Tamar Jeffers McDonald discusses one of the most beloved romantic comedies ever made
Why led you to write about When Harry Met Sally…?
It was a film I’d liked but not studied, but the BFI asked me to write the Classic on it to tie in to the LOVE season it had in 2015. I really came to appreciate the film once I sat down to analyse it.
How would you describe When Harry Met Sally… to someone who has never seen it?
Hmm! I would say that, narratively, this is a comedy about a woman and a man who meet at various times in their lives, and eventually get to the right point to be friends. For a while their individual neuroses balance each other out but then their increasing intimacy starts to cause more problems… From the point of view of form, I’d say it was one of the most cleverly and elegantly structured films I’ve seen. (more…)
The writer and academic scholar talks about juggling writing with family and a full-time job, his artistic influences, and his enduring interest in the work of Samuel Beckett
How did you come to be a writer?
I began writing fiction seriously near the end of my doctorate, in 2011 or so. At the time I was preparing to leave Oxford for a lectureship in Australia. The writing I did in Oxford and then in Wollongong (a coastal town in New South Wales), over summers at an archive at UT Austin, and elsewhere, eventually became a book project: Three Pioneers. I finished the project in 2013, in the UK.
The book clearly had a lag before it saw publication; it ran through a long list of publishers and agents who, when they replied at all, uniformly classed it as ‘too difficult’ or, less often, ‘too philosophical’ (I’m aware that in the vocabulary of many of these gatekeepers these are euphemisms, to put it mildly).
You ask how I ‘became a writer’. As transparently as I can, permit me to say that writing, the kind of writing we are talking about, was and remains an obscure urge for me. I am not writing, in any case, to become a ‘novelist’ or a ‘writer’ in the sense of someone who is an authority on writing, a cultural authority, or a practitioner of a certain genre; if I were, I would have written (would be writing) differently. As an academic, too, there are other routes, other forms of writing that are open to me to pursue such aims, in however limited a manner. Nor does being an ‘artist’ attract me (I will let that term remain vague). Again, I could have been an ‘artist’ otherwise, and to my mind, more directly – I could have wholly devoted myself to painting, for example, to which I once partially devoted myself.
Why write, then? What can still be called the novel, in the loosest possible sense of the term, is a way of thinking and feeling that allows me to stage problems that I otherwise find difficult to articulate. As this response perhaps suggests. (more…)
Emilie Morin’s recent book sheds light on Beckett’s engagement with cultural and political issues
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your research interests?
My research revolves around modernism and post-1945 literature, and the essays and books that I have published on Beckett’s work explore its relation to politics, its historical dimensions, and its Irish and European influences. I have been working in the Department of English at the University of York for over ten years.
How did you first encounter Samuel Beckett’s writing?
I must have been about fifteen, I think, when I first heard about Beckett. A friend of mine told me about a play that she had seen in which two actors were trapped in rubbish bins, and I was intrigued! Soon after I came across copies of the early absurdist plays, in the lovely Editions de Minuit versions. I was particularly struck by Oh les beaux jours, with its memorable cover featuring Madeleine Renaud stoically holding her umbrella.
It seemed to me remarkable that a whole play could be made to unfold from that situation, from that image. The author was of no concern to me then, but from that first reading I recall being convinced that the work dealt with colonialism and with colonial wars, and I remember seeing a very literal political dimension within it. The French texts have a peculiar texture; they refract much of what is unsaid about colonial history, and much of what is culturally unsayable about historical injustice, and I was sensitive to that. These were powerful impressions, which stayed with me thereafter. When I began to study Beckett’s work properly, many years later, I did so in light of its Irish literary and historical contexts, and my first monograph was a reappraisal of Beckett’s relation to Ireland. For me, the work is never abstract: it is inseparable from war memory and from the long colonial histories that it invokes. In a sense, this new book was a return to my first impressions: when I started researching, I worked on what is now the final chapter on Beckett and the Algerian War of Independence. (more…)
As her debut collection draws both popular and critical acclaim, I caught up with Emily Blewitt to talk about poetry, labels, and contemporary women’s writing
When did you begin writing?
