Favourite novels: Then and now  
Saturday, August 18, 2012, 09:21 AM
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I’m responding to a nudge from Bob from Brockley, and matching his two lists of novels. Here are the parameters he sets:

“I am presenting here two lists of novels. The first one is the novels that shaped me, inspired me, made me think about literature the way I do. I read them in my teens and early twenties. Although I have re-read some since, I suspect I would have less time for some of them now, but they will always remain amongst my favourite books. …

The second list is books I have read as an adult, books I have loved reading, which I count as my favourite novels of my adult years.”

Here’s my first list:

Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Brigid Brophy, In Transit
Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita
Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Ronald Firbank, Valmouth
Marilyn French, The Women’s Room
Ursula K. Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness
Michael Moorcock: Dancers at the end of time
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
J. R. R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings
Gore Vidal, Creation

And this is my second:

Maria Edgeworth, Patronage
Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
William Godwin, Caleb Williams
Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian
Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas
Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Dan Simmons, Hyperion
Dorothy Whipple, They Knew Mr Knight
Richard Wright, A Scientific Romance


I found it both easier and more interesting to think about the first list - these are books which somehow seemed to exert a kind of charismatic pull and which, in most cases, I reread, sometimes repeatedly. The second list was more difficult – I found myself focusing too much on novels I have read in the last few years. And I don’t know why there aren’t more eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels on the list. In my 20s and 30s I worked my way through yards of second tier Victorian fiction – and hugely enjoyable it is too – but it seems to be the (comparatively) more recent books which stuck in my mind. Bob provides another reason why I struggled over the second list:

"I guess once you reach a certain fullness, there isn't enough space inside your heart and head for a book to really change you, the way books change you as an adolescent."

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Our revels now are ended: Poetry at the Olympics 
Sunday, August 12, 2012, 08:45 PM
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You don’t have to be particularly left wing to feel offended by some responses to the Olympics Opening Ceremony. By contrast, Carol Ann Duffy’s offering brought out my inner Tory, and galvanised Twitter into action. I particularly enjoyed:

Jessica Ennis is very pretty/something something, Occupy the City

London is full of Olympic Cheer/ Insert trite left wing platitude here

I hope my poem will bring back Labour/ And another book deal from Faber & Faber

Britain wins a bronze in kayak/Lack of growth discredits Hayek

Off Twitter, I was struck by two witty responses. Here is ‘Flaming Fairy’ in the style of John Betjeman.

Oh sturdy girls in straining shorts
From distant, sunny parts,
Engaging in Olympic sports
Bring cheer to old men’s hearts.

Their lithe and lissome loveliness
Makes dull eyes shine. The thrill
Of strenuously-earned success
Rolls back the years until

You find, once more, you’re twenty one
And sipping gin and lime
Post-tennis with Miss Hunter Dunne
Some far-off summer time.

And here’s that stiff-posed photograph
Us, by the spindle tree
Off to the dance, to drink and laugh
In nine o’clock Camberley

The Hillman Imp is long gone now
And Joan too, truth be told.
Some clean-cuffed sales exec from Slough
Snatched her like Mo took gold

And so, I sit, the telly’s on,
With taut young flesh aglow.
Although my youth and snap are gone
I’m still alive, you know!

And here is ‘Lamia’, with an imitation of Philip Larkin.

Prize-giving MMXII

by Philip Larkin

With a stern blazered smile the judge draws near,
Headmasterly, to where I loiter, bald
Bowing my head, and blinking behind my specs.
And then a velvet fumbling, a falling into place
As something heavy slithers round my neck
To hang in awkward gaudiness. A cheer,
And then the National Anthem strikes up gold.

Gold? Or something else? Stepping down slowly
from the podium to piss, I wonder
What it was all for. ‘Run for Team GB’
They said. But where does one run from here?
The crowds will quietly drift away,
The stadiums will crumble into pieces.
The asphalt lanes will gather weed and leaf.
This cycling Kraut, that weightlifting Bolivian,
That crew of sailing Japs, each year will sink
A little further into blank oblivion.

