Home

“…all culture is a form of sign transformation…” – An interview with Professor Richard Clay – Part 2 #viral @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

6 Comments

Following on from part 1 of my interview with Professor Richard Clay (which you can read here), here’s part two in which Richard reveals whether he prefers lecturing or seminars, thoughts on graffiti and nuclear deterrence, future book ideas, and much, much more! 😀

KBR: You went on to write and present the “Brief History of Graffiti” programme hot on the heels of “Tearing”. This could be perceived as a shift of focus, although there was of course content relating to the French revolution(s). Was this a concept for a programme that came from you, or was it suggested, and how did you feel about the final results?

RC: Yep it was my idea and I like most of the film, although I think it gets better as it goes on. I’ve been interested in graff since I was a boy. Growing up in rural Lancashire, East Coast hip hop seemed to make perfect sense to me and my mates and Graffiti was part of that scene. I was an undergrad at York, but many of the most important lessons I learned there resulted from my mates and I doing pirate radio in Leeds, organising parties (some of them legal), running a fanzine (‘Pure Sheng’), and DJing (we were good!).

As a postgrad in London, I was music editor for the UK’s first full colour, national, student magazine (‘Raise’). I used to write pieces on other topics that chimed with my work on the French Revolution. One of those articles was about contemporary graffiti and one of my interviewees, a train painter called Morn (because he could only see his work when the sun came up), reshaped my thinking about meaning making in public space. So, yes, I see graff and iconoclasm as closely related; for me culture is all that which is learned and all culture is a form of sign transformation…

The success of the Graffiti programme has kind of led to you being the go-to person for soundbites whenever there’s a news story relating to the subject. Is that kind of stereotyping a double-edged sword for an academic?

It is a bit odd to be the go-to graff person and I sometimes recommend that journalists talk to other people and I share their names. But I don’t feel stereotyped. I know how busy journalists are and the kinds of deadlines that working in news involves. My occasional comments in the news media have little impact on me as an academic; academics and students who know me and like my thinking know it’s wide ranging (like theirs).

Your most recent TV project was the three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream” series for BBC4, broadcast in 2017, which was very well received. You obviously drew on a number of contacts and sources to produce a fascinating and wide-ranging series of programmes. Were you happy with the results and was there anything you would have liked to include that didn’t make the cut?

Aye, I rate the Utopia films and I was surprised and delighted by the warmth of the critical response across the political spectrum. Like all my documentaries, the films are a real team effort with brilliant ideas and impressive skills being brought to bear by the whole crew and the post-production team. Much as I’d like to take all the credit, I simply can’t!

Schedules and budgets are so tight on a shoot, and the amount of travel so intense for the crew, that we can’t really afford to leave stuff on the cutting room floor. But there were things I’d have liked to have included. For example, Robert Owen’s New Lanark, the Cadbury family’s ‘factory in the garden’ in Bournville, and the contemporary permaculture movement. But if they’d been included, something else would have had to be left out…

Your scholarly book “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” (which has featured on the blog a number of times) came out in 2012 and represented a considerable body of work on the subject. You’ve also written a number of pieces over the years on the French Revolution, or related to other strands of iconoclasm. Have you ever considered a more mainstream book on the subject?

I periodically consider writing such a book. But a book is such a time commitment that imagine my next one will feature iconoclasm as one form of meaning making in public space and will explore how such processes have been shaped by new technologies since the 1790s. I’m toying with writing a shorter mainstream book that might be called something like ‘Three Ideas To Help You Survive the Twenty First Century’ (snappy title, huh?): semiotics, dialogics, and critical thinking.

Your recent interests, as you’ve commented yourself, are very broad. Do you think you’ve moved on from French Revolutionary iconoclasm or is it something you’ll revisit?

I think I’m done with iconoclasm of the French Revolution for now, but I’m hoping that a new generation of scholars will continue to explore that field. I remain part of an international iconoclasms network that has published a couple of books that I co-edited and that also advised Tate Britain on its ‘Art Under Attack’ exhibition. The network is about to start a new phase of work, but my contributions are likely to look beyond Paris and the 1790s; probably using far more recent examples to outline more concisely the theoretical underpinnings of my work on the French Revolution.

You have a new documentary coming up on BBC4 this week on meme culture, entitled “How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme”. Are you able to give us any information about this?

Viral’s basic pitch is ‘Why are the Cross and that Crescent internationally recognised symbols, but the sandal from “A Life of Brian” isn’t? Why do some symbols stick and others don’t?” The film goes from antiquity to the internet in 60-minutes, engaging with notions of memes and internet memes en route. It’s very fast paced in comparison to my other films; I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it!

You appeared on BBC Radio 4 last September with a highly successful programme on the nuclear threat. Can you talk a little bit about that?

