2016: A Literary Calendar

New releases from four Booker-prize winners; posthumous works from Christopher Hitchens and Terry Pratchet; a tribute from William Shatner; and several commemorative reimaginings for Shakespeare’s 400th death-day. It’s shaping up to be a veritable feast of a year.


January

And Yet: Essays
Christopher Hitchens
Essays
A posthumous collection of observations that proves Hitchens is nothing if not entertaining. Whether or not you agreed with his worldview he possessed an articulate charm that still shines through in his writing.

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Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
Lisa Randall
Science
Ranked by Brainpickings’s Maria Popova as the best non-fiction work, and if that’s not high enough praise I don’t what is. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of dark matter? Read her full review for the New York Times here.

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes
Fiction
Whether you like Barnes or not he’s won a Booker prize so it’s worth keeping an eye on his stuff. This one appeals to me particularly because it’s about Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the greatest string composers of the 20th century, and is set amongst the chaos of Stalinist Russia.


February

Leonard: A Life
William Shatner
Biography
Of course we want to read a book by the endearing Shatner. Especially a tribute to his late friend and co-star Leonard Nimoy, immortalized as Spock in Star Trek, in the 50th anniversary year of the original series premiere.

Shylock Is My Name
Howard Jacobson
Fiction
The first in a legion of Shakespeare nods in this the 400th anniversary year of the great bard’s death. True to form Jacobsen focuses on the Jewish character from The Merchant of Venice in an exploration of fatherhood and morality. And as another Booker winner, his stuff is usually worth a sniff.

The High Mountains of Portugal
Yann Martel
Fiction
Yet another new release from a Booker winner (this seems to be the year), this is the novel I would choose above the others so far due to the sheer originality of Martel’s voice. In the vein of Life of Pi, Martel again tackles the quest narrative in a story about treasure, murder and of course, animal companionship.

This Census-Taker
China Miéville
Novella
Miéville has been around for a while but his appeal is now taking off beyond the ranks of genre fanatics. A startlingly inventive speculative writer, here he deals with the relationship between a young boy and a stranger who might save him from himself.


March

Anatomy of a Soldier
Harry Parker
Fiction
Debut novel from a former solider about a British captain recovering from a horrific bomb injury. What sets this novel apart is that it’s narrated from the point-of-view of 45 inanimate objects. 

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails
Sarah Bakewell
Philosophy/Biography
An exploration of existentialism from 1930s France through to the liberal movements of the mid-century, by examining the lives and relationships of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron, among others.

Hot Milk
Deborah Levy
Fiction
A Booker-shortlisted author, Levy’s new novel is about a mother and daughter finding refuge in a Spanish village, and explores all the trauma and triumph of female relationships and identity.


April

Fragments
Elena Ferrante
Writings
One of the hottest authors around and still her true identity remains a mystery. Having recently concluded the highly acclaimed Neapolitan quartet, this year she releases a collection of observations through short pieces, interviews and letters.

The Bricks That Built the Houses
Kate Tempest
Fiction
Winner of the Ted Hughes prize for poetry and nominated as a rapper for the Mercury music prize, Tempest’s new work is a novel about three youths escaping south-east London together, running from various forms of oppression in the hopes of liberating themselves from self-loathing, loneliness and unconsummated desire.

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The Blade Artist
Irvine Welsh
Fiction
Another grungy British novel, and who wouldn’t want to read the latest Welsh? Particularly when he returns to one of Trainspotting’s most divisive characters, Francis Begbie.


May

A Life Discarded
Alexander Masters
Biography
A ‘found’ biography, compiled from 148 volumes of diary discovered amongst discarded building materials in Cambridge.

Selection Day
Aravind Adiga
Fiction
May is a busy month for releases but do not miss Adiga’s latest novel. Yet another prior Booker-winner, his new work focuses on a young boy in present-day Mumbai.

The Gustav Sonata
Rose Tremain
Fiction
I would recommend Rose Tremain’s gorgeously rendered novels anyway, but when ‘Gustav’ and ‘Sonata’ are mentioned in the title it’s a no-brainer. Two boys hold onto friendship over thirty years of life spanning World War II.

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
Kate Summerscale
True Crime
In the vein of her previous bestseller The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Summerscale turns again to murder in Victorian England, this time writing about the trial of a 13-year-old boy.

Zero K
Don DeLillo
Fiction
Another big name release for 2016, DeLillo addresses mortality and the privilege of extreme wealth when a man tries to save his wife from terminal illness.


June

Hands: What We Do With Them – and Why
Darian Leader
Psychology
The latest in the line-up of fascinating psychoanalytical works, Leader examines what’s really going on when we fiddle with our fingers.

