Tag Archives: Weinrebe Lectures

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.

Weinrebe Lecture: Richard Holmes, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’ on 18 February 2014

Nanette here for you with a delayed summary from Richard Holmes’ lecture from Tuesday 18th February. Full disclosure: I was unable to attend this lecture and have written this summary by listening to the unedited podcast of the event which will soon be edited and available on our Wolfson College Podcasts page  with the other Weinrebe lectures. If you missed the event I hope this summary can tide you over until you can listen to the podcast (and you should, because Richard Holmes has a lovely voice!).

Hermione Lee introduced Richard Holmes as ‘at once one of the most influential and distinguished of our biographers and one of the most innovative and pioneering’. And what did one of the most eminent biographers in the world do to begin his lecture? In a simple and humble way, he put our interest in life-writing (and human lives) utterly in perspective. Commencing his lecture with what he called a ‘litany,’ titled ‘Some Average Lifespans,’ he asked us to think of how precious a single human life is and also at once how insignificant it is.  His ‘litany’ of lifespans began by listing the Coriscan pine tree with a lifespan of three hundred years, then cited the Galapagos tortoise at one hundred and ninety years, then European homo sapiens at 70 years (20 years asleep ‘in brackets’), and on down through various species to the mayfly whose lifespan consists of a single day.

With this opening reminder of our place among the many species on our planet, Holmes then took us back through his own past in the first section of his lecture, which he titled, ‘Time and Identity’. He recalled his travels as an aspiring young writer, joking that the occupation of ‘writer’ in his passport was often misread as ‘waiter’. Drawing on the misinterpretation as a metaphor for what the biographer does, Holmes said writing a biography is in a sense ‘always waiting at someone else’s table’.

Moving from this apt comparison to the subject of the title of the lecture, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’, Holmes read from the opening of his early narrative on biography and travel, Footsteps (1985). He noted that even in this early book he was employing two forms of narrative: an immersive past tense narrative that recounted events with a feeling of immediacy, alternated with a kind of reflective present tense that created a distance between the past and the current moment, illustrated in the sentence, ‘I was eighteen’. So, as Holmes explained, the biographer’s other ‘I’ is actually a means for observing one’s subject while immersing oneself in the subject’s life and times. These various viewpoints stress that the bridge to the past is broken, subjective, and that biography needs to cross the bridge by other methods.

Upon reflecting on the ways in which a biographer might access the past, through travelling the paths of his subject, taking photographs of these places and attempting to make these connections across time, Holmes asked himself why does one choose particular biographical subjects? He realised that all of his subjects represented to him the principle of hope. Stevenson, Shelley, Coleridge, and the Age of Wonder all presented moments of overcoming challenges. The individuals were driven to change their lives and the Age of Wonder represented the hope that science has brought to us.

The second part of Holmes talk addressed the ‘subjectivity’ that is present in every biography. Holmes argued subjectivity has always been a great strength in biography, taking Boswell’s Life of Johnson as an example where Boswell’s dialogue and subjectivity are the key devices to opening up Johnson’s biography. Holmes pointed out other instances in which the biographical ‘I’ was a subjective and often sympathetic one. Drawing on an example from Johnson’s own Life of Richard Savage (1744) Holmes argued Johnson uses the rhetorical figure ironic chiasmus, or a reversal of terms, to describe Savage, but in doing so gives himself away. Holmes also mentioned Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale from Eminent Victorians (1918) in which Strachey’s biographical ‘I’ takes over Nightingale’s voice, putting himself in the room with her, but giving her his own vehement language to describe the horrors of the hospital conditions. I think there is also an argument to be made here about this kind of projection of the biographical ‘I’ into the narrative as part of the modernist project of life-writing that the Bloomsbury group were interested in. If you’d like to read more about that, Laura Marcus delves with insight into Strachey’s biographical style in Auto/biographical Discourses (1994). Holmes’ final example of the biographical ‘I’ working with successful subjectivity was Wolfson’s own Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf (1996). Holmes mentioned both the opening and closing passages of the work as emblematic of effective and moving autobiographical interjections. Holmes quoted from the opening of the biography which itself quotes Virginia Woolf, ‘My God, how does one write a biography’ and from the final scene in which Lee allows herself to connect across time with the view Woolf would also have had: ‘My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.’

Holmes closed with a final thought on his concept of the ‘vertical footnote’ as an ideal place to put the ‘I’. It provides a way of including personal detail and allows the biographer to reach backwards and forwards within a chronological narrative without interrupting the pace of the main narrative.

Marina Warner ‘Hearing Voices and Travelling Back’ 25th February 2014

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.

Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing: Edward St Aubyn in Conversation with Hermione Lee

Matthew Sellers here for the OCLW publicity team.  Last Thursday, 13 February, I had the pleasure of listening to novelist Edward St Aubyn discuss his writing process with Hermione Lee as part of the Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing.  Edward St Aubyn is the author of seven novels, five of which were collected in 2012 as The Patrick Melrose Novels.  This year’s theme, ‘Voicing the Self’, is especially apt for a writer as adept as St Aubyn at revealing his characters’ inner lives. 

With his witty, stylish prose, St Aubyn accesses fully realized characters and a range of human experience, from the hilarious to the truly tragic.  His novels, at turns sharp, humorous, and poignant, satirize the English upper class with pointed sophistication.  Yet in The Patrick Melrose Novels St Aubyn grapples with traumatic events of his own life, and his works never lose their awareness of this deep pathos.  Brutally honest in his prose, St Aubyn was equally forthcoming with the large audience gathered to see him on subjects from the inexpressible to the experience of making personal trauma public in autobiographical fiction.

