‘Deborah Levy: Form and Content in the 21st-Century Novel’

This post was contributed by Laura Garmeson, who recently completed a Masters in European Literature at the University of Cambridge. She recently attended the Arts Week 2015 event on Deborah Levy: Form and content in the 21st Century Novel

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy

In Sigmund Freud’s famous case study of the ‘Wolf Man’, Russian aristocrat Sergei Pankejeff is said to suffer a mysterious aversion to butterflies. On further examination, the patient reveals that he also becomes extremely agitated every day at around five o’ clock in the afternoon.

What connects these two phenomena? Freud sees the link lurking between the twin fears embodied when a butterfly alights on a branch before him, its wings spread at rest in a gentle ‘V’ shape – which happens to resemble the Roman numeral for ‘5’.

Deborah Levy’s writing draws on the strange storytelling of psychoanalysis in exploring how we are all fatally wired to create connections. Her work ripples with currents of the unconscious which distort outer surfaces and can threaten to pull the world within the novel entirely out of shape.

Taking risks

This talk with one of Britain’s most exciting living writers was unsurprisingly well-attended. Besides butterflies, Levy spoke of many facets of the writing process and the mind, deftly quoting J. G. Ballard, Flaubert, Duras, Rilke, García Márquez, Proust and many others, every word devoured whole by a hungry audience of creative writing students (the talk was, incidentally, a public feature of the Birkbeck MA summer term lecture series).

Decrying the ‘tyranny of narrative’ and extolling the taking of risks, for Deborah Levy there is no such thing as a comfort zone.

Budding twenty-first-century authors take note (and, believe me, they were): ‘Contemporary narrative is in a state of mutation and renaissance’. Levy recalls writing about globalisation and migration in her first novel Beautiful Mutants on a typewriter in the eighties, using carbon paper so that she could retain a copy of the manuscript.

Now, she writes on Apple products and the pages themselves migrate soundlessly across various technologies. She used to plumb public libraries whilst researching her writing. Now, she googles obsessively.

One of the double-edged swords of the Wikipedia age is that we can all be ‘amateur experts’ in anything. For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’.

“Embodiment is what makes ideas come alive.”

As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.

This distrust of tradition was nurtured by an avant-garde theatre training; she learned to write plays at the Dartington College of Arts where she was taught by some of the leading exponents in modern dance. This training has given her words a particular flesh and sinew, and such embodiment is central to her work. When an audience member asked Levy to elaborate on this she replied, simply, that ‘embodiment is what makes ideas come alive.’

In pursuit of ‘a language that does not sanitise or flatten or fix the stranger ways we experience the everyday’ Levy frequently turns to the visual. Her internal language is cinematic rather than literary: ‘image is always what excites me’.

Novels such as Billy and Girl (1996) and the Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home (2011) are awash with vivid panoramas and painfully intimate close-ups, with Levy pulling focus through the reckless lenses of her characters’ psyches. These ‘fractured identities’ are the writer’s mask – ‘their task is to think for me’ – but they can also surprise their creator. The wonder of Levy’s cinematic language on the page is that it is multi-angular yet laced with omission; it is a narrative which chooses to perform, often viscerally, rather than describe.

Levy closed the Q&A with a recommendation to the room to read Freud’s case studies. And many of the creative writing students attending this talk will do just that, leaving enthralled in the knowledge that since there can be no single shape for human consciousness, there can be no single shape for the twenty-first-century novel. It is all in the strange series of connections we make.

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Phantasmagoria: Séance and Seanceability

This post was contributed by Helen-Frances Pilkington, who is currently studying for an Arts and Humanities PhD at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Seance and Seanceability - PhantasmagoriaTaking over the Birkbeck Cinema at 43 Gordon Square on Friday evening for Arts Week was the learned *Professor H…..* and his two assistants for a Phantasmagoria show.

The evening recounted the history of phantasmagoria shows in France, Germany and Austria before appearing in England in 1801. Using a magic lantern, Professor H….. (Mervyn Heard) demonstrated many slides from phantasmagoria shows. Slides from these early shows were hand painted and could consist of multiple plates which could be moved to create the illusion of, for example, eyes moving in a skull or a magician’s wand moving.

