own accent and vocabulary and mannerisms, the voice in their writing will be their voice. I tell them that within a few weeks I will be able to identify which student has written which piece of coursework even without names attached.

What I believe I can teach them is essentially craft. I run through the list of topics we cover in the first term – character, beginnings, plot, dialogue, point of view – and I explain that I am here to instruct them primarily in technique, not in how to write but how to write better. It is, I sum up cheerily, not much different from plumbing. (My all-time favourite student feedback form read roughly as follows: “I was a bit taken aback when Helen said at the beginning she would be teaching us to write in the same way that you might be taught how to assemble an IKEA bookcase. But as an approach I found it worked.”)

Of course it’s not quite like assembling an IKEA bookcase (something of which I am incidentally incapable.) But my students – and I expect most creative writing students – finish their course with a deeper understanding of what makes good fiction and how it works. Some of them lament that the way they read has changed; they fear they have lost the simple pleasure of enjoying a ‘good read’ without watching carefully to see what the writer is doing and how he/she is doing it. I tell them that this is in fact an encouraging sign of their progress.

front coverThe last session of the year was payback time. My new novel Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart will be published in November. Over the year, we have spent many evenings workshopping their writing. For our final class I put my money where my mouth is. I emailed them the first chapter of Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart and asked them for critical feedback in our evening workshop. They set about the task with evident relish. As I listened to their feedback – “Is this really Jeremy’s point of view here or is it actually Sylvia’s?” “You told us not to include too much descriptive writing but you’ve got loads” – I could tell how much they had learnt over the year about writing fiction. And although I may have winced a couple of times, I am confident some of them will go on to write their own novels one day.

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Twitterfiction can work, but David Mitchell’s story is a bit of a flop

BiancaLeggettThis post was contributed by Bianca Leggett, a research student in the Department of English and Humanities. It was originally published on The Conversation.

When an author who insists he is “not really a social media animal” writes a Twitter story, we should at least raise an eyebrow. When that same author goes on to say he wrote the story at his publisher’s instigation, we might question what the point is in reading on. You wouldn’t catch a novelist promoting his new book of poems by announcing that he never really liked poetry but, you know, he thought he’d give it a go.

But then, David Mitchell is an author who can afford to take risks. Since the publication of Ghostwritten in 1999, Mitchell has won, not only a succession of awards and a huge and ardent readership both within and far beyond academic circles. I can think of no other author who has won a Richard & Judy Book Award and also been the subject of two academic conferences and an essay collection.

Mitchell’s novels are typically of a genre which Douglas Coupland termed “translit”, made up of a vast number of narrative threads which are interlaced across space and time, sometimes extending into the realm of supernatural or futuristic. The reader is challenged to “join the dots”, not only revealing a skillful patterning at work in Mitchell’s writing, but also an ethical message about the interconnection — and interdependence — of all life. Twitter, itself a vast dot-to-dot playing out across time and space, ought to hold some promise for an author of Mitchell’s inventiveness.

The Right Sort, which began on July 14 and just culminated, is one such dot. Tweeted in a succession of twice-daily bursts for a week which leaves the reader hanging, it is itself a kind of teaser. The story is apparently set in the “same universe” as Mitchell’s upcoming novel The Bone Clocks, but until readers get a look at the novel when it comes out in September, we won’t know quite where in that universe it fits.

It’s 1978 and Nathan Bland, a sensitive teen struggling with his parents’ divorce, is being dragged to a “soirée” by his mother. On reaching the strangely out-of-the-way house, he is abandoned to the company of Jonah, a boy with a strange confidence and peculiar turn of phrase. Nathan’s senses have been skewed by the valium he sneaked from his mother’s supply that morning. This gives some elasticity to our reading of his following narration as it turns more macabre and fantastical. If the story begins by recalling Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, Black Swan Green, it soon steers us into darker territory, a place in which time begins to behave in a thoroughly unsettling manner.

In interview, Mitchell has gamely suggested some of the literary possibilities of Twitterfiction which he has tried to harness in this story. He has spoken of the creative possibilities of the “straitjacket” form of 140 characters, citing the famously obscure Oulipo movement as a parallel. The “pulse-like” quality of each Tweet, meanwhile, allowed him to mimic Nathan’s valium saturated perceptions.

Fair enough, but none of this suggests that Mitchell has actually read any Twitterfiction, nor really begun to appreciate some of its unique possibilities. He’s been missing out.

Ideally, tweets should be able to stand alone or be read together with equal fluency: Teju Cole’s sharply satirical Seven short stories about drones or Jennifer Egan’s futuristic spy story Black Box achieved this.

