Emilie Morin’s recent book sheds light on Beckett’s engagement with cultural and political issues
Emilie Morin, Beckett’s Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
Emilie Morin, Beckett’s Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

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.

livre_galerie_2707300551-Oh les beaux jours-beckett-happy daysIt 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…)

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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
emily-blewitt
Emily Blewitt. Photograph: Michael Willett

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…)

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Philip Roth

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
Coetzee, John 2010 (Photo by Marsha Miller)
J. M. Coetzee

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…)