October 1, 2013
This month, Professor Gill Plain talks about Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar and ‘Peace’, her groundbreaking new book on the literary response to this decade of trauma and transformation, published by Edinburgh University Press.
What made you want to write on the 1940s?
I’ve been interested in the 1940s for a long time. It was the decade that shaped my parents, and like many people I grew up watching Second World War movies on TV. Indeed, the particular circumstances of the war generated what is commonly recognized as a ‘Golden Age’ of British cinema. But I was struck by the fact that while we know what the 1940s looked like, we have very little idea of how people wrote about them, or indeed, what they wrote about in this period. For example, if you ask people to name a war poet, most will be able to come up with Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. But a Second World War poet? I wanted to find out why the Second World War wasn’t seen as a literary war, and how writing responded not only to the conflict, but to its complicated aftermath.
What did you discover in the course of your research?
That the 1940s was packed with famous writers, both highbrow and popular, but that we seldom see them as being part of this decade. It’s not like the 1930s, where you get a sense of the Auden generation, or the 1920s, when modernism takes hold. But in the 1940s we have T. S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Georgette Heyer, Evelyn Waugh, Nevil Shute, Dylan Thomas, Terence Rattigan, Stevie Smith, Noel Coward, Mervyn Peak, Nancy Mitford, Graham Greene – all producing important work – but we do not think of them as contemporaries, and they do not form a coherent group or movement.
I also discovered that the British do not have a language of the emotions, and that attempts to write about the war and its impact are endlessly displaced, euphemized and symbolized. To a certain extent it’s typical of constructions of national identity that took root in the 19th century and concretised into the middle classes of the mid-twentieth century: ideas of fair play, sporting behavior, loyalty, stoicism – being a man of few words is praise in this period, and fluency, especially in the emotions, is distrusted, associated with insincerity and with untrustworthy foreigners! There’s almost an embarrassment about emotion in the English middle classes – for both men and women – and most often, feelings are articulated through ‘banter’, calling someone a ‘silly old sod’ when you want to express your friendship. But in writing, where you might expect people to disrupt the forces of convention, the habit of restraint is exacerbated by the legacy of the First World War – this conflict seems to have exhausted both the rhetoric of romantic nationalism and the language of horror (what some critics have termed battlefield gothic). So in the Second World War, we find poets such as Keith Douglas writing about the war with ironic detachment. He is painfully aware of coming second, and always watching himself as poet, as well as bearing witness to what he sees. I think one of the most telling phrases I encountered – and the idea reoccurred in the work of many combat writers – is that war was ‘an important test, which I was interested in passing’ (Keith Douglas). There are no illusions here, and not much sign of patriotism, but men are still drawn to war as a means of self-fashioning, self-development, and indeed need to prove something to their father’s generation who had suffered in the First World War. But look at the language here: a test which I was ‘interested’ in passing. Could something so enormous and potentially deadly be rendered any more banal or muted?
What are the salient characteristics of the period?
A fascination with the quotidian details of everyday life emerges from a great deal of writing. There is a lot of straightforward documentary work, people describing London in the Blitz, or what it was like to be in the army, or in a village full of evacuees, but you also find a fascination with the texture of everday life in more creative work – Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, for example, is so richly textured, it seems to capture not just the sights of Blitzed London, but the sounds and the smells – even, in a very famous passage, the tangible presence of the newly dead; people ripped so unexpectedly from their lives that their ghosts still go about their daily business, invisible commuters, marked by their absence. She s acutely aware of how we build our lives, our identities, through things, and when those things are taken from us, we are cut adrift from memory and meaning. So, there is an astonishing attention to detail in the period, everything under threat is seen and written through new eyes.
Later in the decade, preoccupations become more internal, and a darker tone begins to surface. There’s an enormous amount of depressive writing in the latter part of the period, and a great deal of alcohol. Characters (and writers) drink themselves to death, there’s suicide and despair, futility – sometimes mitigated by a great deal of dark humour. These are the years of Nineteen-Eighty Four, The Heart of the Matter, or, more absurdly, Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, a very black comedy set in an American funeral home. Or, in poetry, I think of new voices like R. S. Thomas emerging, and his writing is so bleak, pared back, stripping humanity down to its bare bones. But whatever the writing of this period is, it’s not ‘modernism’ as the term is understood in the interwar period. So I’m keen to resist categorisations of the 1940s as modernist, or late modernist, or even post-modernist. They are something other, a curious liminal space in the century in which exceptional historical circumstances and unprecedented cultural change rendered writing different.
Was it a decade of peace or a decade of war or both?
