Norman Geras: Posterity Poll and Writer's Choice 
Thursday, March 26, 2009, 05:23 PM
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I’m a great fan of questionnaires and quizzes of all kinds so I quickly sent off my response to Norman Geras’ call for entries in his Normblog Posterity Collection Poll. (Update: the deadline has now passed)

You just had to nominate your favourite artists for at least nine out of 12 categories – ‘transferring’ up to three from categories you don’t feel strongly about. Here were my answers:
1. Poet Milton, Chaucer
2. Playwright Shakespeare
3. Novelist Austen, Dickens
4. Composer Mozart
5. Jazz musician
6. Rock or pop star/group Bowie
7. Country music
8. Movie director Kubrick
9. Painter Titian Vermeer
10. Photographer
11. Sculptor Michelangelo, Rodin
12. Architect Palladio

I’m not sure these were the best choices. I think I should have replaced Chaucer with Ovid. And as I don’t really know much about architecture maybe I should have left that category blank and - stretching country to include folk - put down Bob Dylan or Sandy Denny under 7. I also wondered whether Shakespeare should have been excluded from the dramatist category to make things more interesting?

Anyway, having dutifully sent in my poll, it was very nice to receive an invitation to submit an entry to Normblog’s regular ‘writer’s choice’ spot. Quite a few obvious books had already been taken, including my favourite Dickens novel, David Copperfield, pretty much everything by Jane Austen, and even Georgette Heyer’s wonderful Devil’s Cub.

I considered Road to Wigan Pier which made a big impact on me when I first read it, also the Metamorphoses which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly twenty years. I also thought some of my favourite recent holiday books – Eliza Lynn Linton’s flawed but fascinating Rebel of the Family or Robert Tressell’s absorbing dissection of labour conditions a century ago,The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Alex suggested Remembrance of Things Past, Buddenbrooks, something else by Georgette Heyer and the Gault Millau guide. These were all good ideas (even though the Gault Millau is the only one Alex has actually read).

But in the end I chose something completely different ...

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Chichester's Winter Forum on the Uncanny 
Sunday, March 1, 2009, 09:53 AM
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On Thursday I travelled down to Chichester. By chance I met someone on the train who was, like me, in the middle of writing a book about the uncanny. This would have been uncanny indeed – were we not both heading for the Winter Forum on the Uncanny at Chichester University. Nicholas Royle was there and so was Nicholas Royle. (Both writers independently developed an interest in uncanny doubles).

The opening session was a panel discussion on The New Uncanny. Ra Page, Adam Marek, Alison MacLeod and Nicholas Royle (the fiction writer one) discussed their contributions to this recent collection of short stories and also read from their work. Stories of the uncanny are nearly always most effective when they are set in an ‘ordinary’ environment rather than one which is remote in space or time, so it’s appropriate than these new tales engage with the modern and the everyday, with Tamagotchis, the Sims, and foot massage machines. I’ve now ordered both this collection and Alison MacLeod’s collection The Wave Theory of Angels. (I’m sure someone could write a good uncanny story about Amazon ...)

Then we broke out into panels. I gave a paper on the relationship between allusion and the uncanny and then heard an illuminating paper on uncanny and negation by Catrin Edwards and a striking presentation on the processes of writing uncanny fiction by Carol Fenlan. The closing address was given Nicholas Royle (the academic one) – a witty and personal exploration of the uncanny.

I got some useful ideas for further reading and was relieved not to hear that there was already a book about the relationship between allusion and the uncanny written by the other Sarah Brown.

Yet there was one uncanny outcome from the conference. After ‘twittering’ my trip to Chichester I was informed that I was now being followed on twitter by Sigmund Freund ...

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About About: On Poetry and Paraphrase 
Thursday, February 26, 2009, 07:34 AM
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As an undergraduate Alex somehow acquired a curious little volume called What the Poem Means. I’ve sometimes waved this book in front of students as an example of what not to do. Not only does it aim to give a helpful potted summary of The Waste Land, it also thinks the poem is called The Wasteland.

Yesterday at Anglia Ruskin Angela Leighton gave a subtle and suggestive paper which explored the dangers of paraphrase. She included an amusing example of one poet’s exasperation at being asked to explain what her poetry is ‘about’:

Given an airplane, chance
encounters always ask, So what
are your poems about? They’re about
their business, and their father’s business, and their
monkey’s uncle, they’re about
how nothing is about, they’re not
about about This answer drives them
back to the snack tray every time. (Heather McHugh)

But, as Angela Leighton fully acknowledged, we do, as readers and critics, want to know what a poem is ‘about’, and search for clues which will help us discover more about the poem’s meaning – or more about how the poem means at any rate.