‘Two Minutes To Midnight’ was my first foray into radio documentaries. Given that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ ‘Doomsday Clock’, is closer to midnight than it has been since 1953, the programme asks whether we all ought to be somewhat more worried about nuclear Armageddon than we appear to be. Personally, (to paraphrase Frank Herbert) I think that ‘fear is the mind killer’. But there are good reasons for all citizens to reflect on the risks of nations’ holding on to their nuclear weapons, not least those associated with accidents or hacking. After all, radiation doesn’t respect borders. I’ve long been a supporter of deterrence, but making ‘Two Minutes…’ rekindled some of my youthful idealism. Even if we accept deterrence, we need to be aiming for a global ban on these awful weapons.

You’ve attended conferences, delivered keynotes and papers, and spoken at numerous locations all around the world over the years, including Mexico, the USA, Taiwan, Riga and more recently Lisbon, to name just a few. Do you enjoy the travel that comes with your role, and where would you say you’ve found your best audience?

I can’t say that I like travel, but I love arriving! My favourite audiences are always students. They look at problems with fresh eyes and offer some amazing insights as a result. The best groups have the courage to say the obvious thing and they understand that just because it’s obvious to them that doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone else. As a result, they learn from one another and knowledge multiplies. My father told me that ‘Lecturing is a means of communication whereby one person speaks without thinking very much to a room full of people who listen without thinking very much. Don’t lecture’, he said, ‘run seminars. You’ll know you’re succeeding when you shut up (for once) and learn from the group.’ My favourite audience is one which is also performing and of which I’m a member too.

You’ve also published widely on a range of topics; most notably, of course, French Revolutionary Iconoclasm, but also on subjects as diverse as industrial revolution numismatics, the role of graffiti in society, art and war, and even contemporary jewellery. Do you believe this variety is essential to avoid having too narrow an academic focus?

There’s nothing wrong with having a narrow academic focus! Without such work the rich weave of intellectual life would be weakened. Good educational institutions foster and celebrate work that is conducted at a range of different ‘resolutions’ and encourages debate between all involved. I just happen to be synthesist and to enjoy ranging across disciplines and periods (but that might just turn out to be phase!).

Do you find it difficult to juggle the commitments of academia with those of a television career; could you ever see a situation arising where one would have to take priority over the other, and if so which one would it be? And where do you see your career going in the future?

I don’t think that I’m likely to have to make the choice between the academy and the media – not least because the media stuff that I do is fairly niche. But if I did have to choose, it would undoubtedly be the academy. As for where my career is going, I like the balance I’ve got at the moment. I’m fortunate in having a Chair that spans my whole faculty and I’m very excited about cross-disciplinary and cross-sector developments that are taking place at Newcastle University. I’m inclined to wait and see which opportunities arise. But I’m always mindful of my father’s career advice, ‘Never take a job you can do’. Oh, and ‘cast slowly’ (like him, I fly fish rivers).

******

I’d like to thank Richard so much for taking time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed. I’ve found his documentaries and writings to be fascinating, so it was a real privilege to hear directly from him about his career and the genesis of some of those projects. “How to go viral: the art of the meme with Richard Clay” will be broadcast on BBC4 on 20th March and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you watch it! I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the programme shortly after broadcast…. 😀

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

Advertisements

“…human stories of conflict and contestation…” – An interview with Professor Richard Clay – part 1 #viral @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

13 Comments

A slightly different kind of post here on the Ramblings today, but one I’m very happy to present! Anyone with only half an eye on the blog will have noticed me developing a serious fondness for documentaries over the last year or so, and also for Iconoclasm and books thereon… I’ve been particularly interested in the work of Richard Clay, who of course presented the wonderful “Tearing Up History” documentary back in 2014. He was also responsible for a fascinating documentary on Graffiti and the excellent three-part series “Utopia: In Search of the Dream” in 2017, which I have of course gone on about regularly…

Richard is also, of course, the author of “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris” (a monograph which caused me much stress and strain tracking down) and in fact has contributed to a number of scholarly books on the often controversial subject of iconoclasm, as you can see from the little selection below:

Currently a Professor of Digital Cultures at Newcastle University, Richard has had a distinguished academic career: after studying at York and UCL, he joined the University of Birmingham in 2002, where he was based for a many years, being responsible for a range of innovative projects, most notably the Digital Humanities Hub. Appointed AHRC Research Fellow in 2014, he moved to Newcastle University in 2015 where he’s continued to foster cross-disciplinary working, as well as developing his television career.