The division of the decade into war and after, a clear break in 1945, simply doesn’t work in terms of understanding the literature of the period. This is a problem that extends beyond the decade too: many studies of the twentieth century break off or start in 1945 – but wars do not work that way. In the case of the Second World War, the decisive breaks in public mood, and in how people were writing and what they were reading, can be found in the middle of the war – when the threat of invasion and immediate danger had passed, and people understood that the war would eventually be won – and towards the end of the decade when you can begin to identify new voices and new preoccupations. So, I think I would say that most of the decade exhibits the characteristics of the ‘postwar’. My sense of the term comes from the poet Stevie Smith, who captures perfectly the strange indeterminacy of the time: ‘it cannot be said that it is war, it cannot be said that it is peace, it can be said that it is post-war; this will probably go on for ten years’. That comes from a very strange novel called The Holiday, which she wrote during, and about, the war. It was rejected by her publisher – probably because most of the characters are in fairly advanced states of melancholy. After the war, she decided to have another go – but now the conflict was definitely not a popular topic for fiction – so she went through the typescript inserting ‘post’ in front of all the war references, an absurdly simple yet curiously effective strategy that results in her characters asking wonderful questions like ‘shall we win the post-war’? This is actually a very good question in terms of the politics and economics of the period, but it also demonstrates that signing an armistice is not enough to end a war. There’s a psychological recovery period, a time when the war mind is still in place and struggling to adjust, when people simply don’t know how not to be at war. So there is a degree of interchangeability between war and peace, and you cannot contain the Second World War within the limits 1939-45. People grieve before the battle is over, they mourn long after its conclusion. Many also seek to escape the war before it is over – you can only live in a state of heightened intensity for so long – and they yearn for books and films that will take them out of a drab, miserable reality. Others survive by planning for the future, imagining some reward, building the new Jerusalem before there’s even any certainty that there will be a recognizable world in which to build it.
By the end of the decade, what had changed?
Everything and nothing! Many of the same writers (Eliot, Orwell, Greene, Waugh, Bowen), same class of people in charge (even with a reforming Labour government, the mandarinate remains the unchanged product of public school and Oxbridge), same sense of national identity, much of the same Empire … but, India is partitioned in 1947, and from this point onwards, the process of decolonization would gradually acquire momentum; the Empire Windrush arrives in 1948, bringing the first of thousands of West Indian citizens to their country of citizenship – in many cases to discover that some citizens are more equal than others; the emergence of the Cold War, and an increasing fear, not so much of Communism, but of American cultural hegemony; technological advances of wartime have created the atom bomb, but they’ve also caused paradigm shifts that will effect how ordinary people live their lives: Penicillin and the jet engine, for example. By the end of the decade, we have tentative beginnings of affordable commercial flight, and we also have the Welfare state. People had access to medical care they could not previously afford, they had free eye tests and dental check ups – these were revelations for some people – and we had a new emphasis on youth. This is the era that sees the invention of the teenager, a being caught between childhood and adulthood, with a set of needs and desires that would become increasingly significant as the new decade of the 1950s progressed.
If you had to sum the decade up in a few sentences, what would these be?
I would use a phrase from Elizabeth Bowen, one of the finest writers of the period: she described the war years as a period of ‘lucid abnormality’, and this works for the decade as a whole. There was too much to grasp, and so people stared at the quotidian, at every day detail, and saw it anew, and they wrote what they saw in the tangible world with a directness they couldn’t apply to their emotions. Everything is crystal clear, and yet it hides the impossible, inarticulable trauma of surviving a devastating war and the birth of an era in which one single bomb can wipe out an entire city. Or, more succinctly I might say, from old war to cold war, and quote Louis MacNeice, who gets to the nub of the ‘hiatus’ that the decade represents. While the public world changed out of all recognition, and many writers produced magnificent work that has justifiably stood the test of time, for the private individual these were ‘the years that did not count’.
What can the 1940s teach us today?
The real meaning of austerity. Rationing, introduced in the war, got worse rather than better after the conflict ended – at one point even bread was rationed – and there were shortages of everything from coal to potatoes. It can also teach us a great deal about our priorities, our sense of belonging and our obligations to others. This is a decade in which events took place of unprecedented inhumanity. Millions were killed, both through war and genocide, millions further were displaced, refugees without home or family; cities that symbolised European civilisation were destroyed, the capability for previously unthinkable modes of warfare were developed, a new ideological conflict emerged that would shape international politics for the next forty years. Yet in Britain, remarkably, the immediate outcome was the creation of a welfare state. I don’t think we can ever learn too much about what happened, why it happened and how people responded. The literature of the 1940s tells us what it was like to live through these events, not by describing them necessarily, but by conveying the zeitgeist, by capturing the language, mood and imagination of a generation now nearly beyond us. The 1940s teach us about suffering, about hope, and about the value of the political process. They also teach us about ‘Britishness’ and the benefits of not taking yourself too seriously.
Gill Plain is Professor of English at the University of St Andrews, and her publications include Women’s Fiction of the Second World War: Gender, Power and Resistance, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body, Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue: A Reader’s Guide and John Mills and British Cinema: Masculinity, Identity and Nation. Literature of the 1940s: War, Postwar and ‘Peace’ is published this month by Edinburgh University Press.
September 1, 2013
When John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman came out in 1969 with its alternative endings, his publishers received angry letters from readers assuming there had been a printing error. In my new novel Given the Choice, I started with a female character who is complicated. She’s intelligent, creative and capable of generosity, but she also resorts to lying when the going gets tough.
My original ending for my character Marion involved her in only minimal development. She gains a modicum of self-knowledge, but significant blind spots remain and we are left to ponder the problems these may cause her and those she is close to in the future. I liked the idea of a messy, inconclusive, ‘real-life’ ending where people don’t necessarily learn the lessons they should – but the readers I showed my first draft to wanted more of an ‘outcome’ at the close of the book.
