Hey Hay!

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On Sunday 28th May, I had the pleasure and the privilege to present a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme – Writing and Rewriting the Past – live at the Hay Festival, as part of the BBC’s line-up for the 2017 event. Sebastian Barry, Jake Arnold and Madeline Thien joined me to talk about historical fiction in the age of “alternative facts”. It was a deeply stimulating, sometimes moving, discussion, with all in agreement that Madeleine stole the show. If you haven’t read her novel, shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and 2017 Bailey’s Prize for fiction, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, go and seek it out now – you’ll be glad you did. The programme was broadcast on Thursday 1 June at 10pm on BBC Radio 3 and is available here as an Arts and Ideas download.

And so I’m back, from outer space…

On location, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. A rare moment of getting to hold the kit for a photo op as the roof of the observatory is opened.

On location, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. A rare moment of getting to hold the kit for a photo op as the roof of the observatory is opened.

After 6 months in solitary academic confinement, and with The Book triumphantly written, the beginning of 2017 has seen me return to life beyond my study with renewed enthusiasm and vigour. I’ve spent the past few months steeped in the Martian imaginings of our greatest writers and scientists for a BBC Radio 4 documentary on mankind’s romance with the red planet, for which I had the great if exhausting pleasure of a weekend trip to Mars’ Earth analogue, Arizona. We visited Percival Lowell’s Flagstaff observatory to learn more about how it all began, and then descended to Phoenix to talk about where we are now, with contemporary Mars scientists at Arizona State University. There may also have been a morning spent barsooming around the Arizona desert – as close to Mars as I’m ever going to get – imagining encounters with magnificent and fearsome six-limbed Tharks. And if that sounds a little frivolous, I can assure you that it was actually very illuminating: standing on red rock, looking across the barren desert to the dust clouds on the distant horizon, it suddenly made sense why that landscape inspired the original literary visionary of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs – whose experiences on those plains and encounters with their native inhabitants shaped his Martian imaginings. The programme will be broadcast as part of Radio 4’s Martian Festival at the beginning of March – more details to follow.

I also had the pleasure this week of a stimulating hour’s conversation with SF writers Roz Kaveney and Aliette de Bodard for an episode of Radio 4’s Beyond Belief on religion and science fiction, which will be broadcast on Monday 13th March. And, to knock a little realism into me, next month I’ll start recording my new series of Literary Pursuits by investigating the story behind the story of E. M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice. Fortunately, neither interplanetary nor transatlantic travel is necessary to get started on that investigation, since a treasure trove of Forster’s papers sits on my doorstep in King’s College Cambridge’s modern archives.

Literary Pursuits Returns to BBC Radio 3

On Location: Jane Austen's House, Chawton, Hampshire

On Location: Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire

The third and fourth episodes in my literary detective documentary series for BBC Radio 3 – Literary Pursuits – will be broadcast to bracket the Hay Festival at 6.45pm on Sunday 29th May and Sunday 5th June. Episode 3 investigates the story behind the posthumous publication of Jane Austen’s Persuasion whilst episode 4 travels to Dublin to unravel the mystery behind a singed proof copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners, dated 4 years before the book’s publication. In previous episodes I investigate Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. All the episodes in the series can be listened to on the Literary Pursuits page of the BBC iplayer and my thoughts on the series can be found here.

New BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature Documentary Series: Literary Pursuits

On location outside Charles Dickens' country house, Gad's Hill Place, Kent.

On location outside Charles Dickens’ country house, Gad’s Hill Place, Kent.

My scholarship and my creativity have been put to a new test over the past 6 months as I’ve been making the first two episodes in my new Sunday Feature Series for BBC Radio 3: Literary Pursuits. I think radio and television confront a real challenge when it comes to literary broadcasting – how do you avoid succumbing to the cult of the author and actually stay in contact with what people really love and want to hear and know about: the text?

