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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: Reading (for Pleasure?)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

I haven't posted for a while, principally because I have been away on several extended weekend breaks, firstly to Derbyshire for a wedding, and then entertaining my parents with a tour of Northumberland. I much prefer taking holidays in this form, because it leaves you with pin points of escape to look forward to throughout the summer, as opposed to anticipating two weeks by an exotic pool, and then suffering the deflation that comes after this period has passed. However, my appraoch does mean that my work habits have become very disjointed.

Coming worringly close to the end of my first year, the introductory component of my PhD (about 35 000 words) has taken shape although, to extend the cliche, it is one that is a little ragged round the edges, with localised holes in the middle. About three weeks ago, I started to move on to my first primary text, A.S. Byatt's Possession. Appearing on Radio 4's Start the Week programme on the brain at about the same time as I read Possession, A.S. Byatt complained bluntly about Freudian literary critics: "I am a writer, and I know what I am doing." In my reading of Possession I am looking at the impact of cybernetics and neuroscience, but although this multidimensional work covers much from Victorian poetry and evolution to modern academia, cybernetics is a very trace element indeed. So although I am not a Freudian critic, as with any interpretation that embraces the affective fallacy, I am nevertheless plunging, against Byatt's deadening warning, into the subterranean workings of her mind, showing the subconscious influences on this most deliberate and learned of authors.

Just as I was beginning to believe I was negotiating the tightrope, and drawing out cybernetic elements without tugging too hard at the "hooks and eyes" (a Byattian trope) of her cognition, I had to leave it again for another long weekend, and I returned to find my exitement dented, the notes I made in a heady rush of thinking somewhat incomprehensible. If after a great pain a formal feeling comes, then you need to be realising that feeling on paper for the strange and wonderful period whilst it lasts, not lounging on a sofa or walking across the Northumberland moors.

And so, with a clear ten days in between breaks, I have taken another approach, and rather than writing I have immersed myself in reading. Whereas in an undergraduate essay I might get away with looking at just one work by a major author, such an isolation of the "key text" is not really valid in a thesis. Particularly with this polymathic author, I need also to read several of her other novels in order to get a sense of what history - what learning and interests and biography - she brings to the main text in which I am interested. For the past three days then, for eight hours a day, starting with The Virgin in the Garden, I have been working my way through a quartet of texts, following the fortunes of Frederica Potter, a brilliant intellectual but a human being who is unsympathetic to the feelings both of others and herself.

But, disorientatingly, my head starts to fill to clotting point with characters and settings, such that reality and fiction begin to merge into a seamless web of existences. On the radio this morning, The Idea of a University deals with the same 1960s concrete towers of new academies as feature in Babel Tower , with its imaginary University of North Yorkshire; even as the presenter interviews someone at the University of Sussex, I call up an image of "The Language Tower. The Evolution Tower. The Mathematics Tower. The Social Studies or Social Sciences Tower" with their "layers of connecting walkways" looking like a "beehive." In that same book, Daniel, a disturbed vicar, answers strange telephone calls for a listening service, and when my telephone rings, and my girlfriend plays a prank by putting on a Scottish accent, I put the phone down with anxiety. Vladimir Tretchikoff dies, and I see his "Green Lady" portrait not in terms of colour, but in the words of colour; in the manner of Still Life, I try and pin verbal identities on the grassy shades of the face of his "Green Lady." A friend of mind is currently in Nigeria working on an infra-red telescope, spending twelve hours a day absorbing rows of data streaming down a monitor. She is, she says, going slowly mad. This reading is my equivalent of the scientists' data collection; it is the guts of my research, and although easier than writing, because it is less involved and more reliable than writing - I know the words are not going to dry up when I turn the page - it brings with it a strange kind of tedium, enjoyable though the novels may be.

Most people look forward to holidays curled up with a good book, and would envy me the opportunity to spend my time (fully funded) reading on my couch or lying in bed deep into the morning and night. Suddenly, though, I look forward to next week, when I will spend three days in North Yorkshire, hopefully without a book in sight.


Posted by Alistair at 10:05 am


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last week my car broke down and I had to take it to the garage for repairs. I dropped it off at 8:00 am, and took a book along to help pass the time. It seems that I am always complaining that I do not have enough time to read. Well, I spent about 6 hours reading that day. It was a pleasure to be able to sneak in a day like this. However, I understand your point, for if I had to do this for four days straight it would become laborious.

I originally visited your site for the essay on Titus Andronicus. Sorry, I have not yet read it, as I am just compiling my reading for the upcoming theatre season. I have tickets to the Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington DC, and like to read the plays (and a few essays) before seeing the production. This year Richard III, and Hamlet are also on the schedule for this season.

I also enjoyed your poetry, the few that I did read, and hope to find the time to read more of them. I was most interested in your comment about your reading list that grows “exponentially” as you read one book and end up finding out about five others to read. I am continually telling this same tale to my wife!

1:37 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

I hope after that arduous (?) afternoon reading your car got fixed in the end! I hope also that you enjoy Titus - unfortunately it is so rarely staged that I have never seen it in theatre, but one would have thought that in the context of contemporary history, with its voyeuristic love of violence, it ought to be very pertinent.

Thanks for the remarks on the poetry. Unfortunately my writing has dropped off since I ended my undergraduate days, and all the courses and reading of poetry that required. Hearing comments on it via the web is perhaps the best alternative catalyst to get me writing again!

8:59 am  

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