Early term inspiration

Our incoming students to the English programme were lucky enough on their very first day to have an inspirational talk from Siân Bevan. Siân works for Edinburgh City of Literature, which is just one of the ways she uses her many skills.  She talked to first years on the English and English & Film programmes about starting at university and careers in the Arts.

Siân wrote up her thoughts after the event on her own blog:

https://sianyb.com/2018/09/10/new-chapters-and-old-advice/

There are some useful thoughts here if you’re not a first year, too!

Ford Madox Ford

Ford and Aldington

As you’ll have seen in my previous post, there are a couple of authors with whom I’ve become particularly associated.  Richard Aldington knew Ford Madox Ford well through the London modernist networks of the early years of the twentieth century.  I find Ford a fascinating author.  He loved storytelling, even at the expense of fact, which makes all the more impressive the achievement of Max Saunders in unpicking Ford’s life in his exhaustive, magisterial two-volume biography.

My favourite anecdote brings together the two authors I’ve mentioned; Aldington tells the story in his entertaining and engaging memoir Life for Life’s Sake (1941).  Aldington was dining with his father and invited Ford, who proceeded to regale Aldington senior with stories of his childhood among the Pre-Raphaelites (Ford’s grandfather was indeed the painter Ford Madox Brown, and much of this was true).  However, the mood of the dinner took a turn for the worse when Ford started to talk about how he met Byron, who had died almost fifty years before he was born…

Ford on TV

Christopher (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall) in the BBC/HBO Parade's End (2013).

Christopher (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall) in the BBC/HBO Parade’s End (2013).

You might, perhaps have come across Ford in recent years if you’re a Benedict Cumberbatch fan – the big, shiny BBC/HBO miniseries (2013) of Ford’s great war novel tetralogy Parade’s End (1924-8) was striking and successful, scripted by the eminent playwright Tom Stoppard.  (You can watch it via Box of Broadcasts.)  Stoppard did a good job of adapting 840 pages of four novels into under five hours of prime time TV, although necessarily some liberties were taken.  For example, Ford’s ending looks forward after the Armistice to an uncertain but hopeful future, while Stoppard ends, perhaps too neatly, with the fevered celebrations of Armistice night.

Parade’s End

It was, of course, my interest in the First World War that brought me to Ford and Parade’s End; I’ve a chapter on Ford and War in An Introduction to Ford Madox Ford, and he features in my book, too.  The series tells us the intersecting stories of the protagonist Christopher Tietjens, his wife Sylvia Tietjens, his inamorata Valentine Wannop, and his brother Mark Tietjens.  The characters represent the push and pull in the years between circa 1912 and 1920 between insistent mechanisation and modernisation, and older moral and ethical values that are coming to seem outdated.  Christopher Tietjens insists on doing what he believes the morally right thing, even despite the potential damage to his own reputation and other practical considerations.

The Parade’s End novels use a form somewhat akin to stream of consciousness, although there are multiple consciousnesses represented.  The narrative moves associatively between different protagonists and moments in time; these chronological changes are highlighted clearly in the recent Carcanet critical edition, which makes following the shifts easier than in the longstanding Penguin editions.

Front covers of the Carcanet critical edition of Parade's End.

The Carcanet critical edition of Parade’s End.

Reading (about) Ford

I’m secretary to the Ford Madox Ford Society, which has a (usually) annual conference – I was sad not to be able to go this year, particularly as it was held in Montpellier!  The society also produces a number of publications, including collections of critical essays, and senior members were responsible for the Carcanet Parade’s End and other reprints by that publisher.

Parade’s End is quite difficult as an introduction to Ford.  His other very famous novel is The Good Soldier (1915), but for some alternative choices, why not start with his social commentary about England and the English (1905-7) (vol. 1 and vol. 2 available for free online), or his fascinating psychological novel A Call (1910)?

Let me know if you read any Ford, or would like to write about him!