And poised between my thumb and finger
This cold token of autumnal grief.
In a bare wintry drawer it will linger,
for a while, gathering dust, unsold,
Among dead stamps and a leaflet about wine.
An old wives' charm to ward away new failure.
Something to please the nephews and the nieces.
Something to taunt those pricks in Australia.

In the Olympic bar I stand a drink
For a Danish woman and some ass from Spain.
The hot triumphant evening turns to thunder,
And somewhere out beyond the finish line
the first small medals of rain. Strange to think
We will never be so happy again.




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Metamorphosis: Poems inspired by Titian 
Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 04:49 PM
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I bought this little book at the Titian: Metamorphosis 2012 exhibition at the National Gallery. Fourteen poets were asked to respond to the three Titian paintings on display, Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon.

Patience Agbabi’s ‘About Face’ zooms in on the faces of Diana and her African attendant, her poem’s narrator. Both Ovid’s poem and Titian’s paintings play with various echoing and mirroring effects, and Agbabi cleverly extends this motif by making the two halves of ‘About Face’ near perfect reflections of each other.

The first stanza ends ‘Look how your fate reflects itself in water’ which is then immediately picked up in the opening line of the second stanza: ‘Look! How your fate reflects itself in water’. Then we reread each line from the first stanza in reverse order – and appreciate the various clever ways in which the new transitions between lines create quite different meanings. Thus:

I want you, Actaeon. I wish I were
Shroud white; O that you’d notice me and mouth
Each monumental curve. Her handsome face …

metamorphoses into:

each monumental curve, her handsome face
Shroud white. O that you’d notice me and mouth
I want you. Actaeon, I wish I were …

Many of the poets seemed to be responding both to Ovid’s text and Titian’s paintings, creating an effect of shimmering ecphrastic uncertainty. Simon Armitage’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ begins:

The whole hillside being smeared and daubed
with the blood of the hunt, I dropped down
to a stream whose water ran clear and cool,
and followed its thread through a wooded fold.

‘Daubed’ reminds us that the blood we see is paint, and the reference to the water’s thread suggests the texture of canvas. Carol Ann Duffy is still more preoccupied with paint. Each line of ‘Titian: Diana and Callisto’ ends with a word or phrase - ‘point’, ‘pout’, ‘planet’, ‘plant’ - which anticipates the poem’s punch line:

'My point,
ladies, is this – it’s all about paint.'

A moment in the middle of the poem when the rape of Callisto is described:

'each bruise on her skin his fingerprint'

seems, particularly in retrospect, to elide the predatory god with the artist himself, both powerful creators. It also perhaps echoes Ovid’s own description of Pygmalion, as he shapes his statue into life. He:

'Explor’d her, Limb by Limb, and fear’d to find
So rude a Gripe had left a livid Mark behind.' (Dryden’s translation)

This hint that artists and gods have something in common is echoed in Frances Leviston’s ‘Woodland Burial’, a poem which seems to respond to the way in which, in The Death of Actaeon, Titian makes Actaeon merge into the landscape as well as turn into a deer. It begins:

'Thrown water touched him and where it touched it said
his body was the same brownness leaves turn
when autumn is upon us …'

and ends:

'and nothing left of him was in the picture she composed.'

It is as if we are supposed to imagine Diana as a kind of divine anti-artist who, after the transitional moment captured by the painting, will go on to blur and smudge Actaeon out of existence. The poet – or perhaps the reader – becomes godlike in Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘The Dark’ which ends simply ‘The gods turned the page’. However, if this makes us feel in control, Tony Harrison may make his readers (at least if they are male) uneasy:

'And you, sir, yes, sir, you who just began
to read these lines you’re, maybe, a marked man …

As you exit through the gallery’s glass doors
that antlered head reflected, is it yours?
For survival’s sake when leaving best beware
of baying bloodhounds in Trafalgar Square.'

The tiny detail from Diana and Actaeon which accompanies Harrison’s poem is particularly intriguing – and makes me want to go and look again at the painting. There is an uncannily doubled trace of a hand on the pillar on which the stag’s skull rests. It’s almost as though one is a reflection of the other, even though the surface is stone rather than glass. And the volume itself is also full of internal echoes, just like Ovid's own poem. The exhibition - which is free - is on until 23 September.

