On Tuesday 25th February Marina Warner kept the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium captivated by her insights into her work in progress, a work of fiction partly based on her own childhood, and partly the history of her father’s bookshop in Cairo.
Marina’s father was the son of a famous cricketer, Plum, who was well loved in his day. He grew up rich, but became very poor due to unfortunate life circumstances. He fought in North Africa under Monty, whom he adored, and then on to Italy, where he met Marina’s mother. After the war, after being captivated by Cairo, he asked a friend, David Smith, of W.H. Smith, to open a branch of their shop the city in 1948. The shop was then burned down in the riots of 1952, Marina described seeing the ruins as one of her earliest memories.
Marina described writing as a descent into the underworld, the desire to hear voices once again. Books play a part in their own story as both a hymnal and a tombstone, moving the past into the permanent present. Fiction implies invented and imagined things, a narrated story becomes something deposited for those who come later.
The starting point for Marina’s work was an inventory found in her parent’s personal papers that listed the items to be shipped from London to Cairo in 1948. Selected objects form the basis of the various parts of the novel. The objects are charged with a living voice, speaking the life of things became the organising principle. What was interesting is that the inventory contained nothing of her mother’s she brought nothing with her, except a list of recipes she learnt; English vocabulary and a school textbook on Europe from 1941.
She read a particularly captivating extract from her novel, describing the first meeting between her mother and in-laws, it painted a very vivid picture of an interaction that many can identify with. It highlighted the ‘Englishness’ of her grandparents and the very different lifestyle that her mother found herself in having moved from a working class Italian family.
Marina talked about how her Catholic education imprinted on her and has led her to often go against the nuns who taught her. The Bible is the work of four life-writers, who all had to agree with each other. Marina’s own work has never accepted one version of a story, that there is only one ending. The Rosary, going through the scenes from Mary’s life, showed that it was possible for life to be dictated by that of another, while the Station of the Cross shows the importance of objects.
The discussion raised some interesting points about the way in which Marina approached writing a fictional novel based on reality, in particular the lives of her own family. The decision to move away from strict life-writing, meant that she was able to make mistakes and invent, which is not possible with biography. She wanted to be able to invent dialogue and scenes, getting inside the character’s minds as a witness to the story. Marina likened it to being a prompt for a play, allowing characters to speak for themselves, but every now and again she provided the lines.
Marina’s work also now takes on an interesting new dimension given the events in the Arab world that started in 2011. The context of her work has altered by what is happening in the present. It was discussed as to whether Marina would leave her work unchanged, and allow the read to draw their own conclusion, but she has made the decision that the events were so important that they would have to influence her novel.
This was an excellent lecture, and I would encourage everyone who missed out on it to take advantage of the podcast when it becomes available.