Richard Aldington

In the course of an academic career, you tend to become associated with particular ideas, topics and authors.  This can often happen in part by chance – being in the right place at the right time.  As many of you will know, my main research interest is in the First World War.  It’s what I wrote my PhD on, and my monograph, along with all sorts of other publications.

In this and a subsequent post, I want to point you to a couple of authors who might not be familiar to you, but who I’m interested in, have worked on quite a bit, and am involved with author societies or other means of promoting their legacy.

Richard Aldington

Richard Aldington

Richard Aldington has become a figure I’ve returned to throughout my academic career, since writing about him for my MA thesis (now longer ago than I would prefer to think about).  He’s probably still best known as one of the original Imagist poets, along with H.D. (who was for a time his wife) and Ezra Pound; much of his poetry is available online for free at archive.org.  I was particularly drawn, though, to his First World War novel Death of a Hero (1929).  Angry, bitter, and sharply critical of the British literary and political establishments, Death of a Hero is a satire so brutal that it is often misunderstood.  Aldington’s position, though, was that the brutality of the war should be matched by the form of writing about it.  For him, to write in a polite and measured way about the conflict was fundamentally to misunderstand and misrepresent the experience of it.  I’ve recently written an overview of his war poetry Images of War (1919) and Death of a Hero for a forthcoming Handbook of British Literature and Culture of the First World War.

Death of a Hero was so confrontational and shocking that it was originally expurgated – Aldington worked with his editor at Chatto & Windus to remove sections that were thought likely to be unacceptable to a contemporary readership.  The removed words, sentences and sections are indicated in the text by asterisks as Aldington wanted the reader to know where emendations were made.  Sadly, the recent Penguin republished the expurgated text, which I thought a missed opportunity to demonstrate the vitality of Aldington’s prose; I’d recommend looking out for the unexpurgated version, which you’ll find in most 1960s paperbacks (published by Four Square and Sphere) and the 1980s Hogarth Press edition.

For information about Richard Aldington, you can look at the New Canterbury Literary Society Newsletter.  Originally founded as a paper newsletter by the late Aldington scholar Norman T. Gates, I’ve recently “rebooted” it as a blog.

Please do let me know if you read any Aldington and want to talk about it some more!

Teaching 9/11 Literature and Culture

Recently, travelling home on the train from Norwich where she had been visiting one of our children, a student at UEA, my wife started chatting to an elderly woman. “What does your son study?” the lady asked. When she learned that he is reading Geography she was very approving: “a very useful subject.” The conversation continued and eventually the friendly woman asked about me. She was interested to hear that I am a Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and she asked about my research. When she heard that I work on the literature of 9/11, however, her interest quickly turned to annoyance: “arggh, why are people still so bothered about 9/11?”

Perhaps she is right to be annoyed.

We all know that in terms of loss of human life, 9/11 pales in significance compared to any number of subsequent “events” or “catastrophes” that have taken place around the world. The grossly underreported genocide in Aleppo of last year, for example.

It is also the case that the idea of 9/11 as a singular, defining moment that came “out of the blue” and “changed everything” is problematic as it tends to remove the attacks from their pre-histories and actual causes. This has allowed for the advancement of unilateral agendas and policies as was the case with the launch of the War on Terror. As David Holloway has noted, “the notion that the attacks came out of the blue was the ideological lynchpin for the war on terror” (2007).

So when I heard about the lady on the train’s response, I could understand her sentiment. But, of course, the other way of looking at this is that an in-depth critical understanding of 9/11 is important so that we can understand just how it was and is still being used. I certainly hope that my work on the literary response to the attacks does just this by reflecting on the ways in which literature has both challenged and reinforced this singular vision of 9/11.

But yet in some ways, I will always be complicit in the disproportionate attention given to 9/11. This is one of the troubling aporias of my research area. It is dangerous to ascribe so much importance to 9/11 but equally vital to recognize that 9/11 did change the world in some significant ways and that it is important to unpack the roles of culture and literature in this history.

My students have been a huge help with this.