On one hand, the answer to this question is: since I could write. I was always writing stories when I was a little girl. And reading – I was a very enthusiastic bookworm! I never intended to write poetry; I didn’t think I’d be able to, though I loved reading it. I didn’t see how I could write poetry; I didn’t know how to go about it. But when I was seventeen, for the first time I saw a contemporary poet in action. I heard Kate Clanchy perform her work, and she was brilliant. She showed me that poetry could be accessible, powerful, sexy, exciting. That was the seed, though I didn’t start writing poetry properly until my early twenties, after I signed up for some extra-curricular writing workshops during my Masters degree.
What is it about poetry that appeals to you?
For me, poetry has an immediacy about it. It can speak to us forcibly and directly. It has truth (different from accuracy) and music to it. It can take us somewhere, and continue to do so, because it is so layered with possible meanings. It’s slight compared to, say, a novel, but it can pack a punch far above its weight. I love its rhythms, its urgency, its vitality, its power.(more…)
Yesterday night, I was sad to hear that the American novelist Philip Roth had died of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. As one of the most important literary chroniclers of post-war America, his voice carries across the decades to cover some of the most bracing and stupendous events of the last sixty years.
I can still remember being introduced to his work as a college student, and sitting up on winter nights to read The Ghost Writer and the other Zuckerman novels. It was what I did in lieu of starting my essay assignments. I found Nathan Zuckerman, a complex or not-so-complex stand-in for Roth, a fascinating example of modern American identity, with all its inconsistencies, strange neuroses, and grand ambitions. For a long time, Zuckerman was the character who came to mind when I imagined the figure of the modern writer hunching over a typewriter: the bold American novelist who sought to capture the world on the page as it seemed intent on collapsing all around him.
I read Portnoy’s Complaint, of course, and then graduated to the stately, mature works on which so much of his reputation is based: Sabbath’s Theater (did I say stately and mature?), American Pastoral (perhaps my favourite Roth title), The Human Stain, The Plot Against America (which I anxiously carried through customs on a trip to California). But, for me, many of the favourites come right at the end: those short, intense novels (or are they novellas?) which tackle the great questions of life and death in the dwindling hours of the American century: Everyman, Nemesis, The Humbling, Exit Ghost.
There was a certain romance that surrounded Roth’s later years. His solitary life in deepest green Connecticut. His athletic writing routine spent standing at the window of his study, before retiring in the quiet evenings to read Turgenev by lamplight. A number of journalists and television interviewers were dispatched to marvel at the writer’s almost monastic self-discipline, and he improvised answers to their incredulous questions with a down-to-earth humility and street-smart dry humour.
When he finally announced his retirement from writing he began to focus on questions of life and legacy, welcoming an authorised biographer into his home, and working with the Library of America to produce a multi-volume edition of his works—a rare honour for any living man or woman of American letters. But while Roth helped others find their way around his earlier years, he remained an acute observer of contemporary culture and politics, a commentator whose words conveyed the wisdom of experience and a rare, often mischievous, humour. He will be missed.
What follows are a few of the interviews and articles that I have featured on the site in recent years:
Marc Farrant on the major international conference that sparked new ways of thinking about the South African Nobel laureate
How did you first encounter J. M. Coetzee, and what was it that sparked the idea for co-organising a conference on Coetzee & the Archive?
Like many Coetzee readers my first encounter was with the novel Disgrace. I was studying for a Masters at UCL and Disgrace was a core text on the year-long module covering modern English literature from the late nineteenth-century. It was immediately obvious why the novel was the on course, not least from the mixed reactions it provoked. Indeed, it was the only text we covered that year to garner opprobrium from some students in class. It’s a difficult read, the opening scenes that feature a licentious older man preying on one of his students, followed by the rape of his own daughter, test a reader’s mettle. But, it seemed to me at the time and still does, the open hostility the novel received required that one either ignore or abnegate a great deal of the responsibility the text places on the reader: the demand to respond to the ethical issues posed in the work beyond the staid and inherited conventions of moral outrage; to respond to the subtlety of a complex narrative voice that constitutes one of the best ever representations of complicity in the literary tradition, of the complicity of a liberal and educated conscience in crisis. Disgrace broaches the difficult terrain between both redemption and salvation, neither of which will fully serve since both partake of a certain violence or act of exclusion that would appear to tarnish the self-righteous anger of the oppressed as much as the villainy of the oppressor. If readers nevertheless insist that the novel is irresponsible it is therefore irresponsible, I would add, in the sense of informing us that it is perhaps never possible to be responsible enough, that responsibility is always lacking. Given its slender size the above, plus the intricate folds of literary and theological allusions, and the critique of the rationalizing project of secular modernity, makes for quite a novel! (more…)
Hannah Fitzpatrick and Anindya Raychaudhuri discuss a topical podcast that covers politics, power, and pop culture
What is the State of the Theory podcast?