I thought about Charles Dickens and how he reworked the ending to Great Expectations when fellow writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton complained it was too sad. Dickens liked his original ending precisely because it went against the usual novelistic convention of the couple marrying and living happily ever after. In it, Pip briefly encounters the newly remarried Estella and, while it is clear she has changed, there is no hint that the pair will meet again. Dickens’s second ending is more romantically satisfying. It takes place in the grounds of Miss Havisham’s house (where as a young boy Pip was encouraged to fall in love with Estella who was trained to resist him) and the final words – ‘I saw the shadow of no parting from her’ – offer the hope that the pair will be united.
Literary critic Frank Kermode has a theory about why readers crave certain types of ending. In his book, The Sense of an Ending, he argues that we are born and die ‘in the middle of things’, and that stories with their start and stop points give us fictive ‘concords’ we can adopt when thinking about ourselves. What is important about the end of a story, Kermode suggests, is that we see the whole trajectory – a thing we cannot do with our own lives.
Given the Choice is set in the contemporary art and classical music worlds and one of my characters is a French painter, Jean-Claude. He is working on a sequence of paintings in which the subject stays the same, but where the effect changes because a new element is introduced, or because one of the components is moved to a slightly different place.
I realised that if I used this as pretext I could show how what happens is often the result of contingency – an unexpected additional factor, a difference of timing, an alteration in mood. So Given the Choice now has three ‘outcomes’: my original muted ‘real-life’ version, an ending in which Marion gets her come-uppance, and one where things work out well (if unexpectedly!). It’s the reader who’s given the choice of which ending seems right.
Marion is a sassy businesswoman and runs an agency for artists. Damien Hirst makes a cameo appearance and I had fun inventing a whacky art installation. One of the things that intrigues me about contemporary art is the way the nature of fame has changed. An artist’s reputation used to depend on talent, training and building up a body of work that was sold through galleries to private collectors. Today, the art world is closer to fashion and advertising with the artist as a marketable brand. The most successful artists shock and their work is instantly recognisable. The debate about whether art should receive sponsorship or rely solely on sales has spread into music, literature, film, drama, dance.
The timeline for Given the Choice is the period leading up to the catastrophic crashes that occurred on the world financial markets in 2007-2008. This illusory wealth offered an interesting commentary on the art world’s commercialism. Bankers and city brokers are after all major consumers. Another important character in the novel is a young classical pianist from Estonia who brings with him very different ideas about how art should be funded and indeed what art is for. A further reason for giving Marion money is that it makes the choice she faces a straight one. Unlike most women in her position, she does not (at least initially) have to worry about its financial implications.
There’s a great deal of stress placed – by reviewers, by prize-giving juries – on how empathetic characters in books are. I have to admit, I’m suspicious of this. The notion of empathy in reading grew out of the German term Einfühlung (which literally means ‘feeling into’), and gave rise to a definition of empathy as a form of projection. Theodor Lipps, for instance (and his approach is typical), describes the process as follows: ‘we experience the other’s feelings as our own, because we project our own feelings onto the other.’ It’s always seemed to me a dangerous exchange.
Hélène Cixous warns us as readers to guard against our desire to turn others into comforting reflections of ourselves. Instead, she urges us to venture towards the other in literature in order to expand imaginatively what we know. She quotes Franz Kafka angrily retorting in a letter to a friend that he doesn’t want books that will make him happy. In a memorable phrase, he says he wants books to be ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’. I agree with Franz Kafka. If we allow ourselves to become too wrapped up in the characters we read, we risk wanting things to turn out a certain way instead of letting the book jolt us into a different way of thinking.
Given the Choice is published this month by Cillian Press
August 1, 2013
I am delighted to announce that my new novel, Given the Choice, will be published by independent publisher Cillian Press next month. Set in the contemporary art and music worlds, the cover features original artwork by Olivia Krimpas.
Next month, I’ll be blogging with more details about the novel, but for now here is a taster.
In this passage, French painter Jean-Claude is in New York for the opening of his show. He has come to Hoboken, and is looking out across the Hudson River at the night skyline.
“At this distance, the city seemed a fantasy creation, an enchantment conjured by a magician from the sea. Jean-Claude lit his cigarette and walked along the esplanade, noting the extraordinary crenellation of illuminated buildings, the glittering jetties that stuck out from the shore like afterthoughts. The esplanade led him past a clump of shadowy trees and round a slight bend. The city’s brilliance, he saw, derived from millions of individual lights, from the chequerboards of lit up windows that formed the facade of building after building. Most were interior lights, but there were also bands of colour: a glowing orange top floor, a tower in a tracery of red neon, a glass-front that sparkled an ethereal green-blue. Light hurled itself upwards into the sky, leaked onto the surface of the water where it settled in channels that appeared solid enough to walk on.”
In this passage, Marion, who runs an agency for artists, listens to a young Estonian pianist play an excerpt from one of the many pieces composer Olivier Messiaen wrote based on birdsong.
“Peeter placed his hands over the keys. Suddenly the piano was alive. Marion settled back in her chair and closed her eyes. She did not know what she was listening to but within moments she was transported out of her surroundings into a dense jungle of sound. The piano was no longer a music-making machine but the source of a magical power. She could hear the swooping calls of birds as they darted through treetops or skimmed and dived in a free expanse of air. The bare walls of the practice room had metamorphosed into an enchanted forest, teeming with flashes of brilliant plumage and abrupt, raucous caws. As she opened her eyes she was reminded of the monastery of San Marco in Florence, its plain white cells transfigured by Fra Angelico’s art. She thought of the ritual of Peeter’s daily practice. The long hours he spent at the keyboard required the same devotion the monks expended in prayer. When Peeter finally stopped playing she felt as if he had taken her to a world beyond herself, where she had glimpsed something extraordinary. It was a feeling she sometimes had when she looked at art.”