Twitter’s rhythm best suits a description of the present or imagined future and can be turned in on itself, as Cole and Egan use it, to question the direction in which we are moving. Hurtling by in a fragmentary form, tweets remain potentially intimate and can accumulate power by being played out over time. Jonathan Gibbs’s beautifully written @365daystory was being told over the period of a year and described the story of one woman’s life from birth to death. The project has now been handed over to new authors, suggesting another of the possibilities which Twitterfiction has opened up: collaborative authorship.

The noise surrounding Mitchell’s story suggests it has been well received, but appreciated in the manner we gulp down a taster at an ice cream stand. We were going to buy the full-sized portion anyway, but a little free sample has generated our good will and whetted our appetite. The Right Sort is a rich short story in itself, but remains, in essence, a Twitter story for people who don’t like Twitter. Its multiple cliffhangers frustrate more than they delight and will surely have confirmed for many first time Twitterfiction readers what they already suspected: that they’d rather curl up with a book.

The Conversation

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Why Remember Shoulder to Shoulder?

This post was written by Dr Janet McCabe, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and Vicky Ball, De Montfort University

Helena Bonham-Carter and Carey Mulligan recently marched through the corridors of Parliament agitating for female suffrage. It made the news. Not the protest. But because it was the first time that a commercial film had been shot inside the Palace of Westminster. In recreating what women did in that constitutional space to get the vote 100 years ago Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, brings that historic campaign back into public consciousness. While the struggle for emancipation shaped the political landscape in Britain in the early 1900s and changed irrevocably the position of women in society, it is a story that hardly ever makes it on to our screens; and it has been 40 years since we saw the suffragette movement last dramatized for television.

2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC miniseries, Shoulder to Shoulder, which focused on the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (1898-1918). It consisted of six specially written plays and it came about through the collaboration of three women, the actress Georgia Brown, filmmaker and feminist Midge Mackenzie and TV producer Verity Lambert. A sense of the public service remit pervades the series as Shoulder to Shoulder dramatizes particular events of the early suffrage movement, albeit from a decidedly socialist perspective. Its importance as a landmark BBC drama documenting the history of feminism and the emergent public voice of women is unquestioned. That said, the series seldom gets repeated and has never been released on DVD. This neglect prompts us to ask: why is such a politically important drama about women’s history still buried deep in the BBC archive?

Shoulder to Shoulder first aired on Wednesday 3 April 1974 at 9pm on BBC 2. It seemed an inauspicious start. Competing as it did with the extensively praised documentary series, The World at War, on ITV, and the popular ‘fly-on-the-wall’ series, The Family, on BBC 1. A quirk of scheduling has perhaps contributed to the amnesia, with the suffragette drama squeezed out of our collective TV memories as we recollect instead the ambition of the multi-award winning World War II series (still on television screens somewhere) and one of the first ‘reality’ shows in the history of television, which documented the everyday life of the Wilkins, a working-class family from Reading. What defined these shows at this moment in British television culture when BBC and ITV dominated was a focus on stories rarely told: ordinary people caught up in history; or those who had scarcely been given representation or a public voice on television before.

It is well known that Emmeline Pankhurst was alive to the importance of capturing the media to help shape her political message; and some of the W.S.P.U.’s preoccupations—with the media, penal reform and direct action—chimed in with Britain in the early 1970s. The IRA bombing campaign (with the Price Sisters on hunger strike in Holloway prison—and forcibly fed), industrial strife and economic crisis meant that the series carried more than a whiff of controversy.

Shoulder to shoulderBut maybe it was its feminism that lay at the heart of why Shoulder to Shoulder has been forgotten then and why we should remember it now. At the cast and crew reunion held at Birkbeck last Thursday both Siân Phillips and Angela Down, who play Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst respectively, admitted to knowing little about these women before making the series. While Phillips was politically active and involved in the trade union movement, she had no formal education about the Suffragettes.

She wasn’t alone.

Midge Mackenzie spoke often of how the project grew out of her experience of filming the Golden Jubilee of Women’s Suffrage in 1968, when she discovered the story of how women won the right to vote had been ‘almost successfully erased from the history books. The women who fought for the vote had vanished from our history,’ she wrote. ‘Their writings were long since out of print and their newspapers buried in archives’ (Shoulder to Shoulder 1988; ix). In good documentary fashion Mackenzie filled her book, which one feels was a response to the betrayal she somehow felt at having men write the TV series, with women’s voices—original experiences as expressed in the words of those taking part, from diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, as well as newspaper reports and the Suffragettes own publications, Votes for Women and The Suffragette.

The series, like the book, focused on the militant campaign; but these Suffragettes were by no means the only campaigners demanding enfranchisement. Shoulder to Shoulder (like all history) is a product of its time and, for example, it doesn’t address the contribution of other dedicated Suffragettes like Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to Parliament, or Charlotte Despard, an Irish-based campaigner and Sinn Féin activist, for as Irish revolutionaries it probably was not the right time for reassessment as the troubles in northern Ireland still raged. And the non-violent, but constitutionally minded, Suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, barely got a look in either. But then committee work and letter writing is far less televisual than the drama of arson campaigns and bruising clashes with the police. What is rescued and recovered is not random, but the fragility of remembering the complexity of our history adds to ignorance and concealment.