Hannah Fitzpatrick: Like most podcasts, State of the Theory is a manifestation of our narcissism. It began as an optimistic hope (albeit with few expectations) that our casual conversations might be of interest to, and spark debate among, our friends and colleagues. We used to commute together a few times a week, and the car became a sort of impromptu seminar venue, but without the audience. After the last research auditing exercise undertaken by the UK government in 2014, Impact and Public Engagement became quantifiable entities that might be used for or against us later in our careers, so the podcast is a sort of compromise, a way for us to demonstrate that our thoughts have value beyond the walls of the Vauxhall Astra, while still doing it on our own terms. A way of selling out without entirely selling out, if you will. Also, we missed the long drive, where all we could do was chat, and we could have these long, multi-stage conversations over the course of a week or two, so the podcast was a way for us to recreate that time. (more…)
Michelle Boulous Walker on the difficulty of practicing philosophy in modern institutions, and an alternative approach that might encourage a more careful and attentive relation with the world
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what inspired you to write Slow Philosophy?
I’m a philosopher who works in the European tradition. I have a background in political theory and an ongoing commitment to feminist politics. I’ve been teaching for some years now, and this has provided me with the opportunity to re-read key texts with my students.
For example, I’ve read Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus countless times with both undergraduate and graduate students. The joy of re-reading is what first alerted me to the power of slow reading because for me slow philosophy is partly about the quality of attention that comes through repeated engagements with a work or text. Each time I’d return to Plato’s dialogues I’d uncover new possibilities – new meanings that were possible partly because of the new frames I was bringing to his work. (more…)
Welsh playwright and script-writer discusses his motivations as an artist, and the debut performance of his new play, Quiet Hands
How did you become a writer?
I have always loved making up stories and voices for as long as I can remember. But my desire to write for theatre came from acting and directing in University while I was supposed to be studying Psychology—and then through acting in fringe profit-share productions in London and Bristol. My first full-length play Dead Man’s Fall was written with a friend of mine, Peter Jones. We had a lot of fun writing anarchic stage comedies together, which we initially produced ourselves. This led to a radio series for Radio Wales and works like Dead Man’s Fall and The Ghost of Morgan Morris, which were well received. From there, I went on to work independently with a host of theatre companies, and with the BBC on stage and radio plays, TV drama concepts and now film. (more…)
Catherine Morley on editing a new collection of essays that explores the legacy of September 11 on modern and contemporary literature
We begin our conversation having marked the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. What led you to put together this new essay collection?
I have been interested in way in which we have come to narrativise and conceptualise the September 11th terrorist attacks for some time now. They occurred shortly after I moved to the UK to start my doctoral studies. I remember, very vividly, standing before the window of a shop selling televisions and the image of the plane hitting the second tower. It seemed unreal, and indeed at the time many commentators noted that it seemed a moment designed for mass televisual consumption. I thought then that my watching this terrible image unfold across multiple screens seemed like something from a Don DeLillo novel. I remember writing a short diary piece about it at the time, how it reminded me of the Airborne Toxic Event in DeLillo’s White Noise. Since then, I have always been keen to see how novelists, dramatist and poets might approach representing something that seemed to defy representation by its vast scale. So, when offered the opportunity by Bloomsbury to put this volume together I jumped at the chance.
British writer shares what motivates him to create fiction, and how he came to write and publish his debut novel, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas
When did you first decide to become a writer?