Lee opened the talk with a question about the plan of The Melrose Novels, which St Aubyn confessed he initially intended as a trilogy before he reconceived the series to include two additional novels, including the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Mother’s Milk.  The five novels follow a protagonist, Patrick Melrose, who endures a traumatic childhood and copes in adulthood with a combination of booze and drugs.

Though all five novels center on Patrick, Lee noted that they are all written in third person.  St Aubyn replied that he felt “attracted to the freedom” of third person, that third person helped avoid confession and establish distance.  Establishing a core dramatic truth was more important to his autobiographical project than a faithful representation of the facts.  With that, St Aubyn set the scene for a rich discussion of his authorial relationship with his fictive protagonist, the function of his pithy style and cutting irony, and influences on his writing.

St Aubyn was frank about the difficulty of writing his first novel, Never Mind, which features a graphic rape scene; he recounted how he wrote longhand before handing the leaves off to be typed, how the sound of typing took on a reassuring constancy that enabled St Aubyn to continue.  Crucial to his writing experience, and indeed to the novels’ handling of trauma, are the moments when language runs up against the inexpressible.  Lee noted that Patrick Melrose is a vocal, witty protagonist, but he often longs for silence, and St Aubyn noted that Patrick’s efforts to articulate cause confusion.  Indeed, his drive drive as a novelist often seems an effort to evoke an unsayable moment of experience.

The redeeming qualities of silence may seem odd given St Aubyn’s elegant style—he’s been compared to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde.  Lee gave an exemplar of his epigrammatic wit from At Last: ‘As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions’.  St Aubyn replied that the compression of epigram, of wit, provides a strong structure for the inner drama of the novels, a horrifying contrast of perfect control, balance, and brevity against uncontrolled violence and uncontrollable inner emotion.  And it is in that balance of polished irony and violence that St Aubyn’s novels voice a self at once dazzlingly witty and painfully troubled.

Blake Morrison launches The Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing: ‘Voicing the Self’

Blake Morrison, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’: Confession and the Contemporary Memoir’

Hi there, Nanette here for OCLW publicity, and I’ll be summarizing for you the first of the OCLW Weinrebe Lectures, given by Blake Morrison on Tuesday 4th February in the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Blake Morrison began his lecture last Tuesday by revealing that his lecture title, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’, was the original title for his 1997 book about the James Bulger murder case.  The story of the two ten-year-old boys who tortured and murdered the two-year-old James Bulger is examined in conjunction with Morrison’s own life, and in the end he titled his book, As If. Asking us to think about private and public deaths and the bad things we do in our own childhoods, Morrison explained As If was an attempt to ‘reclaim’ for humanity the children who do bad things.

Morrison went on to explore things that bother us about memoir as a genre. Confessional memoir, and talking about yourself have something ‘indecent’ about them, he said. The intimacy and painful truths of the form lead us to think about mortality: life-writing often turns into death writing.

The connection between this opening and the remainder of Morrison’s lecture was the theme of ‘motive’: we question the motives of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who murdered James Bulger; perhaps they are impossible to know or understand because children do not have a fully developed moral sense. The motives for confession and memoir are manifold, and can be difficult to discern because a certain amount of strategy and calculation are required to structure a narrative. Morrison described the following as some of the motives for confessional literature:

  • Shock value / sensationalism: attempts to redefine what is shocking by exposing lies and secrets
  • Performance / showmanship: writers who bear witness versus confessional writers who dare readers to judge them, and self-dramatization or the pleasure of constructing the narrator’s persona
  • To set the record straight: incorporating elements of ‘objectivity’ and journalistic witness, but intimacy sets this writing apart from reportage
  • Catharsis / cleansing: writing as therapy and memoir as a form for airing grievances and for grieving

Blake Morrison concluded his lecture by reading Sharon Olds’ “First”, a poem from her 2010 collection, The Wellspring, that describes a scene of sexual abuse to the young speaker. Morrison explained that the poem employs the confessional mode to transform a memory of abuse into one of empowerment, and this transformational element is one of the most liberating motives of confession.

Questions afterwards ranged from ‘how do we know a confession is true’ to ‘does confessional literature say anything about its audience?’ In addition, a reference to Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ as being ‘recollected in tranquillity’ spurred the question of ‘whether there is something to be said for what’s recorded in the heat of the moment and will be shaped later as memoir?’ Final questions considered the stigma in academic writing of using the first person ‘I’, and the importance of understanding any writer’s subjectivity.

The Weinrebe Lectures: Hilary Term 2014

The annual Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing will take place over four weeks in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium at Wolfson College beginning on Tuesday, 4 February 2014.

The lectures are open to all, free of charge, with no reservation required.

The Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing: ‘Voicing the Self’

Tuesday 4 February (Week 3), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Blake Morrison, ‘“The Worst Thing I Ever Did”: Confession and the Contemporary Memoir’

Thursday 13 February (Week 4), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Edward St Aubyn in conversation with Hermione Lee
Please note that this lecture will take place on a Thursday, not a Tuesday.

Tuesday 18 February (Week 5), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Richard Holmes, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’

Tuesday 25 February (Week 6), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Marina Warner, ‘Hearing Voices, Travelling Back’