The Students Report:
Overview: Anthony Robson
Over the course of January 23rd and 24th the English Literature and Cultural History MRes found itself relocated to the beauty and elegance of Gladstone’s Library. The essence of the relocation was to get us to think about reading, libraries and our own individual research.
Once at the library and checked in, we were treated to a quick tour of the library and the history of it, and how the collection was sorted, based upon Gladstone’s collection of books. Once the tour was done, we were left to browse the collection and see for ourselves the amount of literature and books held there. From books on specific authors to books on the history of English counties to the volumes of Punch, we all found something which engaged us as researchers.
This was followed up by a discussion upon selected reading, in which the main question was “Where did the elephant go?” Next came the unusual role reversal were we, the students, were told to prepare a seminar for the next morning. This resulted in a silence unknown even for libraries and the realization that this may all go wrong, but we dived in and pre-pared a lesson of some sorts. After a break for dinner, we sat around for a reading of poetry of various lengths and themes.[See below] Once the poetry was concluded, we decided to continue the debate in the local pub, the Fox and Grapes, in which across a few drinks, and making friends with the pub’s dog Lady, we discussed various items such as the course itself, forthcoming assignments and the current news.
The morning brought about a presentation from Tina on her experiences of the MRes and where she’s gone since completing the course. [See below] This was followed up by our les-son in which we asked the lecturers what is their ideal library? This brought about a discus-sion in what we all thought, should be included in the ideal library, how we all read books, and what each of us took from our own reading.
After breaking for lunch, we came back together as a group to reflect upon our short stay at Gladstone’s library. In this reflection we talked about the various themes which had been discussed over the past day, and concluded by stating what each of us took from our experi-ence at the library. In reflection we learnt that everyone has their own take upon the ideal library and that in our reading everyone takes their own interpretations from their reading. In the concluding of our trip, we as students stated what we took from the trip, whether it was backing up research notes to starting work early to make it our best work yet, practising and becoming confident in giving presentations to remembering that there’s always a book which can open up the possibility of more research. Overall, the one thing which will say with us is “Where did the elephant go?”
Anthony Robson is a graduate of modern history from LJMU and is researching into Scouse characters on television towards an MRes
Short Story Discussion: The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami: Lewis Jones
Following a whispered tour of the library, we settled in the Anwyl room with a scone and a cup of tea to discuss Haruki Murakami’s short story, The Elephant Vanishes. The story pans out exactly as the title suggests, an elephant vanishes, and whilst there is much initial shock and interest, only the narrator seems concerned about the elephant’s whereabouts come the end.
One of the first issues to arise was that of genre, to what category did this story belong? Whilst it has elements of detective fiction in that a mystery needs solving, and the narrator imagines himself as a Sherlock Holmes type, he does not gather any concrete evidence or arrive at a logical explanation. The story could be described as magical realism as something extraordinary happens amongst the everyday, mundane existence of the narrator, and is taken to be true.
It was also suggested that the narrator may have a mental health issue such as autism, due to his behaviour and introverted nature. This made me think of a film I watched in the past called Adam, in which the main character has Asperger’s and is obsessed with space. He collects anything to do with space, much like the narrator who collects articles about the elephant. Adam manages to keep his obsession with space under control until triggered to discuss it by another, in which case his passion for the subject can make others uncomfortable. This is similar to what we see when the narrator meets the woman at the work event, and she presses him to discuss the elephant. His social interactions are minimal throughout the story and the one we are given access to is an uncomfortable meeting.
The descriptions of nature prevalent in the text were highlighted, with a thought that the elephant might stand for nature’s demise. The elephant is housed on a site for potential high rise condos, which the narrator states he is getting ‘sick of’, suggesting much building has taken place in his lifetime, at the expense of nature. He implies that those in power may have simply killed a smaller animal to allow for development of the land, and only the elephant’s size prevented such action as it would be difficult to cover up. There is no doubt a Marxist interpretation lurking in this line of questioning. The narrator appears isolated in his love of nature, which may be why he feels so reluctant to discuss the elephant with another human, as he feels he will not be understood.
The issue of security is an interesting one, whilst the topic was hotly debated before housing the elephant, security is tightened further following the elephant’s vanishing. The town are not preventing another elephant escape here as there was only one; if anything they are discouraging the elephant’s return. The locks could be a metaphor for the narrator’s past, which has been closed off to him through the elephant’s disappearance.
A rather bleak concluding theory is that the elephant could be a metaphor for life, and that death may cause a stir and depending on who it is may warrant a media interest locally or nationally, but the memory fades with time in a modern world obsessed with progression and is eventually forgotten. The elephant becomes inconsequential, and the narrator takes this view of his own life, struggling to invest in anything he does. On a lighter note, here’s hoping Murakami pens The Elephant Vanishes II: The Return of the Elephant with a more bizarre conclusion than any of us could imagine.
Lewis is an English graduate of LJMU, and for his MRes is currently researching the Neo-Victorian and in particular ‘Ripper Street’.
The poetry session, where students read selected poems in the ambient warmth of the Gladstone’s library, was a tender forum of grief, loss, love and comedy. All of the poems were of personal significance to the readers, and the diversity of selection paid credit to the varied minds around the table.
The session opened with Spike Milligan’s wonderfully absurd “Have a Nice Day” – a delightful play on words – “So the man who was drowning, drownded/And the man with the disease past away” – and ridiculous trivialising that is a joy to read and hear. After the jovial we moved onto to the touching with Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Again and Again”, an achingly moving poem that paints a gently Gothic landscape through which two lovers, unafraid and united in their love, walk under ancient trees and gaze together at the stars. A vivid, stirring poem with a palpable sense of acceptance and adoration.
