Monday, 16 November 2009

History, Mystery & Myth: 2

Read something about the conference at which these papers were given here.

Describing a boat race, Baroness Ouida is alleged to have written, "All rowed fast, but none so fast as Stroke". The same may be said of the papers which were contributed to this conference. For reasons of space and time, however, I am selecting just six out of sixteen about which to write in telegraphese, primarily as an aide memoire to myself about those that particularly interested me.

Rebecca Pinner (University of East Anglia):
How to Make Saints and Influence People: Biography, Myth and Memory in the Cult of St Edmund

Protagonist most mythic of all those featured in conference – all that's definite is (i) AS Chronicles of 870 ("Last year King E [of East Anglia] slain by Danes") and (ii) handful of coins – next (known, written) account c.987 (Abbo of Flury Passio Sancti Edmundi) based on report by E's ancient armour-bearer – next c.1090 (Archdeacon Hermann De Miraculis Sancti Edmundi) based on "confiding testimony of living persons" (what? after 200 years? – Ed) – next c.1150 (Geoffrey of Wells De Infantia Sancti Edmundi) based on tales told by monks associated with Bury St E – myth is the slow accretion of stories. Myth still has potency – recent campaign to replace foreign (fictitious?) St George as England's patron by native St E (but what about St Alban? not E/Anglish – Ed) – superstition about not crossing certain Norfolk bridge when going to get married.

Leo Klein: Biography or Pornography?
Concern about motives for her writing biography of UK's (almost) last public hangman, Albert Pierrepoint – conflict between her abolitionist/ liberal views and central topic which "emits the strongest of all the stinks" (R West on Nuremburg Trials) – problem about paucity of material about AP – pain at interviewing some of AP's acquaintances – inability to confront AP's "equipment" (the tools of his trade, kept under the marital bed, about which his wife never enquired) – writing about some he hanged (WW2 German spies, traitor Amery, halfwit Bentley, lover-killer Ellis) and reading last letters – current project not dissimilar (women, esp. mothers, in Broadmoor [asylum for criminally insane]).

Marek Pawlicki (Jagiellonian University, Cracow): Writing about the 'happy never-returning time': truth and manipulation in autobiography
The narrator and the protagonist – the teller of the story and who the story is about – one and the same in Autobiography? Yes, but. Time has elapsed between the incident and writing about it – the former about a child, the latter by an adult, as in Tolstoy's anecdote (in trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, Youth) of failing to be able to read out poem on babushka's Name Day – authority given to story by writing in First Person, Past Tense. Compare this with J M Coetzee's tale (Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life) of failing a Boy Scout test – written in Third Person, Present Tense – the writer thereby throws off the authority of the author. This becomes (using JMC's neologism) an autrebiography.

Kirby Joris (Université Catholique de Louvain): Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries (2007-): When Myth Becomes His-Story
GB has written 3 out of projected 9 whodunnits with OW the sleuth – attempt by GB to give accurate depiction of OW via fictional incidents in his life – these interposed within real incidents, e.g. visit to USA, Paris &c – narrated by third person, the real Robert Sherard (OW's friend and first biographer), writing fictionally – "I kept a journal … I was there: I was the witness" – supposed journal embargoed (c.f. last week's tutorial) for 50 years. GB claims "tried to be as accurate as possible" – yet Vol 1 starts with traditional disclaimer: "Any resemblance … purely coincidental".

Amber K. Regis (Keele University): Definitive Lives? Portraits of Vita Sackville-West
Biography's "primal scene" (as described by KH in opening address, as when the trunk in attic creakingly opened and dusty bundle of letters finally reveals The Truth) of VSW's memoirs being found in slit-open Gladstone bag in tower of ancestral Sissinghurst – prefaced by family tree of VSW m. Harold Nicolson, begets Nigel, begets Adam – each writes different (but overlapping) accounts of different aspects of VSW's (and others') relationships – 50 lesbian lovers (one Virginia Woolf [v briefly], hence overlap with Bloomsbury outpourings), yet a happy marriage, claims NN – "It's like a family of butchers, you know, butchers chop up pigs, we write books", states AN – and see his interview on - and remember the various TV shows. The story/ history/ biography becomes a palimpsest (parchment/ vellum erased and overwritten, but old text still detectable) – R Holmes' conclusion: "definitive life a Chimera". Plea from floor not to forget marginalised/ demonised Violet Trefusis.

Catalina Botez (University of Konstanz) Primo Levi's The Periodic Table or the Story of a Carbon Atom
PL distinguished chemist, Italian Jew, Auschwitz survivor, eventual suicide, wrote autobiog with chapter named after an element, starting with Argon (inert) and ending with Carbon (life prerequisite). Enchanting tale unfolded by delightful lady but (like, alas, others, esp. Chair of this session) auricular sense challenged: next time, please, microphones or pre-conference instruction to speak up.

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