For more details, please check back on 1st September
July 1, 2013
Harlem-born jazz singer and writer Sandi Russell talks about her novel, COLOR, published this month
1. What was the inspiration behind COLOR?
When my parents retired, they moved from New York City to the area near Jamestown, Virginia, where my mother’s people had been living since before the arrival of the English settlers in the 17th Century. That area surrounding Jamestown had a strange effect on my psyche, every time I visited there from my early 20’s until my late 40’s. There was so much history; so much that could be felt coming from this land and from some of the stories of my people that I was compelled to write about it. Doing research about the area and its inhabitants only confirmed this. I also realised that nothing at all had been written about the subject of African-American Native-American exchange.
2. When and where did you begin writing?
I began writing when I was very, very young. I loved reading and writing and when I was about 10 years old, I had a story published in the school newspaper. Then, when I was in High School, I won the creative writing contest of New York State, which was announced in The Daily News (a popular New York City newspaper). I promptly erased it from my memory, as everyone expected me to be a singer (my parents hoped for a classical career). Since I had seen many examples of black women singers (both classical and jazz and had heard them a great deal, as well), I thought this was a clear way forward. But my parents did not want me to take the popular or jazz route, having concerns about the lifestyle. So, I pursued the career that was expected and assiduously suppressed any desire to write, until a few years before coming to the UK, approximately 30 years ago.
3. Can you say something about your writing process for COLOR?
COLOR started out as a very different book from the one that finally emerged. It was initially conceived as half poetry and half prose. It was shaped along the African-American tradition of ‘Call and Response’, somewhat like the experience one has in a black Baptist Church between the preacher stating a theme and the congregation responding. The poetry posed historical themes (17th, 18th and 19th centuries), in the voices of those who had no voice (Native-Americans and black slaves) and the prose was a response from their descendants in the 20th century. Sadly, I was told it was too rich, too poetic and did not fit any of the marketable categories. The process of changing that form into a relatively straightforward narrative seemed impossible, but through much trial and error and a considerable number of drafts, I got there. Part of the process meant taking much of the poetry out and placing the historical material in a character’s speech. Many of the ‘responses’ remain intact as monologues, so I suppose COLOR will never totally be what most people would expect from a linear novel.
4. This must have posed considerable formal and technical challenges. How did you solve these?
As I have stated in my previous answer, the form of COLOR changed considerably. And yes, it was a huge technical challenge, as I had to take poetry and put it into the mouth of a character and make it sound believable. I did this by creating a character, Henrietta, to carry this theme. Because she is supposedly ‘crazy’, her language lends itself to something new and different. Consequently, she tells this history with a very unique voice, having an honesty that is often found in those with troubled spirits. Also, setting up a scene where you segue into a monologue was daunting, but I just had to work very hard to envision a scene where someone speaking directly to the reader was believable.
5. At what point do you allow others to look at your work? How important is feedback to you as a writer?
Usually I don’t let others look at my work until I feel I have come to some natural stopping place or when a particular section ‘feels’ right, and has a sense of completion. As far as feedback is concerned, it is very important to me to have a few people, whom I know will understand and respect my work and will give an honest opinion of it. (This does not necessarily mean that their views will always be agreed with or acted upon.)
6. You’ve co-edited the Virago book of Love Poems by Women, and you are author of the acclaimed Render Me My Song which looks at African-American women’s writing from slavery to the present. What writers did you have in mind, if any, as you wrote COLOR?
I really had no particular writer in mind when I wrote COLOR, but I could feel Toni Morrison sitting on my shoulder a great deal of the time! There are a few writers who have influenced my writing to some degree, though; Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer, for example. I mention them, as their works are mixed texts. By this I mean that they use songs, speech, poetry, and stories, all within the novel. So COLOR comes from a very different tradition than a European one. Even with these influences, I’ve worked hard to develop my own ‘voice’.
7. You are known primarily as a jazz singer. How does singing feed into your writing?
Music is a major influence in my writing. To be more specific, jazz is the influence. Everything I write, I read out loud. If it has no pulse, no rhythm, no underlying propulsion, then it doesn’t work for me. I also try to impart a feeling of improvisation in my writing, as it is not only an integral part of jazz but has informed and continues to inform the lives of black people. I read a few excerpts at a launch recently and the musicality in my work was commented upon. I was jubilant that it was ‘heard’.
8. What hopes do you have for COLOR?
My deepest hope for COLOR is that it is read widely, by those who know about this culture and history, as well as those who know little and want to know more. I want to pose questions to all of us about how we live and interact with each other in the 21st century and how history can help us to confront ongoing difficulties and issues with compassion and understanding. I hope COLOR opens up these questions and that they can finally be looked at honestly, dealt with intelligently and move us forward into a better world.
Visit Sandi Russell’s website here
To buy a copy of COLOR click here
June 1, 2013
Several people I know are preparing for their ‘viva voce’ – the oral examination that accompanies the submission of a Ph. D. thesis – this month, so I thought it might be useful to describe what it involves and suggest a list of possible questions.