The Games: A Global History of the Olympics
David Goldblatt
Historical
Just in time for the 31st Olympiad in Rio, Goldblatt delivers on the success of his football history to give us the highlights of the world Olympics.

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The Long Cosmos
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Fiction
Of course this is a must-read no matter who you are. The grand finale of The Long Earth series concludes a life’s work from Pratchett, who died shortly after its completion last year.

Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler
Fiction
Another Shakespearean tribute from the Booker crowd (A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted last year), Tyler delivers a quirky interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.


July

The Girls
Emma Cline
Fiction
Already sold to Scott Rudin for film adaptation, this is one of the most hotly anticipated debuts of the year. A young girl in the 1969 summer becomes involved with a commune similar to the Manson Family.

The Muse
Jessie Burton
Fiction
Set in Spain and London in the 30s and 60s, the author of The Miniaturist spins a tail about a painting, a Caribbean immigrant and a bohemian artist.

You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know
Philip Gourevitch
Historical/War
Gourevitch returns to the subject of Rwanda after his startling and brutal coverage of the 1994 genocide.


August

A Horse Walks into a Bar
David Grossman
Fiction
A perplexing and enthralling novel about a comedian whose life disintegrates on stage during an act in a small Israeli town.

Beast
Paul Kingsnorth
Fiction
A Booker long-lister this time, Kingsnorth returns with a quest novel set in the Midlands moor. His debut The Wake established him as an author of remarkable linguistic inventiveness with his use of a shadow version of Old English.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Ed Yong
Science
Yong discusses the incredible influence of microbes on the lives of all earthly animals, released off the back of a successful Atlantic column, science blog and viral TED talk.

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu
Charlie English
Historical
The story of librarians smuggling manuscripts out of Timbuktu when it was on the brink of Islamic occupation, combined with an exploration of the city itself as it was first discovered by the western world in the Victorian era.


September

bolshoi

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet
Simon Morrison
Arts/Historical
What’s not to love about this exploration of art under pressure? Russia, ballet, tsars, Putin, Bolshoi, beautiful people, famous composers, and life in the spotlight.

Here I Am
Jonathan Safran Foer
Fiction
We’ve waited eleven years for the next Safran Foer novel, and if you haven’t read his previous two make sure you start from the beginning with Everything Is Illuminated. His new work also examines Jewish identity, this time set against the war in Israel.

The Lesser Bohemians
Eimear McBride
Fiction
A new novel from the author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing which won the Baileys Prize in 2014. Set in the 90s in north London, a young woman moves from Ireland to study acting and begins an affair with an older actor.

Who Rules the World?
Noam Chomsky
Sociology
The controversial intellectual claims the greatest threat to future peace is the USA.


October

Blood Riders
Gary Oldman & Douglas Urbanski
Fiction
Any work of fiction by esteemed Brit actor Gary Oldman sounds enticing enough, let alone this, the first in a proposed series of Wild West vampire novels. Watch him in 1992’s Dracula to get yourself in the mood.

Bookworm
Lucy Mangan
Literature/Historical
Mangan collates her vast experience to provide an insight into the beauty of childhood reading and the classic books that have profoundly influenced generations of young people.

Total Intoxication
Norman Ohler
Historical
An examination of the use of drugs in the Nazi party as a tool of war and experimentation.


November

The Power
Naomi Alderman
Fiction
A satirical reimagining of a society in which girls are the stronger sex, from the author of The Liar’s Gospel.

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The Worlds of Joseph Conrad
Maya Jasanoff
Literature/Historical
Jasanoff uses Conrad’s life and works to examine perspectives on world culture and geography at the beginning of the 1900s.

Venice: An Interior
Javier Marías
Design
Marías, esteemed Spanish author of A Heart So White and The Infatuations, turns his eye to the beauty of Venetian design.

 

Elise Janes

Museums far from the madding crowd

Few cities in the world do museums in quite the way London does. Its most famous examples – The British Museum, the Natural History Museum and so on – are among the city’s major tourist attractions. But it is possible to enjoy a different flavour of London by visiting its legion minor museums, which seem to exist solely as a means of expressing how peculiar Britons and their interests can be.

Many of these museums require, shall we say, a very keen interest in the subject matter; while others are, as Samuel Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway, ‘worth seeing … but not worth going to see’.

However, the following five are among the few that are worth a visit.

Foundling Museum                                                      

Located in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, the Foundling Museum (foundlingmuseum.org.uk) is built on the site of the Foundling Hospital – the world’s first children’s charity and its first public art gallery.

The Hospital was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. It had taken him 17 years to raise the funds.

The artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel helped Coram by making the Hospital one of London’s most fashionable venues. Handel held annual benefit concerts there while Hogarth encouraged the leading artists of the day to donate work. These paintings are still on display in the Museum’s charming 18th-century interiors reconstructed from the original building.