Most of my students inevitably see 9/11 from perspectives linked to the pressing issues of their own generation and bring fresh eyes and views to the texts (though of course my mature students have their own distinct and equally valued frames of reference) . Personally I still identify with Peter Boxall’s statement, from his excellent 2013 monograph, Twenty-First-Century Literature, that 9/11 remains “part of the living tissue of the present.” But while 9/11 still feels contemporary to me – just – my students see it as an historical event through the prisms of more recent disasters linked to climate change, to the rise of Trump and a disturbing new nationalism, of Brexit, of the refugee crisis, of “post-truth,” “fake news” and the “alt right.”

In fact, through talking to students about texts like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007); Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011), the television series Homeland (2010-) or Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013), I have been able to draw more sophisticated lines of continuity between 9/11, the War on Terror and what I see as the rise of fascism in America and elsewhere

     

Long may these fruitful dialogues continue! I look forward to delivering my Year 4 ‘Fictions of Terror’ module again this year and launching our new Year 3 ‘C21 Literature: Writing the Unfolding Present’ module next week, where these kinds of discussions will, hopefully, keep flourishing.

 

Reading for Pleasure

There will be plenty on this blog about the research that the department is doing – understandably!  But I wanted to share with you a few things that I read (mostly) for pleasure over the summer while on holiday.  For me, it’s important to read widely, and not only in the area that I research.  Reading outside the area you’re most interested in can make you rethink productively things you already (think you) know.  Admittedly, I found reading for pleasure much harder when I was a student (both an undergrad and a research student), but remembering why you enjoy reading can also make studying easier, too.

Having scanned my non-work bookshelves at the beginning of the year, I’ve been reading lots of contemporary women writers in an effort to address an unconscious bias.  Two that I particularly enjoyed were by Irish authors.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, deals with the tragically early loss of a sibling.  The narrator, Veronica, endeavours to make sense of Liam’s suicide by engaging with the complex, troubled and troubling history of her family.  Enright movingly depicts the peculiar closenesses and distances that characterise family life, those feelings as true in the same room as when living hundreds or thousands of miles apart.  I particularly enjoyed – if that’s the right word for this moving, tragic novel – the gradual unfolding of the family’s secrets, and the subtle but accessible style.

Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, which won both the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2016, is an altogether different kettle of fish.  Ryan Cusack is endeavouring to deal with the impact of his mother’s death, and his alcoholic father’s role as a low-level gangland pawn.  None of this is made any easier by an over-attentive older neighbour, a prostitute searching for her disappeared boyfriend, and his own sometime career as a drug dealer.  And none of that is helping his treasured relationship with his girlfriend Karine.  McInerney’s prose is earthily authentic, pulling no punches, and the brisk pace of the novel makes it a good read.

Finally, on a more work-y note, I really enjoyed Richard Burton’s long biography of the late modernist poet Basil Bunting – all 608 engaging pages of it.  Bunting led a remarkable life: a conscientious objector as he turned 18 at the end of the First World War, dissolute in Paris in the mid-1920s, a longstanding friend of Ezra Pound, a senior military diplomat in the middle east in the Second World War, and finally (re)discovered as a poet in the 1960s (and his sixties) thanks to the publication of his masterpiece Briggflatts (1965) and the patronage of the poets of the British Poetry Revival.

These were just the highlights.  I hope you’ve managed to make some time to read for pleasure yourselves, too.

Andrew Frayn

International Gothic Association conference, Mexico

In July I had the privilege of attending the International Gothic Association’s biennial conference at Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP), in Cholula, Mexico, a place complete with its own be-tunneled Aztec pyramid and live volcano Popocatépetl which liked to greet us in the mornings with puffs of steam. I have been a member of this Association for ten years and this was my fifth conference. It’s always a pleasure to see old friends and familiar faces as well as getting to know the many fascinating new people I inevitably meet at events like this.

Mexico was a particularly exciting place to hold the IGA conference and many people at home asked me why I was going to such a sunny country for a Gothic gathering. Fortunately, it’s not an essential requirement to wear black, and personally I wasn’t aware of anyone actually crumbling to dust in the sunshine.