In the UK, the viva is normally conducted by two examiners, one from the candidate’s own institution (the internal), and the second from a different institution (the external). Each examiner reads the thesis and writes a report on it. They then meet to discuss their views and agree how they will organise their questioning of the candidate.
Here are some pointers for preparing for a viva:
- Listen carefully to what the examiners have to say about your thesis. They are likely to have plenty of experience and will have read your work carefully. It can be a good idea to take notes as they talk.
- Where the examiners raise legitimate issues, show you are willing to address these. Never hesitate to ask for advice.
- If, however, you feel the examiners have misunderstood a point, or if there is something you can legitimately say in defense of what you have done, then don’t hold back.
The first question the examiners ask is usually a ‘settling’ question, designed to put a candidate at their ease. Sometimes the examiners will open the viva with a brief indication of their response to the thesis.
There is no standard pattern for what the examiners are likely to ask. Their questions will depend on your topic and how you have approached it, as well as on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the thesis itself.
However, here is a list of questions it can be useful to think about:
What drew you to this field of research?
Can you provide a brief summary of your thesis in a few sentences?
What is original about your thesis?
What have you done that merits the award of a Ph. D?
Why did you use the particular theorists/experts/critics/practitioners you include?
What problem(s) does your research address?
Why are these ’problem(s)’ important?
What was the motivation for your particular line of enquiry?
What contribution do you make to your field?
What was your research process? Can you clearly explain the steps taken to arrive at your conclusion?
Can you summarise your key findings?
What in your view are the strengths of your thesis?
What in your view are its weaknesses?
How could those weaknesses be addressed (for example prior to publication)?
How did you conduct your research?
What was your ‘methodology’? Why did you choose this particular approach?
How did you evaluate your work?
Has your view of your topic changed during your research?
What are the most pertinent recent developments in the area you have selected?
How does what you have done relate to these developments?
What do you see as the next step in your research?
Which aspects of your Ph. D. might be published?
Which journals might be interested in publishing your research?
What have you learned from doing this Ph. D.?
A few final thoughts:
- Always present what you have done in a positive light. For example, begin answers with phrases such as: ‘Chapter X was written with the intention of….’, or ‘I give an example/analysis/provide a discussion of X in Chapter Y….’.
- It is a good idea to ask your supervisor to arrange a trial viva. If this isn’t possible, prepare a list of questions and ask a friend to fire them at you so you can practice. Is there anything you dread being asked? If there is, make sure you rehearse a good response!
- Try to relax. Remember that a good viva should be an enjoyable conversation between three people who are knowledgeable about and interested in the same specialist area. No matter what you do next, this is a situation that is unlikely to repeat itself. So make the most of the opportunity!
April 1, 2013
With Elizabeth Wright’s stage play of Vanessa and Virginia continuing at the Riverside Studios in London this month, by the award-winning Moving Stories Theatre under the direction of Emma Gersch, I asked the play’s musical director Jeremy Thurlow about writing music for the theatre and Vanessa and Virginia specifically.
– Where did you begin with creating music for Vanessa and Virginia?
I was intrigued by how the novel weaves in echoes of Virginia Woolf’s writing and finds ways to figure Vanessa Bell’s images in words, and at first I wondered about using the music Woolf herself took particular pleasure and inspiration from – composers such as Wagner, who was an important figure for her from early on, but also Bach, and the late sonatas of Beethoven which she used to listen to with her husband Leonard on their gramophone and which she famously said influenced her writing of her novel The Waves ‘to a rhythm not to a plot’. We actually know a great deal about the music Woolf listened to because Leonard kept a listening diary, noting every piece of music they listened to evening by evening.
I also considered choosing some modernist music by composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok, whose struggles and innovations can be compared to Woolf and Bell’s own experiments with language and art, and are contemporary with them.
And finally there was the music associated with more recent depictions of Woolf and Bell, most famously Philip Glass’s music for the film of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours.
– I’m interested that you talk about both sisters. Vanessa Bell is not usually associated with music, is she?
It’s true that Vanessa Bell doesn’t mention music much in her letters and writings. One musical encounter we do know about concerns a painting by Duncan Grant, the great love of her life. Vanessa described it in a letter to her friend Roger Fry in August 1914. She wrote, “Duncan and I do nothing here but paint. He has started on a long painting which is meant to be rolled up after the manner of those Chinese paintings, and seen by degrees. It is purely abstract.” I was lucky to see this painting in an exhibition in Norwich. It’s only about one foot high, but stretches 15 feet from left to right. Bell mentions that it could be displayed gradually by unrolling it. Grant’s idea was that it should be viewed through an aperture, moved by machinery slowly over the picture. The painting is called Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound, and the idea was to imitate the way in music one cannot survey the whole as in a traditional picture, but can only hear the particular moment that is passing by. There’s no doubt that listening to music inspired this project and that Bell would have discussed it with Grant. It’s also very likely that Bell would have taken part in discussions about modern developments in the arts with Virginia and other friends from the Bloomsbury set, including music, and so would have picked up ideas about modern music, even if she hadn’t always heard it herself.
– The music that accompanies the play is newly created. What made you decide finally against using the music Woolf and Bell would have known?