But this is no excuse to forget Shoulder to Shoulder. Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, offered a useful intervention at the symposium that followed the screening, when she spoke of using the Suffragettes to ‘measure new feminisms’ and of the importance of passing these stories onto the next generation, however difficult and contested. What the act of recovery from this entanglement of ‘official’ history and personal stories, public speeches and oral testimonies, teach us is that the fight for equality didn’t end with enfranchisement—despite what postfeminism would have us to believe.

Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder isn’t only about reclaiming our stories, but about who has the power to tell them. Even within the production of the series there was a feminist struggle (of sorts) between an ideal and a challenging of power from the margins—Mackenzie, and shattering the glass ceiling and able to change the script but from the inside—Lambert.

Remembering the earlier fight for emancipation happened in the early 1970s at a time when a new feminism was struggling over questions of inequality, images of woman as Other and the culturally awkward position of women within the public sphere and their right to speak. Forty years and we remain preoccupied with similar questions. Reconnecting voices and the experience of women and women’s history across time and space is crucial.

Shoulder to Shoulder thus reminds us why the struggle still matters.

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Michael Gove should not kill the Mockingbird

This post was written by Dr Anna Hartnell, Lecturer in Contemporary Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally published in the Guardian.

‘Neighbours bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbours give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”

This poignant moment from the last few pages of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, records the instant where a girl, about nine years old, finally recognises the humanity of her childhood bogeyman. This is a coming-of-age story, unusual for the fact that it charts the development of a female protagonist, Scout, and explores issues around racial violence, rape, and social marginality in the depression-era deep south of the United States. It has stirred up controversy across US school districts since it first entered the classroom in 1963.

Michael Gove’s decision to remove this book – along with a number of other American classics such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which similarly explore political persecution, social exclusion and the oppression of the weak – from the English literature GCSE syllabus, is not just parochial and regressive, it also fails to recognise the dynamics that make up modern Britain. It fails to understand that a large part of the value of reading literature lies precisely in the kind of empathic leap Scout makes at the end of Lee’s novel, one that enables her to see herself through the eyes of an “other” and so more fully comprehend her own identity.

To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably itself limited by the vision of a white liberal, but it tends to strike a chord with young people because its voice is faltering and uncertain and wide open to just the kind of debate that makes teaching literature about ethics and politics as much as it is about language and form.

However, schoolchildren in the UK are now going to be given a “more traditional” syllabus made up of largely British texts penned prior to the 20th century. Such a syllabus harks back to the myth of a “pure” origin for English literature, uncontaminated by the unintended consequences of empire, and ignoring the multicultural, multilingual and multinational space that Britain is today. Gove and his colleagues at the Department for Education are fantasising about a nation unencumbered by racial or cultural difference, or calls for greater social and economic equality.

This fantasy recalls an earlier moment in British imperial history when the colonial government in India decided in 1835 that education, conducted up to that point in native languages, would henceforth happen in English only. This narrow linguistic agenda ironically contributed to the reality of “literatures in English” – those other English voices that bear witness to the fact that the nation’s literary tradition does not have an uncomplicated beginning in medieval England.

At a time when the right is on the rise across Europe, immigrants are under attack from right and left, and the UK’s criminal justice system increasingly resembles the disastrous US model – which has seen the mass incarceration of black people under what many characterize as a new system of racialized control – the DfE’s decision plays into a poisonous atmosphere. There are of course other literary texts that are equally relevant for GCSE students; they need not be Anglo-American or indeed all be post-1900. But pre-20th century English culture should not dominate the syllabus: Gove’s attempt to wind the clock back overlooks the myriad identities of the children now populating British schools.

As Scout opens her narrative she reveals that her family can trace its lineage back to Simon Finch, a man from Cornwall who was persecuted as a Methodist and duly left England for the New World. There he acquired slaves, thus substituting one form of oppression for another. This knotty and discomforting genealogy that binds Englishness to empire and slavery and their fractious legacies of racism and inequality seems to be too thought-provoking for Gove’s deeply conservative vision of English literature. Our children should not be prevented from discovering it.

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Our favourite diarists

Ahead of the Arts Week event ‘Stranger than Fiction‘ about London Diarists on Wednesday 21 May, Birkbeck academics share who their favourite diarists are, and why. Please use the comments section to tell us about your favourite diarists.