Academically, I was schooled in Cambridge practical criticism and poststructuralist literary theory – a not incongruous combination since both approaches hold that the text alone is a sufficient object of study, that the words on the page, if paid close enough attention to, tell you everything you might want to know. Of course, these are just two schools of thought amongst the many approaches one finds in academic literary criticism: historicism places the text within its cultural context of production; biographic criticism reads it via its connection with the author’s own life; the study of material texts looks at what we can learn from the physical histories of texts as they move from the first handwritten jottings, through annotated typescripts to final published versions (with many stages in between).  If you were to pick up any introduction to literary criticism and theory, you might be forgiven for thinking that these approaches are mutually exclusive, that never the twain shall meet. But as I’ve moved further along in my career, I’ve realised that some of the most powerful literary criticism combines two or more of these approaches. That all of them alone, but more so in combination, can open up works of literature in revelatory ways.

Having come to that conclusion in my academic work, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to try out this idea in broadcasting. What would a radio programme look like if it, too, combined these seemingly different approaches to texts?  Could we take a great work of literature and weave together close attention to the themes as well as to the style, form and technique, with investigation into the author’s life and times, and archival research into the book’s textual history? Yes, I thought we could, but how could we do all that and meet the cardinal rule of radio broadcasting – telling a good story?

That’s where the genius of my producer came in – we would turn it into a detective story. So that’s just what we did. In my Literary Pursuits episodes I start with a mystery that I want to solve: in the first, it is why did Charles Dickens change the ending of Great Expectations, right at the last minute?; in the second, it is why does it take nearly a quarter of a century for Jean Rhys to publish Wide Sargasso Sea? Each of these mysteries sets me off on a quest to find out the story behind the story, to follow the clues to discover how great works of literature were written. And of course, those clues are thematic, stylistic, biographical, historical, material and more – all of these diverse literary critical methodologies become my investigative tools, and all are needed to solve the textual mystery.

I have learnt so much over the past six months, about the joys of working closely, creatively and collaboratively with a brilliant producer, but also about these two works of literature which I thought I already knew so well. The Great Expectations episode was picked out as a choice of the day for Sunday in this week’s Radio Times, and the Series is featuring in the radio review section of The Times on Saturday. So it definitely seems to have caught the imagination of some journalists out there. When it’s broadcast, I hope it brings as much pleasure and knowledge to its listeners as I had and gained making it.

The new page for the Series is here, where you can also listen back to episodes via the BBC iplayer if you miss the first broadcasts. It begins with Great Expectations on Sunday 10th January, followed by Wide Sargasso Sea on the 17th. Enjoy!

BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra Events

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The Proms season is upon is and it’s been my pleasure to try my hand at the presenting game. It’s a very different experience asking the questions to being the one answering them, but I enjoyed it just as much, if not more. To be fair, my first gig could not have been easier since my interviewee, Steven Price, may well be an Oscar winner for his score for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity but he’s also a very lovely guy who’s retained the down-to-earthness of our shared Northern roots. Steven and I talked about film music, Holst and the anxiety of influence in a Proms Extra live audience event which is then produced for broadcast in the interval of that evening’s Proms Concert. With my presenter appetite whetted, I’m looking forward to my next Proms Extra event on Monday 31st August when I’ll be interviewing the great Hermione Lee about Willia Cather, on the centenary of the publication of The Song of the Lark. If you’re free, come and join us at the Royal College of Music, or tune in that evening for the interval broadcast.

BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: The Curious Combination of Muriel Spark and Channel 4’s Humans

Before he became famous as the founder of modern structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure had this crazy side project looking for anagrams hidden in Latinate poetry, during which time the more he looked for connections, the more he found them. Saussure eventually abandoned the project but there’s a great book by Jean Starobinski called Words Upon Words that presents Saussure’s early research and recounts the story of his obsession. I came across it a long time ago when working on my PhD – and I discuss it in one of the chapters of my first book, The Palimpsest – but it always comes to mind again when unexpected connections present themselves to me. It always makes me wonder, as Saussure did, whether the connections are really there, or whether they are only there because I’m creating them. Over the years, I’ve become convinced that most frequently it is the latter – the connections only exist because you create them. But rather than this predicament leading me to question my sanity, I’m now convinced that this fortuitous and unanticipated connectivity is in fact the lifeblood of intellectual enquiry and, in fact, of any other form of creativity.

