Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair
Oct12

Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair

by Dickon Edwards This review contains plot spoilers. It seems apt that in the time between the publication of Alan Hollinghurst’s last novel, The Stranger’s Child (2011) and the emergence this month of his latest, The Sparsholt Affair, a lot has happened in Hollinghurst studies. Apt, because both novels concern things happening between the acts, as it were. Key events – deaths, births, world wars, sex scandals – only take place in the large gaps of time separating each novel’s five sections of narration. Similarly, in the real world the gap between the two novels’ publication saw no fewer than three academic books on Hollinghurst emerge; in 2011, there were none. Allan Johnson’s study Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) was followed by two essay collections, Alan Hollinghurst: Writing under the Influence, edited by Michèle Mendelssohn and Denis Flannery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), and Sex and Sensibility in the Novels of Alan Hollinghurst, edited by Mark Mathuray (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). This last book includes an essay by Bianca Leggett, a recent tutor of contemporary literature at Birkbeck. Whether this recent surge in Hollinghurstian scholarship will continue it remains to be seen. One theme of both The Stranger’s Child and The Sparsholt Affair is, after all, the way literary reputations can wax and wane over time. Just as The Stranger’s Child tracks the life of a 1913 poem by the fictional Cecil Valance down the decades, The Sparsholt Affair begins in 1940s Oxford with the establishing of a similarly invented figure, this time a novelist. A.V. Dax is described as a celebrity on the level of George Orwell and Stephen Spender [i]. But by 1995, in the novel’s fourth section, Dax has become one of those writers dimly heard of and mostly unread. A lecture theatre named in his honour during the 1960s is demolished in the 1990s, leaving Ivan, a biographer, to muse on the way memorials can be as intransigent as their subjects: ‘If the memorial itself was destroyed, then what remained?' (332). In 2017, at least, Hollinghurst’s own profile has never been healthier, critically and commercially. While academia has saluted his work with the aforementioned trio of scholarly books, the British public made the paperback of The Stranger’s Child one of the biggest selling books of 2012 [ii]. Last week the new novel’s publication warranted its own segment on the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight [iii]. Thankfully, the news is good. Admittedly, with its more bohemian settings, The Sparsholt Affair lacks the frisson of 1980s power and politics found in The Line of Beauty (2004). It also cannot eclipse the innovatory...

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The Oscillating Eye
Jul01

The Oscillating Eye

A Review of Dom Sylvester Houédard: Typestracts at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London by Dylan Williams The life of Dom Sylvester Houédard constitutes one of the more unorthodox biographies from the range of odd-and-out-there artists on the scene in London during the 1960s. Born in Guernsey in 1924, Houédard served as an intelligence officer during the Second World War, before ordaining as a Benedictine monk at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire. During the 60s he began to produce concrete and visual poetry within the small circle of practitioners surrounding Bob Cobbing and his ‘Writers Forum’ press. This work is currently enjoying a rare exhibition at the Richard Saltoun Gallery in London. The typestracts on show – image-text combinations produced with a typewriter on A4 paper – oscillate in the agency of their forms. Image and text blur and bleed into one another, with words emerging as geometric forms and shapes gaining symbolic potentials. [1] Houédard’s experiments, while reminiscent of the modernisms of Pound and Malevich, are relevant to contemporary culture. By engaging with these works the viewer/reader returns to an interplay between depth and surface, background and foreground at odds with our postmodern era of flat surfaces and moving images – a shift from the passive to the active eye. The liberty of interpretation brought about by Houédard’s multivalent surfaces is important today because it reminds us of the forgotten power of the static image. We can explore this by looking closely at one of the typestracts: Typestract 140469, 1969 Here words behave as a cloud-like pictorial form in a way that at first recalls Guillaume Apollinaire’s famous concrete poem, ‘Il Pleut’. However, while Apollinaire’s creates unity between meaning and form – the shape of falling rain and the words of the poem complement each other harmoniously – such agreement is rejected here. Instead of unity Houédard follows a policy of adjacency, with the combination of word and image complicating the whole. In this typestract the most ‘solid’ image – the cube – is orbited by satellite fields comprised of a multitude of strokes and characters. The most striking impression communicated here is one of visual textures: a contrast between the solid and structural and the atmospheric and multitudinous. Within this mode of looking at the piece the words carry a function equal to the spherical field of dots and dashes nearby. The words become visual marks rather than vehicles of signification. This transformation is furthered by the minuscule scale of the letters and their impenetrable Latin. Likewise similarities in scale, number and colour provide the dots and dashes with an ambiguous sort of affinity with the words. You feel as...