Book M
Sue Wiseman
, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature

Austin Street signMy favourite London diarist is Katherine Austen. Next time you go to Shoreditch consider stopping for a moment at Austin Street, next to St.Leonard’s church. You will be where much of Austen’s diary-notebook, ‘Book M’, was written in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Some of London’s most celebrated diarists, such as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, were writing during the Restoration, when Austen was writing hers. Like Pepys, Austen was a successful and enterprising Londoner, but her voice and concerns add a new dimension to our understanding of Restoration scribbling. Austen had a substantial house in Shoreditch, an area that mixed poor houses, orchard and newly enclosed land. She notes her accounts in ‘Book M’ and is clearly prosperous, but she is pious and almost superstitious too. However, she also had strong views, railing against the ‘abominable rudeness’ of ‘Mr. C’ (he owed her money) and complaining that sending her son to university simply meant that he learned ‘ill-breeding and unaccomplishments’ at his Oxford College. As a young, rich, widow she worried about whether or not to marry again. ‘The world may think I tread upon Roses’, she wrote, but ‘they know not’.

I came across Austen’s ‘Book M’ in the manuscripts room at the British Library. Intrigued by the ‘M’ I ordered it up. My attention was immediately caught by a prose passage concerning ‘a Fall off a Tree where I was sitting in contentment’. The description of the fall was followed by a poem in which she claims that spirits, ‘the crew of Beelzebub’, were responsible for the accident. (You can read the passage and poem here.) Why had Katherine Austen gone from Shoreditch to Essex? Did most seventeenth-century women climb trees for fun? What made her think that the tree was inhabited by ‘revolted spirits’? Was it? I wanted to know and read on slowly, stumbling over her handwriting.

Tillingham_small

Churchyard at Tillingham

By the end of the day I knew that she had fled to Essex to avoid the plague. She comments that plague ‘is not yet’ in ‘my house’, but it is a race against time. She notes ‘Aug 28th 1665: on going to Essex … the day before I went there . . .was dead that week 7400.’ Soon after this the scene of the diary shifts to the village of Tillingham, Essex. She does not record what she thought and saw as she left the safety of her house to travel East through the poor, plague-racked eastern suburbs to ford the Lea and escape. But it may be that the plague travelled silently with her. For a mysterious physician and suitor that she took with her on her journey died while she was there and is buried in Tillingham churchyard (see here for a walk in Tillingham). Austen survived to return to London and pursue her many plans.

I left the Manuscripts Room that day excited but sad. How could this fascinating writer ever get the readers she deserved? Luckily it turned out that several other people had been at work and now there are two editions of ‘Book M’, one for easier reading and the other for scholarly detail.  Maybe someone will find books ‘A’ to ‘L’. I hope so.

Diary at the Centre of the Earth
Dennis Duncan, Lecturer in Modern Literature and Culture

My favourite London diarist is still writing today. In fact they’re a current undergraduate at Birkbeck. Actually, it’s one of my personal supervisees. This feels like an awkward confession. I have never discussed with him the fact that I read his diary. It always seems like an inappropriate digression in the context of the supervision session, like a psychoanalyst asking a novelist patient to sign their book. But let it be known henceforth that I have long been an admirer of Dickon Edwards’s online Diary at the Centre of the Earth.

Edwards describes his diary as ‘sporadic and slightly celebrated’, although there is characteristic modesty in both these descriptions. The Diary at the Centre of the Earth has been maintained since 1997, making it one of the longest-running internet diaries around, and it’s more than a little celebrated (indeed it contributes a fair few entries to Elborough’s London Year). Edwards’s delicate prose elegantly captures the life of a twenty-first-century flâneur, partaking of, and sometimes contributing to, the cultural life of the capital. It has its dandyish moments – Edwards is quite at home with the Soho in-crowd, and his writing has the precision of the Wildean bon mot. Yet for the most part this precision is gentle rather than ostentatious. Diary at the Centre of the Earth describes an attempt to experience London, in its brash, brand-conscious, contemporary configuration, through the aesthetic sensibilities of an earlier age. Its sentences are shot through with a wistfulness at the difficulty of maintaining the illusion.

There is, of course, another more specific pleasure in reading this diary, which comes about when Edwards describes his studies at Birkbeck – a subject he addresses frequently. Here, for me, is the thrill of an intimate association with the narrative – places I inhabit every day, courses I’ve taught, texts I know inside out – caught in the diarist’s lens, assigned a place alongside other, more decadent staples of Edwards’s unfolding life story.

The cat is out of the bag now. Perhaps next time we meet for supervision we’ll make small talk about the parties and private views Edwards has attended most recently. But I think I’d prefer it if we don’t; I’d prefer simply to admire the diary from a distance, to glimpse Edwards’s life – at least his life beyond the purview of a personal supervisor – only through the careful charm of his prose.