Richard presented a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, “Two Minutes to Midnight”, which I have of course covered extensively on the blog.  I was curious to find out how his interesting ideas came to be formed, and as he has a limited online presence and no Wikipedia page as yet, I ended up with a *lot* of questions. When I found out that he also had a new documentary in the pipeline I contacted him to see if he would be prepared to be interviewed for the blog, and I’m delighted to say that he agreed. So ahead of his new programme “Viral”, I’m very pleased to welcome Richard Clay to the Ramblings!

KBR: Richard, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! I’d like to start by first asking you about your training. I understand that you originally intended to study History but switched to History of Art. I wondered what drove that particular change?

RC: Yep, I went to University of York to read History. I’d been hoping to learn about theories and methods, but felt in my first year that that focus was missing. Plus, I was a little overwhelmed by the vastness of history. Where do you start and where do you stop with your research? I took an art history module and realised that the discipline was really theoretically engaged and that essays could start with an object (or objects), explore historical contexts, and return to the object. Somehow, that helped bring focus to my thinking. To be honest, as a nineteen year old, I also liked the idea of only having to write one essay a term for History of Art and getting a free trip to Paris; it sounded like decadent efficiency!

Having made the switch to History of Art, your specialism developed with the study of iconoclasm during a specific period of revolution in France. Was there a particular trigger for this focus – perhaps an interest in the revolution itself? Or was there another motivation in choosing this aspect?

As an undergrad, I was interested in how audiences responded to works of art and how those responses shaped art works’ production. But it was often the case that lower class reception wasn’t recorded in the past and we were left reading about the views of the wealthy and educated (even if the works of art were on public display, say, in churches). However, I was very impressed with Thomas E. Crow’s ‘Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris’ – a book that triggered interests that I pursued as a postgrad and beyond. Crow helped me realise that, despite the Ancien Régime’s censorship, there was a vibrant, often illegal, and cheap pamphlet culture of criticism. These cheap publications focused on the biennial art exhibitions, the Salons, held by members of the Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving in France.

From the 1730s onwards, the Salons were held in the Louvre royal palace. As entry was free of charge, audiences were large and diverse; people attended as much to observe one another as to see the art. Salon pamphlets’ discussions of the art works and audiences often used carefully coded language to articulate arguments about society, politics, and culture (in the broadest sense) in ways that avoided arrest. The Salon gave me a route into exploring the interactions of emergent ‘enlightenment’ ideas and more established modes of thought and to do so in ways that weren’t focused solely on elites.

When I went on to do my MA, PhD, and then to be a Henry Moore Fellow at UCL, my focus shifted to revolutionary France. I wanted to write ‘art history from below’, to examine how less privileged members of society thought about, and made use of, art in their day-to-day lives (especially during times of struggle) and how educated elites responded. By asking why people chose to attack art in public spaces during the Revolution, and why authorities often responded by passing iconoclastic laws, I could also critique some of the more reductive art histories that I find so patronising to people of the past.

Why the first French Revolution? Partly because of the Salon culture, partly because of the rich archival holdings, but perhaps mainly because I felt that the very worst and the very best of human nature can be found in periods of conflict. Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by military history – especially the ‘worm’s eye view’… Despite being the son of pedagogues, I didn’t read until I was seven. I just wasn’t interested in Peter and Jane. My mother noticed that in family photos I was often pointing at the sky because I loved aeroplanes. So, she bought me a doorstep book about military aircraft and I devoured it; it led to a fascination with the human stories of conflict and contestation.

I believe you spent time in Eastern Europe following the Velvet Revolution of 1989. I wondered whether this informed your study of French iconoclasm, with the constant toppling of monuments which was taking place, or whether you had a specific interest in the changes which were happening there?

Yep, I went Inter Railing on my own as an undergrad in 1992 and spent most of my time in Prague and Budapest. My sister is a couple of years older than me and had read Russian and French at Cambridge. As an undergrad, she had spent 6 months in Leningrad and she was there when half the city’s lights were turned off by the population as a declaration of support for Gorbachev’s reforms. She is built like me (skin and bones and then vital organs) and she returned home looking grey, having lost a stone, and she wept when we took her to Sainsbury’s on the way back from the airport because she had left her Russian friends who were hungry. I was deeply struck by her stories of Russian generosity, of stoic defiance, and by getting to meet some of her Russian friends as Perestroika took hold and they could visit the West (my father paid because we owed them so much).

I realised that the Russians really do love their children too and that Cold War rhetoric had often dehumanised the potential victims of Nation State struggles. Reflecting on this now, it reminds me of what my mother had said when I was in trouble at High School for proudly wearing a Soviet badge on my braces. ‘Why do you want a Revolution?’ she asked, ‘The best way to change the world is to change the mind of the person in front and the person behind and to ask them to do the same.’ Watching the Wall fall and the statues being toppled on TV stuck with me as real world evidence that she was right (again). I could sense the hope of those involved, but I also knew just about enough about history at that point to feel anxious about the potential consequences of such conflict down the line.

