MA Semester Two, Week Four

Week four!  So - in Contemporary Fiction this week, we looked at history, memory and trauma in fiction.  Yeah, that made for an upbeat start to the day.  The set text was Sebald's Austerlitz; like most of the novels this semester, this is one I'd read before, though unlike The Sea a couple of weeks ago, I think I got more out of this book the second time around.  I couldn't say I liked it, but I was impressed by it, and it definitely fitted the topic - history and memory and trauma bursting from the seams.  Not an easy read, though; there's only three (I think) paragraph breaks in the entire book, which makes it difficult to pace yourself as a reader.  I also found one sentence that was thirteen pages long - now there's syntax control for you.  Fancy.

Anyway, history, memory, trauma.  We looked first at the turn towards historical fiction in contemporary literature.  We thought perhaps this tendency might be something to do with new mythologies - a way of turning to the past in order to understand a fragmented or schizophrenic present in the absence of religion in our society (though clearly there's still may religious people out there, so that might indicate more about our social groupings than anything else).  So, the past as a lesson, a warning, an explanation.  The constant return to particular narratives (the Tudors, the World Wars, the British Empire) indicating an obsession with certain resonant points in the past, events or fissures that might help us understand how our society has developed in the way it has.  We talked about the relationship between the past and the present; how the two seem to coexist because we understand the present through the lens of the past.

The discussion about Austerlitz itself was pretty short, but that issue about the con-temporality of the past and the present was one of the main topics - the book constantly talks about overlapping time, and ghosts and veils being lifted between one period and another.  We talked about trauma, and how buried/forgotten/repressed memories affect our relationship with the past and thus with our personal identity.  The eponymous protagonist of Austerlitz suffers from amnesia because of repressed trauma, and the book looks at history and memory as constructs that are altered by how we choose to narrate them.  Earlier we'd talked about the prevalence of trauma narratives in contemporary fiction and culture - misery memoirs, survivor stories, recovered memories, alien abduction stories, and, of course, the current national preoccupation/hysteria over child abuse.  Austerlitz deals with the Holocaust.  We also looked at Sebald's use of photographs, which contributes to the whole objective history / personal narrative conjunction.   

After lunch we had our workshop (a short story and a novel chapter, both very interesting, and very different from one another) and then we did a writing exercise which I haven;t come across before, and which was pretty revealing, I thought.  Our tutor read us a short story that was a sort of metafictional take on reading and writing and the interpretive experience, written in the second person - This Is Where The Title Goes, by Scott Edelman.  The narrator describes what each line of the story is doing, rather than giving us the (imaginary) line itself; it's very clever and knowing, but also very lyrical and absorbing in a way I didn't expect it to be.  Anyway, he read this aloud, and then got us to go through one of our own stories, line by line, describing what each sentence and paragraph is doing.  I used a piece of flash fiction that I quite like, and with the line-by-line analysis I spotted quite a few redundancies - sentences performing the same function as one another.  I still like my story, and of course lines and sections can share a function, but the exercise was really good at pinpointing bits that aren't pulling their weight.    

Then, after a much-needed cherry beer in the pub down the road, we headed over to the Martin Harris Centre to hear DBC Pierre read from his as-yet unpublished third novel.  I quite liked Vernon God Little when it first came out, but I couldn't get on with Ludmilla's Broken English at all; I'm masochistic with my reading, and I'll plough on to the bitter end even if I'm really disliking a book, but I had give up on that one.  The new one, though, sounded good, and I'll keep an eye out for it.  He only sent it to the publishers on Friday, he said, and he got a call from his editor just an hour before the reading - he got the thumbs up on it, so I guess we'll see it in the shops in the next year or so.  He's running a Q&A, or a workshop, or something, for our class Tuesday morning (this morning, if my blog scheduling thingy behaves), so I'll write about it soon.

And again, one last plug:  issue three of Bewilderbliss magazine is being launched this evening in Cord Bar in Manchester's Northern Quarter.  7pm, readings, music, and (possibly) cakes/flapjack!  Come, listen, buy the magazine, validate us.


Kirsty Logan said...

'This Is Where The Title Goes' sounds interesting, I'd like to read it.

I love reading your descriptions of class; it makes me miss being at uni!

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Thanks, Kirsty! I'll email you the story if you like - is the 'hello' address on your website good to use?