The Brixton Diaries
Joe Brooker, Reader in Modern Literature 

The Colour of MemoryGeoff Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory (1989), began life as ‘The Brixton Diaries’. In 1986 Dyer was commissioned by the New Statesman to write about life as he and his friends were experiencing it in South London. In a note to the revised edition of his novel (2012), Dyer recalls that it was hoped that the diary would have ‘an interest that was more than local and personal’. But what had been a factual writing commission subtly became a fictional writing project: ‘Gradually I saw a way of using and shaping the material in a slightly different way, in a form that would deploy it to better, more personal ends (I invented a sister for myself, or for my narrator, rather) and, hopefully, more lasting effect’.

The Brixton Diaries had recorded facts from his real life, whereas the novel takes liberties: introducing invented characters, but also clouding the Dyeresque narrator himself in fiction and leaving him nameless and unidentifiable with the author. In a late twist, it appears that the entire narrative is to be taken as written by a character who has appeared in the third person throughout it. The move renders the novel a teasing paradox, a metafictional circle in the key of Calvino or Borges. But we note that Dyer, in retrospect, presents the shift from diary to novel as a move to a more personal mode of writing. It seems that the Brixton Diaries sought public resonance, as reportage from a riot-scarred area of London during Margaret Thatcher’s third term of office; whereas their metamorphosis into fiction somehow allowed Dyer to write a more truly subjective account of the times.

In any case, The Colour of Memory’s roots in diary are unmistakable. The novel recounts the events of a year in Brixton, around 1986-7, essentially in chronological order. It is divided into sixty chapters which count down from 060 to 000. This device lends the book an obscure suspense, but as Dyer admits, suspenseful narrative was not his forte nor his aim: ‘The book did not start out as a novel (and, for anyone expecting a plot, never adequately became one)’. Each small vignette – involving the theft of the narrator’s car, a party, or a trip to Brixton market – could just about claim to include narrative, and certain tendencies grow through the book, notably the fear of crime which culminates in a mugging. But by most standards, The Colour of Memory is distinguished by the absence of narrative, or at any rate of any plot that soars beyond the plausible. The novel’s fascination is with the texture of life, unmomentous yet constant.

This fascination sometimes takes the idiom of photography: the book declares itself to be ‘like an album of snaps’, in which ‘what happens accidentally, unintentionally, at the edges or in the margins of pictures – the apparently irrelevant detail – lends the photograph its special meaning’. Dyer’s book was thus a rarity: an English novel that not merely relayed but formally embodied the advanced continental ideas of the time, in this case those of Roland Barthes’ late work on photography Camera Lucida (1980). In its hospitality to contingency, it also stands as an ambiguous text, between the genres of personal journal and narrative fiction. The Colour of Memory invites us to think about the common ground occupied by the novel and the diary: that less public and celebrated genre that has so often nourished fiction.

(Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature will hold a day conference on the work of Geoff Dyer on 11 July 2014.)

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Women on screen aren’t allowed to grow old erotically

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Diane Keaton recalled her mother’s advice – “don’t grow old” – as useless, however pertinent for Keaton’s chosen career as an actress. It’s a truism that interesting roles for older actresses are hard to come by. While signs of physical ageing are routinely played down in leading male actors, who regularly take roles as still vigorous and desirable characters (whether heroes or villains), the opposite applies to older actresses, if they are allowed to appear on screen at all.

Are things changing? It was Keaton herself who seemed to herald a shift when she played in the popular 2003 film about love in later life, Something’s Gotta Give. At the time she expressed astonishment at being offered the role of romantic heroine, at 58, despite being partnered by Jack Nicholson, already a decade older. Yet, in Hollywood, the films that portray older women as desirable remain sparse, with Meryl Streep one of the precious few still allowed to play a romantic lead. Meanwhile, when not excluded, one of the notable ways that older actresses make it on to the screen is playing a character with dementia: Judi Dench in Iris (2001), Julie Christie in Away From Her (2006), Streep in The Iron Lady (2011), Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (2012).

However, if cinema remains grim and forbidding territory for older actresses, television is finally starting to offer them more. To be sure, the majority of shows remain youth obsessed, and older women – with The Golden Girls a striking exception – remain perceived as beyond playfulness and sexual passion.

Still, with a third of our population over 50, and 10 million over 65 – and half of them women – the media has had to give a little. Now along comes the second series of the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax, with its portrait of the late-life romance of two septuagenarians, Celia and Alan. The channel is planning something similar for next year with Grey Mates, involving a friendship network of pensioners, starring Alison Steadman, Stephanie Beacham and Russ Abbot – all in their mid-60s.

Noting the success of Last Tango, I have been pondering what it tells us about attitudes to bodies, old and young. Celia and Alan may be in the throes of romance, but we typically see them, particularly Celia, in her overcoat. The dynamics of their romance are mostly played out in the kitchen or the countryside, with warm smiles and hugs. There is no reference to their sexual concerns, and the bedroom stays off limits. This is all the more striking because their adult children’s affairs mean there is a continuous focus on sex.

