Biennial banquet, Jane Stafford

Writers and Readers Week

Common threads of history, memory, the intersection of personal experience with the historical past, suggest lively debate at this year’s Writers and Readers Week.

The Observer critic said of John Banville’s latest novel, Eclipse: “With prose like this, who needs a plot? A man wanders around his house and thinks. That’s it. And it’s brilliant.” Now the literary editor of the Irish Times, Banville is one of the heavyweights of the novel (he has been compared to Nabokov). A writer fascinated by secrecy, deception and doubleness, his novel The Untouchable is a thinly veiled account of the Anthony Blunt affair, “an autopsy of a certain kind of Englishness performed notably by an Irishman unstinting in his use of the scalpel”. Evasiveness is all: as he has written, “I don’t believe in such a thing as an essential self, it is ever changing with the people we talk to and the masks we put on.” Eclipse develops this by having about it some aspects of the ghost story; Banville has written an essay on the genre for the New York Review of Books, wonderfully entitled “The Un-Heimlich Manoeuvre”.

Geraldine Brooks’s cv touches on all the hot spots of the last 20 years. As an Australian foreign correspondent, she has worked in Bosnia, Somalia, the Middle East. She has covered the Palestinian uprising, the Gulf War, the Eritrean independence struggle. Her works include Nine Parts of Desire, a haunting and pertinent study of woman under Islam (“Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men”), and Foreign Correspondence, the account of an attempt to trace two penfriends of her youth, a Jew and an Arab. Strangely, though, her most recent work, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, is set in 17th-century Derbyshire. Negotiating the
past, perhaps in the same way she has negotiated cultural difference, she writes: “It is human nature to put yourself in another’s shoes. The past may be another country, but the only passport required is empathy.”

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Inga Clendinnen began her career at Melbourne University as a historian, expert in the ancient cultures of the Aztecs and the Mayas. In contrast to Brooks, she has talked about the “irreducible difference of the past”. But two recent works have widened her reputation beyond the academic. Her 1999 work, Reading the Holocaust, is an examination of how something so beyond the reach of human imagination, so outside the normal range of expression, can be written about and read – from first person accounts to the interpretive modes of poetry, fiction and film. It is a powerful work, which combines academic intelligence with intense compassion. Clendinnen’s latest book, Tiger’s Eye, has a very different premise. It describes the progress of a serious illness she suffered (she finally had a liver transplant), examining “the very notion of self at the moment of maximum vulnerability and disarray”. The book blends autobiography and imagination, “when truth and fiction are allowed to mingle and change shape”.

Jim Crace’s most recent work could also be said to concentrate on the physical. Being Dead is about just that: a couple are murdered, and we watch as their bodies slowly decay and are taken over by the world of scavengers. Never a predictable or conventional author, he has said that what he aims for is “not a ‘you are there’ experience”. His use of history – prehistoric society in The Gift of Stones, biblical Palestine in Quarantine, the 19th-century British sea coast in Signals of Distress  – can be seen, as one critic puts it, not so much as “an attempt to create a world, [but as] a conceit that provides the author scope for his meditation.” A Birmingham-based, working-class socialist interested in “the fate of communities rather than the catharsis of individuals”, a “died-in-the-wool-God-denier”, Crace has described himself as wanting to be an “old-fangled novelist”. He is anything but.

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Poets are always good value as performers at Writers and Readers Week. This year sees the appearance of the latest US Library of Congress Laureate, Billy Collins. (Rita Dove, an earlier WRW author, held the same position in 1996.) Collins’ work has been described as the “antithesis of every cultural cliché the Americans have about poetry”. Irreverent, accessible, witty and profound, Collins sees – or would like to see – poetry as part of everyday experience. As it covertly is: overhearing two teenagers talking – “When he found out he was, like, Oh my God, and I was, like, Oh my God” – he points out that this is a perfect haiku. His poem “Introduction to Poetry” complains of serious readers:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with
rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

 

His latest collection is enchantingly entitled Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.

Medbh McGuckian is a Northern Irish poet, who doesn’t fit into the stereotypical expectations of that categorisation: personal rather than political, lyrical and at times surreal in her use of lush, allusive language, hers is the language of the sensualised domestic, with more in common perhaps with other women poets than with the sometimes blokey and public poetry of her male compatriots. “From the Dressing-Room” begins:

Left to itself, they say, every foetus
would turn female, staring in, nature
siding then with the enemy that
delicately mixes up genders.

 

McGuckian’s Selected Poems appeared in 1997.