I honestly can’t recall a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. It was less of a conscious decision and more of a realisation about my own nature. I think the only real question was what kind of writer I wanted to be. When I was young, I loved books, cinema and comic books equally and I dreamed of writing stories for each of those mediums. I used to draw and paint a lot as a child and the idea of writing and illustrating my own graphic novels always appealed to me. Similarly, the visual storytelling inherent to cinema, as well as using light and sound to bring different worlds and atmospheres to life and create an end to end sensory experience for people to get lost inside, seemed to map to the way my brain worked.
When I’m writing, I’m often visualising the story unfolding and simply describing what I see in words or hearing the characters inner thoughts and dialogue and transcribing it. This was certainly the case in my debut novel. It was almost as if the story already existed somewhere, out there in the darkness, and was being transmitted into my brain. It’s more than just words and images however. It could be an atmosphere that I sense, like a feeling from a waking dream, that I want to recreate and share in a story. (more…)
John Corbett on a new pocket-sized field guide to free and spontaneous music
What led you to write A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation?
I’ve been involved with improvised music from several different standpoints over the last 35 years, as a listener, as a critic, as a teacher, as a presenter, and as a producer. In the process of moving around in the music’s netherworlds, I noticed that many potential listeners were curious about it but just had no way to enter, no accessible points of reference. It’s sometimes seen as “difficult” or “complex,” and it can be both, but approaching free music is very different from listening to music composed using mathematical algorithms or with elaborate preconceived harmonic inventions. To listen to it you basically need to be attentive. That’s it. But that’s also not easy. Having some historical framework can help, and the more experience you have as a listener the better. But it’s really open to new listeners, and I wanted to find a way, in as down to earth a way as possible, to suggest that openness. To invite new listeners from other walks of music and to give a few tips on listening, things that might help get over the initial hump. (more…)
Jeffrey R. Di Leo on a new essay collection that explores the legacy of critical theory since the deaths of some of its leading figures
How did you come to put together Dead Theory?
I was writing a review of Vincent Leitch’s Living with Theory (2008) several years ago and could not help thinking that the opposite might also be the case, namely, that we are “dying with theory.” At the time, it was nothing more than a passing thought, but one that stuck in my head. A few years later, when I was reading about “critical climate change” and the proposal that the time scale and size of climate change calls for an entirely new critical language the thought came back.
It was a volume edited by Tom Cohen on the topic of critical climate change published by Open Humanities Press (Telemorphosis: Theory in the Area of Climate Change, Vol. 1, 2012). I wrote an essay for symplokē on the subject entitled “Can Theory Save the Planet” (2013). The subject of whether the work of philosophers like Derrida, who were now deceased, could have any bearing on current discussions in critical climate change intrigued me. As I started to discuss this issue with some of my colleagues as well as the topic of “dying with theory,” the idea of a collection of essays on dead theory began to take shape. (more…)
Angela Moorjani on co-editing a new collection which recounts Samuel Beckett’s meetings with scholars, translators, and theatre practitioners
To begin, could you say a little bit about Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui?
SBT/A is a refereed academic journal that publishes essays in English and French on Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre.
When first launched in 1992 by the late Marius Buning and the present coeditor in chief Sjef Houppermans, it took the form of a bilingual annual review publishing selections from international meetings or solicited essays on special topics, but also featuring a section of submitted articles. By 2016, the year SBT/A morphed into a semiannual journal under a different academic publisher (Brill), twenty-seven handsome hardcover volumes had appeared under the Rodopi imprint. My association with SBT/A goes back twenty years with an essay in the “Crossroads and Borderlines” volume of 1997, further intensifying with my coediting the volume based on the “Beckett in Berlin 2000” symposium, after which I was invited to join the editorial board. I served as coeditor in chief from 2008 to 2016. (more…)
Séan Richardson on a free new broadcast that sheds light on the cultural legacy of modernism
What is the Modernist Podcast?
The Modernist Podcast is a platform for ‘green’ academics to share their research with the wider community. We aim to bring critical discussion beyond the bindings of the journal and out from within the walls of the conference, into the airwaves and across digital media. We believe that this is a great way for researchers to have their voices heard early into their career, as well as disseminate their work to a broader audience, making scholarship more accessible to a diverse array of listeners. The podcast itself comes out monthly, and researchers are linked together by theme: from Queer Modernism to Modernism and Form, James Joyceto Modernism and Race. (more…)