Last Tango upholds one of the last taboos around sex, ageing and the body. Intentionally or not, it suggests that though in love, these oldies are past sexual concerns. Yet our culture has little problem presenting older men’s sexual desire. Nor do older men refrain from eagerly proclaiming this, whether in empirical surveys or in their own words. Much of the most esteemed writing by men mourns not the passing of sexual passion, but possible difficulties in its performance. Whether in the work of Ireland’s illustrious poet WB Yeats or America’s celebrated novelist Philip Roth, older men’s chief fear could be summed up as that of a creature sick with desire, but fastened to a dying animal – the threat of penile failure.

Older women’s erotic life, however, is barely registered, save in certain genres of pornography. In the wake of Germaine Greer or agony auntsIrma Kurtz and Virginia Ironside, the most influential women’s voices tackling old age tend to suggest they are contentedly post-sexual, “free at last” from erotic passion.

Given the complexities of desire, I am sceptical about this apparent gender contrast. I see the media’s endless production of eroticised, young female flesh as feeding a sense of shame attached to older women’s bodies. Any eroticisation of our aged female bodies remains taboo and this is one reason older women, in huge numbers (70% of us over-65s) live alone. Tackling our sexual yearnings, or registering our bodies with anything other than disgust, would indeed be radical. I wait to see it.

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Should we prize literary prizes?

This post was contributed by Bianca Leggett, a research student in the Department of English and Humanities.

It only takes a cursory look around the fiction section of any bookshop to see that literary prizes are big business.  Proclamations of prizes won and novels shortlisted clamour for attention alongside ‘3 for 2’ stickers and snippets of glowing reviews on every cover.  But are literary prizes more than just another marketing tool?

The weight which literary prizes hold with the reading public suggests a desire to be guided towards new and exciting literary fiction. In this sense, literary prizes provide a healthy counterbalance to a publishing industry which sometimes only seems interested in authors who have attained the status of celebrities or celebrities who fancy themselves authors. Nevertheless, the proliferation of literary prizes in this country risks reducing the attempt to draw special attention to the chosen few into a general cacophony of criticism.

According to James F. English, the rise of literary prize culture is ‘one of the great untold stories of modern cultural life’ whose examination raises questions about ‘the very nature of our individual and collective investments in art’. Many of the questions raised relate to the criteria by which literary prizes are awarded, which is also to say, the criteria by which some are excluded. This applies, not only to the inevitable fuss when a favoured author or book fails to make the cut, but also to the way prizes are delimited on the basis of gender, genre, age or nationality. The character of each prize is defined by which particular group of literature or authors it has chosen to support and promote, yet too rigorous a policing of its own borders risks seeming arbitrary or, worse, exclusionary. Controversy last week over Granta’s inclusion of Kamila Shamsie—a Pakistani author in the process of applying for British citizenship—in their Best of Young British Novelists list, is a case in point. Had Granta chosen not to include Shamsie on the basis of her lack of citizenship, though, the result would probably have been the same.The increasingly transnational nature of authors and their works is just one of the challenges to the traditional taxonomies upon which many literary prizes are based as they attempt to keep pace with the literature they judge.

Literary excellence, always ostensibly the most important factor in prize culture, is also subject to redefinition as values shift and change. When the 2011 Man Booker Prize committee declared the importance of ‘readability’ in their judging criteria, they unleashed a storm of debate about whether literary prize culture is inherently elitist and, if so, whether this constituted a problem. Critics like Allan Massie hit back saying, ‘Everybody is elitist when it comes to subjects they care about, quick to applaud what they think good and to disparage what doesn’t, in their opinion, measure up’.

But what measures up and what does not remains a difficult question to answer. Should worthy themes weigh more with us than dazzling prose?  Should a formally innovative novel be valued over one which moves us or can tell a captivating story? Philip Hensher, compared the Man Booker unfavourably to Granta’s list, arguing that it over-emphasised ‘significance’.  He went on rather glibly, ‘[b]rio, unlike the decision to write a long dull novel about a historical genocide, is a quality that tends to last’. If Hensher is right and we have reached a point where literature is divided into well-crafted and entertaining novels on the one hand and worthy but clumsy ones on the other, then it’s a depressing state of affairs, although one suspects that as a beneficiary of the 2003 list Hensher might be talking up the ‘brio’ camp to which his own books presumably belong.

