Michelle Kelly: ‘J. M. Coetzee, Autobiography, and Confession’

For this term’s Life-Writing Lunch the Centre welcomed Michelle Kelly, departmental lecturer in World Literatures at the University of Oxford, who came to talk about ‘J. M. Coetzee, Autobiography and Confession’. Kelly, currently at work on a book about the idea of confession that engages with Coetzee’s work, gave a fascinating paper about the role of confession as a life-writing genre in Coetzee’s well known trilogy: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009).

Kelly started her talk by quoting a 1992 interview with Coetzee, where he questioned how to write up his own career: “But which facts? All the facts? No. All the facts are too many facts.  You choose the facts insofar as they fall in with your evolving purpose”. Kelly’s research in the newly available archive of Coetzee papers at the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas brought her face to face with the problem of selection and choice in the presence of a vast collection of facts. Painstakingly recording countless details from his life, Coetzee had ordered and archived a veritable treasure trove for biographers and scholars. With the exception of his diaries, which are expected to be included after his death, this “monumental act of recording and documentation”, as Kelly noted, seems to “promise all the stories”. Having described “all writing is autobiography”, Coetzee’s act of collecting the paper trail of his life seems to reinstate his belief that “everything you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it”.

Kelly clearly stated that her work on confession and Coetzee does not intend to read Coetzee’s fiction as confessional. Instead, she aims to study how Coetzee uses the confessional in his work. Kelly is interested in confession as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a term simply interchangeable with life-writing: she sees it as a kind of language that can provide “force” to a text. Kelly identified the central contradiction of confession as a process that is highly ritualized and mechanical, while at the same time seen as a free, liberating force that suggests “unmediated expression”. Kelly is interested in the modulation between these two meanings and the implication they have for autobiography. Kelly discussed the authoritative value of confession for autobiography, referring to the fundamental history of the term in legal practice.

Focusing on Coetzee’s 1985 essay ‘Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky’ where he asked “how does one start confessing”, Kelly argued that Coetzee found completion or closure impossible. The process of confessing resulted, therefore, in endless self-confession. Kelly moved on to Coetzee’s highly autobiographical trilogy to trace how his understanding of confession worked itself into these books. Kelly gave a stimulating close reading of the texts, tracing how motifs of confession were activated. In Boyhood and Youth, Kelly addressed the idea of the “shameful secret” as the trigger for structured revelations in the books. Shameful secrets constituting, of course, the highest valued form of confession. Kelly linked these secrets to the role of Apartheid in the books, alluding to the public discourse of separation taking place in South Africa. Another prominent motif in the trilogy was writing itself as a source of shame: writing as something that needed to be confessed. Kelly quoted Coetzee’s description of writing as “spilling mere emotion on to the page”. Summertime was identified as a statement on confession, particularly with the problem of ending. From Coetzee’s notes in his archive, Kelly traced him speculating how to end the book from the moment he started it. While on the face of it, this may be read as a mere formal problem, Kelly interpreted it as a more fundamental engagement with the problem of ending a confession that Coetzee addressed in his 1985 essay.

Kelly’s stimulating talk was followed by some thought-provoking questions. Hermione Lee, interested in the relationship between confession and autobiography, asked if the revelation of sins, shame, secrets or apologies was a prerequisite for autobiographical writing. Kelly did not think this was necessary, but pointed out the different expectations in other contexts: in a legal framework, for example, confession has very specific consequences, and in a therapeutic sense the force of confession is a healing requirement. Another member of the audience, in a question about self-scrutiny, confession and style in Summertime, opened up a discussion about the interesting associations between self-forgiveness and self-advertisement, leaving us with the fascinating question: to what extend can confession in literature be read as exhibitionism?

 

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Albert James at the Animal Fair

Please find below a post by Rosie and Ellie Lavan about their play Wild Laughter, which was performed as an OCLW event on the 11th of November.

Albert James at the Animal Fair

We think of Wild Laughter very much as a Christmas story. Our great grandfather Albert James was, after all, the clown who died on Christmas Eve. For us, it’s that fact more than any other that touches his biography with a kind of magic.

