24 June 2012

Poetry workshops continue: screening of Keats film in the autumn

The workshop I ran a week ago here in Hamburg about writing Renga - ancient Japanese group poems - produced wonderful results, which I hope to be able to publish here soon in the next few days. My heartfelt thanks to all of you who took part - you made it special!

Meanwhile, my poetry education work continues on Saturday, 15th September, 2.30 pm, with a public screening of Jane Campion's film about Fanny Brawne and John Keats at the Naturschutzhaus, Fischbeker Heideweg 43, 21149 Hamburg. After the film there should be the possibility to participate in a poetry writing workshop (writing in German & English), using Keats' poetry as a starting point. Here, below, is a piece that I wrote for the London Review of Books blog in spring 2010 about the film, which they didn't take. (Occasional fascinating stuff on that blog, but the set-up appears to be rather a carve-up. They won't take a post on what maybe the first decent English language bio-pic of a poet, but they will post a LRB writer superfically plugging his latest novel.) Anyway,
I still stick by what I wrote about the film, LRB publication or no .....

Jane Campion's film Bright Star (view trailer)
the love story of Fanny Brawne and John Keats, has been in UK
cinemas since the autumn, and is still running in London.
So far, no one from the LRB has wanted to write about it
 either in the print edition or on the blog. That surprised me.
A good film about a great world poet comes
along every 50 years or so if we're lucky. It's been no
box office hit - you can work out from the box office
takings http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2009/BRSTR.php that
c. 300,000 people have seen the film world-wide. Yet even
that should make it the biggest event in the
popularisation of Keats since the intense wave of
editions of his poems published between the 1850s and the

 So who is Campion's Keats? He's humorous and good at
playing with Fanny's younger brother - a young teenager -
and sister - aged 7 or 8. He's a hundred times more
likeable than the romantic poet stereotype, lone and
palely loitering, that colours how we have read him. And
yet Campion still foregrounds his death - and one
particular conception of his death - too strongly.

 After the point in the film when the news is brought to
London that Keats is dead, Campion puts this simple
message across the screen: "Keats died believing he was a
failure." Campion wants to give us closure. Andrew
Motion, Keats' biographer, acted as advisor to the film.
His chapter on Keats' death confirms Campion's message on
the one hand - and on the other shows it to be
negligently misleading. The depressive even suicidal
thoughts are obviously there - how could they not be? - a
young man dying under a painful and terminal illness,
knowing that his life's work has received next to no
positive critical resonance. Yet in the midst of that he works on an inscription for his tombstone, choosing a
metaphor of water to describe himself, a metaphor of
unceasing movement and transformation. This doesn't match
with Campion's Keats, just thinking himself a failure:

 "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

 That's the line that Keats wanted on his headstone. Has
anyone else noticed how uncannily close Keats' lines are
to Rilke's final lines of "Sonnets to Orpheus", which,
coming close before his death, can also well be
understood as the poet's final words of self-conception? - 

 "And should the world itself forget your name
 say this to the still earth: I flow.
 Say this to the quick stream: I am."

(Taken from Don Paterson's Orpheus: A version of Rilke, 2006)

 And can we do anything with this water? I did something.
Inspired by Campion, I re-read "To a Nightingale" - and
aged 34, and despite the handicap of having an English
degree - I got it for the first time. Thankfully, I'll
not detail this process. But I got it.

11 June 2012

Picking bones or grinding them? - Lewitscharoff vs. Jelinek

         The non-English literary novel continues to be a globalisation resistant artefact, in an age where it’s the quality of a product and not where it’s made which normally determines whether we’ll buy it or not. Figures like Gabriel García Márquez remain exceptions: just try playing "name three contemporary German novelists we all really enjoy" at the end of your next dinner party if you need further proof of this fact. So why should we bother our heads about a recently famous and deservedly so, German literary great? – Sibylle Lewitscharoff, whose 2009 novel Apostoloff is due out in Katy Derbyshire’s English translation on Seagull Book's German List  in December of this year.
                Because Lewitscharoff's newest creation, her speech on accepting the Austrian Arts Award prize this January, can be read as a compelling manifesto for the future of literature, equally applicable to novels or plays originally written in Persian, English or German: a plea for less realism, and more idealism. In doing so she appears herself to consciously write in the tradition of German idealism; she also writes for the German Schiller Society. Lastly, Lewitscharoff uses the speech to demonstrate her likeable, Alan Bennett-esque “I’m not standing for any old nonsense” quality, in her thinly-veiled attack on Austria’s 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Elfriede Jelinek. Nicholas Spice wrote about Jelinek in the London Review of Books in 2008 (here), praising the work but damning the specific English translation under review – the novel Greed translated by Martin Chalmers (Serpent’s Tail, 2008). Spice: “It’s hard to imagine that Jelinek’s reputation in the English-speaking world will ever recover.” In her speech, Lewitscharoff principally attacks her plays, which stands to reason, as Jelinek’s had premieres of five new works in German and Austrian theatres since 2009, while her last published novel came out in 2008. What Lewitscharoff calls “atrocity theatre” - a Jelinek play - looks like this on the stage. Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre’s production of The Merchant’s Contract which premiered 2009 was performed for the last time in Hamburg on 8th June 2012.
             This is what Lewitscharoff thinks of theatre like that – and what she proposes as a more deserving alternative for our attention:
       “With regards to atrocity theatre, which is – let’s please be clear about this – mostly of aseptic dreariness: this kitsch stopped being sweet long ago and is now gone sour. The chirpy sparrows, so loved by Peter Handke, have blasted it clean from the roof-tops with the strength of their song. People trying to impress us with their atrocity-wallowing who in their childhoods never got so much as a slap around the ear. Who brag about having looked into the heart of darkness, when they’ve never known anything other than rather drab, regular doses of life, provided for in every way. And who then go and put on the war paint for a big night out. 
        I don’t want to name any names in connection with this matter in this speech; it’s not for me to attack some Austrians who’ve made a comfy home for themselves amid the pornographic, while skinning bodies, in grinding bones, in hate-sex, in a deeply ridiculous play-feminism and in the unceasing activity of Austria bashing.
        The annoying thing about literature monsters like this is that they always march waving the flag of the Enlightenment before them. They’re telling it like it really is, or so they claim, about the Darkness of Mankind or of Austrians respectively. Poppycock I say, a dirty lie. In order to progress towards the heart of darkness, you’ve also got to be able to describe the wayward goodness of humans. People are complex, that’s what’s so devilish about them: the sublime and the loathsome, the generous, the cruel and the beautiful, all living side by side in different chambers of the heart. Only those who are capable of capturing at least a part of that complexity deserve our attention and our affections.
        Because – hand on heart – what’s the good of literature, if it doesn’t conceive the abyss of human turpitude as being anything other than a transgression, in the constantly new task of establishing integrity in humans. Treachery against a process of civilisation, which may only be achieved through perseverance, and to which all the arts should submit themselves. In a huge and unforeseeable variety of forms, naturally.”
(Translated from Lewitscharoff speech as printed in the 1/2012 of Volltext, a bi-monthly, print edition Austrian literary newspaper.)
        Would David Foster Wallace have disagreed with Lewitscharoff? I don’t think so. Hard to imagine Franzen disagreeing either. There may be many good reasons, however, for British novelists being disinclined to take up the mantle of idealism.