Clearly no one is impartial in the question of what makes great literature and consensus will always prove elusive, but the attempt to settle the question comes around again whenever a literary prize is on the horizon. Anticipation in the build up to the new Granta Young British Novelist list, announced last week on 15 April, was intense for a number of reasons. Not least this year was the knowledge that—since authors over the age of 40 are not eligible—Hilary Mantel would not be swiping this one…  The Granta list differs from its fellows in that it comes around only once in every ten years but also because it rewards potential rather than established talent.  It has a good track record for spotting promise in authors not yet on most readers’ radar and of suggesting the shape of the literary landscape yet to come.  Despite some sad omissions (Courttia Newland and Jon McGregor are, to my mind, the most surprisingly overlooked) it’s an exciting list which suggests some interesting new trends. For one thing, there are a record number of authors who are expats, recent arrivals or of dual heritage, suggesting (as with the inclusion of Shamsie) that the prize committee wished to reflect an increasingly global outlook. The authors chosen also tend to straddle artistic boundaries, combining their career as novelists with games writing (Naomi Alderman), film making (Xialou Guo), conceptual art (Steven Hall) or sculpting (Jenni Fagan) to name but a few.  It’s also perhaps the first list to feature two writers (Naomi Alderman and Steven Hall) who have written for Doctor Who. What does it all mean?

Perhaps not as much as all that. After all, prizes are determined on arbitrary criteria by a small number of people whose judgement often errs, blinding us to the best in literature as often as it alerts us to something worthy of our attention. At the very least, though, they stir up debate and conversation about what it is we value about literature and where we should be looking for the stories that matter to the times in which we live. Not all prizes are of equal value, however, and it’s worth staying reflective about what they really represent. It seems to me that the public needs some guidance about which are the prizes that really matter, perhaps a small committee of expert individuals who could determine what makes a good literary prize and draw attention to those which are most merit worthy… Would it be taking matters too far to establish a prize for literary prizes?

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World Poetry Day 2013

Today is World Poetry Day and to celebrate we are sharing a selection of poems by Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing second year students and their teacher, lecturer Liane Strauss.

Airborne
by Samuel Langworth

The bone of those high vaults
could not contain them.
They bled from the dark ink
of their deliveries, bigger
than whiteness. They outgrew
the walls of their birth-rooms.
They could not be housed.

They were too big for their communities.
They stretched across boundaries,
monolithic capitals, more
than all cities combined.
They outgrew their horizons –

and they burned through borders,
illuminating tongues.

And Greece could not contain them,
and Taiwan could not contain them,
and Mexico could not contain them,
and Antarctica could not contain them,
and Sierra Leone could not contain them,
and the Solomon Islands could not contain them,
and Trinidad and Tobago could not contain them,
and the earth could not contain them,
and the sea could not contain them,
and they rose, they rose,
converging over the world,
and the sky could not contain them,
and they burst
in one
golden cry of light.

And the world listened.

§

A New Chapter
by Yvonne Stone

I hesitate,
then turn the handle,
opening a new chapter.
I enter the room.
I deflate my rubber legs
and collapse into the nearest seat.
The seat protests violently.
It avenges itself
and announces my arrival.
I smile politely,
Not even sure I’m in the right place.
My confidence drains
before I can plug the holes with “hellos”.
I need a witty remark
but my brain is ice,
frozen by the glare of the bright room.
A refrigerator full of talent,
freshly filled with youthful optimism.
I must be in the wrong place.

§

Swallows
by Walter Jones

In spring on a mock piazza you built
A nest inside my heart and I built one
In yours and together we flew
On the ascent of summer, crossing continents
Where nests are built under the pokey-outey
Bits of castle walls, built for war,
So we do battle
Against the rain inside this other world,
Soft and persistent, like love,
With keen eyes fixed on the future:
Our journey home, reflected on lakes and rivers
And every grain of dazzling beach sand.

Descending to rest on neglected garden furniture
Washed up in the quiet tide of winter.

§

Blow in
by Kirsten McLaughlin

What do they really think?
They are friendly enough,
will buy you a drink, laugh,
and welcome you in.
You, who carry the sins of the father,
or rather, a Mother Country, in your blood.

What do they really think,
when, God knows why, you try
to justify your presence with a genetic link
to O’Neils on your mother’s side,
and spend hours talking about mackerel
and mullet, and earnestly discuss tides
with men who know exactly who you are,
and where you live, and what you drive;
even the colour of your swim suit this year
and the rock you sometimes dive off.

What do they think when you keep coming back;
prepared to open and shut an extra gate
someone put across the track; that you stack turf;
riddle the stony earth and plant potatoes.
When you push into the bar and heads turn,
or not, in your direction, what makes you sense
you are merely a tolerable interruption?

And what do they really think,
when you sink your fourth pint of Guinness?
Does it impress? Does it make you less
of a blow in? Does learning how to build
a dry stone wall that doesn’t fall within the year
endear you to those around? Or does the sound
of your English accent grate, and agitate old wounds?

You will never know, you will blow in, and out,
harbouring doubt, which could be unfounded,
hounded, by your own ghosts.

