Day One at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

So today I was near my hometown visiting the Literature Festival ’11 in Cheltenham. Each year this takes place in the second week of October and so falls quite happily over my birthday. Hence, a nice birthday weekend of books, food and thinking.

Instead of keeping my notes to myself, I though that this year I’d share them with whichever people still happened to be reading this.

Today we saw David Lodge discussing his fictional biography on the life of H. G. Wells; A Man of Many Parts. Turns out Wells had a rather scandalous life of politics, sex, interviewing people like Stalin and sometimes squeezing in enough time to write successful novels such as The Time Machine.
Lodge read out a section in which Wells considers a flirtation with children’s author Edith Nesbitt, and apparently it’s the only time in the novel that Wells does not succumb to temptation. In Lodge’s typical style it’s quite unique, plain-speaking and understated; adjectives are used sparsely and to effect, meaning that their message comes across loud, clear and the prose is vivid. I’m considering reading it, and at the very least I want to read all of Well’s major fiction first so that I can make my opinions of him as a writer before philanderer.

Points of interest:

  • Lodge’s suggestion that Paradise Lost is Science Fiction: in particular the suggestion that the first line of The War of the Worlds is reminiscent of Milton’s Satan. “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s…”
  • Wells was too busy having sex to fully edit his novels. Apparently it’s a good thing he was a quick writer!
  • Wells’ novels are of interest to people such as myself, with a “secular and scientific bent”.

After lunch, we saw Tony Benn being his usual hilarious and quotable self. We had already decided that Benn’s politics are not in line with our own, but that as a character he is worth listening to. Case in point being that regarding a question about the provision of jobs, homes etc for debt-worried graduates – Benn’s answer was that education was a human right and that graduates would have high-paying jobs… missing the point entirely. An idealist, a humorous man, but not entirely practical.
This session also provided the Most Mad Question of the Day: a lady somewhere at the back waited for some time to ask whether Benn knew that Harold Wilson was considering assassinating a Ghanian in the 1970s, and was this discussed in cabinet, as a Radio 4 programme she had listened to last year had suggested.
Benn’s reply: “I’m sorry, I’m a little deaf, I didn’t quite catch that.”

The final session of the day was a discussion on Lives of the Novelists (i.e. literary biography and biographical fiction) between David Lodge and John Sutherland, author of the new Lives of the Novelists, a chronological literary history of 294 writers’ lives. It looks like a beautiful encyclopedia, and I want it for Christmas.

Points of interest:

  • books are “little time machines” – on each re-reading you are taken back to how life was when you first read each page
  • “literary criticism is fun because ultimately there is no consensus”
  • drawing on her own life, the novelist uses aesthetics and tactics to combine fantasy/plot with reality to make something which moves us all. And so, biography is dangerous as it unpicks this creation (and shines light onto areas kept dark for a reason). The work is therefore no longer original and whole.
  • Speculation in biography is fine, but in fiction it is a killer. In Lodge’s words “a novelist cannot produce a character who’s not sure if he’s had sex or not”.
  • The poet is at the disposal of the reader? What does this mean? In T. S. Eliot‘s words, poetry is an escape from personality, whereas fiction draws on personality and experience. (Could this have been a tactic on Eliot’s part to keep critics from using biography to ‘understand’ his writing?)
  • Using biography to make sense of poetry is reductive
  • Through non-specificity, poetry means more and touches more people – it can stand for itself where it is not explicitly the confessional device of the poet.
  • “the poem is a statue” “in clinical isolation” – in studying poetry there is no context, just text. Sutherland suggested that this might be unsatisfying; there is always a human element to poetry, surely biography can illuminate this? Lodge countered this by bringing up the case of Philip Larkin, a darling poet of the nation until letters were released exposing his ‘distasteful’ private natures, which caused outrage and for him to be potentially dropped from some UoL curriculums.
  • How can poetry make us identify with things with which we have no experience? Good poetry will do this; you do not need to know what the poet has experienced to feel something also e.g. students can identify with Ted Hughes but not Sylvia Plath – I think this is because students have preconceptions about Plath and so make judgements on her poetry, thinking that they cannot identify. Yet, they understand The Bell Jar
  • Why does context help us to understand fiction but inhibit our understanding of poetry?
  • The poet has two selves.
  • “Great novelists are bisexual” in being able to write convincingly from the point of view of both sexes.
  • “the novel is obviously fiction” – is it?!

And finally, The Second Most Mad Question of the Day: two people who lived in one house were ‘homosexually-inclined’. “Was there something in the brickwork that made them homosexually-inclined?”

So with that thought to play on your mind, I’ll leave you. Bring on tomorrow!

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One thought on “Day One at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

  1. Pingback: The Cheltenham Literature Festival 2011 « Book Monkey

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