Poverty, widowhood, desertion by the child’s father and the shame of illegitimacy were common reasons why women faced the Sophie’s choice of keeping their babies and subjecting them to a life of poverty, or leaving them with the Hospital, which offered the child a better life. On opening, the Hospital was overwhelmed by demand and, to cope with the numbers, was forced to use a simple lottery system.

On admission, names were changed to protect mother and child, but it was possible for a mother to reclaim her child using a token that matched the one she’d already provided. Some of these are on heart-breaking display in the Museum’s small but fascinating permanent exhibition. They include personalised fabric, coins, playing cards, jewellery and medals.

By the time the Foundling Hospital closed in 1954, about 25,000 babies and children had passed through its doors.

Dickens Museum

Dickens writing Desk

A short walk from the Foundling Hospital, is the Dickens Museum (dickensmuseum.com), located in a Georgian townhouse at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury. Then in his mid-twenties, Dickens moved there with his wife Catherine, Charles Jr (the first of their ten children) and Catherine’s sister Mary Hogarth who died in the house a few weeks later. Her death affected Dickens deeply and had a morbid influence on his subsequent writing.

Dickens rented the house from 1837 to 1839, just as his fame was peaking. It was at 48 Doughty Street that he finished the Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The museum is exquisitely curated and very evocative. Many of the objects were owned by Dickens himself (such as his desk and chair, and shaving gear).

Whether you’re interested in Dickens or not you would have to be among the living dead not to find the museum captivating, and it is within striking distance of the British Museum and the rest of what has been dubbed Museum Mile (museum-mile.org.uk).

Guards Museum

Much smaller than the Army Museum in Chelsea and certainly the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, the Guards Museum (theguardsmuseum.com) is ideal for someone whose interest in military matters is low to moderate and who happens to be in the area – that is, Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace. There is no faulting its location.

The museum is devoted solely to the British Army’s five Guards regiments – the Coldstream, Grenadier, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards – who form most of the Queen’s Household Division. When you watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, it is these guys who are doing the changing.

This compact museum is well laid out and consistently interesting, covering as it does all 360 years of the Guards’ existence. As such it provides a pocket history of the British Army. Objects that captured my attention included a packet of now crumbling chocolate distributed by Queen Victoria to all British soldiers during the Boer War, and an assault rifle smashed to pieces by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Old Operating Theatre

There are dozens of medicine-related museums in London (see www.medicalmuseums.org) but probably the best example is the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, which more than any other museum I’ve been to, benefits from its unique setting.

The museum is housed at the top of a spiral stone staircase in the garret of a deconsecrated church near London Bridge. The church was built in 1703, its garret specifically intended to store herbs for the apothecary of St Thomas’s Hospital.

In 1822, an operating theatre was installed in one half of the garret. The theatre is the oldest surviving in Europe, and was built in the attic because it adjoined the hospital’s women’s ward, and because it was possible to create a large overhead skylight to aid the surgeons in their work.

For the 40 years it was in use, none of the operations performed there involved anaesthetic beyond alcohol or maybe opium, which is why it was separated from the ward by a soundproof wall. Tragically, antiseptic was not used either – Sir Joseph Lister introduced such procedures to the medical world in 1865, three years after the operating theatre closed. The mortality rate was horrendous.

The operating table, which remains in situ, is made of wood. The majority of cases were amputations, and in the absence of anaesthetics surgeons focused on speed. A skilled surgeon could remove a limb in less than a minute.

The other half of the garret contains a fascinating if macabre display including surgical instruments such as amputation saws, as well as leech jars and scarification equipment. The place smells pleasantly of carbolic, which is on display but was never used at the time. The illustrations of people being held down while their limbs are sawn off adds to the atmosphere and the immense gratitude you feel for having been born 150 years after the theatre was closed.

Staff talks bring the innocuous wood-panelled space of the operating theatre to gruesome life so it’s worth timing your visit to coincide with one – check the website (thegarret.org.uk) for details.

Anaesthesia Museum

In a similar vein, so to speak, is the Anaesthesia Museum, which is housed in the basement of the Association of Anaesthetists (www.aagbi.org) in Marylebone. Though the size of a modest kitchen, it has more than 4000 objects, some of them dating from 1774, and many of them available for inspection in drawers with labels such as ‘Endotracheal tubes’, ‘Laryngeal masks’, ‘mouthgags’, and ‘tongue forceps’.

It is a well-curated museum permeated with what might be the faint smell of anaesthetic. That said, it is more the story of anaesthesia than the museum itself that captured my imagination. For instance, the first anaesthetics were ether (1846), chloroform (1847) and nitrous oxide (1868). None of them were ideal. Ether is highly flammable, chloroform’s possible side effects include death, and nitrous oxide wears off too quickly.