What’s prompted me to remember Saussure and his anagrams this week is an invitation I received from BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking to go on the programme to talk to Rana Mitter, along with Laurie Sansom, about Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat and Laurie’s new adaptation of it for the Scottish National Theatre. Having just reread The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for my Open Book Close Reading series, it was a pleasure to be prompted to reread another Spark text that I first read in the dim and distant past. It’s a weird and disturbing novella, with a dark side that far exceeds the sinister manipulations of Miss Brodie. Laurie Sansom says that he was prompted to develop the first stage adaptation because it seemed essentially dramatic. And he’s absolutely right: so much of the prose in fact reads like stage directions. This is a novella about setting, actions, and objects, with a third person narrator that knows what happens in the future but has no access at all to what’s inside the female protagonist Lise’s head. As we were talking on the programme, it occurred to me what a radically but problematically feminist text this is – it’s a biting satire on the conventional tropes of woman as victim. It eschews the immersion in psychological complexity of classic texts of female madness such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. But the control she takes of her own fate – she seeks out and orchestrates her own murder – does not extend to an ability to control her sexual violation. Only through luck does she escape from two attempted rapes, and the man she has selected as her killer rapes her as well, despite her express wishes that his violation remain purely murderous, not sexual. We never find out what’s going on in Lise’s head, and that’s the point – that’s what renders her powerful rather than vulnerable; orchestrator rather than victim. But that power is also continually threatened by the unavoidable vulnerability of her female body. Which makes this a text about women and our bodies – to what extent we can control them and to what extent, whatever the defences we put in place with regard to our minds, we remain vulnerable in our embodiment.

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Which leads to the unexpected connection. Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s 1974 film adaptation of Spark’s novel adheres remarkably closely to the literary original. But it adds a curious uncanny touch in the opening scene – Lise is trying on a dress in a shop, as in the book, but in the film the shop is densely populated by naked female mannequins whose faces are, for no explicable reason, wrapped in foil. It’s a brilliantly visual evocation of my point above, which sets the tone and theme for the rest of the film. But, and here’s the connectivity moment, since I was going to be in the studio anyway, a day or so later, the producer asked me if I wouldn’t mind also joining in a different conversation on the programme – a short engagement with the new Channel 4 Series Humans, as a follow on from discussion with Laurence Scott about his new book The Four-Dimensional Human. So I dutifully sat down to watch the first episode of Humans only to discover that my main problem with it (and there were many problems) was its uncritical engagement with female embodiment. And of course it’s about synthetic humans, animate mannequins. I wonder if my response to Humans would have been different if I hadn’t just reread The Driver’s Seat, or if I hadn’t just discussed the very problem regarding cinematic and televisual representations of AI and women a week or so ago at the Southbank? Possibly. My concern might have been more about the awkward way in which the first episode of Humans stuffs itself with previous SF material without any knowing reference to the wealth of its generic heritage (apart from one now clichéd allusion to Asimov and his laws of robotics). But what most concerned me in the first episode was the uncritical fetishisation of the female robot – which we’ve seen already this year in Ex Machina – and the way in which the episode indulged in anthropocentric navel-gazing rather than a proper and challenging engagement with what I have no doubt will be the radically derailing and thoroughly alien outcomes if scientists ever do produce artificial intelligence to challenge our own. When are male writers and directors going to realise that if they want to push their imaginations into the future, it might be quite helpful to start by reimagining the gender stereotypes and norms of the present? We had the female sexbot over a hundred years ago in Metropolis; please let’s have the creativity to consider that if the singularity does happen, gender is going to be the last thing on the AI’s body or mind.