Another piece of thoughtful imagery followed with Lewis reciting a poem from memory of how experience, no matter how startling, is transient, as life passes by “like a mouse, silent in the grass.” Even if an accident, to move from a poem invoking emotion and experience as effervescent as “Again and Again” to be backed by such swift, fleeting imagery not of pointlessness, but rather perspective, caused everyone to pause and reflect before a roundtable discussion was sparked around the themes and what the words painted for each of us. Elements of that short poem flowed into the next: “Do not go gentle into that good night”, Dylan Thomas’ villanelle in memorandum of his father. Read by a Welsh student who almost lost his father the previous summer, the piece carried the weight of its subject heavily through the reading. John Donne joined us next with “The Triple Fool”, a poem about poetry as much as anything else, and so a cunning mid-reading interjection. As the poet harks and rhymes on lark and rhyme, the group follows his meandering narrative amicably, with the first stanza calling out the ridiculousness of the romantic, the last asking is it really so absurd to craft beauty with words?
Next our resident post-Master Tina read her poem “What Every Woman Should Carry” by Maura Dooley. A succinct and again personal poem condensing a a young woman’s desires and anxieties into objects in a handbag. It wonderfully encapsulates the sense of duality in being pragmatic by necessity and romantic by nature, and Tina’s reading carried the delicate sympathies that each object seemed to carry with it, from the sacred (“My mother gave me a prayer to Saint Theresa”) to the profane (“Not wishing to be presumptuous,/not trusting you either, a pack of three.”). The session finished with another poem from Dylan Thomas, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, another of his grave pieces, but this time told of and for all humanity. Here Thomas calls out against their surrender, cries that they did not go gentle into that good night, but rather the bravery and ferocity of those who gave their lives in the world wars, indeed all wars, gives their spirits an unbreakable immortality through the tapestry of man.
After such critical, intellectual and emotional reading and sharing, we then did what any group of British persons so sensitive to the arts would do.
We went to the pub.
Mike Morelli has returned to study after some years away from LJMU. His Masters research is on Iain M. Banks and the posthuman.
Krystina Osborne: ‘My MRes Journey’: Craig Milligan
My highlight of the trip was the presentation made by MRes Literature & Cultural History graduate Krystina Osborne. Focusing more on the experience of the course from leaving Undergraduate to receiving her MRes Result, Krystina’s presentation was an element of the trip that was intriguing and reassuring at the same time. Within the depths of one’s own research, it is easy to feel lost and introverted as no one is pursuing the same lane of academic study as you. What Krystina’s presentation informed us was that there is a community that can be developed amongst researchers in general and that we are not alone. Highlighting her own significant high points and low points of the course as well as giving us key directives for the remainder of our time on the course, accompanied by a presentation of hilarious cartoons and photographs, Krystina’s presentation reminded all of us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It was also encouraging to hear that she is now pursuing her research at doctoral level.
Craig is researching the use of humour in contemporary feminist writing.
Seminar Discussion: Jon Kinsella
When we were asked to lead the seminar discussion we made a supreme effort, as a group, pooling all of our knowledge and critical thinking together, to encourage a sense of free-flowing and flexible dialogue. On the surface, you may argue that this was because we had not actually done any thorough planning. You may be right.
What emerged from a discursive outset, however, was an open, enlightening and, above all, literary discussion. Using Alberto Manguel’s and Jorge Luis Borges’ appropriately chosen essays concerning libraries, we opened the discussion by asking what constitutes a ‘total’ library and what each of us considers an ‘ideal’ library to be. The discussion then moved onto Jorge Luis Borges’ essay on ‘Literary Pleasure’, matched only in its informative forays into the reader/author debate by Borges’ own enthusiasm for language and his insistence on its beauty, power and importance. We analysed this essay and began to draw out certain underlying themes and questions that then had a profound impact on the rest of the discussion.
One issue being the endless debate of the fraught relationship between reader and author and the impact this has on the balance of power between the two. How important is a reader’s subjective interpretation compared to an author’s original intention? We analysed Borges’ simple metaphor: “The fire, with ferocious jaws, devours the countryside.” Without further information, what is the reader supposed to make of this? Borges states that if this was presented to him by a Hispanic poet, he would dismiss it as ‘vulgar’ and ‘mechanical’. If, however, it was the work of a Chinese poet then it is instantly more viable because Chinese culture is inspired by fire and dragon imagery. Borges would, with the above metaphor, seem to imply that the power lies with the author here, and the onus is on the reader to interpret it for themselves; but, he also asks whether the ‘eyes of history [are not] but a network of sympathies, generosities, or simply courtesy?’ and states that ‘beauty in literature is accidental’. The accidental ‘beauty’, then, is surely only apportioned by a reader’s interpretation? This raised the wider issue of whether time and reflection can supersede an author’s work and practically encourage the reader to create a new structure or new approach to a text.
We ended the discussion on a personal note and each discussed what being literary scholars did for the dynamics behind our personal relationships with reading. How much did we immerse or distance ourselves from the text? Can we empathise with a character, a story or an author and still remain critical? Or, sadly, will it turn us into ‘a genealogist of styles and detective of influences ‘as Borges suggests?
Jon Kinsella works in the ARC, and with his MRes is researching working-class life writing through the Archive of Working-class Writing: http://www.writinglives.org/