Other obscure London museums …

The following museums might also tempt you, though bear in mind their opening hours can be as eccentric as their contents – check their websites for details.

  • The Optical Museum near Trafalgar Square has a collection of 18,000 spectacles and vision aids including 18th- and 19th-century spy glasses and telescopes, eye baths, and models of diseased eyes.
  • The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill offers 12,000 items, mostly comprising food packets from the last century or so.
  • The Twinings Museum, opposite the Old Bailey on the Strand, is more a small shop than a museum, though it was on these premises in 1706 that the tea company was founded.
  • The Dental Museum in Marylebone is about the size of a dental surgery, and provides a disturbing insight into life before dentists were properly trained and equipped.
  • Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich is necessarily large given the sometimes enormous exhibits on display. An interest in artillery is a prerequisite.
  • If you enjoyed the Dickens Museum, you might also want to visit Dr Johnson’s House near Fleet Street, or Benjamin Franklin’s House near Charing Cross, or Keats’s House in Hampstead.
  • The Garden Museum in Lambeth has a small collection of old gardening tools, including eccentricities such as a glass cucumber-straightener and a walking stick with inbuilt pruning saw for gentlemen gardeners.
  • The Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell offers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
  • The Musical Museum in Brentford is devoted purely to self-playing instruments. An excellent place to learn the difference between the orchestrion and the orchestrelle.
  • The Chartered Insurance Institute Museum in the City of London is concerned mainly with fire insurance and firefighting.
  • The Wimbledon Windmill Museum details the history of the Wimbledon Windmill (in which it is located) and windmills generally. Ideal for windmill enthusiasts.
  • The London Sewing Machine Museum in Balham covers the history of both domestic and industrial sewing machines.
  • Greenwich’s Fan Museum claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to handheld fans, which comes as absolutely no surprise. If you find yourself there trying to admire its 3500 antique fans, it is possible that you’ve become bored with London, and therefore with life.

 

Conan Elphicke

 

Before Sunset

Few movies have the boldness to be both utterly romantic and painstakingly realistic, holding our emotional response in some sort of excruciating stasis between hope and despair, made all the more raw by the immensely empathetic nature of the lives and thoughts and feelings of the two central characters. This movie came out in 2004, a year before I first visited Paris, and now the two are inextricably linked in my mind. I cannot visit Shakespeare & Co without imagining that heartbreakingly casual reconnection between Jesse and Celine, nine years in the making.

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In an age when it is all to easy to give audiences exactly what they want, Richard Linklater has become a master at the slow burn, engaging us whole-heartedly in bare-faced dialogue that is at the same time both lyrical and recognisable, carrying us along an ebb and flow of intimacy and smokescreen that seems, if possible, to be even more genuine than our own personal experiences.

Before Sunset is the central movie in a trilogy of exceptional films, each made exactly nine years apart and each one a continuation of a conversation between two characters who seem at the same time made for each other while also unreachably different. In 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine first meet by chance on a train to Vienna and spend a night walking its cobblestone streets talking life, love and art.

There is no hidden agenda in this movie. There will be no betrayals, melodrama, phony violence, or fancy choreography in sex scenes. It’s mostly conversation, as they wander the city of Vienna from mid-afternoon until the following dawn. Nobody hassles them.

– Roger Ebert on ‘Before Sunrise’

After promising to meet again in six months’ time, we as an audience are left hanging for nine years until we rediscover them as they rediscover each other over a day in Paris, gently edging toward revelations about the questions we desperately want to know: are they married, are they happy, are they meant to be together? The third iteration came another nine years later, in 2013’s Before Midnight, where we discover what has become of them since that fateful reconnection on the banks of the Seine.

Will there be a fourth film in 2022? We both hope and fear it to be so. Such is Linklater’s remarkably uncontrived effect on his audience.

Filmed in long uninterrupted takes that trick us into the feeling of real-time, these movies are dialogue journeys that take us on a winding path through all the beautiful and tragic ideas we have always wondered but rarely voiced.

All three movies make grand use of their European city backdrops, incorporating history and geo-social landmarks into the narrative, making the trilogy that much more beautiful and entrancing. After the first movie, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy joined the production team as writers, adding an indispensable layer of realism to their onscreen relationship.

The movies have consistently scored exceptionally high on IMDB, Meteoritic, Rotten Tomatoes and even Roger Ebert. They are timeless, beautiful, deep and entangling, and you will find yourself revisiting them again and again.

If ever there was a fitting narrative tribute to the phases of the sun as paralleled in the waxing and waning seasons of life, it exists in these three films.