The repertoire I have described is a wonderful one, but would not have served the needs of the play where music is sometimes foregrounded but also takes on background status with the characters speaking over it. Occasionally it needs to move smoothly between the two. Obviously, the works of Wagner, Bach and Beethoven compel attention and concentration: I can scarcely think of any music less well suited to a background, ambient status.
The type of music written by Philip Glass for the film of The Hours presented exactly the opposite problem for me. It certainly works as background music since it is endlessly repetitive and devoid of event or development. But for that reason it seemed to me inappropriate for a play about two artists, Bell and Woolf, whose art is so ambitious and inventive. Repetitive bland background music makes sense in a supermarket, but it would be a travesty in a play exploring two sisters who devoted their lives to producing art which often sought to stretch its audience.
– And what about the musical modernists?
That was more tempting. Woolf probably saw Stravinsky’s notorious Rite of Spring in London in 1914, and probably also heard Pierrot Lunaire. There’s a bold re-imagining of rhythm, tonality and musical form in these works, which, like the Post-Impressionist exhibition in London of 1910, can be seen as a stimulus and model for innovations in both Woolf’s and Bell’s work.
However, I soon decided that neither using music by the great modernist composers nor referencing their style would be right. There’s a lot of disruption and abrupt changes in musical modernism, and these would have continually fought against what was happening on stage. And quotations would have been a distraction: for most listeners, music is primarily experienced emotionally and subliminally, especially in a theatre where it is an accompaniment to something else. Weaving in echoes of other works of art would have taken us away from the experience of the characters. It suggests an arch, ironic disengagement, and invites a similar disengagement from the audience.
That didn’t seem right for the novel Vanessa and Virginia. And as soon as I saw the early rehearsals I became certain that it wouldn’t be right for the play either. To adorn this series of intimate scenes with a palimpsest of knowing references would, I felt, be distracting. Seeing that early rehearsal reminded me that in the theatre every moment must be experienced from within, as though immediately and for the first time – not observed, commented on, situated, cross-referenced.
So I rejected any reference to music known to have connections with Woolf and Bell. Instead, the music was created through improvisation. Rather than writing it alone, in my study, as I normally do, I developed it in the rehearsals, within the space and moment of the performance. I moved a piano to the edge of the stage and watched as a scene played through. Then, having gained a sense of the emotions and the way they developed through time, I improvised at the piano, in real time, responding directly to the actors’ performance. Sometimes, there are places in the play where the experience between the two characters is sharply contrasted, and here I relied on the director to decide which of the two the music would stay with.
– What influenced your choice of style for the music you improvised?
I was inspired by the immediately beautiful quality of the stage-picture. Though it certainly isn’t beholden to obsessive period accuracy, it suggests some of the decorum of the age, as well as a relishing of light and colour and sensory experience. From within the world of these intimate scenes it was immediately clear to me in a way it probably wouldn’t have been composing music on my own, in my study, that the abrupt switches and eruptions of modernist music, however fascinating in their own right, would, in the theatrical moment, have been a distraction. So instead of this, I allowed my fingers to seek a kind of sound-empathy with the scene, and what emerged was surprisingly limpid. Though I didn’t think about this consciously at the time, it is perhaps related to the re-imagined classicism of Debussy and Ravel, and it occurs to me now that Debussy is a composer who has a good deal in common with Virginia Woolf – perhaps more so than Wagner, Bach or Beethoven. Debussy is justly admired for his ideal of a music comprised of fleeting moments of sensation – spontaneous, fluid and evanescent.
In this piece of music, which opens the play, we see Vanessa as an older woman, sitting alone, lost in her memories. I hoped to suggest a complexity of emotion and some sense of the way that images and feelings drift in and out, are liquid, shifting and ungraspable: link.
Photos by Ben Caplan
To find out more about Jeremy Thurlow’s music, visit his website
Vanessa is played by Kitty Randle, Virginia by Alice Frankham. The design is by Kate Unwin, with lighting by George Seal and T.J Chappell. The play is produced by Samuel Julyan, with the assistance of Maria Klockare. To book tickets visit Riverside Studios
March 1, 2013
This month, Elizabeth Wright’s play of Vanessa and Virginia returns for a three-week run at London’s Riverside Studios with Moving Stories Theatre, under the direction of Emma Gersch. The cast is Kitty Randle and Alice Frankham.
I asked the show’s designer, Kate Unwin, about her work.
What made you want to become a theatre designer?
I was doing a degree in interior architecture and one of my modules was in Television Scenography. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. It brought together so many of my interests: design, history, literature, theatre, film….
What qualifications are needed to become a theatre designer?
You don’t really need any actual qualifications although I am glad I did my degree. I studied television design specifically which is very different from theatre. On my first job I just lied and said I had experience even though I’d never designed a costume before or made any costumes. I thought I would try and see how it went. It paid off and I got more work from that show! You need to be creative, practical and able to adapt and think quickly. I do feel sometimes I need to be a historian, artist, costume maker, painter, builder, prop maker as my job covers so many things - which is why I love it so much.
How do you go about conceiving a design for a play?
