‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ – Chair: Lara Feigel, panellists: Santanu Das, Hope Wolf, Kate McLoughlin, Sue Vice

For the last event of Hilary term OCLW hosted a panel on ‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ to launch a special issue of Textual Practice with that same title. Lara Feigel, who chaired the event, introduced the panellists and asked them each to speak for five minutes on the notion of authenticity in war writing.

Kate McLoughlin started, focusing on the relationship between authenticity and intangibility. Her article centres on a collection of letters at the National Army Museum in London written by Lieutenant Edward Teasdale, who sailed to the West Indies in 1806. Teasdale wrote four letters to his mother, but she did not respond until sixteen months after his first letter. McLoughlin is intrigued by the concept of a letter that is desired and anticipated. In Teasdale’s case, the desire and desperation is ‘palpable’, constituting a counter-narrative that, McLoughlin argued, has no textual trace except for the absence itself. In the letters that fail to materialise, McLoughlin found productive readings of phantom narratives that are often neglected. While recognising that authenticating these narratives is difficult, McLoughlin felt they were nevertheless important, and suggested the issue for open discussion.

Hope Wolf considered the connection between authenticity and digital life-writing. Wolf’s article looks at Farah Baker’s tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Baker’s digital contributions have acquired a significant following, and she has been described controversially as the ‘Anne Frank of Palestine’. Wolf discussed the nature of Twitter, asking how trust may be ascertained in such a medium. Wolf argued that the ‘real-time quality’ of the tweets makes swift and scantily edited comments come across as more authentic. There is a prescribed fragmentation, imposed by Twitter itself, which does not lend itself to sustained reflective work. The ‘ordinary voice’ (by implication non-literary) takes precedence. Wolf noted how Baker’s age (she is often referred to as a ‘girl) and her gender both suggest that the value of rhetorical skills and the construction of arguments are discouraged. Since patience is not associated with digital technology, Wolf questioned the implication this medium could have for the authenticity of life-writing more generally.

Sue Vice talked to the audience about (in) authenticity, the question of whom we decide to trust.  Vice described the case of two American creative writing authors who both claimed to be witnesses of war when they were, in fact, writing fictive accounts. Vice is interested in the boundaries of authenticity – does it define reality or the appearance of reality? How can one trace the appearance of authenticity? Lynda La Plante’s Entwined tells the story of twins in a concentration camp. It was discovered that the author had copied part of this account from the archive of Olga Lengyel, which aroused a great deal of suspicion and judgement directed toward La Plante. Vice gave us another example to consider the problems of defining what is ‘authentic’. Judith Kelly wrote a memoir of suffering in a convent in East Sussex during the 1950s called Rock Me Gently. It turned out that some of the descriptions were copied from Hilary Mantel’s novel Fludd. Vice questioned if this revelation compromised the authenticity of what Kelly wrote. If everybody does it, Vice asked the audience, does it matter?

The final panellist was Santanu Das, who spoke about the problem of recounting the South Asian experience of World War I when the life-narratives are scarce, and the problem becomes one of amnesia and absentia. Lacking literary material, Das worked with sound recordings of prisoners of war. These, he argued, raise fundamental impulses in life writing: the sense of being in the presence of ‘the authentic’, the allure of the archival, the need to establish a narrative to document it, and the tendency to image home in terms of food. Das noted that this material made for complex research, for there is a lot to work with, yet none of it has a narrative. He gave us the example of a postcard from a young girl who learned to write in order to be in touch with her father who was at the front. What happens to the authentic, Das asked, if you don’t have a narrative?

The panellists raised diverse and stimulating questions surrounding the concept of authenticity, which encouraged lively discussions among the panel and with the audience. At the end of the event, several issues stood out: a general suspicion of the notion of authenticity; the value of authenticating intangibles (such as feelings, longings, or touch); the problem of narrating/documenting absences; the difference between experience and representation; the dangers inherent in the seductiveness of the archives; and finally, the political problems surrounding authenticity.


Marcus du Sautoy: ‘The life of primes: the biography of a mathematical idea’

OCLW is generally engaged in conversations on literature, history, and art, but for the second Weinrebe lecture the centre welcomed a voice ‘from the other side of the divide’. Marcus du Sautoy’s lecture on the life of prime numbers opened up an entirely different way of thinking about biography. Delivered in a manner that was as enlightening as it was entertaining, du Sautoy breathed life into mathematics in a way that surely left many in his audience wanting to learn more.

Challenging the traditional understanding of mathematics as an impersonal science, du Sautoy explained that his relationship to numbers was, in fact, a personal affair. Consequently, when he decided to write a book about prime numbers, du Sautoy chose to include the men behind the numbers, showing how theories and equations are linked to the people who created them and to the period in history in which these individuals lived. Biography was the means through which du Sautoy brought life into the narrative, re-inserting mathematics into history.

