27 Links: Links from The Reader 27 on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese

Josie Billington’s biographical essay, A Place to Stand and Love In from issue 27 of The Reader magazine, explores the relationship between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning through her most famous work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, which she dedicated to her husband. The sequence is thought to have been written during their courtship, alongside the letters they wrote to each other during this time. Josie challenges the frequent presentation of their relationship as a ‘sudden drama of acheivement and happiness’ describing instead,

a slow, painful, involuntary and vulnerable journey, full of refusals and resistances to the profound change which love both offered and seemed to demand.

Their relationship began through pen and paper as Browning, inspired by reading Barrett’s poems wrote to her. They married (in secret) in August 1846 when she was 40 years old and moved to Italy where three years later they had a son.

Josie quotes the most famous sonnet in the sequence, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ which she says reads like Barrett’s ‘Song of freedom’, but also draws on other poems from the sequence alongside examples from their correspondance to examine the intricacies of this ‘slow motion love affair’, uncovering gear changes and moments of transition which were to affect the course of their future forever. She takes us right back to the point where

Love entered Elizabeth Barrett’s life not as a blessing but as a sort of primal dare

to the moment of ‘letting go’ once and for all ‘of regret or fear’ and instead, saying ‘an enormous running ‘yes’ to life and love’

Read Josie Billington’s essay in issue 27 of The Reader magazine, which you can buy here

27 Links: Links from Reader 27 on Ian McEwan’s Saturday

Raymond Tallis’s article on Ian McEwan’s Saturday in issue 27 of The Reader magazine addresses the issue of implausibility in fiction. It is interesting for a start that Tallis picks the word ‘implausibility’, rather than something more definite such as ‘accuracy’ or ‘truthfulness’, because whether or not you find McEwan’s novel plausible depends very much on what you know or think you know. Whether the novel is truthful in a broader sense goes way beyond being able to verify the extent to which it is factually correct. Here are some thoughts and some links around the issues raised by Tallis’s Reader 27 article.

McEwan’s novel was published in 2005 and features Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon on his day off. This Saturday also happens to be February 15, 2003, the day of the anti-Iraq War demonstration in London and elsewhere. Tallis’ 35-year medical career included, he tells us, treating patients with Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and stroke. So when it comes to scrutinising McEwan’s background research, he’s no slouch. Tallis lays out his stall with a nod to Roland Barthes’ mockery of the ‘”secretarial realism” of writers such as Balzac’ and declares that ‘getting things right must be better than getting them wrong’. But must it?

Tallis’s critique of Saturday is not, as you might think, an attack on weaknesses in McEwan’s research. It seems like it might be, but it isn’t. With the exception of Perowne operating on his assailant’s brain under the influence of alcohol, Tallis is disturbed by the inanity of the plotting, first and foremost. As it turns out, Tallis’s 35 years in medicine are not really the issue here, but his need to believe in specific moments rather than what Edgar Allan Poe called the ‘totality of effect’.

I happen to agree with Tallis about many of the weaknesses in McEwan’s plotting, that the novel has been overrated by the critics (though not all) and also with his view that it is a ‘polished failure’. It is implausible that a Victorian poem read by a naked girl could calm a violent criminal. Implausible too is the idea of engaging with a hardened and threatening criminal on the subject of his brain defect and living to tell the tale. Less so however that an engrossed and single-minded professional should continue to think from inside his training when confronted by an attacker. Isn’t that where the stereotype of the absent-minded professor comes from?

Where I disagree with him is in the view that implausibility matters, even in a realistic novel. Saturday is not a manual of neurosurgery, a psychological treatise, or a report on street violence and the criminal mind. It is a novel, made to create sensation, to generate thought and feeling and yes, disturbance. Though she did her writing a long time before Balzac and Barthes, Jane Austen knew this. As Catherine Morland finds out in Northanger Abbey, reading novels as if they were a guide to reality is bound to end in disappointment; and that also applies to Northanger Abbey itself. What I find surprising is that after 200 years we are still arguing about it.