Against this backdrop of spectacular images, the assistants retold the story of the phantasmagoria beginning with the effects produced by Johann Schröpfer in Leipzig in the 1770s. Claiming to be a necromancer, Schröpfer invited guests to his house for seances.

Having drugged his guests with punch and delivered his introductory speech couched in apocalyptic and mystical jargon, they were led through to the shrouded back room and treated to the show which included fog, magic lantern projections and his household dressed as spirits.

From there, we moved to Vienna and the 1790s with Paul de Philipsthal under his stage name of Philidor. Promising rational entertainment rather than deception, Philidor’s show combined darkness with moving ghosts of well-known figures projected using shadows and magic lanterns.

Philidor then moved to Paris in 1792, shortly after the capture of Louis XVI, and renamed his show Phantasmagorie. One witness of these shows was Marie Tussaud who recorded the uproar which resulted when a slide of Louis XVI appeared; Philidor was arrested but later released after his widow bribed Robespierre and left France.

With Philidor out of Paris, assumed by many to be dead, the stage was free for a new performer: enter Etienne Gaspard Robertson in 1798 and his show Fantasmagorie. Combining apparitions, galvanism experiments and music on the harmonica, the show was a great success. Robertson also began to include images of spirits from fiction, especially the gothic novel, transforming the phantasmagoria away from the mystical into fully-fledged entertainment.

The Phantasmagoria arrived in London in 1801 at the Lyceum theatre with Philidor making a reappearance from the ‘grave’. The audience were plunged into darkness and the doors locked before Philidor projected various images onto a screen. These images flew around the screen and rushed towards the viewers. Within weeks, other projection shows appeared in London and quickly spread throughout Britain. The continued popularity of projections continued through the nineteenth century and still continues to delight today.

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Talking Mr. Turner

This post was contributed by Helen-Frances Pilkington, who is currently studying for an Arts and Humanities PhD at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Lifting the lid on some of the mechanics of preparing and filming Mike Leigh’s award-winning Mr. Turner biopic, Birkbeck’s 43 Gordon Square cinema welcomed Dr Jacqueline Riding (historical consultant), Sarah McBryde (production manager) and Tim Wright (artist) for a panel discussion chaired by Birkbeck’s Dr Kate Retford for Arts Week.

Shooting the Royal Academy exhibition scenes

Timothy Spall on the set of Mr. Turner with director Mike Leigh (far left), and art adviser for the film, Tim Wright (centre)

Timothy Spall on the set of Mr. Turner with director Mike Leigh (far left), and art adviser for the film, Tim Wright (centre)

Sequences of the film were set in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. Based on the 1832 catalogue and the original invoices, the team reconstructed the Royal Academy’s exhibition rooms inside Wentworth Woodhouse by creating a structure inside several of the rooms.

To fill the walls, the team tracked down as many of the identifiable paintings from the catalogue as possible to recreate the actual rooms and hanging layout. To transform the high resolution scans into the paintings, the team varnished over 250 high resolution images.

The scenes in the film highlighted the material and commercial culture of the period: whether your work would sell or be seen would depend upon where it was hung and what it was next to. Varnishing days were opportunities for artists to amend their paintings to try and get them to stand out from the crowd in a highly competitive market-place and, in one scene, Turner does just that by adding a red buoy in his sea-scene.

Painting like Turner

To shoot the film, Timothy Spall (playing Turner) would need to be able to paint like Turner. To aid Spall in this, Wright developed a foundation course in fine art to teach him the basics of drawing, painting, perspective etc. for two years. After this, they studied Turner’s unfinished works and copied others to understand how Turner painted and what personality traits these techniques revealed.

This enabled Spall to bring out the physicality of painting and the different speeds of working. As part of this training, Spall also learnt how to instinctively handle brushes, palates and cloths which was essential for the film due to Leigh’s improvisatory approach.