Du Sautoy wanted to tell his audience about the important characters in his life: prime numbers. These form the ‘atoms of his subject’ in his book The Music of the Primes: Why an Unsolved Problem in Mathematics Matters. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which travels through many generations, primes have a very long life and have thus interacted with many different lives in different epochs. The people connected to these numbers are as important as the numbers themselves. Du Sautoy told us a story that stretched back from the Ancient Greeks to the present day, of men across the ages trying to understand primes. Each grappled with them in different angles, adding new ways of seeing to a process that still absorbs many today.

This delightfully illustrative lecture gave details of many biographical experiences that informed the history of primes. These included the productive intellectual relationship between G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the 17th century monk Marin Mersenne who believed he had found the formula to solve the problem of primes, Carl Friedrich Gauss who, in the 19th century, tried to the find overarching patterns to calculate primes, and Bernhard Riemann who transformed prime theory by developing the musical zeta function. The story changed again in the 20th century, when Hugh Montgomery and Freeman Dyson used ideas from quantum physics as models to study primes, starting yet another journey for the life of primes. It is a life that remains very important today, since prime numbers are integral to our contemporary existence, forming the foundations of our banking and internet security. Primes are the keys which protect our electronic secrets.

Du Sautoy concluded by reminding us that math is much more of a creative subject than most people realise, a point his lecture beautifully illustrated. With his vivid examples – like the curious prime-centred life-cycle of the North American cicada that happens to hide underground for 17 years – and his engaging narrative, du Sautoy made the biography of primes come alive for a palpably engaged audience at OCLW.

Julian Barnes: ‘Some of my best friends are biographers’

Author Julian Barnes boasts an impressive resume, and Hermione Lee’s introduction gave what she called a sampling of Barnes’ ‘biographical ingredients’: the author of 22 novels, Booker Prize winner, Francophile, Flaubertophile, and — not least — Leicester City supporter. Barnes began his talk by asking the audience a hypothetical: think about the room you’re to sleep in tonight. How many windows does it have?

He let this question linger in our imaginations as he delved into the broader topic of his talk: the biographizing instinct in all of us, and his own deep ambivalence and suspicion of it. Biography, he said, comes at him from many directions. While he takes pleasure in reading biography, he is also suspicious of that pleasure—as he reads, the thought pops into his head, ‘Are you sure you should be reading this? Shouldn’t you be reading the author’s work instead?’ Barnes pointed to the fact that we are often suspicious after reading a biography as well, in a way that we are not after reading a novel. The novel after reading is still true in what presents, but is the biography? The reader is wracked by doubt: what’s this biography’s angle? What is it leaving out?

Barnes of course has used biography in his own work, including Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). Barnes said that as a child he used to think that a biography could give you all the facts, much like a dictionary could give you all the facts about language. Growing older, however, and having become a lexicographer, he began to see that the things were not so straightforward, and in Flaubert’s Parrot he took a different approach. A simply chronology of Flaubert’s life would not do, for this kind of biography neglected the counterlives Flaubert might have lived. These counterlives—or what might have happened—say more about the hopes, dreams, successes, and fears Flaubert had than anything else; for instance, his wish that he could have burned every copy of Madame Bovary. Yet for Barnes, even these counterlives were unsatisfying, because of their strict binary between what had happened and what had not. He tried again: what about writing Flaubert’s life in metaphors and similes? Barnes offered up a string of delightful phrases: ‘me and my book in my apartment, like a gherkin in its vinegar’; ‘life: like a soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface’.

Flaubert, Barnes told us, had three great favourites: the sea, Shakespeare, and Don Giovanni. Flaubert loved the fact that so little is known about Shakespeare, and Barnes shifted to a discussion of letter-burning: is it justified, and how does it shape how we think about authors? He pointed to the burning of Byron’s memoirs in 1824. Pushkin wrote that the burning was just as well, and why bemoan it? For Pushkin, we know everything we need to know about Byron in his verse, and the desire for his biography is nothing more than a desire to ‘see him on his chamber pot’, to relish the insalubrious details of his life. John Updike has similar thoughts in this vein: there is a strand of biography that ‘reduces celebrities to a set of ailments and antics to which we can feel superior’. Barnes himself leans more towards the side of letter-burning. As he said, ‘the dead have rights too, and those rights are more important than the curiosity of the living’.