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My five favourite Hitchcock films 
Saturday, July 7, 2012, 10:53 AM
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This post was prompted by a recent Normblog poll – the deadline is July 10th if anyone wants to submit their own list:

“Here's the brief: please let me have the five Hitchcock movies you like best (though you may send fewer than five if you want). Rank your choices or leave them unranked, just as you prefer, but do indicate one way or the other.”

My immediate first thought was Vertigo, and it remains my #1 choice. It’s full of haunting echoes – both internal and external. (I have been writing about its complex relationship with other texts such as ‘The Sandman’ and the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice for my forthcoming book on Allusion and the Uncanny.) It’s full of repetitions – and it occurred to me when I last watched it that the scene in which Scottie takes Judy to try and find the right dress for ‘Madeleine’ must itself be a repetition of an earlier scene, one we don’t see, in which Elster takes her on a similar errand so that she can act as his wife’s body double. Although it’s got an ingenious plot, and is visually stunning, perhaps the element in the film which clinches it as my favourite is the music.

I don’t suppose anyone could take exception to my #1, but my #2 choice, Dial M for Murder, is perhaps less obvious. It seems very stagey, for a start, and less sophisticated, much less ‘arty’, than Vertigo. But – although I’ve seen it several times – I always find it both completely compelling and completely enjoyable.

It probably ranks about equally, for me, with North by North West, although I suppose the latter is the better film of the two by most measures. I can never quite remember how each bit of the plot leads onto the next – it seems like a series of vignettes – but that doesn’t mean the whole experience isn’t always fully satisfying, and Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant are nicely matched.

My #4 was Notorious, a film I haven’t seen for a long time (so must watch again). What I remember most from it is the sense of vulnerability communicated by Ingrid Bergman as the daughter of an American Nazi persuaded into becoming a spy by American agents. Like the ambiguous heroine of Wilkie Collins’s No Name she is put in the unsettling (for her and the reader/viewer) position of being married to the villain of the piece.

Finally, I chose The 39 Steps as #5, simply because it is such fun – particularly the romantic comedy element which most certainly isn’t in Buchan’s original novel.

I am well aware that I’ve missed out some obvious choices. If the poll had asked for the five best or most important Hitchcock films, then of course Psycho would have been there. I just don’t honestly think I like it all that much. Rear Window is another odd omission perhaps – but although the film’s atmosphere, setting and premise are memorable – I actually think it’s a bit boring.

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Allusions and Echoes (Continued) 
Saturday, June 23, 2012, 06:42 PM
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The next panel opened with Anna-Lena Pihl’s ‘Translating Intertextuality: Poems as Part of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse’. This thoughtful paper explored the particular problems presented to Woolf’s Swedish translators by the many quotations from well-known English poems in her novel. How can one best replicate the particular effects created by fragments which encourage a well read (English) reader to import a much wider poetic context into his or her reading? Anna convincingly argued that, when faced with lines from Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, the translators, IngaLisa Munck and Sonja Bergvall, subtly altered the wording in order to cue, for the Swedish reader, memories of an 1818 Esaias Tegnér poem, dedicated to Swedish war hero, King Charles XII. To create fresh resonances (if not the same ones as those triggered by Tennyson) allows the translation to retain more of the texture of the original. Later someone suggested that a direct, full quotation from a Swedish poem might have been substituted for the Tennyson. But it was felt that such a radical move would be distracting given that the novel’s characters are, even when translated, clearly British.