Albert is a relatively recent discovery. Our father left in 1993, when we were nine and five. We knew that there was something unusual and exciting about the life of his grandfather, and we knew this from things that our mother had held back, carefully preserved in the attic of our childhood home in Devon: from the trunk in which he had shipped his possessions around the world while touring as a principal actor and stage manager of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company; from the clasp of an opera cloak he once sported; from a black leather Aspreys wallet stamped in gold with the initials A.J.

Later, we found that Albert had another guardian, Mr Melvyn Tarran. An avid collector of Gilbert and Sullivan memorabilia, Mr Tarran made our great grandfather’s world even more real for us in the things he owns: in articles which claim Albert was better than George Grossmith in the role of Koko; in 10-foot high publicity posters displaying Albert in pastel as the star of the show; in letters dated December 1911 to our infant grandfather Noel Albert Charles James days before his third birthday on Christmas Eve – letters whose affections on reflection are so poignant, since we read them in the knowledge that Noel and his mother Annie would lose Albert two years later on that very same day.

We continue to recover Albert’s extraordinary biography in public records and published reviews. We now know that he is buried with Annie somewhere in Streatham Cemetery; that he lived diagonally across Clapham Common from where our mother was born half a century later; and only this week, after mounting the exhibition ‘A Clown of Real Life: the Performance Worlds of Albert James’ at the English Faculty Library in Cambridge, we were contacted by a visitor who had discovered from reviews that Albert had played before US President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. We treasure these odd fragments of an exceptional life as they are gifted to us, reassembling them in Wild Laughter.

We’ve now performed Wild Laughter at four locations across Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a work that responds to the conditions of performance; it’s very much a living thing. We’ve coloured black box studios and adapted blank board rooms with Albert’s animations, but the Haldane Room setting will always be set apart from those other places. We felt that those beautiful, lofty winged animals and their companion angel carried the piece to a rather strange and ethereal place. Something of our wonder in their magic is clear from the alert and acute photographs taken that evening by Santhy Balachandran. In Albert’s company, we met those creatures on Remembrance Day, and we shall certainly remember them along with him.

‘Reclamations: Writing on the Lives of Shirley Hazzard and Hannah Lynch’

On the 27th of November, under the theme of “reclamations”, the Centre hosted Brigitta Olubas, Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes, who talked about their experiences of working on life-writing projects of lesser known writers.

Brigitta Olubas started the evening presenting her biographical research on Shirley Hazzard. Hazzard is a highly recognized author in the US and in Australia, and Olubas acknowledged that in writing Hazzard’s life she was not “recovering” her work. Instead, she was reclaiming her “in reverse”, by taking her outside the boundaries of Australian culture and internationalizing her. This is an important project because Hazzard continuously crossed cultural and international borders during her life, living in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the U.S and Italy.

Olubas set out to achieve this by writing Hazzard’s life alongside that of her husband Francis Steegmuller, a translator, biographer, writer of detective fiction and Flaubert scholar, who was a cosmopolitan individual in his own right. By paying close attention to the life of the couple, Olubas is attempting to reorientate our understanding of Hazzard towards a global context. Working on this cosmopolitan couple has helped Olubas unearth extensive networks of writers, reclaiming shadowy secondary figures that would otherwise probably remain unknown. It has also traced a shared history of self-didacticism, since Hazzard, who never finished secondary school, actively educated herself, and Steegmuller worked independent of the academy thanks to a financial legacy.

Born in Australia from migrant parents from the UK, Hazzard moved to Hong Kong in 1916, and from there to New Zealand. Early in the 1950s she moved again, this time to New York where she worked for the UN (the source of her essays criticising this institution). She started writing fiction for The New Yorker magazine, where her friend, Muriel Spark introduced her to her future husband (allegedly “her own best story ever”).

Olubas is currently working on an archive that contains the books Hazzard read, and it illustrates the importance of reading in her life. Olubas talked of heavily annotated copies of Byron’s Don Juan and Auden’s collected poems, full of political notes, such as “just like Nixon”. Olubas ended her talk by sharing an anecdote about an interview with Hazzard where, talking about Auden’s famous dictum — “poetry makes nothing happen”— Hazzard described how the literary life did make something happen for her; it rescued her from her past.