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Report: James Joyce on TV
Jun18

Report: James Joyce on TV

by Joseph Brooker James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) takes place on the 16th of June, which has accordingly come to be celebrated each year – as ‘Bloomsday’, in honour of the protagonist Leopold Bloom. Celebrations in Dublin started in 1954, 50 years after the book’s setting, with a pilgrimage around the city by Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and friends; in 1982, Joyce’s own centenary, it finally started to become the wider civic festival that it is for Dublin today. Around the world, many devotees of Joyce like to do something to mark the date: only a minority dress in Edwardian costume, but many gather to read from the novel. We have held such readings at Birkbeck in recent years. In 2017, Birkbeck’s Bloomsday celebration was distinctive: an evening screening of two very rarely seen films about Joyce, organized by Michael Garrad – a cinema programmer and graduate of our MA Modern & Contemporary Literature – with the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It was heartening to see a large and engaged audience turn up to spend two hours in the dark, even on a sunny evening worthy of Joyce’s summery book. Michael Garrad expertly introduced the films, and held a conversation afterward with documentary film-maker Clare Tavernor and me. The first film was Anthony Burgess’s documentary Silence, Exile and Cunning (1965). This black and white film of c.45 minutes was made in the BBC strand Monitor, pioneered by Huw Wheldon; the film was produced by Jonathan Miller who had emerged from the Beyond the Fringe set. The film thus exemplifies some aspects of British television culture in the 1960s: adventurous arts programming in the form of personal essay films, with auteurs and artists like Burgess given their head in a relatively free and experimental culture of programme-making. There is a risk of naively idealizing a televisual golden age of the 1960s and 1970s at the expense of the present, but it seems true that certain possibilities existed then because of a less bureaucratic system. Clare commented with amusement afterwards that Burgess’s method had been ‘I’m not going to interview anybody – it’ll just be about me’. His film is indeed centred around his monologue, delivered to camera on Dublin location or as voiceover. Burgess’s voice is punctuated by others reading from Joyce’s writings, including a Leopold and Molly Bloom who both sounded lower in class status than those we have come to know from the more recent CD renditions by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan. Burgess’s film is visually quite striking, using still images and close-ups of waves and water, as well as monochrome panoramas of Dublin Bay...

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Report: Child Be Strange
Jun14

Report: Child Be Strange

by Joseph Brooker The dramatist David Rudkin (b.1936) wrote the television play Penda’s Fen in 1972-3. It was filmed by director Alan Clarke (himself acclaimed as an auteur in recent retrospectives) and screened as a 90-minute film in BBC television’s Play For Today slot in March 1974. The play was repeated in 1975, then scarcely seen for another 15 years. Until the arrival of VHS recorders in the early 1980s, it was almost impossible for viewers to catch up with or re-view a piece of television unless they managed to be in front of the screen on the occasion of a repeat. In 1990 Penda’s Fen was at last screened again, with an introduction from Rudkin, in a Channel 4 retrospective of the work of the influential producer David Rose. Now it was possible to record works of television that came recommended for their quality or rarity, and amateur VHS copies of Penda’s Fen began to circulate. This was the basis of a gradual revival in interest in the play, which in the 2000s came to be seen as a significant instance of a certain cultural strand from the 1970s: put simply, an English uncanny. The play depicts the experience of teenager Stephen Franklin, living in a conservative household in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, whose stable assumptions are disturbed as he encounters a series of spectral figures, culminating in a meeting with Penda, the last pagan king in England prior to Christianity. As Stephen ventures through this mystical rural landscape, issues of sexuality and politics are also implicitly raised. Following a DVD and Blu-Ray release in May 2016, the revival of Penda’s Fen reached its peak with a high-profile screening at the British Film Institute on 10th June 2017, preceded by a whole day conference about the film, supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The conference and screening were organized by Matthew Harle and James Machin, who both completed PhD theses in Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities. They had assembled a full day of presentations about the film from speakers including David Ian Rabey, author of a monograph about Rudkin’s drama, and Adam Scovell, whose recent book Folk Horror indicates one way to categorize the film. Given the traditional – but now certainly shifting – gender balance of fandom in cult TV and film, it was not very surprising that a majority of speakers were male; but substantial contributions were also made by three women scholars: Carolyne Larrington, a Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, who among other things raised the question of the place...