Everyone was very grateful to Amy Crawford for stepping in at short notice when two speakers had to pull out for unavoidable reasons. She gave a very engaging presentation on the Bluebeard story’s significance for Margaret Atwood. In The Robber Bride the story’s patterns are reversed, for it is a female, Xenia, who plays the role of Bluebeard. A further subtle variation on the theme is played out in the short story ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ in which only very gradually do we begin to wonder whether the heroine’s husband, although ostensibly mild and harmless, might be a kind of Bluebeard. Unsettlingly his very dullness, his obtuseness, is figured as the wall which hides a hidden chamber, here a mysterious corner of his mind rather than an actual room. Allusive uncertainty was one of several themes running through the day’s papers, and there appeared to be a special power in the story’s refusal to confirm or deny our worries about the heroine’s predicament in this tale. Amy’s final Bluebeard figure was Odysseus in the Penelopiad – this was a totally convincing reading, and I wondered whether the Commander in The Handmaid’s Tale might not represent yet another example of the type, particularly in the light of Offred’s speculations about her predecessor’s fate.

Rob Hancock’s presentation brought together Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Hadestown, a recent folk rock concept album. He posed some fascinating questions about the ways in which different versions of a narrative act on one another. I particularly appreciated a simple but compelling point he made – which was that a text (such as the Metamorphoses) might be just as good a lens through which to view other texts as an ideology. Rob gave a rather rueful account of his brief meeting with the artist behind Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell, in which it transpired she had never read a word of Ovid. When he jokingly characterised himself as a ‘fanboy’ I started to think about the ways in which there might be something erotic, not just in the relationship between a translator and a translated text, as described by say Steiner, but also in the critic’s quest for allusive certainty, by which I mean the certainty that the allusion you think you have spotted isn’t just a product of your overactive imagination.

By the end of the day I had many items to add to my ever growing to read (and to listen) list, and I am particularly keen to catch up with The Science of Discworld, the focus of Imola Bulgozdi’s entertaining paper, partly because it sounds great fun, partly because I feel annoyed with myself for not identifying it in time to include it an essay I wrote a while back about the relationship between Shakespearean theatre, magic and sf. This book apparently draws on the popular alternate world/history trope, whereby our own reality becomes a subject of scrutiny or conjecture in the fictional world. And, as Imola demonstrates, The Science of Discworld also plays with some fascinating ideas about the relationship between creativity (here represented by Shakespeare) and evolution.

For some in the audience the next paper, from Berit Åström, opened up some surprising new horizons – into the worlds of slash fiction and MPreg. ‘Re-writing the Troubadour Effect?: Male Pregnancy Fan Fiction’ began with a discussion of the proposition that many romance narratives are really about two men, for only a man can be a perfect woman, and went on to explore conflicting responses to slash, seen by some as misogynistic and by others as homophobic. The locus classicus for slash is probably Kirk/Spock, although Blake/Avon is another stalwart of the genre. However Berit turned to the much more recent Supernatural as the subject for her paper. I’m a recent convert to this series which I value for its cleverly self-conscious postmodernism and well written scripts. Although I still don’t quite understand why people want to write stories in which one or both of the brothers falls pregnant, it was certainly interesting to hear about the various weird and wonderful permutations taken by Supernatural MPreg fan fic.

We were all very pleased that Raphael Lyne was able to deliver the keynote paper of the day, 'Yet Once More: Lycidas’. This wove thought-provoking reflections about the earlier papers into a subtle and suggestive presentation about Milton's poem, and returned to some of the questions about the terms we use for describing moments of textual interplay which I touched on in my own paper. Memory is central to Raphael’s recent work, and he explained why he felt that memory, an experience which may manifest itself either as the result of conscious effort or a sudden startling discovery, is a particularly useful way of figuring allusion. He revealed how allusive moments in ‘Lycidas’ open up gaps, pathways to a source, complicating the reader’s experience of the poem. He demonstrated, in a meticulous analysis, the way in which apparently spontaneous ‘memories’ within ‘Lycidas’ start, if pressed, to look more consciously considered. And looking at the relationship between fragments of Milton’s poem and The Winter’s Tale gave one the odd feeling that Milton had written first, an effect which nicely echoed a playful idea to be found in The Science of Discworld, that the contents of books yet unwritten can be deduced from books already in existence. I felt I definitely needed to return – yet once more – to‘Lycidas’.

Thanks to all speakers once again and to Una McCormack and Tanya Horeck for chairing!

I do hope we – and others with similar interests in echoes, allusions and cultural recycling – can continue these conversations in the future.


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