By MD [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Hence, I headed to Eastern Europe. Prague was amazing in 1992, it felt buzzing, optimistic, open, and it was staggeringly cheap (5p for a beer!). The graffiti still covered the Wenceslas statue in the centre of town and the Lennon wall. The children’s art of the Jewish cemetery, dating from the World War II Prague ghetto, also left its mark on me. In short, I was fascinated both by the changes taking place in Eastern Europe and by the roles that art had played in those and earlier struggles. But, I lacked my sister’s aptitude for foreign languages and I’d already learned French. Hence, my French revolutionary turn…

Your later career has involved a considerable number of digital aspects, from your role at Birmingham in the Heritage and Cultural Learning Hub to your current post of Professor of Digital Cultures at Newcastle. Yet I’ve heard you state that people are even more keen to embrace the real in the form of authentic artefacts as the digital develops. Is that a statement you still stand by and do you believe that there will always be a human need for the analogue or physical to sit alongside the digital?

Well, it might just be a coincidence but, museum and gallery attendance has continued to go up as the digital has become ever more embedded in our lives. And my students are buying record players and vinyl. I think that my old friend, Richard Davidson Houston (Head of All 4, C4), nailed it when he said that ‘the “digital” isn’t through a door somewhere, it’s part of our day-to-day lives.’

At its best, the digital enhances ‘real world’ experiences rather than replacing them. It also offers us new ways of thinking and, in some cases, of being. But this isn’t the first communication revolution that we’ve lived through (and worried about), it’s just the largest scale and fastest (hence, perhaps, increased anxiety). For the first time in human history it is possible to imagine that all humans might have access to the means of production and reception that allow them to share information. My parents’ generation invented the internet technologies that made that possible, my generation got it up and running, and my students’ generation are working out how to put it to the best use. But hey, I’m told that I’m an optimist.

Your step into documentary presentation began with “Tearing Up History”, first broadcast in 2014. I sense that the programme may have been some time in the making. Was the concept of making the transition to TV presenter one that was particularly appealing and did you encounter any difficulties with this?

I liked the idea of presenting because I care about the issues that I explore and I wanted to engage with larger audiences than I can reach in lecture theatres or seminar rooms. In part that is just selfishness, I love the questions that audiences raise and the ways they provoke me to rethink and question my own assumptions. But yep, there were difficulties with making the transition.

I think we filmed ‘Tearing’ in 6 days, but I’d been thinking hard about the subject for almost 20 years. Condensing it all down to 59 minutes was the main challenge. Plus, I needed to start to think visually about where to shoot and why, and to avoid certain terms (I’m still having a long running argument with broadcast execs about discussing semiotics on camera). Fortunately, I’m not in the least bit fazed by the camera and I love the buzz of working with such talented crews, although I very occasionally find some of the broader TV bullshit frustrating.

In my first meeting with a commissioning editor I ended up with my head on the table and, when they finally asked if I was okay, I said ‘No, I’m not okay. It’s taken me 3 hours to get here, I’ve got tons of actual work to do, and you don’t want me to do eighteenth century art, you want me to do contemporary art in ways that are youthful, edgy, and contemporary. How the hell can I explain the Chapman Brothers without explaining Goya? You need to understand that if I wanted to be a TV star, I’d have been a TV star in my twenties. I want to lecture to lots of people and I only want to lecture about things I care about. If you don’t want that then I’m more than happy to focus on the job I love.’

They ended up commissioning a short taster film about French revolutionary iconoclasm, bits of which we used in Tearing, but the full film was commissioned by a different broadcaster – the BBC. The Beeb was a breath of fresh air. I remember thinking ‘this is right’ when I got into an argument about Hegel with a commissioning editor, asking him ‘but how can an age have a “spirit”? I’m not even sure that humans have got spirits?’ But on balance, despite the early frustrations with making the transition into broadcasting, it’s been enormously worthwhile.

“Tearing” was well received, although perhaps slightly controversial – iconoclasm is an emotive subject and also you do tend to wear your left-wing heart on your sleeve. Did you ever feel any compromise whilst making the programme?

Not really. I’m never been asked to compromise for TV (apart from avoiding semiotics!) and I wouldn’t be making documentaries if that wasn’t the case. Yep, some ideas and some positions are controversial, but a film is just one contribution to a public debate – and debate is good. As for my left-wing heart, you should meet some of my colleagues! You’d realise that I’m a pretty moderate social democrat who’d just like to see a somewhat fairer form of capitalism.

*****

In part two of the interview, which will follow on the blog soon, Richard goes on to talk (amongst other things) about his other film projects, his foray into radio, lecturing vs. seminars, and future plans. Stay tuned, as they say, for more fascinating insights!