Read Raymond Tallis’s article in Reader 27, which you can buy here.


Of related interest:

Chris Routledge is co-author with Siobhan Chapman of ‘Reading “Great Books”: Non Truth-Committed Discourse and Silly Novel Readers’. Forum Modern Language Studies, 2003; 39: 1-14.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Cheltenham Literature Festival: A Question of Interpretation

Yesterday morning, Nicolette Jones chaired a riveting discussion between authors Blake Morrison and Jonathan Coe about the position of the personal and the political in literary fiction. Morrison’s latest novel South of the River and Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls do not claim to be ‘political’ novels but both writers are acutely aware of the context the are writing from and about, as Morrison says, “It seems natural to cross the personal with policital, even if that’s not the intention.” Both authors seemed to feel a duty to help people understand a bit more of our rapidly expanding, incomprehensible world. Morrison informs us that “We live in a world of half truths and half lies,” and Coe suggests that fiction is perhaps the only way we can glean some truth because, unlike the media, “It doesn’t try to pull a fast one on you, it is the most truthful thing there is because is starts of on the solid ground of stating that its origin is fictional and therefore you’re under no false illusions.”

The conversation progressed to consider the personal within the fictional and to what extent the ‘author’ is part of the character(s) in their novels. Morrison, who has written his memoirs in And When Did You Last See Your Father? (the film, starring Colin Firth has just been released) doesn’t believe that there is much of ‘him’ in his latest work, “Memoir is written from your own experiences, fiction’s abot the lives you haven’t had, imagining other lives and getting into the consciousness of those lives.” However Coe admits to drawing on personal experiences for the (female) protagonist in his novel, “Maybe it’s because I haven’t written an autobiography or my memoirs, I have had no outlet for writing about my own life so it manifests itself in my fiction.”

It’s not as straight-forward as drawing a line between memoir and fiction though, is it? Surely a writer has only their own experience to draw on? Yet Coe says, “Writing allows you to get into a perspective different from your own”, even if it isn’t your ‘real’ perspective – the perspective that you have attached to your sense of identity – how could you possibly write (convincingly or otherwise) about something you have never experienced, seen, read, heard or touched. Is it a question of interpretation? When in ‘character’ an author is able to position themselves in a different mode of interpretation, to imagine a different response from normal but at one and the same time there must be the realisation that this interpretation has also come from within, from knowledge and experience.

Reading is then another form of interpretation. Issue 27 of The Reader features an essay by Raymond Tallis on Ian McEwan‘s Saturday, it also discusses the position of the contemporary novelist and the aim of literary fiction, “to leave a more lasting and different kind of impression” rather than just giving readers a “rat-a-tatting good read”. Coe made a pertinent comment about the relationship between reading and writing, “You don’t realise what book you’ve written until people read it”, interesting when you consider the extent of readerly interpretation on bringing the book to life. Thoughts in the author’s mind are deciphered into words on a page, those words are then unravled in the reader’s mind, with their own set of experiences construing a meaning. Authors interpret our world in their fiction, we interpret their fiction in our world.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

27 Links: Links from Reader 27 on Victoria Field

In issue 27, The Reader tries to be happy, gathering together stories, poetry, essays and recommendations that focus on moments of joy and simple pleasure. It includes an article by Victoria Field, a writer and poetry therapist from Cornwall, in which she looks at the development of her own reading life and the books she loves. We thought we’d pull together some things from the Web to add to your enjoyment of the piece. Issue 27 of The Reader magazine is available now. To find out more and to get your hands on a copy, click here

Victoria writes about her reading life, from childhood, right through to recommendations from her present-day reading. If, like Victoria you were a fan of Enid Blyton’s ‘Malory Towers’ books as a child, you will enjoy a visit to Enid Blyton.net, where you can reminisce and find out what became of the Malory Towers girls after school. Whilst studying at grammar school, it was Al Alvarez’s The New Poetry, published by penguin that captured her imagination, a book which Victoria says ‘was destined to follow me for the rest of my life’. To read a review of the book click here

