Friday, 20 June 2008
Five Days in Norwich: the Last Post
I leave Norwich this morning with a new muse, after all the city and the university have been so lovely to me this week. Chris Gribble, head of New Writing Partnership, who invited me down, spoke after J.M. Coetzee's reading, of it being a special place - and I can only agree with that. Literature is an art without frontiers, or the need for frontiers. Early, in the week the Polish writer, Adam Zagajewski had made the point that 20th century literature had the dominant narrative of exile. I've sometimes talked about the "shorter" 20th century, beginning, not with the calendar, but with the demonic rift in Europe, that was the First World War. Coetzee spoke yesterday of the two great Western censorship trials, "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover", Joyce and Lawrence. They were both exiles, and in their different experiments with form, truth, style and content remain amongst our most important 20th century writers. In his biography of Lawrence, "Flame Into Being", Anthony Burgess makes the point that in our academies, to be both a Joycean and Lawrentian would be seen as an impossibility. For a writer, of course, such contradictions are our lifeblood. When Poland became members of the European Union, I had a drink to celebrate, and felt, knowing the history, that some healing had taken place that day. We cannot know what will be the defining narratives of the 21st century. If Freud, Marx and Nietschze were the presiding intellectual spirits of the last century, what for this? I'd make a case for Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Bourdieu, and James Lovelock; the concepts of communication, habitus, and gaia, becoming ever more relevant to our current state of being. Yet, there is hope, as this week made clear; for if the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand has a contemporary equivalent, it will sure be an environmental absurdity - perhaps Gretel Ehrlich's description this week of the thnning of the arctic ice, perhaps some media event that resonates beyond its few days in the sun. Writers - and other creative artists - remain vital in chronicling and contradicting the absurdities of the age. Globalisation makes us all neighbours, with the computer I'm typing this on made in the far east, and the server that hosts this blog held in the Californian desert; so if I've been reminded of nothing else this week, it's that the 21st century exiles aren't going to be Britains and Americans flocking to Paris, but writers from across the world, settling down wherever they are welcomed. That's the aim of New Writing Worlds, and for the last week, that sanctuary has been here in Norwich.