Richard is also due to make an appearance on BBC4’s Front Row programme tonight at 7.15 p.m. ahead of “Viral” – so do check it out!

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

The best way to change a person’s life…. @RobGMacfarlane

30 Comments

When I had my little wobble in Waterstones recently and went a bit mad, buying three brand new books when I have so many unread ones at home already, I justified one of the purchases by the fact that it was very slim and about books – so it didn’t really count and I would be able to read it quickly. Well, yes – but for all its small size it certainly got me thinking!

The book in question is “The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane; the latter is well-known for a number of chunky books loosely about landscape (although really about much more), as well for his championing of Nan Shepherd. This, however, is an essay by Macfarlane on the subject of books, specifically on the practice of gifting them, and it’s an absorbing little read.

I guess all of us booklovers have given and received any number of volumes over the years, and Macfarlane is no different. Here, he muses on the act of giving by relating it to his own very personal experiences, particularly with his friend Don (to whom the book is dedicated). The latter was the person who gave Macfarlane a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”, which became a touchstone for Robert in his subsequent travels, perhaps even a catalyst for them. And he goes on to consider any number of other book gifts and their fates, the passing on of the libraries of departed friends, the effects those books can have and how in fact the right book at the right time can be life-changing.

I must be honest and say that my first read of Macfarlane’s work (“The Old Ways”) was not unproblematic; however, having read this eloquent and beautiful little book I’m inclined to think that possibly the issue was with me and not the book, and perhaps it was simply a case of bad timing. “The Gifts of Reading” set me off on all sorts of trains of thought, and if you’re a bookish person I can really recommend tracking it down to see if your experiences of book gifting are the same as this.

However, as I hinted above, the book nudged my brain into thinking a *lot* about books I’d been gifted during my life which had a really significant impact; and so in the spirit of Macfarlane’s book I thought I’d share them here. And I should say that these are all the original copies – I still have them after all those years…

The earliest is probably my copy of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, which was given to me by family friends Bill and Pamela back in the day (and this is *really* back in the day because I was very young!) They had been visiting us down south from Scotland and noticed I was reading the Narnia books. Bill was of the opinion that if I liked those I should also read “The Hobbit” and not long after sent me his copy. I read it, and my Dad also read it, and this led on to us reading “The Lord of the Rings” from the library in lovely big hardbacks (I’ve written about this before). Tolkien was indeed a life changer and I’ve gone through a number of LOTR obsessions in my time.

The inside of the book with Bill’s inscription – the book itself is a bit fragile nowadays…

The next most influential gift books I recalled were given to me the Christmas I turned 19 and were a set of the Mervyn Peake “Gormenghast” books. I was living in a cold-water flat in the Cotswolds at the time and went home for Christmas; the gift of the books came from one of my flatmates. I spent the whole of the Christmas period absolutely locked in the books, unable to stop reading. They really *were* life changers as I became so obsessed with Peake I later ended up helping to run the Peake Society for a while – but that’s another story…

My original Penguin Peakes – just beautiful…

Finally, of course, there has to be Italo Calvino. “If on a winter’s night a traveller…” (note the UK spelling on the cover of my version!) was gifted to me by Mr. Kaggsy in our early days together, and it really was a game changer. I’d never read anything like it; it did literary things I’d never came across and it took me places I’d never been and I had a major obsession with Calvino (still have, really). Yes, I get obsessed with my favourite writers, in case you hadn’t noticed – Georges Perec, anyone? 😀 Anyway, this was one of the most important gifts of my life, really, changing the way I saw everything. Truly books can be transformative.

My original Calvino, complete with UK spelling!

Those are the three obvious gifts of reading I’ve received during my life (although I could probably think of many more and make this post so long you’d all nod off); and I hadn’t thought of them in those terms before, but really they’re so important to me and did indeed change my life, making me the person I am – I would have been very different without experiencing them. So actually, Robert Macfarlane’s little book has been a bit of a gift in itself, making me consider some of the books of my life in a way I never have before. I can’t recommend “The Gifts of Reading” enough (in both senses!) and I’m off to rescue “The Old Ways” from *whispers* the donation pile as I think I’ll have to give it a bit of a reconsider! 😀

“Every great book is tied…to the very matter of the life of its author” @nyrbclassics #Proust #Czapski

18 Comments

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski
Translated by Eric Karpeles

Josef Czapski was a remarkable man; of that, there can be no doubt; a polymath, his life took in painting, writing and essays as well as military and diplomatic careers. And yet, until NYRB issued his works plus a biography I’d never heard of him – which is actually quite shocking. Czapski lived through the bulk of the 20th century; born in Poland in 1896, he was a student in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, a painter in Paris mingling with the likes of Picasso, and during the Second World War fought as an office in the Polish army. Somehow, miraculously, he and a group of less than four hundred men survived the Soviet murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers (the Katyn Massacre); instead, they were incarcerated in a Soviet prison camp 250 miles north of Moscow, which was where this book has its genesis.