Barnes then launched into a list of what he termed ‘Nefarious Biographical Tendencies’, or for short, ‘NBT’. To illustrate his first NBT, he pointed to Radio 3, and what he described as their tendency make music a dramatic episode in a composer’s life. To ascribe such biographical qualities to music diminishes its artistry. Secondly, Barnes impugned the skewing of subordinate lives, what he also described as the ‘two-adjective dismissal’—i.e. in biography, a tangential character being described as ‘witty and compassionate’ and then never mentioned again. He then pointed to the sin of using the past conditional, the ‘Surely they must’ve felt’, rather than ‘we cannot know’, in doing so unfairly projecting onto the mind of the biographical subject. He also spoke of the tendency to locate artistic talent in a single place. For instance, El Greco’s elongated figures have been ascribed to an astigmatism—a point that Barnes showed was not only factually incorrect, but also entirely beside the point. Finally he spoke of the biographer’s tendency to locate creativity in madness, as if the artist takes on the scapegoat of madness so that we don’t have to. Barnes says rather that it is in spite of madness that people can make art, not because of it, citing the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

To avoid these Nefarious Biographical Tendencies, Barnes offered advice for biographers. Most notable of this was the way photographs can stand in for written biography. He talked of his penchant for collecting photographs of famous artists, and among these was Clara Schumann. In the photograph her hands are swollen, evidencing the arthritis that ravaged her hands and her ability to play the piano. Johannes Brahms wrote music that would accommodate her arthritic hands, and this photo of her hands told the story of their love far better than any biography could.

And with this story Barnes returned to the question with which he began his talk. How many windows are in the room where you sleep? Barnes took a poll of the audience. One or two said four, almost none three, and the majority two or one. And this brought Barnes to a story about Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005). Walking around McEwan’s house, he realized that many of the personal details from McEwan’s life coincided with the novel’s main character, a neurosurgeon—right down to the peculiar three windowed bedroom. Barnes realized that McEwan had set the novel in his own house.

All of this is not to say that Saturday is autobiographical—rather, Barnes asserts that McEwan uses bits of his life in an objective manner, as fodder for his fiction. And yet, this is the issue for Barnes: now that he knew all of these biographical details that had been mined for McEwan’s fiction, he was distracted in his reading of it, looking for continuities between life and art instead of appreciating the novel in itself. This led Barnes onto describing his fears about his own possible biography. He worries that his life will be reduced to a list of ailments and antics; that the privacy of his close friends will be invaded, and the story of their lives made contingent upon his own. He worries that his biographer will write about him as if the biography is all there is to know. He ended his talk with a final wish for his future biographer: that she or he include in small type, ‘This is not how I was—this is how I look when being biographized.’

Alexander Bubb and Elleke Boehmer, ‘Meeting Without Knowing It: The Intertwined Lives of Rudyard Kipling and W.B. Yeats’

Elleke Boehmer set the scene for this talk by showing us a photograph of William Rothenstein and Abaninadrath Tagore. The two had their first contact in India and through these visual means, Boehmer opened up questions of centre and periphery when discussing the British imperial legacy. The photo, Boehmer told us, showed conform in the domestic home, the Indian poet being welcomed into the interior space of the Rothenstein home. In this sense, the relationship between the two offers a paradigm of understanding that goes against the usual imperial grain to offer a more nuanced understanding of colonial contact.

Alexander Bubb continued this theme of reimagining colonial impact in his talk, ‘Meeting without Knowing It: the Intertwined Lives of Rudyard Kipling and W.B. Yeats’. Bubb began with the issue of centenaries—why are centenaries so popular, and what can they tell us about the subjects they celebrate? Why do we choose births and deaths as moments of commemoration? For Bubb, the fact that Kipling and Yeats were born in the same year offered him an opportunity to re-examine the legacies these two authors left behind, as well as their uniquely intertwined and parallel histories.

As Bubb’s biography demonstrates, Kipling and Yeats were in direct political opposition for much of their careers. Yet the two were pained by the same antithetical influences, and grappling with many of the same problems, albeit in radically different ways. They even found the same patron in W.E. Henley, and in 1890s London they were stylistically, ideologically, and literally proximate. And yet, they never quite met, both on political grounds, or in person. The Boer war was a good example of this proximity at a distance; while Kipling was in favour of it, Yeats, on the other hand, discouraged Irish enlistment. Yet in both these aims, their poetry drew on similar themes of mythology in culture. Bubb explored close-readings of several of Yeats’ and Kipling’s poems to show how reading them in parallel produces echoes across both lives and works—for instance, when Kipling adapts Yeats in ‘Chant-Pagan’, both drawing on nationalist and colonialist discourses in different ways. Despite different political ends, their shared conservatism arose from similar anxieties, and both concerned themselves with what they saw as the corruption of their respective national identities.

Underlying all this was the question of proximity with a distance, which arose again explicitly in the questions asked as Bubb finished. What does it mean to meet without knowing it—to circle around each other obliquely, to come into contact only through print and a shared historical context? What would it have meant if Yeats and Kipling had met, even briefly? (Indeed, there was a point in the project where Bubb was afraid this might have been the case, given their close proximity in London). Bubb represents a new kind of biography that traces individual lives through a shared aesthetic, historical and political context, not unlike the recent biography Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets, by Catherine Adronik. Like the photograph Boehmer began with the talk with, it represents a paradigm that, by going against the traditional grain, promises new directions in biographies of authors.

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