Like others in the audience I was particularly struck by Angela Leighton’s reading of George Herbert’s ‘Prayer’. I had thought I knew the poem but realized I hadn’t paid anything like enough attention to, for example, the line ‘Church-bels beyond the stares heard, the soul’s blood’.

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Oh what a tangled Web 2.0 we weave 
Friday, February 13, 2009, 05:02 PM
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Mitchell and Webb have an amusing sketch in which they play a pair of news presenters exhorting the audience to ‘have your say’ about an invasion from outer space.

“What's your reaction? Are you offended by the end of civilization as we know it? What's your perspective? Maybe you live on earth, or know someone who does? How do you feel about it? E-mail us on your thoughts on your eminent molecular evaporation at—all one word—and let us know."

I’ve been increasing sucked into the interactive world of ‘have your say’. I’d never have dreamt of writing to a newspaper but when surfing the Guardian, Spectator or whatever online it’s so easy and so tempting to post some anonymous Great Thought about working mothers, Battlestar Galactica, or the MMR controversy.

It doesn’t stop there of course. Once one has made one’s wonderfully eloquent and judicious point there is always the temptation to have another look and see if anyone has ‘recommended’ your comment – or repudiated it with loathing – or even propositioned you (as happened to me recently.) It’s like a continually evolving soap opera with lots of different plot threads to follow simultaneously.

Although CIF is always fun, it’s not quite so much fun as Harry’s Place, a political blog which aligns itself with the left yet adopts several positions more usually associated with the right, thus ensuring a varied and argumentative reader base.

Those who hang out at Harry’s Place enjoy lively (and generally unmoderated) debates following each post. Insults fly round freely and the language is – ripe. I’ve always found the atmosphere of HP just a bit too blokeish – and have occasionally grumbled at sexist comments which range from the merely silly to the unpleasantly misogynistic. Some HPers sympathised with me, some didn’t, one suggested I ran along and made the tea, but one helpfully pasted a link which demonstrated that at least I was not alone.

Recently someone on HP launched a (comparatively mild but still irksome) personal attack on me. It turned out he had a) misunderstood what I’d written completely and b) was also confusing me with someone else he’d been arguing with on a different thread. But it confirmed my feeling that I should, at least for a while, disentangle myself from HP’s stickily (and compulsively) interactive threads.

And Alex (who thinks my time would be better spent doing more housework) has blocked the site from our home network to help me kick the habit.

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Two welcome reprints: Warner and Whipple 
Saturday, January 24, 2009, 11:31 AM
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I’ve recently read two very different books, both originally published during the Second World War, both recently reprinted. The first was one I’d very vaguely remembered seeing on TV back in the 1980s, Rex Warner’s Aerodrome. This strange and rather surreal novel is set in a typical English village which is gradually being taken over by the mysterious and fascistic local aerodrome.

The opening chapters were completely compelling. I’d expected something rather like 1984 but Warner seems as interested in playing allusive literary games with his readers as in creating a dystopian fantasy. The mystery over the narrator’s parentage seems deliberately set up to echo Fielding’s Tom Jones, for example. Hamlet is another intertext – most obviously in the scene (the best in the novel I thought) when the narrator overhears his foster father confess to murder in his prayers.

I thought the ending was slightly rushed and predictable. But this was an absorbing novel and the oddly cool and affectless narrator put me in mind of Ishiguro. Michael Moorcock’s introduction listed so many other fascinating early c.20 novels with similar sf themes that I began to wish someone would set up the male equivalent of Virago and reprint them all.

Persephone Books seem to have taken over where Virago left off, with their covetable reprints of (mostly) early to mid c.20 women’s fiction and non-fiction. I’d never heard of Dorothy Whipple until I read an appreciation of her works by Adèle Geras over at Normblog. Apparently Virago (who never reprinted her books) thought Whipple not worth reprinting because they were too safe and popular:

We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us.

They Were Sisters is particularly enjoyable – and totally unputdownable. It tells of three sisters growing up between the wars, and their very different experiences of marriage. The portrait of Charlotte, destroyed by her bullying husband, was especially compelling. You always feel, with Whipple’s novels, that this is what things were really like during this period – I love the way she communicates the texture of everyday life.

Whipple’s typical heroine seems to be a nice, intelligent but otherwise unremarkable middle aged, middle class woman. But she’s also very good at writing about children and there are some amusingly Outnumbered- like scenes in They Were Sisters – and also some almost unbearably harrowing moments. Great stuff.

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