Understanding Turner

As historical consultant, Riding was responsible for the research coordination of the actors and extras on set. What became apparent from research is that whilst much had been written on aspects of Turner’s life, his familial relationships, especially those with women, had been only slightly researched.

These areas required more research input but also gave greater rein to the actors’ imagination. Riding noted that all the actors needed to inhabit their characters so dossiers were created for all characters. This enabled the actors to develop a naturalness with their character and their props so as to wear their learning lightly in the improvisations. All agreed that the characters in the film were informed by immersive research but were ultimately the individual actor’s and Leigh’s imagination of that individual.

Filming Turner

McBryde’s role was to project manage the logistics of the film including transporting everyone and equipment to the sets, catering, toilets and power. McBryde regaled us with a couple of anecdotes on the challenges faced.

For the Cornwall location which stood in for Margate, the lanes were too narrow to get the power generators down so McBryde had to arrange with the utility company to get a temporary power point installed for the duration of the shoot in Cornwall. For the Rain, Steam, Speed painting, McBryde had to source not only were the engine and carriages from different locations but a track of the right gauge had to be found to maintain the historical accuracy.

After the close of the formal panel, discussions continued over a convivial glass of wine and an excellent evening was had by all.

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Experimental Literature Today

This post was contributed by Madelaine Bowman, writer, and soon-to-be student on Birkbeck’s MA Modern and Contemporary Literature

Experimental-Literature-TodayOver 40 years after its original publication, Philippe Sollers’ groundbreaking novel H has now been published in English for the very first time.

As part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week, Dr David Vichnar and Professor Luis Armand – editors of Prague-based literary magazine VLAK – visited the college to give a talk on this innovative novel, now considered one of the most important literary works of the twentieth century.

As a soon-to-be postgraduate student of modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, it was with great intrigue and excitement that I listened to Dr Vichnar and Professor Armand discuss the ways in which H, published in 1973, continues to challenge preconceived notions of literature in the twenty-first century.

Challenging traditional literary forms

Written as a continuous stream of consciousness with no plotline, characters or punctuation to speak of, H explores the limitations of language, posing a challenge to traditional literary forms as well as the notion of readability as we know it.

Supporting Roland Barthes’ assertion in his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ that literary works should be decoded according to the reader’s subjective interpretation as opposed to the author’s intentions or biographic history, H disassociates itself from its author and effortlessly reinvents itself with every new reading.

Like all things avant-garde, it confidently ignores traditional formal and intellectual expectations, taking each reader out of their comfort zone and transporting them into a new way of reading and thinking about literature.

A musical text

During the first half of the talk Dr Vichnar reiterated Julia Kristeva’s insights on H, describing it as a musical text more akin to poetry than prose in form and content. Offering no other way of decoding meaning than through subjective interpretation, H, he told us, recognises each reader as a vital and active part of its own existence.

In the words of Sollers himself, “A work exists by itself only potentially, and its actualization (or production) depends on its readings and on the moments at which these readings actively take place.”

Professor Armand in the second half made a connection between Sollers’ experimental writing style and the rise of the free jazz movement in the mid-twentieth century, delivering his talk with the noodly rhythms of Anthony Braxton’s For Alto playing in the background throughout.

Where traditionally punctuated novels, like more structured forms of jazz, offer at least some kind of narrative cohesion, H provides nothing more than language and therefore forces the reader to independently decide how each of the words relate to one another. In this sense, any meaning that is derived from the novel must take stock of the present moment and relate in some way to the personal experience of the reader.

Experimental literature today

Clear from the beginning of the talk was the passion of both speakers, not only for H, but for the avant-garde in general, as they each conveyed a deep appreciation for the significant role that writers such as Sollers have played in terms of the production of experimental literature today.

Providing fascinating insights into H as a highly creative and influential text, both Dr Vichnar and Professor Armand are to be commended for the depth of their research and for the enthusiasm with which they communicated to the audience. Having gone into the talk with next to no knowledge of Sollers or his work, I am now looking forward to embarking upon my own interpretative journey through H.

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