 

Elise Janes

The Exuberant Existence of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist

Henry_Savery_memorial_stone,_Isle_of_the_Dead,_TasmaniaHenry Savery’s life reads like an exercise in over-imagination. From the beginning, it seems, Henry was going to be one of those guys who couldn’t content himself with the confines of a modest existence. In other words, the man who penned Australia’s first novel seemed simply to be born for the task.

Many of you have probably never heard of him, and it would have remained that way had it not been for the minds behind if:book Australia, rather out-of-the-box bibliophiles themselves, who have incorporated Henry Savery into one of their current projects, ‘Rumours of My Death’. In the recent Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Henry himself engaged with festivalgoers through the conveyance of an anonymous author on twitter, one of the many exceptional experiences on offer in this year’s program.

Thanks to these two Queensland institutions, the bizarre world of Henry Savery has been illuminated for us once again.

And a strange man he was. Not one to trouble himself with good business decisions, Henry failed first at sugar-refining and then at newspaper-mongering and turned instead to forging credit. Sounds like any good Wall Street origin story, right? When his business partner turned him in (classic), he tried to flee to America but jumped off the boat and was quickly apprehended. His jailhouse antics served to postpone his court hearing, which was lucky in the end because he was sentenced to hang and was only saved at the very last moment by friends in high places. If there was one key to success Henry mastered, it was having the right guys on speed dial.

After arriving as a convict in Tasmania he managed to secure a position in the Treasury, despite having well proven his inability to manage finance of any kind. Once again, he knew exactly which hands to shake. Here his narrative takes a turn for the political drama, when his wife and son join him in Tasmania and rumours of her affair with the Attorney General lead to bickering between the two. Being the drama-queen he was, Henry threatened suicide. After he was imprisoned for money troubles yet again, the wife took off back to England, and that was the end of that.

Quintus ServintonNot one to pass up an opportunity Henry used his prison days to kickstart a writing career, another activity that was expressly against the law for convicts. His unfavourable portraits of local personages sparked a libel suit, of course, which was soon dismissed and the articles were later collected and published by the early Australian man of letters, Henry Melville. Here’s where Savery pioneers the ethos of the Lost Generation, a whole century before Hemingway was born.

Somehow, he managed to get released into the care of Major Hugh Macintosh, one of the founders of Cascade Brewery of all people, and spent his days writing peacefully on the banks of the Derwent River. Even though he was forbidden to carry on any kind of business, he managed the farm for Macintosh and wrote the manuscript that would eventually be Australia’s first novel: the fantastically entitled Quintus Servinton, published anonymously in 1831.

After a several further brushes with the law and various local VIPs, Henry again descended into debt and resorted to forgery to support his increasing alcoholism. In a fitting, albeit sad end to his dramatic existence, he found himself imprisoned in Port Arthur where he died and was buried on the infamous Isle of the Dead, passing into colonial legend

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And there you have it. What better man to assume the mantel of Australia’s first author than one Henry Savery? It could be argued that he embodied the quintessential author archetype: emotional, irresponsible, impulsive and bold, possessing influential friends, an unstable character, and a knack for obtaining a lot of free time in close proximity to a brewery and a beautiful river valley.

His great contribution to our literary oeuvre may not be any Les Miserables or Huckleberry Finn, but it is no less worthy of our respect, even if only for the remarkable life that brought it forth. Someone should really make a movie out of it, but in the meantime the full text of Quintus can be found here, well worth a look. It is, after all, a national treasure, almost two centuries old and an indelible part of our cultural and artistic heritage.

Thank you, Henry Savery, for your financial incompetence, which bestowed upon us this unique slice of literary history.

 

Further Reading:

 

Elise Janes

 

The Labyrinth is Thoroughly Known

2013-04-10-labyrinth

Last week I got a bit academic on you and started down this road of form and structure, and what it means to readers and writers and so on. The reason for this dialectic digression stems from my own exploration of the concepts of form over the past few months while I have been structurally editing my manuscript. As anyone who has ever done this knows, ideas of form are integral to the structural process.

I began last week by underlining the fact that ‘form’ as a concept is incredibly complex and a multifaceted term that at different points in one discourse may refer to genre, style, format or structure, or something else altogether. Indeed, ‘form’ often refers to a combination of all these things within the cultural connotations that society has built up over a good few thousand years of literary and narrative art, since well before Aristotle’s Poetics first tried to categorise and define these ideas.

Not only do these concepts of form span history, but they also span ethnicity. While world cultures vary in language, customs, religion and social structures, the ideas of form within storytelling seem yet to transcend even these vast diversities (Let’s pause for a moment and wonder at the incredible global unity that is created by the sharing and telling of stories, and how we have come to be at this moment in time as a result of the many ages and cultures that have come before).