Gothic piñatas

Gothic piñatas

Bringing the IGA conference to Mexico was a long-standing ambition of organiser Dr Enrique Ajuria Ibarra, and continued the Association’s recent efforts (2015 was in Vancouver) to tug the conference out of its European nest and help to make it truly international. The conference theme was ‘Traditions and Departures’, signalling the ways that European Gothic traditions do travel, but do not always colonise: they often meet other cultural traditions coming the other way, or may themselves become profoundly transformed. As IGA president Dr Catherine Spooner reminded us at the opening ceremony, the Gothic likes to challenge boundaries and we are a scholarly community more interested in building bridges than walls.

To give a flavour of how distinctive the Gothic in Mexico can be, conference day two ended with a screening of new short film, Los misterios de las monjas vampiras (The mysteries of the vampire nuns) directed by Antonio Álvarez Morán, who attended dressed as a vampire. Shot locally, the film begins with Aztec sacrifice, ends in wrestling, and in between is a panoply of Mexican Gothic excess, and is killingly funny (see the trailer on YouTube). In the Q&A afterwards, the lead actress was asked if she’d found anything challenging about playing her role, and won all our hearts when she replied that she had not, because ‘inside every woman is a little bit of nun and a little bit of vampire.’

It wasn’t all like that, though, and the conference programme proves that we did also get down to some serious analytical work on everything from werewolves to whales, linen to Lolita, and Scotland to steampunk.

Professor Isabella van Elferen delivers her keynote presentation

Professor Isabella van Elferen delivers her keynote presentation

It is exceedingly difficult to make a conference presentation look exciting. While looking at this photograph of Professor Isabella van Elferen’s keynote on Gothic music, you will need to imagine that she is, in fact, playing this track VERY LOUDLY throughout the auditorium and asking us to pinpoint what, exactly, makes it Gothic. Can you?

For more, including pictures, see #IGAMexico2017 on Twitter.

Emily Alder

Researching German-British Relations

I am currently enjoying six months of research leave, with an additional affiliation at the University of Edinburgh as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH). At IASH, I am primarily conducting research on Stobsiade, a German-language magazine produced by German prisoners of war at Stobs camp near Hawick in the Scottish Borders, during the First World War. This research also serves as a bridge between my long-standing interest in the history and representation of imprisonment and a new project on German-British relations and emerging ideas of “Europe” from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) to the First World War.

On 28th July 2017, I gave a paper on representations of the Franco-Prussian War in British periodicals at “Borders and Border Crossings”: 49th Annual Conference of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

Having grown up in Germany’s smallest federal state, the Saarland, on the border between France and Germany – a region with a unique status, variously under the control of French and German administrations – I am particularly invested in thinking about the history of intra-European relations and the idea of a united “Europe” in response to a series of brutal wars.

My Freiburg paper focused on how some British commentators reacted to the official government policy of British neutrality in the Franco-Prussian War; for instance, the Christian Socialist John Malcolm Ludlow complained about his government’s “selfish cruelty” (“Europe and the War,” Contemporary Review 15 [November 1870], 653) and emphasized the country’s responsibilities in and for Europe, asking: “How could England be weakened by the support of Europe? Is the fable of the bundle of sticks [with the moral: there is strength in union] really a mystery of a nature so recondite as to be utterly beyond the comprehension of an English Foreign Minister, of an English Cabinet?” (“The Reconstitution of England,” Contemporary Review 16 [March 1871], 502). The country’s policy was also derided in Henry William Pullen’s popular didactic pamphlet The Fight at Dame Europa’s School (1871), illustrated by Thomas Nast.

As Britain finds itself at another crossroads in its relationship to the rest of continental Europe, with public opinion deeply divided regarding the nature of this relationship, there is perhaps no better moment to revisit the country’s history of self-perception concerning its role in Europe.

–Anne Schwan

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