I start with an initial chat with the director and then the script which I read and re-read making notes. I love research and it is my favourite part of the process. I gather references which I use to start a visual dialogue with the director. I gauge where they want to go by their reaction to the initial research and then do lots more. I make all the design decisions come from the research or the text so it adds extra layers to the work – it makes this initial stage really important.I then start sketching the rough models, followed by more detailed models. The research keeps going throughout the process. A lot depends on the rehearsals as things can change drastically once the actors begin working with the director. One has to be fluid and able to let some elements go as things can evolve all the time! Everything on stage is down to me, including the props and what the masking is like. I work closely with the lighting designer to convey what the set and costumes are going to be like as this will affect their decisions. How much I make myself depends on the budget. On a show with a large budget I don’t really make anything but there are some shows where I make and do everything!
Can you describe your creative process?
I feel like I am always working. When I have a day off I spend it reading, looking at newspapers, magazines, blogs, watching films, seeing exhibitions. The more I can absorb the better my work will be. I now get up quite early and that is a good time for me to work but I also work late into the night too. I usually have between 4 and 10 projects on the go so I need to be disciplined and put the hours in. This job isn’t a 9-5 and you have to be happy to be a bit of a slave to it. I have lost count of the number of social events and holidays I have had to cancel. My friends and family are very understanding!
Can you describe the process of creating the design for Vanessa and Virginia?
I already knew a lot about the aesthetic of Vanessa and Virginia’s world. I had visited Charleston and totally fallen in love with it. I knew about the Omega workshops, the work of the Bloomsbury set and Vanessa Bell’s work so it was a joy to delve into the research. I especially enjoyed studying photos to help with the costume design: luckily Vanessa took a lot of photos. I have been reading as much as I can by Virginia Woolf and about the period and the lives of both women. It’s hard as there is so much material. We had a really limited budget the first time round and there were key props which needed to be integrated into the set. They were fragments on the edge of the women’s world which they moved around. The costumes were layered and changed throughout the show onstage to show the passing of time so that was a challenge.
You are redesigning the production for the forthcoming run at the London Riverside Studios. Without giving too much away, what is different about this redesign?
This time round I feel like I can really turn my attention to the set. The costumes are pretty much there though I am going to add in a few extra pieces and improve some aspects. I have a bit more money for the set for this run and I want to create a really immersive environment, which reflects not only the creative, multi-faceted life these two sisters led but also how they were so inter-twinned. I really want to inject some of that wonder and warmth I felt at Charleston whilst creating a functional and cohesive design.
Visit Kate Unwin’s website
Visit Moving Stories website
Details of Vanessa and Virginia at the Riverside Studios
February 1, 2013
My blog guest this month is Cecily Davey who discusses Hélène Cixous’s intriguing book of dream-writing Dream I Tell You.
Hélène Cixous and the Secrets of the Unconscious
‘They tell me their stories in their language, in the twilight, all alike or almost, half gentle half cruel, before any day, any hour. I don’t wake, the dream wakes me…’
Have you ever been woken by a dream so strange, disturbing or beautiful that you feel an urge to write it down immediately? Have you ever wondered where your dreams come from or what they mean? I know I have many times, and this is why the opening lines of Dream I Tell You by Hélène Cixous spoke to me so profoundly when I first read them. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the book’s original publication in French, yet the experience of entering into its nocturnal world is one that I can still remember vividly. Never before had I come across a writer who was able to portray the infinitely mysterious twists and turns of the unconscious in such a believable way. My first encounter with Cixous’s writing was one of wonder and bewilderment; Dream I Tell You was simply unlike any other book that I had read before.
The fifty short narratives collected in this slim volume span ten years in Cixous’s life. They resemble a series of dreams transcribed onto paper whilst the dreamer still lingers in the transitional state of mind between sleeping and waking. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the way in which it eludes traditional categories of genre. As Susan comments in her ‘Tribute’ to Cixous, the reader of Dream I Tell You is immediately drawn into a series of questions about the boundaries between different forms of literature. Does this book present us with a study of the science of psychoanalysis or an experiment in the art of creative writing? Should we read it as a dream diary or an assortment of random drafts? Do the stories we find within it count as fact or fiction? It is precisely the originality of Dream I Tell You that makes it so hard to define. I am fascinated by this book because it seems to display a unique style of writing, what I would call ‘dreamoir’. Cixous’s hybrid blend of dream and memoir reinvents the French literary tradition of le journal intime, resulting in a text which suggests new ways of understanding the very limits of literature itself. It is a work written in a language which originates in the realm of the unconscious, a place where the limits which define all categories – be they literary, sexual, temporal, or existential – can become radically reconfigured.
In her introduction to Dream I Tell You, Cixous describes the process by which the narratives of this book were compiled. It is a process which involves a particular kind of concentration: the writer of the dream must allow herself to linger in the borderland which lies in between night and day, not yet fully conscious but not entirely unconscious either. It is in this liminal state that the dream should be recorded, before the mind of the writer begins to censor, correct, or interpret it. This desire to record the dream in its most unadulterated form leads to another important observation about Cixous’s practice of dream-writing. She is not interested in translating the language of the unconscious into a logical series of symbols that can be interpreted by the conscious mind. It seems to me that what Cixous is far more interested in is how this language resists interpretation, suggesting different ways of how writing can be used to explore what lies beyond the borders of consciousness.