So form is complex, yet it is also timeless. It’s difficult to define, and yet a firm grasp of form can provide an author with a necessary framework to build or remodel a work of narrative art. This is why so many literary courses deal weightily with the study of form. It not only informs our reception and criticism of narrative work, but also the way in which we construct it.

Last week I proposed we look at some theories of form that have emerged over the past fifty years or so, since the advent of Modernism combined with massive industrial and technological progress opened the world up to a greater consumption of and formal interest in literature. In the 1950s there unfolded a rebirth of literary academics, and therefore a new progression of philosophical schools of thought about the subject. Here we shall touch on only a few, but at least some of the most important theories that shape how we currently think about structure and story.

Northrop Frye

Last week I pointed you in the direction of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a foundational academic work that paved the way for all modern concepts of form. Frye was labeled a ‘structuralist’ (as opposed to the post-structuralists that came later) because his theories were founded on the idea of certain concrete and universal frameworks of story.

Don’t be discouraged if you began to drift halfway through Frye’s ‘Polemical Introduction’ and gave up before you even started on the first essay. Frye is considered by many to be the most important theorist on Western literature to have existed in the past fifty years. So his work is necessarily detailed and extremely thorough.

Here’s the general idea about Frye:

  • He was one of the first literary theorists to develop a theory of criticism solely based within the framework of literature itself, instead of applying theories of criticism from other fields of study, as everyone else was doing at the time.
  • This meant he studied the works themselves and developed a theory based on content and communicative ability instead of the whims of literary trends and personal taste.
  • As a student of Aristotle, he based his analysis of literature on the elements identified in the Poetics.
  • By interrogating the substance of great works of literature, he surmised that literature has a general tendency to rely on primitive formulas.
  • He developed a four-fold scope of analysis that was inherently cyclical, that is, took cues from the progressive and atmospheric change of natural seasons, the ages of man, and the progress of history.
  • This is where his famous theory of seasons comes from, where each season corresponds to an archetype of story: comedy, romance, tragedy and satire.
  • He argued that myth and literature are codependent, as literature is merely a means for a society to reinterpret and revoice myths that are central to its foundation and development.
  • His theories focus on the way in which these myths are retold.

In summary, Frye was a genius. In order to really understand his work you need to read it, but short of that try Wikipedia’s summary or this rather helpful slideshow. Basically, he discovered that within certain combinations of foundational elements, all the variety of world literature takes life, much like the twelve tones of music, transmuted through differences of register, metre, rhythm and timbre, form the basis of all the musical works of the world.

Essentially, he found that literature is about telling the same stories in an infinite number of different ways.

Joseph Campbell

Campbell takes this concept of central story archetype one step further in his seminal work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, from which the theory of monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey, is derived. Campbell was a scholar of legends and world religion and his work points to the same conclusions as Frye regarding literature and narrative being simply the retelling of myths. However Campbell goes on to decide that all stories can be traced back to a single myth, irrespective of time, place or culture: the transformative myth of the hero.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)

Here’s where we can get less abstract and more concrete about form, specifically how it applies to narrative structure. While Campbell’s work was also complex and expansive, he was very adept at applying his theories to modern stories, not just literature but film as well. Add to that a fantastic way with words and ideas, and you quickly see why this guy became so important to contemporary story theory.

Campbell’s work is much more accessible for non-academics than Frye’s so I recommend a full read. However, this series of interviews with Bill Moyers provides a comprehensive and entertaining summary of his ideas, beginning with this fantastic quote from The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the heropath. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Here’s the Campbell overview:

  • Through extensive comparative research of myths and legends throughout the world he developed a theory that all stories centre on a hero completing a transformative quest.
  • He defines a hero as someone who has found or achieved or done something greater than the norm; who has risked himself for the benefit of others.
  • Like Frye, Campbell discovered that story was cyclical, specifically formed by a going and a return.
  • The basic motif is that of leaving one condition and finding a source of strength or change in order to bring the hero into another, more mature or advanced condition.
  • All stories are based on the objective of saving something: a people, a race, a person, an object, an ideal; and of the hero sacrificing something in order to achieve that salvation.

Have a quick search around the internet and you will find countless diagrams of the hero’s journey and pictorial depictions of Campbell’s work. You will also find a lot more information on the ideas that have come from his writings, specifically the monomyth, but also the structures of initiation rituals and coming-of-age stories as they tie in to the hero’s journey.

In summary, Campbell found that all stories can be traced back to the idea of a transformative quest, that of sacrificing one state for another in order to benefit an external cause.