§

Transcend
by c c bowden

He combs the shore,
strokes gold and silver particles
that glimmer from his gaze,
christened by waves
too long ago to remember.
Travelling light forever
daily dawn embraces.
Yawning je t’adore

§

Schizophrenic
by Guillaume Vandame

Sometimes it snows and seconds later the sky will shine.
The world becomes a pale blue moonstone
And you can see the thick silhouettes of the branches.

Then the snow melts and runs down the panels of glass in thin streams.
The sun reflects in low glass cells and glows for a minute.
The water dries and the sky settles into the bed of evening.

§

Shrug
by Catherine Speight

These shoulders that you liked to kiss
Are raised towards my ears
To tell you that I heard you
But I’m going to hide my tears.

You’ve felt the falter in my voice
As the countdown scratches on.
It says Dubai’s too far away
And six months is far too long.

This little fleshy crease
In the corner of my mouth
Is there to stop the caustic words
From firing straight out.

Now, awkwardly my head tilts
As it tries to say I’m strong,
But you just said “we’ll be ok”
And we both know that you’re wrong.

Maybe I can shrug you off
And let this all fall down.
Your posting starts tomorrow
And you need to pack now.

§

Paranoid
by Bruce Coker

Some days I feel like
everybody’s looking at me;
other days, nobody.
I can’t make up my mind
which is worse.

§

Glass Bottom Car
by Liane Strauss

Windows are overrated.
I never liked fairs.  Landscapes
like a ground bass, scene after scene.
Auger bit developments. Mortis and beam.
Oak elm pine white green bare trees.

The high streets, the highways
go felly round spokes. Celluloid living,
a wooden-maned horse. Film frames on sprockets
cranked by telephone poles,
trick magic old-world lantern shows.

My windscreen was snow-blacked,
bug-juice grimed. I didn’t want windows.
I covered them up. The metronome wipers
couldn’t clean or keep time.
When you’ve seen this world once it’s enough.

I like to go fast
in my glass bottom car, the macadam moonscape
is never the same, the cracks in the craters,
they break my heart,
on the coal-colored lard milky way,

and never look up,
watch the road rush black, rich river oil
torrents in hard rain, streamers riding the wind
snapped and no way back
in my glass bottom beauty machine.

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Media coverage of the Iraq invasion

This post was contributed by Dr Tim Markham, Reader in Journalism and Media in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

The build-up to the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has featured a lot of media coverage about media coverage. Dodgy dossiers and sexed-up briefing reports have been dusted off with something like affection, while the key players are wheeled out to reprise what have inevitably become hackneyed condemnations and rationalisations, former Prime Minister Tony Blair with that look of stark incredulity that has become his default countenance. There’s nothing unusual about any of this: journalists like to talk about journalism, and the added whiff of nostalgia makes this particular temptation irresistible. It’s true also of war reporting in the post-modern era, with British and American news reports often focussing explicitly on the PR tactics surrounding the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue or George Bush’s Mission Accomplished jamboree. But there’s a broader problem here, one which I would describe as a kind of ironised distance between our elites and the public, with journalists hovering uncertainly in between.

Iraq didn’t break British politics. Disengagement has many origins, and this was just one of a series of fruitless attempts to find political meaning or even national identity through military intervention. But the prevalence of media management in both political decision-making and as a central preoccupation of journalists gives audiences an easy opt-out, enabling a reflex scepticism about foreign and domestic policy alike. David Cameron was never going to find his Falklands in Libya, not because we’re unsupportive as a nation of the uprisings of the Arab spring, but because any sense of investment in a political system that makes decisions about foreign intervention has been hollowed out.

The atrocities of Abu Ghraib, awful as they were, gave journalists a chance to atone for what is now widely acknowledged as a collective loss of nerve at the beginning of the war. Those images became a kind of functional evil, a way of ‘othering’, as we say in the trade, responsibility for all of the nihilism, politicking and casual dehumanisation that any war entails. But however many of us chanted “Not in my name” on a bleak afternoon in Hyde Park, Iraq was and remains our war. Susan Sontag put this well, describing the photographs depicting abuse of Iraqi prisoners as representative of what we condone, however implicitly, our governments doing: “Considered in this light,” she wrote shortly before her death, “the photographs are us”.

Much has been said about the need for journalists to report war responsibly and humanely, avoiding both the reduction of conflict to spectacle and the blanket victimisation or demonisation of those caught up in it. It would be helpful too if journalists could find a way of covering the politics surrounding military intervention that avoids the feedback loop of jostling egos, sanctimonious moralising and pious outrage.

But the generalised disavowal of political responsibility for what a nation does runs deeper than how it plays out in the news. If editorial responses to military intervention range narrowly from cheerleading to sulking, and with a sardonic knowingness now the chief marker of journalistic professionalism when it comes to foreign policy and domestic politics, then this is only symptomatic of a broader, festering culture of world-weary yet instinctive withdrawal.

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