What appeals to me most about Cixous’s practice of dream-writing is how much more imaginative it seems when compared to that of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis and author of The Interpretation of Dreams. Though she remarks on the ingenuity of Freud’s methods of analysis, Cixous resists applying them in her own writing. She makes her intentions clear – in a tone which both parodies and pays homage to Freud – by stating that hers is a ‘book of dreams without interpretation’. Cixous’s deliberate choice not to play the analyst does, I think, give all the more freedom to her readers. The fact that the narratives of Dream I Tell You are presented in no apparent order invites us to weave our own interpretive path through them.
One possible way of looking at the book would be to consider how Cixous uses her practice of dream-writing to reconceptualise the set of oppositions on which language – as a system of symbols – is based: day/night, man/woman, sun/moon, mind/body etc. This set of oppositions, as Cixous argues in her celebrated early essay ‘Sorties’, represses alternative ways of thinking that do not conform to the logic of this system. Dream I Tell You may be seen as an example of her continued effort to move towards a kind of writing which can explore these alternatives by liberating the creative force of the unconscious. The result is like opening a buried treasure trove full of jewels. Cixous’s uniqueness as a writer lies in her ability to capture the sparkling phantasmagoria of the dreaming mind before its brilliant colours begin to fade in the light of day.
Despite my attempts to understand the origins of Cixous’s work, I would not wish to lose that sense of mystery which first drew me to her writing. The feeling of being captivated by the elusiveness of language is perhaps so integral to my experience of reading Cixous because it is also central to her experience of writing. In an interview with Martin McQuillan, Cixous describes the motivation for her work in the following terms: ‘It’s as if we’re starting on a race, towards something that is far away, which is a secret.’ Her writing is what happens ‘in the chase’, and when we read it, we too are drawn into this ‘race towards the secret’. We should not be deterred if the ‘secret’ continues to elude us; it is the pleasure of the ‘chase’ that counts.
Hélène Cixous’ Dream I Tell You is translated from the French by Beverley Bie Brahic and published by Edinburgh University Press.
Cecily Davey is a PhD scholar and tutor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews. She specialises in contemporary women’s writing and particularly the work of Hélène Cixous.
January 1, 2013
I joined in a conversation with Alice Thompson for a new publication launched last month edited by Katherine Cooper and Emma Short. Here is a short extract from the book about my own approach to writing historical fiction.
I never find it easy to begin writing and am capable of great inventiveness when it comes to displacement activities. The rest of life, emails, even housework, can all seem more urgent and compelling than confronting that opening blank screen. I suspect this fear is more acute for the women of my generation than it is for the men. In my own case this period of not-writing can go on for a worryingly long time. What catapults me out of it is clearing a space in which the only task I give myself is writing, coupled with the realisation that unless I do so the material gathering in my head will evaporate forever.
I always scribble my first draft as quickly as possible. I don’t care where I start and I also don’t worry if some parts of it come out in note form rather than fully fledged sentences. I think of myself as an explorer: I’m writing to familiarise myself with my characters and discover their stories. Trying to polish phrases as I go is therefore pointless, and slows the process down. In her novel To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf shows the artist Lily Briscoe struggling with a voice in her head which insists ‘women can’t paint’. Speed can be a powerful weapon against these internal censors. At this stage I give myself unlimited freedom and use research only for inspiration, seldom to check facts.
Once this first draft is done, I put it away for a while before reading it through. Usually it is so rough I don’t even bother correcting it. Instead I draw up a list of what feels alive. My overriding concern is to discover and preserve what the piece is so I can set about writing it. Inevitably, much is pruned. Sometimes I list the elements I now know will comprise my narrative and think about how to order them. This outline can only be provisional because every act of writing introduces new directions and ideas. An important outcome of this first draft is that it will have helped me uncover the ‘voice’ of the piece. With Vanessa and Virginia I allowed myself to be inspired by Woolf’s shimmering, richly allusive prose, but in the novel I’ve just finished the idiom is very different, sparser and more conversational.
Now I have most of the elements I need I can start writing. Although technically this is my second version it still feels like my first, because I open a new document and only occasionally refer back to my original draft. During this stage, I am thinking about the shape and mood of the whole as well as my characters, the way words fall on the page as well as the story. It requires courage and discipline to keep going. I find having deadlines helpful even though they need continual adjustment.
Once this draft is done I am euphoric. Like Lily Briscoe as she finishes her picture, I have the sense some conundrum or tension I was only half aware of has resolved itself. The feeling is short-lived because the reworking that follows is every bit as demanding. I always show a piece to at least one reader before I edit. It reminds me what I have written is no longer my personal affair but must survive the close scrutiny of others. Although I permit myself a great deal of freedom in the early, exploratory stages of writing historical fiction, I am conscious during the editing that I cut or amend anything I know from my research to be beyond the realms of the possible. With Vanessa and Virginia, I removed all but the most minimal alterations to the historical record, and only retained imagined scenarios I felt I could, if required, defend as at the very least highly plausible. This reverence for the past surprises me: it’s not true of all historical novelists, and I never feel constrained in this way if I’m writing a contemporary piece.
Images help me write, and though I work in a tiny office I am surrounded by visual aids. My novel at the moment is set in Paris so I have photographs and pictures of the city up on my walls. [....]
If at all possible, once I have started on a creative piece I write every day. I live with musicians and try to emulate their schedule of regular practice. Writing is like a muscle which gains in strength and flexibility the more it is used. The best way to feed the writing muscle is by incessant reading.
For further details of The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction, edited by Katherine Cooper and Emma Short, click here