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Reflections on The Contemporary: an Exhibition
Jun13

Reflections on The Contemporary: an Exhibition

Report by Annapurna Barry On Tuesday 16th May 2017 MA Contemporary Literature and Culture students organised a pioneering and interactive event, The Contemporary: an Exhibition, that pulled in crowds of students, prospective students, tutors and family and friends. Our exhibiters, Hope Dinsey, Daniel Pateman and Aefifa Razzaq, created intelligent and thought-provoking creative pieces that explored the idea of the contemporary and what it means to us in our current social and political landscape. Daniel Pateman’s multimedia exhibition, Ghosts of the Future: Ruinations and Re(creation), created a discourse around the idea of our constant need for regeneration. As Daniel writes in an accompanying text, ‘there is a sense in our culture today of a desire for social, personal and political renewal; of myriad possibilities for change rather than the perceived inevitabilities of monolithic systems.’ Although Daniel’s photographs could initially be seen as an investigation into the hopelessness of contemporary life, they are instead aiming to be hopeful and to suggest that contemporary life is in a perpetual state of transformation and that ruinations are symbols of regeneration and in fact sites of recreation. The photographs in Ghosts of the Future feature a range of sites that are decayed and/or abandoned such as disused hospitals, graveyards and factories. I spoke to Daniel and our guests and everyone seemed to be in agreement that even though these sites remind us of mortality and echo Gothic ideas of the sublime, they are in fact a positive portrayal of the contemporary and of the now – society is moving towards a less binary view of the world and of life and death, and towards a mentality that sees beauty and hope in destruction. Daniel’s exhibition also featured poems ‘I am Demetrius’ and ‘I am Lazarus’ on black card, which metamorphosise and degenerate into a structure-free form that gives the poems opportunity for renewal and leaves them open to interpretation – an exciting development in contemporary aesthetics.   Daniel Pateman’s Ghosts of the Future: Ruinations and Re(creation) This idea of text and narrative being an unstable and unfixed concept, as seen in Daniel’s poems, is something that Hope Dinsey’s exhibit, The Expansion of Narrative in the Digital Age, explores. When I chatted to Hope about her work, she spoke of how since the advent of the internet methods of storytelling and traditional narratives found in literature, film and art have developed and morphed into something entirely new. Hope’s detailed exhibition explored avenues such as fandom, hypertext, fantext and interactive gaming, none of which possess a set narrative. We arguably live in a society that is characterised by choice and it seems that this desire has fuelled...

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Reflections on Dystopia Now
Jun04

Reflections on Dystopia Now

by Amy Butt I must confess to a certain trepidation in the run-up to the Dystopia Now symposium at the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck. When so much of my real and virtual life seems dominated by voices keen to correlate the current political state of the world with the darkest moments of dystopian fiction, dwelling in the ‘now’ of dystopia felt like an all too common occurrence. But stepping into the sunlight-strewn Keynes Library seemed to have generated an atmosphere of renewed resolve in those attending: a desire to create a space outside of those immediate and all too pressing concerns, to step back momentarily and re-appraise the critical and constructive potential within dystopian visions, before rejoining the fray. You may have to forgive my professional bias as an architect, but this theme of a place for dystopia, both within genre studies or in wider political discourse, appeared to be a critical point of reflection for many of the speakers. Caroline Edwards' keynote talk which commenced the day steadfastly dismissed this siren call of the ‘Now’, to situate our consideration of techno-modernity and the apparent dystopias therein in the wider historical context of dystopian and utopian fiction. Edwards demonstrated, by tracing the attitude towards of techno-modernity from Wells to Atwood, that just as the word ‘utopia’ was coined as a term of criticism in parliamentary debate, the role of dystopian literature is as an ongoing process of critique. As Edwards drew on H.G. Wells’ reference to dystopia as ‘shadows of light thrown by darkness’ [i], the importance of contextual framing came to the fore. This framing was considered both within the literary text and within the spaces of dystopia in the novels, drawing on Moylan and Baccolini’s definitions of dystopia [ii] to identify how the appendices of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Iron Heel and Nineteen Eighty-Four transform the reading of these apparently foreclosed dystopian visions. Within the novels themselves, Edwards noted that while the dystopian visions of mathematical progress as realized in the panopticism of Zamyatin’s glass walled One State or the breeding vats of Brave New World seem to foreclose any alternative outcomes for purely technological development, these are not reasons to dismiss techno-modernity. As Edwards stated, there may be ’room to live inside that set of visions’, if these novels are considered as a set of boundaries, a framing device which defines the edges of dystopia from all sides. This appreciation of the framing of the text was also dwelt upon by Nick Hubble when considering Iain M. Banks’ novella State of The Art in relation to the narrative of Use of Weapons. Part of...

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