Kathryn Laing: ‘“I am an unexplained enigma.  I live alone.  I follow art”Textual Traces, Literary Recoveries and the Irish writer, Hannah Lynch (1859-1904)’.

Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes gave very different talks on their joint project writing the life of Hannah Lynch. Laing’s paper discussed her work trying to unearth Lynch’s life story. Educated in a French convent and possibly working as a governess early on, Lynch was a traveller, a translator of Spanish and French, a novelist and a journalist who had a hybrid, cross cultural identity, and a strong sense of restlessness. She wrote new woman novels set in Iceland, Greece and Spain, and was a prolific contributor to newspapers and journals (a bibliography of her non-fiction work is a complicated work in progress because she published a great deal anonymously).

Laing discussed the experience of working on a writer for whom there is no known portrait, hopeful that they would someday solve this “unexplained enigma”.  Repeatedly returning to the term “glimpses”, Laing described the process of searching for a “buried artist”, of recovering a life. Her talk elucidated Lynch’s connection with well-known literary circles in Dublin, where she had a brief encounter with Yeats, describing him as a “poet of Titanic power”. Lynch has also been associated with the Ladies Land League, a feminist network, and with the London Literary Salon. Little of her life is known before the 1880s.

Laing evocatively described researching Lynch’s life as a process of “exposing sedimental layers”, sometimes surfacing other obscure lives in the process. Laing emphasised that Lynch’s life was still enigmatic, with little personal material as their disposal. Lynch wrote Through Troubled Waters, an attack on the institution of marriage, and Laing highlighted how combative she could be in her writing. Laing suggested that this tendency for ruffling feathers, when added to her use of satire, and her feminist self-assertion, may have limited her chances of advancing her writing career. Laing ended by suggesting that tracing Lynch’s writing offered a counter-narrative to established versions of the Irish literary revival.

Faith Binckes: ‘“What we no longer know we have forgotten”: Canonicity, Gender, and the Lives of the Obscure’.

Taking a step back from the details of Lynch’s life, Binckes’ talk addressed the issues and problems arising from doing work on such an unknown figure. Binckes began her talk questioning the ways in which a process of recovery fits into a wider academic discourse. In an exercise in self-reflection, Binckes asked what we mean by “recovery”. Given that historical completeness is unrecoverable, all we can do is think about the process. Alluding to Woolf’s “lives of the obscure”, Binckes questioned what could be done with the gaps in Lynch’s life. Quoting E. E. Cummings’ verse, “all ignorance toboggans into know/ and trudges up to ignorance again”, Binckes emphasised the central challenge biographers face of ever knowing their subject.

Binckes introduced the problem of “placing Lynch”. This process, never neutral, is complicated further in Lynch’s case because of her problematic national identity. This raised the difficulty of thinking of Lynch as an “Irish author” when she had long residences in both England and Paris, and her national identity was configured in opposition to dominant trends of the time: against nationalism and imperialism, against Anglo-American New Women, and against aestheticism. This “contestative” position made her a very successful critic, but this very success generated problems for her, because her satirical forceful writing often got her into trouble. Binckes suggested that while this aggressive tone may be the cause for her neglect, it could also merely be a case of her dying early.

Binckes reminded us that placing Lynch was also a problem of audience. English publishers would recover her into the British canon, Irish publishers into the Irish. Lynch was continuously thinking of ways to “pitch herself”, just as Binckes and Laing are trying to pitch her to publishers now. Lynch tried to find “a narrative to suit”, sometimes writing on certain topics because she was asked by her patron, so that an autobiographical reading of her non-fiction is far from straightforward.

After vividly discussing the perils of engaging in the life-writing of an obscure writer, Binckes ended her talk by questioning the benefits of writing about a minor author. In citing examples of successful “recoveries”, such as the re-canonisation of native-American authors by Leif Sorensen, and Alice Walker’s recovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s work, Binckes seemed to encourage the importance of such reclamations.