Elaine Feinstein is likewise a poet, and a critic, but will probably arouse most interest with her recent biography, Ted Hughes: the Life of a Poet. With all the controversy surrounding Hughes’s marriage to Sylvia Plath (Anne Stevenson, author of a somewhat brisk Plath biography, was at WRW in 1992), Feinstein’s  concentration on Hughes’s background, career, and the development of his writing, as opposed to his love life, will be welcome.

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Raimond Gaita is professor of moral philosophy at the Australian Catholic University and known for his engage-ment in public affairs. His latest work is entitled A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. His essay on Aboriginal rights, “Who speaks, about what, to whom, on whose behalf”, addresses issues of voice and ownership relevant to all societies seeking to redress present injustice in terms of past history. But it is his personal memoir of his father, Romulus, My Father, which has gained wide readership and acclaim. Gaita’s parents – German mother and Romanian father –went to Australia after the War when Gaita was four, and settled unhappily into a marriage of discord, illness and eventual separation. Never close to his unstable and fickle mother, Gaita was brought up by his father (and his companions), despite the latter’s battle with mental illness and advancing age. It is a moving account of an ordinary life which, like all ordinary lives, has something of the heroic and the epic to it, not least in the way that Gaita uses his father and his own assimilation into Australian society to illustrate the nature and the limitations of the multicultural vision of modern Australia.

William H Gass has long been famous for an unfinished book, The Tunnel. Begun in 1966, this became a literary myth as small sections were published from time to time, and no publication date seemed certain. (An academic article on the phenomenon was entitled “The Work in Progress as Post Modern Genre”.) But 30 years after he began it, Gass’s magnum opus was published – and proved to be the story of a man engaged in a magnum opus he can’t finish who ends up writing the story of his own life. As this might suggest, Gass is an innovative and self-reflexive writer, “an advocate for the primacy of language in literature”, who believes that “The aesthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a verbal world”; and that in order to achieve this the author must “actually make something, not merely describe something that might be made.” To some extent anti-realist – his models are James, Faulkner and Joyce –  Gass is also able to convey the landscape of his Midwest background, “rural twilights, small town still lifes, shadowed back yards … farmers mired in their dayliness”.

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Gila Lustiger was born in Germany in 1963, her mother Israeli, her father a Holocaust survivor who returned to Germany after the War and became a leading figure in the re-establishment of the Jewish community there. Since she and her sister realised that the numbers tattooed on her father’s arm were not, as he had told them, his telephone number, Lustiger has found commitment to a country where, if you are Jewish, the past is unavoidable, hard to understand. She went to university in Israel and now lives in Paris (where her uncle, confounding straightforward categorisation, is the Catholic Archbishop). Her husband is the poet Emmanuel Moses. She has written two novels, only one of which has as yet been translated into English. The Inventory is set in Germany in the 1930s, and weaves a web of tenuously interconnected characters whom we see gradually drifting towards the catastrophe of Nazism. A “pattern novel”, the title suggests the meticulously organised way in which the holocaust was set in motion – death by bureaucracy. Be warned: as a reviewer has said, “the tone of each story becomes darker and more threatening as the decade rolls on.”

Wole Soyinka is one of the most important figures, if not the most important, in African writing in the last century. Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1934 and educated there and in Britain, his works – plays, novels, essays and memoirs – are written in English, but it is an English that is inflected with the tones of his own background and the Yoruba mythology of his childhood. This ability to amalgamate, to make a productive synthesis out of both worlds, has been demonstrated in his reworkings of Euripides’ The Bacchae, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and Jarry’s Ubu Roi. Imprisoned during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-9, his three volumes of memoirs, Ake, Isara, and Ibadan trace his upbringing and family background. Soyinka has a particular connection with Wellington – he is the Director of Literary Arts at the University of Nevada’s International Institute of Modern Letters, sister foundation to Victoria University’s similarly named creative writing school.

Inevitably, there have been some changes to the programme as originally conceived: Susan Sontag and Michael Cunningham are no longer coming. They are replaced by Jane Urquhart, a Canadian poet and novelist, best known for her latest novel The Stone Carvers; and David Suzuki, a Canadian of Japanese origin, who was interned as a child during World War 2, a broadcaster, messianic environmentalist, and co-author of Naked Ape to Superspecies: A Personal Perspective on Humanity and the Global Eco-crisis. It is difficult not to be mesmerised by his publicity photo, in which he, a surprisingly fit sixty-four-year-old, wears a figleaf.

 

Jane Stafford teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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