So…

You may not agree with the above ideas, in which case you would be more interested in the schools of deconstructionism and post-structuralism which became very popular when meta-thinking was all the rage, and was probably what dominated most literary corridors when you were at university (and no doubt still does). Next week we’ll touch briefly on these thoughts, and consider why, after all that, we keep on coming back to this inescapable idea that there is nothing new under the sun except the way in which we colour things.

Is the labyrinth thoroughly known? Or is it impossible to ever know?

Perhaps therein lie two sides of the same coin.

 

Elise Janes

 

ANZAC Day after 100 years

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

Tomorrow morning many of us will wake in the dark to early alarms and make the devoted trek to a Dawn Service at one of countless events held in parks and amphitheaters around the country.

We will stand in the chilly pre-dawn air bearing poppies and wreathes. We will sing the Anthem and recite the Ode. We will listen to the Last Post and maintain a minute’s silence with a shiver on our skin.

1024px-Anzac-square-night-brisbane-may2012 - Karen Nielsen

The Eternal Flame in Anzac Square, Brisbane. Photo: Karen Nielsen.

Australians are devoted to the ANZAC legend. It is a source of national pride, a symbol of our gratitude and a demonstration of our deep enduring respect for the men and women who won us our lucky freedom.

Far from a celebration of victory, like other wartime anniversaries such as Remembrance Day, ANZAC Day pays tribute to the beginning of a long and bloody campaign waged on the Turkish Peninsula that ultimately failed in its objective. It’s not a celebration, it is a commemoration: a moment to consider what it really means to be an Australian.

Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.

Australian War Memorial

This ANZAC tradition is not one we take lightly. Almost every Australian town, no matter how bijou, will have an ANZAC Park with a memorial dedicated to the men who lost their lives on that day, or who fought in some war at some point in the history of our small but wiry nation. It represents for us not only the integrity of Australian mate-ship but more importantly what we, a small and relatively insignificant nation, are capable of when we band together and put our shoulder to the wheel.

Like most Australians I am fiercely proud of our ANZAC history. Even though I’m several generations removed from the First World War I am immensely moved by the ceremony and what it represents.

My grandfather was a naval engineer in the Second World War. ANZAC Day attendance was an annual requirement in my formative years, a meaningful day for our family, blurred in my child’s eyes by the mystery of time and the greatness of the past. As I grew to understand the true scope of the event it only became more significant and more incredible to me. It’s something that was part of the fabric of my life and the life of my family.

And yet on this, the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day, I am led to ponder the nature of the cultural tributes we pay to our wartime history. Most Australians will have seen the movie Gallipoli at some point in their lives, a beautifully understated and shockingly realistic depiction of the journey young men faced when they left their hometown for the battlefront. Yet the most recent retelling of the event, a well-produced mini-series that aired on Channel Nine, struggled to compete in ratings with inane reality TV shows.

Gallipoli

What’s wrong with us? Some commentators believe that the more removed we become from the experiences of war, the less new generations care for remembrances such as ANZAC Day. I disagree, having taught in many schools where students are intensely aware of the significance of the occasion. And yet if society is somehow losing perspective on ANZAC Day, isn’t that our fault? As Australians it’s our responsibility to keep our remarkable heritage alive in the social and cultural consciousness of our own nation.

Unlike many nations around the world, our military history is actually something to be proud of. We have never initiated a conflict with another nation and yet we have always come to the aid of our allies when fighting for peace and the civil rights of cultures and nations far removed from ours.

Our soldiers are renowned for their strength, resilience, loyalty and commitment. Despite being such a small nation, in many ways we have a greater fighting spirit than countries far larger and more powerful than us.

And yet what are we doing with this incredible part of our identity? Many Australians are more familiar with the conflicts of the USA or Europe than that of their own homeland. Simply because of the amount of cultural currency we attribute to the exploits of other nations compared to that of our own.

I have no doubt this is largely because of long-entrenched national identity problems such as the ubiquitous Cultural Cringe, somehow wrapped up in our ridiculous obsession with self-deprecation and achievement-avoidance known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome.

In reality, we are now better known around the world for these two insecurity issues than we are for the actual reality of our nation’s history and achievements. How absurd.

In fact, how shamefully embarrassing. Do we have such a low opinion of ourselves that this is the legacy we have created? Or do we just care so little about anything that we simply can’t be bothered?

As I think about it now I find it utterly dumbfounding. I’m frustrated by the lack of understanding we have about our own significance and our own cultural strength. I’m angered by the subsequent lack of understanding that this generates in the eyes of the world. Why don’t we celebrate our history? Why don’t we make it part of our identity? Why don’t we think it’s even worth the value of artistic effort?

In truth there’s a vast disconnect between our world stance and our true national identity. And it’s our fault. What are we going to do about it?