The surviving men had no knowledge of what had happened to their comrades; however, during the winter of 1940-41, with temperatures dropping down to as low as minus 45 degrees, they agreed to undertake secret lectures to keep up morale. Each man would speak about what they remembered best, and in Czapski’s case, his love of the work of Proust was his life-saver. Czapski had first read “In Search of Lost Time” (as it’s called in English here) during the summer of 1926, while he was at his uncle’s house in London and suffering with typhoid. His love of that work had stayed with him, and so when it came to the lectures, Czapski presented a series of thoughts on Proust, his life and his work. It’s heady stuff, and all the more remarkable when you think that these lectures were created and delivered without access to books or reference material, so were simply drawn from what was remembered and what Czapski retained in his head.

His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness who soundness is infinitely greater than our own.

And the lectures are remarkably entertaining. Czapski ranges over Proust’s life and influences; the society he moved in; the events and the characters in his great work; and how “In Search…” was Proust’s life’s work and in fact in many ways *took* his life. On their own, the lectures are deeply fascinating and illuminating; and I found myself quite desperate to pick up the third book in the sequence and carry on reading Proust. Czapski really shines a light on Proust’s work and his love of that work is patent.

The last volume of his novel… is the triumphant hymn of a man who has sold all his worldly possessions to buy a single precious pearl, who has measured all the ephemera, all the heartbreak, all the vanity of the joys of the world, of youth, of fame, of eroticism, and holds them up in comparison with the joy of the artist, this being who, constructing each sentence, making and then remaking each page, is in search of an absolute he can never entirely attain, and which, besides, is ultimately unattainable.

However, this is a book where context adds more and our knowledge of the background to the lectures brings extra depth to our reading of it. The latter is deeply affecting on two levels; Czapski’s highly personal response to Proust is in itself extremely moving. However, the lectures are a poignant reminder of the resilience of human beings in extreme situations and a striking illustration of how art and literature are as essential to us as air. The book is translated by Eric Karpeles, who provides an in-depth history of the genesis of the printed version of the lectures, as well as pointing out several other examples of how the memory of literature has helped those in camps to survive, from Primo Levi to Jorge Semprun, Yevgenia Ginzburg to Varlam Shalamov. It’s a testament to the power of words and the importance of literature that the deep love of those works of art helped to keep these prisoners sane whilst living through inhuman conditions.

I’m not making the case that the pages I speak about are the most valuable, it’s just a hierarchy subjectively fixed by my enthusiasm. I can’t recall ever having gone back to Proust – and I’ve done that many times – without discovering some new emphasis, some new insight each time.

“Lost Time” is a slim but devastating book; I became lost in Czapski’s thoughts on Proust only to be jerked back to the reality of where the lectures were given by his acknowledgement that he was working from memory alone with no texts to guide him. And yet his writings have a vitality and intensity born of the love of his subject, which just goes to show that the best teachers are the ones who are committed to their field. My NYRB edition is, of course, beautifully presented, with the excellent aforementioned introduction, as well as colour plates reproducing Czapski’s original schemes for his lectures and a useful glossary of names at the back. In fact, Czapski has been well-served by both publisher and translator; there is a large format NYRB softback biography by Karpeles (a painter and author in his own right, as well as a translator) of Czapski, and I’ll be covering that in coming weeks. Additionally, the publisher has issued an edition of “Inhuman Land”, Czapski’s work about his search for the truth behind the Katyn Massacre, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago; I’ll be covering that too.

I feel awfully ignorant that I’d never heard of Czapski until these NYRB editions, but grateful that the publisher is bringing these works out. Hopefully Czapski will now have a much wider audience in the English-speaking world; and works like his will continue to remind us of the horrors of the past about which we still need to be so vigilant if we’re to avoid a repeat performance…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks! As I mentioned in my earlier post, there is a fascinating-sounding event in London next week which explores Czapski’s work and if you can get along to it, do – more details here!

March on the Ramblings – upcoming documentary fun plus an @NYRBClassics event!

