Monday, 8 November 2010

Colouring around the facts

I was going through my back catalogue of posts, trying to spark an idea (having started out writing two posts this evening and failing to put my thoughts across coherently) when I discovered a post that I'd mistakenly left languishing as a draft back in 2008.

It does, however, say much which I still believe, so I thought I'd allow it to find it's audience after so long a wait in the wings. I've just spruced it up a bit - the wings can be an awfully dusty place ....

It should be no secret to those that have read this blog in the past to be told that I have always been fascinated by learning how a life was lived long ago. I have been hungry, ever since childhood, to know the most trivial or mundane details and perhaps this is why fiction seems to me to be such a suitable medium for capturing a life. I remember at the age of about eleven getting lost within the pages of 'Legacy' by Susan Kay - a wonderful narrative of Elizabeth I's life that wove the power of her status with the vulnerability of her personal life expertly and created a rich and broad tapestry whose focus seemed to shift with every new reading.

It can be hard for a straight biographer to do the same. Not unless you are Leon Edel or Martin Gilbert and intent on capturing for posterity every movement your subject makes (Henry James and Winston Churchill respectively) will you be able to devote the kind of microscopic attention to detail in a work of fact. The why and wherefore this is demanded as part of the package can drag the work down to the point of dullness. And if Winston Churchill was dull, then I'll take up smoking. This is where fiction allows a greater freedom.

A friend of mine, having read 'Regeneration' by Pat Barker, suggested that the true art of biographical fiction was the ability to 'paint around' the facts. This sums up, for me, the essence of what biographical fiction should be doing, and what - at its best - it does do. Many novels spring to mind which have biography at their hearts, but the ones which stand out to me as 'painting around' their central characters with the finest tools can be narrowed down to a select group.
2004 was, as David Lodge put it, 'the year of Henry James'. Three novels came out within months of each other, and it is 'Author, Author' by Lodge and 'The Master' by Colm Toibin that will always stand out for me, not least because of the way they managed to capture the essence of the man within their stories, although in very different ways.
These novels focus on the almost the same period of time; Lodge taking James' theatre career as the central theme, whilst Toibin uses the feelings of failure that arose from this unsuccessful period of James' life as his starting point. In one, James feels absolutely at the top of his game, ready to conquer the world, only to have his hopes dashed, and a friend (George du Maurier) appear to be much popular than he ever could be. In the other, James is in a world of depression, struggling to cope with the mere fact of his failure, but it is also a darker look at James' sexuality too. Both novels show a certain part of Henry James that perhaps isn't as well known as the figure of an extremely loquacious man that has been made so famous today. I think they are both fantastic - although only one was shortlisted the Booker prize - so perhaps my judgement isn't as sound as I'd like to believe.

In a biography the smaller details that the novels seek to address are sometimes cast aside to make room for larger events. 'Daphne' by Justine Picardie is just such a novel that seeks to throw the magnifying glass on smaller events that go into making a much larger one (in this case the writing of her biography on Branwell Bronte). You all know my enthusiasm for that novel, and I feel the need to borrow from Dovegreyreader, who wrote this (back in 2008) 'It's certainly hard to temper enthusiasm and not plunge overboard without a lifebelt when a book touches your heart.'
'Daphne' is certainly a novel that seeks to 'paint around' the general idea of one writing a book. Justine weaves so many threads into her novel, of deceit, jealousy, passion (both human and for literature), despair, obsession, madness, loss, failure. I could go on. I won't. We are allowed to view a side to Daphne that the public world would never see. A side aware of her own failures in her writing and in her personal life. Something that both Lodge and Toibin (Toibin to a greater extent) wrote about in their portrayals of James.

The point I am trying, inexpertly, to make, is that the genre of fiction is, by it's very essence, a natural way to present a life that has it's roots in reality. The books talked about above are ranked among my favourites, and that is because they are what I sought when younger - they fulfil the fascination I have for filling in the gaps, where the truth is just that little bit dusty.

Poem of the week

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Phillip Larkin

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Oxford Thinking

One of the pleasures of working for Oxford University is the access it gives those that work for it to intellectual stimulation. I've not been a student for some years, but I can still get a boost of learning whenever the mood takes me. There are always talks and lectures going on, and since the notices come through my office to display, I can take my pick.

Yesterday I found myself in the English faculty listening to a distinguished American lecturer discuss the theme of property in Richard II. i have to admit I felt a little out of place, amongst the various Oxford students, all armed with notepads and looks of serious intent, but once that had worn off, I settled back into the practise of listening and learning. Besides - if the conversations I overheard beforehand were anything to go by, Oxford students definitely don't spend all their time pontificating on their various subjects. there was a particularly intense conversation going on behind me about the timeline of origin of the words 'Aubergine' and 'Eggplant'.

Another thing I love about this job is the access it gives me to the tutors. Once a term there is an MCR/SCR symposium, where a graduate and a fellow of the college talk about their work and interests. Now, this can be hit and miss. An interesting subject does not necessarily translate into an interesting talk, should the minutiae become all encompassing. This is rare, however, and the evenings are generally eye opening.

Blogging has also started to make an appearance, and Somerville has recently seen two new enthusiastic bloggers creep out of the woodwork. The new Principal - Dr Alice Prochaska - has started commenting on the new role she has been thrust in to, with all its various duties, whilst History tutor, Dr Natalia Nowakowska, has created a blog that not only looks at her research work, but which also talks about Oxford life from the view of an academic.

I've created a little Oxford haven on the left side of my blog, where I will be putting the various blogs and places of interest that I come across. At this time of great upheaval in the higher education sector, I think it's important to show people every aspect of the world they may want to enter. It's not all about beautiful architecture and overwhelming work. There's a very human aspect too.