Victoria’s work in Poetry Therapy uses poetry to promote health and well being. You can read more about the work being done on a large scale in this area on the websites belonging to the two organisations Victoria highlights in her piece, The U.S. National Association for Poetry Therapy and in the U.K. LAPIDUS

Victoria’s own interest in this area was helped along by Professor Stuart Sutherland, who headed the Experimental Psychology department at Sussex University and told his students repeatedly that ‘literature, not psychology, held the key to human nature.’ You can read reviews of his memoir of his own manic depressive illness here. And if you are interested in learning more about the world of poetry therapy, you might find Victoria’s book, ‘Writing Works – A Handbook of Therapeutic Writing Workshops and Activities’ a useful resource. Click here to read more about the book.

Read more in The Reader magazine.

By Katie Peters

Poppy Shakespeare Giveaway

Back in July we highlighted Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan as one of our ‘recommended reads‘ (To read the recommendation click here) Publishers Bloomsbury have been good enough to offer us three copies of the book to give away free to the first three people to take out a year’s subscription to The Reader magazine. Simply click here to register for a one year subscription and if you are one of the first three people to subscribe, not only will you receive four issues of the new look Reader magazine, packed with recommendations, reviews, poetry and fiction, you will also get a lovely copy of Poppy Shakespeare sent straight to your door. Thank you Bloomsbury!

Read more of our Recommended Reads here.

The Reader 27 has landed!

In Issue 27, The Reader tries for happiness and we couldn’t be more happy that it has arrived so we can share its delights with our subscribers! The collection of stories, poetry, essays and recommendations in this issue focus on moments of joy and simple pleasure, moments that we should try to capture and remember how important they are to our lives.

This is also the first issue of The Reader with Phil Davis as editor, taking over the helm of the magazine from his wife and colleague Jane Davis. It is an exciting time in The Reader office, lots of changes are afoot – a new design for the magazine, extensions of The Reader‘s outreach projects – yet the magazine’s heart and soul remains concerned with the human content to be found in literature. That will not change. You can read Phil’s editorial here.

Highlights in this issue include poetry by Omar Sabbagh, a young new poet we’re thrilled about publishing, reading his poems makes you aware of the solidity and lightness of life. There is also poetry by Tom Paulin, R. S. Thomas, Martin Malone, Sean Elliott and Andrew Shields. Bernard Beatty writes an animated essay on ‘Ecstatic Moments’ and Josie Billington focuses on the late love of the Barrett Brownings. David Constantine and Jo Canon provide us with some great short stories in which the chance of happiness in glitteringly present and real but is often transient. You can read more about this very full issue on The Reader‘s website.

To subscribe to the magazine and read it all for yourself, click here.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2007

The Reader is going to this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival to bring you news from the festival direct to this blog. The focus of this year’s festival is ‘What does change mean to us?’ and there will be reports on the dynamic debates, critical conversations and inspiring ideas that the festival guests have to offer. The festival is up on our calendar and I’ll add specific events as tickets are confirmed. Hopefully I’ll be able to interview some of the speakers formally (although I look forward with great anticipation to ‘bumping’ into them more informally), to get a unique insight into their experiences of the festival and ask how important books and reading are to their lives. I’ll be jumping at every opportunity to ask the literary folk in Cheltenham for their book recommendations, top tips on who to keep an eye on and will report it all back via The Reader Online. The best way to get updates is to subscribe our RSS feed.

By Jen Tomkins

Ian MacMillan–New Reader Regular

Philip Davis, editor of The Reader writes to say that Ian MacMillan, poet, performer and broadcaster is to become a regular contributor to the magazine, starting with the Christmas 2007 edition. Ian MacMillan, who has been described by the TES as “the Shirley Bassey of performance poetry”, presents The Verb on BBC Radio 3 and has recently been appointed Poet in Space by the Yorkshire Planetarium. We’re pleased to be on his trajectory.