16 Comments

No – I’m not suggesting for a minute that I want you all turning up at my doorstep with placards demanding something or other; instead, I thought I would just drop a little post in with some bits and bobs about what to expect over the next week or two on the Ramblings.

c. ClearStory/BBC

As you might have noticed, I am sunk in the depths of Dostoevsky’s Devils and absolutely loving it. It *will* take me a little time to read, but to keep you occupied there are a couple of reviews scheduled, which will be followed by some Extra Special Posts. As I’ve hinted, Professor Richard Clay has a new documentary due in the next couple of weeks on the subject of memes, and as well as a review of the programme there will be a couple of other Posts of Interest related to Viral which I hope you’ll enjoy – watch this space… ;D

One of my forthcoming reviews is of a NYRB release Lost Time by Józef Czapski; the publisher is releasing this, his book Inhuman Land and a biography, and to tie in with the launch is holding a special event in London on Friday March 15th. Entitled “Józef Czapski: A Beautiful Human Being”, it will take place at the Ognisko restaurant, and features esteemed translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Dr. Stanley Bill of Cambridge University. The evening promises to focus on Czapski’s life and particularly  Inhuman Land (which I’ll be reading and reviewing at a later date) and should be interesting as well as stimulating. Alas, I shall be unable to sneak away from the wilds of East Anglia (which I’m a bit cross about), but if you’re in the Big Smoke the event is reasonably priced and sounds fascinating, so do try to go along if you can! You can find more information about the event here.

Meantime – back to scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence! 😀

“…to immerse yourself, to become possessed…” #elifbatuman #dostoevsky @bananakarenina

26 Comments

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them by Elif Batuman

There have been any number of fascinating books arriving at the Ramblings recently, and some of the most inspired were the two lovely Valentine’s Day gifts from Mr. Kaggsy. I reviewed the first of the pair, “To the River”, here and it was a most wonderful reading experience. The second book was perhaps a surprise – a book on the Russians which I don’t already have and which looked very intriguing. So it was a given that it would come off the shelves soon – I can’t resist the Russians….

Batuman is a new author to me; a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2010, “The Possessed” was her first book and also came out that year. Since then she’s also written a novel “The Idiot” (hmmmm – I sense a theme here…) and she describes herself as “A six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey”. “The Possessed” itself probably falls comfortably into that genre of what you might call ‘enhanced or themed memoir’ which seems to be so prevalent nowadays (you could perhaps put the Laing in there with it) and is none the worse for it – especially, from my point of view, when it turns out that the focus is on Batuman’s encounters with classic Russian literature and how it impacts on her. The result is a heady mix of memoir and experience with tales of how reading Russians has been a thread influencing important parts of her life – something with which I’d obviously empathise, though I don’t think mine has been quite so exciting!

Central to the book is a summer Batuman spent in Samarkand, studying the Uzbek language in the company of her then boyfriend Eric. Three chapters on their adventures are dotted throughout the book, and like all of the narrative it’s entertaining, funny and yet often very moving. Batuman’s encounters with other cultures can be quite eye-opening, and there are often near disasters as she stumbles through situations not quite knowing what to expect. In fact, the subtitle would have more accurately started with the word “Misadventures”!

Isaac Babel

Inevitably, as the book deals very much with Batuman’s experiences in the university sector, there are tales of boredom and bad temper at academic conferences and these are often hilarious; her dry humour captures the silliness and the rivalries and the tensions of these events wonderfully – although there are many uncomfortable conversations which are funny to read about but would be less so to experience… There are encounters with Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky biographer and scholar; and with Isaac Babel’s daughters at a high-profile Babel conference, an event that sounds extraordinarily stressful! Her visit to the Tolstoy Conference at his estate was fascinating, ending with some fascinating musings on Tolstoy and Chekhov; interestingly, she finds less of Chekhov’s presence in her visit to his house than she does of Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. Dostoevsky features in the book towards the end, in perhaps a rather low-key way, given that the title is from one of his books, and there is the inevitable comparison between the two authors. Batuman is definitely a woman who prefers Tolstoy and although I’d choose Dostoevsky in the debate, I had to smile at her analysis of his style!

“Like much of Dostoevsky’s work, Demons consists primarily of scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence.”

“The Possessed” is an unusual book in many ways; choosing to define your life by your experiences in the sphere of Russian literature is not your everyday approach. But a book that discovers the connections between “King Kong” and Babel has got to be special, and Batuman is always an engaging, witty and self-deprecating narrator. As well as telling of her fascinating (mis)adventures, which are entertaining enough on their own, she brings much insight to the Russian authors she discusses. Dangerously, she gives a list of books and sources at the end which set me off researching; frustratingly, some seem to be untranslated, but the core chapters in Samarkand drew on a piece of writing by Pushkin I hadn’t encountered and have unfortunately led to me having to invest in this:

Yes, I’ve already read the “Tales of Belkin” and have at least two translations of them on the shelves; however, this collection contained the only non-P/V version I could find of his travelogue “Journey to Arzrum” and so inevitably I need to read this after the Batuman.