We owe it to ourselves to retell the stories that shaped our identity as a nation, to learn how to celebrate our achievements instead of hiding them behind false modesty. Really, we owe it to the world to stand up and own our history, to reverse the negative legacy we have built for ourselves.

But most of all we owe it to the men and women who made possible the freedom we enjoy today, and upon whose sacrifice our identity is built.

 

Elise Janes

Quid est veritas?

What is truth?

The quest for an answer to this proposition is arguably the driving force behind all human endeavour, sitting at the heart of scientific, artistic, philosophical, historical, cultural and ideological pursuit. Certainly in literature it forms the central narrative drive, propelling action and informing the struggles and motivations of protagonists and antagonists alike. It seems to represent the core struggle and mystery of life’s frustrations.

Significant in literary and historical record, these words are attributed to Pontius Pilate, a question asked during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth in an exchange between the two men that has long been the source of much commentary and analysis.

However one approaches Good Friday, whether it be a day of religious, philosophical or simply social significance, the events that form the basis of our cultural recognition of Easter bear some consideration. As with any historical episode that has become part of cultural identity, the story of Good Friday is as significant for its wider implications as for its immediate context.

Within the many layers of narrative and religious symbolism, Pontius Pilate is one character that lends the narrative a deeper resonance of meaning. Confronted by his subjects, whose laws and customs he did not share, to execute a seemingly innocent man on the eve of their most important religious festival, Pilate faced one of the most bizarre and confusing moments of recorded Roman government.

Pilate

Roman prefects were not known for their light hand or mild manners. They were inevitably promoted to office because of their proven military strength, adherence to judicial code, and practical understanding of the intricacies of political strategy and rational decision-making.

Pilate’s apparent disinclination to condemn Jesus is clearly represented in all recorded accounts of the event, but is illustrated most intimately in the canonical book of John where Pilate questions the Nazarene to ascertain a reason for the Jews’ sudden and unanimous call for his death.

Caught between the politically serious accusations of treason, the increasingly violent demands of the crowd, and his personal unwillingness to convict a man who had seemingly done no harm, Pilate asks Jesus point blank: “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is the question that initiates their short but compelling exchange, a conversation that is unlike any other recorded between an accused criminal and the man who legally controls his fate. Far from defending himself, Jesus remains strangely obtuse.

Commentators and narrative adaptations have portrayed this interaction from many different perspectives, some interpreting that Pilate was questioning Jesus in jest or that he was supremely disinterested in the whole proceeding and in the affairs of Jews in general. However other glimpses into Pilate’s nature provided by the canonical, apocryphal and historical records portray him as a man who wouldn’t have hesitated on a conviction had he not had cause to doubt Jesus’ guilt. This belies a much greater political if not personal investment in the situation than some commentators would claim, indicating, in fact, the very opposite of indifference: a deep and enduring reluctance to condemn the Nazarene.

It is this reluctance that leads to Pilate’s persistent questioning, an effort to determine if Jesus does in fact believe himself to be a King. Jesus’ simple but confounding responses eventually elicit from Pilate the startlingly personal and equally rhetorical question: “What is truth?”

The proposition is famously left unanswered. Nietzsche considers this to be further evidence of Pilate’s scorn for Jesus, and yet Pilate’s direct response is to publicly declare: “He is not guilty of any crime.”

Furthermore Pilate attempts a political move to dissuade the angry crowd, by appealing to the ritual of releasing a prisoner on the eve of Passover. In an almost comical comparison he presents them with the choice between releasing Jesus or Barabbas, a convicted murderer. The crowd, as we know, chooses Barabbas.

Pilate continues to try, even then, to dissuade the Jewish leaders, repeatedly stating his lack of conviction and famously washing his hands of the situation in one account. In light of the context it does not seem likely that Nietzsche and similar commentators were correct in believing that Pilate held Jesus in scorn, much less that he had no interest in the man’s fate.

In his last recorded exchange with Jesus, Pilate tries a final desperate question, strange for its superfluity, perhaps in an attempt to clarify Jesus’ earlier statement that his kingdom is “not of this world”, the one caveat that prevented Pilate from ruling a conviction of treason.

Pilate asks him “Where are you from?” but, as John records, “Jesus gave no answer.”

The same void of response is what makes our titular question so lastingly perplexing. For some reason, in this narrative, we see Pilate thrust into the role of the Everyman. A public figure of great authority, and vested with political power, suddenly in a private aside is reduced to the fundamental human condition where he wrestles with the logic and meaning of his own situation.

“What is truth?”

The lack of an answer does not serve to undermine the significance of the exchange, as some have posited. Instead it carries a much more essential purpose: to force us, like Pilate, to continue in the asking.

 

Elise Janes