Anthony Uhlmann on co-editing a new essay collection exploring Coetzee’s recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus
How did you first encounter J.M. Coetzee’s writing?
In 2002 I was working on the preparation for a major conference on Samuel Beckett that was to take place in Sydney in 2003 and I was looking for keynotes. There was a major public lecture at the Sydney Town Hall which is a reasonably grand space. We invited a number of people including Herbert Blau and Luce Irigaray (via videolink). Someone suggested I ask J. M. Coetzee who was on the board of one of the research groups related to Samuel Beckett. I then went and read a few of his novels, including Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and The Master of Petersburg and was blown away by the quality of the works. I told him when I finally met him that he had renewed my faith in contemporary fiction. He agreed to act as a keynote and read the ‘At The Gate’ Lesson from Elizabeth Costello which had not yet been published when he read it January 2003. He spoke briefly of having mostly gained an understanding of rhythm, and the structure of sentences, from reading and studying Beckett. After that I read all of his novels and have been working towards writing about him. (more…)
Robert Cohen on co-editing a new anthology where established writers discuss their practice and vocation
How did you come to put together The Writer’s Reader?
[Jay Parini, my co-editor, and I] both taught workshops for emerging writers — here at Middlebury, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, at Iowa and Harvard and elsewhere — for more years than we care to think about, and all that time we’ve been Xeroxing certain essays we love, essays that seem particularly well-suited to providing consolation, instruction, and the muscle of inspiration, not just to the small-w aspect of the practice but to the larger, more long-term, capital-W sense as well. At a certain point it became almost physically painful, not having these essays between covers (especially the ones out of print), not being able to share them in an easy, accessible way. It just seemed somehow stupid and wrong that there was no way to introduce a new generation of writers to Natalia Ginzburg’s piece, say, or Tillie Olsen’s, or Ted Solotaroff’s, or Danilo Kis’ — to name just three of the wiser, more over-arching essays about the writer’s life you’re ever likely to find. (more…)
Lorraine Sim discusses how the women of modernism allow us to reimagine the ordinary and the everyday
What inspired you to write Ordinary Matters?
The idea developed from my first book, Virginia Woolf: the Patterns of Ordinary Experience. Towards the end of that project I realised there was much more that I wanted to explore, both in terms of the concept of the everyday and its applications to modernism and cultural histories of early twentieth-century modernity. I remember reading H.D.’s fascinating wartime memoir, The Gift, while I was working on my book on Woolf, and seeing some of Lee Miller’s photographs of London during the Blitz around the same time, and I felt I needed to extend my exploration of the ordinary to a broader range of women writers, artists and contexts. The final chapter of Virginia Woolf looked at what I termed the ‘ethics of the ordinary’ in her oeuvre. This idea, of the ways in which the ordinary functions as a site of value (be it personal, social, moral or political), really fascinated me, and I wanted to explore it in a more comprehensive way. Also, many canonical and contemporary theories on the topic view the everyday negatively, or as requiring radical transformation, and I felt that this was a critical habit or commonplace that itself required interrogation. (more…)
Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?
The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?
That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out. (more…)
Kathryn Simpson discusses the life and work of one of literary modernism’s most distinguished innovators
What motivated you to write Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed?
I feel very passionate about the work of Virginia Woolf because of the ways it engages with some of the ‘big’ questions about self and identity, experience and relationships, politics, cultural pressures and the impact of a changing world. She, like other modernist writers and artists, attempted to convey what it meant and felt like to live through a period of dramatic change (politically, socially, economically and in terms of technological developments) and to find new forms and techniques to represent a new sense of modernity.
How did you discover Virginia Woolf’s writing?
I discovered her writing as part of my undergraduate degree at the University of Birmingham and then chose to write on her work for my PhD alongside other early twentieth-century women writers (Gertrude Stein, H.D, Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes). (more…)
David Lloyd talks about Beckett’s friendships with twentieth-century painters and his enduring interest in the visual arts
What draws you to the work of Samuel Beckett?
I’ve been reading Beckett’s work since I was a teenager and writing on him since my undergraduate days at Cambridge in the 70s. I dare say part of my initial attraction to Beckett lay in the kinds of philosophical conundra his work posed, in its hilarious comedy and in its ascetic reductionism. In a letter to Georges Duthuit, in which he comments on his desire for “a theatre reduced to its own means”, he goes on: “That is Protestantism if you like, we are what we are.” It may be that there was also something about the South Dublin Protestant background that I shared with Beckett that felt like grounds for affinity: certainly there was something familiar as much in the ethos as in the local landscapes secreted in the works. But above all, it was the uncompromising aesthetic ethic, the commitment to a work determined to “reduce itself to its own means”, that corresponded to the refusal of extraneous resources like the resonances of identity or signifiers of cultural belonging. That offered a quite different set of possibilities, intellectually and aesthetically, than Irish culture at the time generally made available. (more…)
Rachele Dini discusses how the work of J.G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, and Samuel Beckett engages with one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time
What motivated you to write Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction?
Well, I’ve been attracted to remnants of different kinds since I was very little, and was obsessed with cutting up magazines as a teenager—but intellectually, the turning point for me was during my MA at King’s College London. I noticed almost immediately that the texts on the modules I was taking were unusually concerned with fragments and fragmentation. Dickens, Zola, Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, Fernando Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Ballard, Calvino, and of course Walter Benjamin and Adorno: physical and metaphorical waste proliferates in all of these authors’ work. In hindsight, this was to be expected since the course focused on the seismic effects of capitalist modernity, and waste is certainly one of these. But that focus on residual matter reproaching you for throwing it away, or on things not working and stuff falling apart, especially compelled me at the time, since it was the opposite in every way from the focus of my day job in market research. Market research is an industry essentially devoted to promoting the very things that leftist theory denounces: its modus operandi is to find ways of selling more. So the first spark for the PhD project that ultimately turned into this book was the conflict between the rhetoric of ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ (to quote Daft Punk) I was accustomed to in my working life, and all of the countercultural—or simply denunciatory—writing I discovered through my studies, which called that rhetoric into question. (more…)
Michael Richardson discusses how literature can help shed new light on our understanding of torture, trauma, and affect
How did you come to write Gestures of Testimony?
One of Barack Obama’s first acts as President was to declassify the Torture Memos of the Bush Administration. Suddenly, the architecture of American torture was visible to an extent that it had never been before. At the time, I was working as a speechwriter in Canada for Jack Layton, who was then the leader of the New Democratic Party, and watching very closely what was happening across the border. I became obsessed with how torture was articulated and authorised, and even more so with the effect it had on both survivors and perpetrators. I’ve always understood the world through writing and literature, so I wanted to understand torture in that context too. That led me to a PhD on torture, literature and politics, and from there to writing Gestures of Testimony. (more…)
Q&A with the new President of the Samuel Beckett Society
I recently caught up with Daniela Caselli to chat about her new role as President of the Samuel Beckett Society, an international organization of scholars, students, directors, actors and others who share an interest in the writer’s work. I asked how she first encountered Beckett’s writing, and what she sees as the next step for the Society moving forward:
“My entire career has been shaped by Beckett’s work. As a first year student I took an amazing course on modernism, with a focus on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett, taught by Carla Locatelli. It was a revelation, and I never looked back.”
When asked about her plans for the Society going forward, she replied: ‘I aim to develop a Society that is as inclusive as possible, and to develop themes and priorities that reflect the great diversity of the Beckett community.’
British artist Tom Harman discusses how critical theory led him to return to painting
When did you start painting?
Drawing and painting, for me, was what I always did and was always good at. Throughout school I only ever wanted to paint and couldn’t wait to leave at 16 and begin a BTECH in Art and Design at my local FE college. This was a great experience, at last getting to create visual material all day, every day. I was particularly interested in painting that had some form of social commentary and was influenced by the New Glasgow Boys, painters from the Glasgow School of Art such as Steven Campbell, Peter Howson and Ken Currie, as well as the big names in British painting such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. (more…)
Aimee Pozorski discusses the complex ways we engage with art and writing in the wake of the September 11th attacks
We are conducting this interview fifteen years after the September 11th terrorist attacks took place. What motivated you to write Falling After 9/11? How did the project begin?
The project began with the installation of Graydon Parrish’s 9/11 mural, Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, which was commissioned in 2002 by the New Britain Museum of American Art in my hometown of New Britain, CT. It took Parrish four years to complete the work, and when it was finally revealed, some critics savaged it for its commitments to Classical Realism. After being outraged that reviewers could be so callous, my training in trauma theory kicked in. As a trauma theorist who studies literature, I frequently consider ways in which a text’s moments of so-called failure can actually succeed in telling us something not only about the nature of representation but also about traumatic history itself. What does it mean that so many representations of 9/11 seemed inadequate? I asked myself. And does that have more do to with the nature of trauma and our reception of art and literature than it does with the singular talents or contributions of individual artists themselves? (more…)
Neil Badmington discusses his fascination with the work of Barthes, the continuing relevance of critical theory, and his own approach to academic style
What led you to write The Afterlives of Roland Barthes?
‘Who’ rather than ‘What’, really. It’s all the fault of my good friend Jürgen Pieters, who has repeatedly led me, with our conversations over the years, in new directions. In 2006 Jürgen and Kris Pint (who was Jürgen’s PhD student at the time) organised a conference at their home institution of Ghent University on Barthes’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, which had recently appeared in print for the first time. I’m not sure why I was invited to participate: the other speakers were people with formidable reputations in the field of Barthes studies (Andy Stafford and Claude Coste, for instance), while I’d never written extensively about Barthes. His work had often informed mine up until that point — he’s there in Alien Chic and even the Posthumanism anthology, for instance — but he’d not been the primary object of analysis: I’d written with Barthes, not on Barthes. And the Barthes with whom I’d written had been the familiar Barthes, the ‘classic’ Barthes — the Barthes of S/Z and Mythologies, for example. But the unexpected invitation from Jürgen and Kris led me to look closely at the various volumes bearing Barthes’s name which had been published long after his death, and I was struck by how a different Barthes, another Barthes, was emerging gradually into print — not just the Barthes of the Collège years, but the Barthes of Travels in China, the Barthes of the seminars at the École pratique des hautes études, and the Barthes of Journal de deuil (or Mourning Diary, to give it its English title). It was the appearance of the latter in French in 2009 which really convinced me that The Afterlives of Roland Barthes needed to be written, in fact. I remember reading it at the time and realising as I turned the pages that it was altering my established perspective on Camera Lucida. This ‘new’ Barthes was reshaping the ‘old’ Barthes. In short, then, I wrote Afterlives to take stock of some of the posthumous publications which have appeared in recent years, and to ask how they might lead us to reconsider our understanding of the well-known publications which appeared during Barthes’s lifetime. (more…)
Ann Basu discusses how Philip Roth reveals the contradictions at the heart of American identity
What motivated you to write States of Trial?
My imagination was lit, in particular, by the historical perspectives of Roth’s American Trilogy: American Pastoral, (1997) I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) as well as its forerunner, Operation Shylock (1993) and a slightly later novel, The Plot Against America (2004). I became fascinated by how Roth tests narratives about both national and male identity to the point of destruction, uncovering the contradictions within concepts of American identity. Roth displays a powerful sense of conflicting historical forces impacting on personal identity, combining this with portraits of individuals tormented by contradictions in their own lives; contradictions that may both stretch and limit them. I found these major late-career novels compelling and wanted to write about them. The trial, a resonant concept in terms of American history and personal identity with its connotations of testing, suffering and also experimentation, was a good lens, I thought. It was productive for me, anyway. (more…)
Adam Weiner discusses how a Russian socialist novel from the nineteenth-century influenced the work of Ayn Rand and subsequent economic deregulation in the United States
What motivated you to write How Bad Writing Destroyed the World?
The idea evolved over time. While I was attending university I kept hearing about what an incredible, life-transforming experience it was to read Ayn Rand’s novels. Eventually I became curious enough to read The Fountainhead. The awfulness of the writing dumbfounded me, and I began to wonder what people could possibly be finding in there—it couldn’t be pleasures of an artistic order, so something else. As a graduate student I had to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s history-making but horribly written novel What Is to Be Done? and I became immediately aware that its badness was akin to what I had found in Ayn Rand. I mean not merely the clunky prose style and android heroes, but the dictatorial, sermonizing tone, and the sense that questionable ideological values were being hawked practically for free. When I began to teach literature at Wellesley College some of my students kept naming Ayn Rand and Nabokov as their favourite writers, and I was dismayed that the two names were being spoken in the same breath. So I read Atlas Shrugged. Only then did I get it: Ayn Rand, while officially despising socialism, had found her most immediate literary inspiration in Russia’s homegrown socialist, Chernyshevsky. All of the same ideas, devices, images: the same rational egoism; the same utopian scheming, right down to weird details, like perpetual motion machines. Humankind would discover miraculous new metals, motors and professional relations that would allow them to re-shape the world in their own image. Do god’s work. Become the master of your destiny. Etc., etc. I knew that all of this nonsense had been a direct inspiration to Lenin, who had destroyed the Russian Empire under its heady influence. Suddenly I saw that Ayn Rand had done much the same thing in the US by programming Alan Greenspan with objectivism and unleashing him into our economy, where he deregulated everything to the point of disaster and beyond. That’s when the book took shape in my mind. (more…)
Peter J. Beck discusses the history of H.G. Wells’ iconic sci-fi novel, and how it continues to resonate in popular culture
What inspired you to write the book?
I have lived in Woking since 1971. Over time I became increasingly aware of the town’s links with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Woking is the place where he researched, wrote and set the book. My house is located within one mile or so of both Horsell Common, where Wells’ Martians landed, and 141 Maybury Road, the house where Wells wrote the story. Apart from walking the trail of the story and reading his books, during the late 1980s I began researching Wells’ correspondence, most notably that held by archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Yale University Library. This research was basically undertaken out of personal interest rather than with a view to publication, since as a professor of history my principal areas of research and publication were the history of British foreign policy and international organisation. RAE pressures – my membership of the RAE History panel for the 1992 and 1996 RAEs made me acutely aware of these – left no time for other research topics. However, I taught a course at Kingston University on ‘Literature, Art and War 1860-1920’, and introduced The War of the Worlds as one of the war scare set texts alongside The Battle of Dorking. I began to write up my research about Wells’ The War of the Worlds only in 2012 after finishing two contracted books: Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76 (2006) and Presenting History: Past and Present (2012). A further source of inspiration was my membership of a Woking Task Group set up in 2013 to organise a programme of events celebrating Wells’ links with Woking in 2016, a year marking the 150th anniversary of his birth and the 70th anniversary of his death. I represented the H.G. Wells Society on this task group. (more…)