“The Possessed” was really a marvellous read, a wonderful mixture of funny and entertaining memoir alongside some beautiful discussions of, and insights into, many of my favourite authors. I came out of it not only even more impressed with Mr. Kaggsy’s Book Choosing Skills, but also with a very strong need to read a book that’s been languishing on my TBR for too long and which has had a number of versions of its title in translation – yes, “The Possessed” or “The Demons” or in the version I’m embarking on, “The Devils”.

698 pages…

I’m really in the mood for FMD’s revelations and mass violence, and in the immortal words of Captain Oates, I May Be Some Time….. ;D

 

“They have loved reading”. @NottingHillEds #VirginiaWoolf

24 Comments

Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf
Introduced by Joanna Kavenna

I guess it was going to be a given that, having been drawn back to Virginia by my wonderful read of “To the River”, I would want to pick up something Woolfian pretty soon. Fortunately, I had this beautiful little collection of essays standing by, courtesy of Notting Hill Editions, and it was just the thing I needed…

The book was actually issued in 2014, and I’m not sure how I managed to miss it at that time, since I do follow the Notting Hill releases keenly. This is one of their Classic Collection volumes, beautifully presented as always with cloth-covered hard boards, high quality printing and production standards, plus a lovely integral bookmark. So an aesthetically pleasing item in its own right!

The most elementary remarks upon modern English fiction can hardly avoid some mention of the Russian influence, and if the Russians are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any fiction save theirs is a waste of time. If we want understanding of the soul and heart where else shall we find it of comparable profundity? (Modern Fiction)

As for the contents, well this is Virginia Woolf so it’s going to be good… The collection draws together essays by Woolf that consider the ‘self’ in all its variations: from the self of the artist, the social self, the self behind the mask, how the artist maintains their sense of self in the face of all odds, and so on. Taking this kind of thing as its stepping off point, however, the works featured here range far and wide over the rights of women, modernity, the future of the novel, the art of specific authors and so on. Woolf is never dull, and whether writing novels, short stories, letters, diaries or essays like these, her language is captivating and her linguistic flights unmistakable.

… reading, you know, is rather like opening the door to a horde of rebels who swarm out attacking one in twenty places at once – hit, roused, scraped, bared, swung through the air, so that life seems to flash by; then again blinded, knocked on the head… (A Letter to a Young Poet – Woolf on the effect of a good book…)

I confess I always feel a little inadequate when I’m writing about Virginia Woolf; so much has been written about her, she herself was a peerless author, so whatever can I bring to the table? Nevertheless, I’ll give my thoughts for what it’s worth… And first up I must say that this collection served to remind me just how glittering and brilliant Woolf’s prose really was; I’ve never read anything like it, and I don’t think anyone else could ever write like her. The way she plucks the most unlikely imagery out of the ether and spins a sentence that knocks you sideways is unparalleled. There are so many examples in just this slim collection, and when I think of the body of work she left behind I get quite speechless. When you think of the periods of illness she suffered and the relative shortness of her life, the achievement is even more immense.

The art of writing, and that is perhaps what my malcontent means by ‘beauty’, the art of having at one’s beck and call every word in the language, of knowing their weights, colours, sounds, associations, and thus making them, as is so necessary in English, suggest more than they can state, can be learnt of course to some extent by reading – it is impossible to read too much… (A Letter to a Young Poet)

As usual, I can’t really pick favourites, as each essay is marvellous; I’ve read several before, including “Modern Fiction” and “A Letter to a Young Poet”, and I would say they’re even more of a delight on a return visit. A particular treat, however, was “Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car”, where Woolf allows several selves to argue the toss around her, whilst capturing vividly the sensation of driving through the countryside. It was published in “The Death of the Moth”, which I’m sure I have and which I’m sure I’ve read, but this wasn’t that familiar. It was stunning, however!

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesman come to receive their awards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’ (How Should One Read a Book?)

The selections in this lovely volume range from 1919 to December 1940 – so not long before Woolf’s tragic death; that last piece, a short extract from her diary where she reiterates her individuality, is particularly moving (but then nowadays I tend to find everything about Woolf moving). And reading this collection certainly makes me feel like immersing myself in her peerless prose for a while. Poignantly enough, I found that as I was making my way through the essays I could hear them in my head; I have a copy of the surviving recording of Woolf and her tone and inflection had obviously lodged in my mind so that the words I was reading were being replayed as if in her voice. It was a very odd experience, but added to the joy of reading this.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a lot of collections of Virginia Woolf’s essays available (including some Complete volumes which I am gradually collecting…) However, they can be a little overwhelming, and I can recommend this lovely Notting Hill Editions book as a great way to start with her non-fiction. It contains some of her most important essays, gives a real sense of the variety and range of her writing, and the erudite introduction by Joanna Kavenna is a fascinating adjunct to the essays. I really don’t know how I missed this one first time round, but I’m so glad I caught up with it now! 😀

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – for which many thanks!

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: