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An Online Roundtable Discussion and Book Launch.
Thursday 17 September 4-5.30pm (UK time)
Participants: Max de Gaynesford (Philosophy, University of Reading), Dorothy Hale (English, UC Berkeley); Max Saunders (English, King’s College London); John Scholar (English, University of Reading); Helen Small (English, University of Oxford).
Chair: Gail Marshall (English, University of Reading).
The novel is an ‘impression of life’, declared Henry James in 1884. John Scholar’s 2020 book Henry James and the Art of Impressions (OUP) argues that James tried to wrest the ‘impression’ from the new French impressionists in painting and fiction, and from British aesthetes, and to recast it in his own art of the novel. In doing this, James engaged with a concept, the impression, with a long interdisciplinary history in philosophy, psychology and aesthetics. Scholar’s book joins Dorothy Hale’s work on James’s narrative form, Max de Gaynesford’s and Helen Small’s on literature and philosophy, and Max Saunders’ on literary impressionism. It shows the place of James within the wider cultural history of impressionism and suggests that ‘the Jamesian impression is best understood as a family of related ideas bound together by James’s attempt to reconcile the novel’s value as a mimetic form with its value as a transformative creative activity’.
This event, chaired by Gail Marshall, will bring together, in a live online conversation, an international group of major scholars. The conversation will take place in the light of Scholar’s new study and will be informed by the different preoccupations and perspectives of the participants. Please join the conversation and add to it by posting your questions and comments for the panel online during the event.
In this post, Part 3 students (and soon-to-be 2020 graduates!) Georgia Courtney-Cox and Yinka Olaniyan and Lecturer Dr Nicola Abram discuss the BAME English Literature students’ network launched in 2019/20.
Yinka: The BAME student network was created for English Literature students to discuss their university experiences as BAME students. It was founded by Georgia Courtney-Cox, Nicola Abram and myself to act as a safe space for BAME students, who are often few and far between in the English department. For example, in 2018, only 14.4% of UK/EU entrants to undergraduate English Literature programmes identified as BAME, compared to 25% across the University as a whole.
Nicola: Georgia and Yinka were among seven students who participated in a project in 2018/19 which sought to explore the experiences of BAME students in the School of Literature and Languages. Project participants took photographs illustrating aspects of university life, which we discussed in our group and then shared publicly in a Library exhibition and online. For me, what stood out in these images was the dialogue between cultural and ethnic identity (for example, black British, or British Asian) and institutional and disciplinary identity (that is, being a student of a certain subject at the University of Reading). Participants wanted to be able to identify themselves – and be seen by others – as both. So, with some funding from the UoR Diversity & Inclusion fund and the Teaching & Learning Dean, Georgia, Yinka and I designed a schedule of events for 2019/20 where black, Asian, and ‘minority’ ethnic students of English Literature could get together, resourcing each other and building a supportive community.
Georgia: During the year I advertised the BAME network on the UoR ‘Student Life’ blog.
Yinka: Across the academic year, we have had various sessions and speakers. These have ranged from myself and Georgia facilitating informal discussions whilst we ate pizza, to Creative Writing lecturer Shelley Harris discussing how we can use our experiences to benefit our academic work. The Autumn Term session with three University of Reading graduates was a particularly encouraging experience for me. It was the first term of my final year at university and I was rather unsure of what lay ahead. The pressure of my dissertation and the impending uncertainty of graduation loomed over me. The graduates, however, reassured me that it was okay to feel overwhelmed about my dissertation and the fear of the unknown. After hearing about the various routes the graduates went down after university, I realised that my life did not have to follow a linear pattern. This allowed me to let go of anxiety about the future and focus on the present. It was because of this session that I feel like I got the most out of my final year.
studying English Literature can provide transferable skills after university. The idea of life after university has always been a daunting thought at the back of my mind however after speaking to the graduates I felt reassured that I could enter the job market confident in my skills.
Yinka: My favourite session of the year was with Shirley Anstis, a local author and counsellor. In her interactive workshop, we used writing therapy to celebrate our successes since A-Levels. No one was required to read their writing out, so it was very much a personal exercise. We also did a visualisation activity of what we wanted our ideal future to look like. The exercise allowed me to reframe my goals and work out what truly mattered to me. Sessions like these every few weeks gave students a small period of calm in what is usually a hectic university schedule. It was also great to have BAME English Literature students from other years attend. We exchanged advice about modules we had taken and navigating university life as a BAME student generally. It was great to be able to relax and talk to other students about our oftentimes shared experiences.
Georgia: I noticed how impa
ctful the network had become during the teaching strikes. Many students who attended the sessions would join because they were already on campus. I had anticipated that because there were fewer contact hours during the strikes not many students would attend, however, I was surprised that students still attended the session because they wanted to converse. We talked about staying motivated, dealing with anxieties within and outside of university, and formulated strategies to meet upcoming deadlines. Having an open discussion for 40 minutes helped me to de-stress. The time flew by and it made a massive difference to the rest of my day.
Nicola: As a member of staff sitting in on all but the student-led discussion sessions, I’ve learned so much this year. I’ve heard what a lonely and alienating experience it can be finding yourself the only person of colour in a classroom, and how frustrating it is when the curriculum doesn’t acknowledge the contributions of people like you. I’ve also seen how resourceful students have been in making a place for themselves at University, and their resilien
ce in staying true to themselves despite various institutional and peer pressures. In our final, reflective session it was incredibly moving to see and celebrate how much the network participants have achieved this year, both academically and personally. Staff at the University have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the ways in which our systems – including our teaching methods and curricula – centre some students at the expense of others, and to make a change. I will be working with colleagues in the Department of English Literature and more widely to feed this forward.
Yinka: Being part of the BAME network has helped me in a multitude of ways. When I first started university, I felt that there were not many people I could relate to or who could relate to me. By the end of it, there is a network of people with whom I can discuss anything. The network has made me feel more comfortable about who I am and how I express myself to non-BAME students. I am now confident enough to speak about my experiences and have done so at various talks alongside Georgia, including a School of Literature and Languages meeting in November 2019 and a University-wide event in January 2020. It has been amazing to be part of such a great network and I would highly encourage anyone who has thought of attending to come along when future sessions are advertised. You can just drop into sessions that suit you – you don’t have to attend every session. Whether you would like to speak up or just listen in, the network is for everyone who wants to hear and reflect on the experiences of BAME students. The student-led sessions will be reserved for students of colour, but sessions led by UoR staff or with external speakers will be open to all students. BAME students have often been ignored in academic settings, but the network has allowed me and others to have a voice. My advice would be to use the BAME network as an empowering tool, to define your place at university.
Natasha Robson writes:
This is a call to action. I have a simple and easily implementable proposition. Recently, there has been talk of and movement towards a restructuring of the history curriculum in the UK – and not before time. I believe now is the time to take action in education more generally, in order for this to have a real, pervasive, and lasting effect.
My research has led me to believe that in the present-day world it is ever-more necessary to promote critical thinking skills in all people and populations. I originally reached this conclusion when writing my specifically racism-orientated MA thesis, which considered the aspects of culture and personal psychology that maintain structures of prejudice within a society. My current work looks more broadly at how the capacity for objectivity and the ability to question received wisdom and assertions of ‘truth’ have become deeply important skills – in interpersonal interactions, in our internal decision-making, in our consumption of media and media-like information. Recent weeks have demonstrated more clearly than ever before (to those that had any doubt) that unconscious bias is still an enormous problem, and without the tools with which to assess and reassess our internalised beliefs the recognition of deeply entrenched and problematic thinking is almost impossible.
Furthermore, the incidence and pervasiveness of ‘fake news’ and targeted manipulation is probably at a higher level than ever before. Countries such as Finland have already implemented educational strategies to mitigate against the effect of this informational environment on future generations. Why haven’t we?
I propose is that a collection of short courses be created and delivered, to secondary-school children at first (and/or perhaps teachers, so that they can add the ideas into classroom vocabulary), in order to supplement the changes being made in the teaching of history. Why? Let us briefly consider what it is to be a human brain:
Lippmann’s Stereotypes – Walter Lippmann asserted around a century ago that humans survive by simplifying the world around them. People to whom they have no personal-experience-anchor are composed of collections of generalisations.
Confirmation bias – If our views and opinions are problematic or prejudiced, we will ignore that which puts this into question, and find it difficult to engage with evidence that contradicts these ideas. Awareness of this trait allows us to combat it within ourselves.
Primary and Secondary Socialisation (Berger and Luckman), Theory of Personal Constructs (Kelly) – our ‘reality’ is in a constant state of reinforcement. If the environment at home in our period of primary socialisation is one of prejudice and hostility towards ‘other’, a simply passively tolerant school environment is not sufficient to challenge these ideologies and prevent their internalisation. An educational environment that constantly challenges prejudice and intolerance and drives questioning and objectivity allows for the individual to develop a more tolerant and questioning world-view. Kelly asserts that we are a product of our lived experiences – the only way to broaden our world-view is to exercise objectivity and expose ourselves to new information and ideas. A flawed conception of ‘other’ might be the product of socialisation and lived experience. Without personal experience of discrimination, it is difficult to conceive of its power or pervasiveness.
Emotional versus rational thinking – our emotional response is far quicker and longer-lasting than our rational response. Research (for example, Hill 2010) shows that not is this the case, but that emotionally-charged experiences are more likely to be committed to long-term memory. Thus, mis- and dis-information that aims to promote an emotional response (such as populist rhetoric etc) is remembered, and therefore has greater power.
Cognitive dissonance – the ability to hold two mutually exclusive or contradictory ideas at the same time. This, like all other ideas presented, is accepted as a fairly universal phenomenon. It is particularly pertinent in current discussions about the existence of systemic and internalised prejudice within our own culture.
This is just a small selection. My assertion is thus: if we are aware of the fallibility of our own brains, we are better able to sort through the complex barrage of information and conflicting ideas we are constantly faced with. With such a general approach, no accusation is being made: humanity’s neurological and psychological fallibility is clear, the impact these predispositions have on our relationships with one another and the world is tangible.
Changing the history syllabus is a huge step, but it will struggle to change ideologies on its own. Critical thinking, while taught to teachers and at HE level (and as an optional A Level), is not in the school-age curriculum except as guidance for PSHE – a subject that many young people will disregard, and one which is often taught by teachers specialising in another subject. It is therefore often only taught where individual teachers find ways of doing so.
Ultimately a core change is necessary – so that all subjects inspire a critical outlook, rather than aspects (for example, the sciences teach us to question and prove, English teaches us to be analytical – but not explicitly) of subjects promoting disparate elements of critical thought.
This is a call to action.
If we do not learn to better understand ourselves and the workings of our own mind, the prospect of further divisiveness, polarisation, reinforcement of prejudice is not simply a possible future, it is the future. If we cannot take control of our own opinion-formation, it will be done for us.
I have begun my own journey towards achieving this goal, working with the university, the council, The Brilliant Club, and as a private freelancer. I have recently begun an academic blog, available here: https://natasharobson.hcommons.org/
My CT Twitter handle is @CT_PhD_Tash
Welcome to the tenth episode of DEL Island Discs! This week we’ve handed the reins to some junior readers, who are going to cast away two of their favourites: the Bear from We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, and Fat Puss from Harriet Castor’s Fat Puss series of books, illustrated by Colin West. Each character has chosen four discs and a luxury to take to the island.
We’d love to hear if there are any other characters from children’s literature whom you would like to cast away.
The Bear from We’re Going On A Bear Hunt
By Felix, aged 6
The bear lives on his own in a cave with no-one else to comfort him. He sometimes gets sad but once, only once, he met someone. He was chasing after them but they thought he wanted to catch them, but really he wanted to be their friend.
Now here’s some music.
1 – Bare Necessities, from the film The Jungle Book
This is a funny song about being a bear.
2 – The Cave, Mumford and Sons
The cave is where the bear lives.
3 – Bear Chase, by the City of London Sinfonia, London Youth Choir, and Stuart Hancock
This piece of music was written for this book! In the book the bear chases the people all the way home.
4 – Lonely, Akon
The bear is lonely at the end of the book.
For his luxury, the bear is going to take his teddy bear and a sleeping bag.
By Ed aged 9
Fat Puss is a plump and jolly cat that loves the outdoors. He loves playing with his friends the Mouse Family (Terence, Jessica, Robert and Charlotte), Humphrey Beaver and Slim pup. These songs will be his desert island discs.
1 – Happy, from Despicable me 2
I chose this because Fat Puss is happy and playful like this song.
2 – You’ve got a friend in me, from Toy Story
I chose this because Fat Puss relies on his friendship group to have fun and be happy.
3 – Everybody Wants To Be A Cat, from The Aristocats
I chose this because Fat Puss is a cat and likes being one.
4 – Rolling Down the Hill, The Rembrandts
Fat Puss loves rolling down hills, and this song is all about rolling down a hill.
Luxury – a cherry tart because Fat Puss loves them!
This week’s castaway is Robinson Crusoe from the proto novel of the same name by Daniel Defoe, introduced by Professor Peter Robinson, whose own contribution to the Robinsonade genre is a tercentennial publication called The Constitutionals: A Fiction (2019), in which a character obsessed with Defoe’s hero takes a series of walks around Reading to recover from a vicious virus.
The title page to the first edition (published on 25 April 1719) of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone on a un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. WITH An Account how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pyrates. Written by Himself must be one of the great spoiler titles in the history of fiction. The book was an immediate success, and Robinson has had a long afterlife as the inspiration of many other adaptations, imitations, and related offshoots – including numerous poems and various pieces of music. There is a large holding of the book’s many editions in Special Collections at the University of Reading. It’s particularly fitting that he is our castaway this week, because he almost certainly helped give Roy Plumley his original idea for the radio show Desert Island Discs, first broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme on 29 January 1942, and still going. His choice of music wasn’t at all easy, not least because, being immortal, he has three centuries of compositions to choose from, but his first piece of music has to be the theme tune to this much-loved radio programme.
1. ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’ by Eric Coates:
Robinson’s first name is his mother’s maiden name. His surname is an English corruption of his immigrant German father’s name Kreutznaer, and there is a Robinson Crusoe Haus in Bremen. Our castaway’s first big mistake was to run away to sea, going expressly against his father’s advice and wishes. That’s why his second disc, though it could have been Debussy’s much longer composition called ‘La Mer’, or Charles Trenet’s song of the same name that Esther Greenwood chose last week, is instead ‘Albatross’ by Fleetwood Mac, and, as it happens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, was a great admirer of Defoe’s use of the semi-colon.
2. ‘Albatross’ by Fleetwood Mac:
Nowadays the book is widely criticised for its implicit and often explicit ideology, having been published at the height of the slave trade in Britain, for its providentialism, its fear of others, such as the cannibals later encountered, and its attitudes towards Man Friday who Robinson rescues only to make him a kind of servant – and thus of sexism, too, as in the phrase ‘Girl Friday’, used until recently for a female office assistant. J. M. Cotzee’s 1986 novel Foe encapsulates and explores many of the negative themes now attributed to Defoe’s book. Before Robinson is ship-wrecked he has run a plantation using slave labour in the Americas. Slavery is something he knows about first-hand, too, for earlier in the book he is himself enslaved by Barbary pirates from whom he manages to escape. That’s why his third record is this evocative version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang’.
3. ‘Chain Gang’ by Bobby King and Ry Cooder:
Most of the adaptations of Robinson Crusoe for young readers exclude the majority of the book, his early voyages, his being enslaved, and the entire final part, which tells of Robinson’s journey home with Friday across the Pyrenees, where they must fight off an attack of wolves. Concentrating on the central period of twenty-eight years spent on the desert island, these redactions emphasise how he copes with the solitude and makes himself a home – setting up, in effect, a little colony, for which the book has also been criticised in recent decades. At the heart of the short versions for the young is a homage to self-sufficiency and the capacity to survive acute loneliness. Crusoe’s choice of record to represent this part of his life was a difficult one, for there is a lot to choose from, and after hesitating over Roy Orbison’s ‘Only the Lonely’, he decided on this version of the 1934 jazz standard by Duke Ellington with lyric by Eddie DeLange and Irving Mills.
4. ‘In my Solitude’ by Billy Holiday
After many challenges and difficulties including the famous episode in which he hollows out a tree-trunk to make a boat only to discover that it is too heavy to move and launch into the sea, Robinson eventually finds that the island is not as deserted as he had thought, for it is used by local cannibals as a place to roast their captives. His fifth piece of music is this song which can’t help but remind him both of how anxious he was about the possibility that he was himself in danger, and how desirous he could be for a way back home.
5. ‘Johnny Come Home’ by Fine Young Cannibals
Defoe’s book has also inspired a comic operetta with a plot very different to the novel’s, and a great many other characters including, necessarily, some sopranos for love interest (the original books is almost female-free). There are a surprisingly large number of tunes that come up if you type Robinson Crusoe in YouTube, so, once again, he is spoiled for choice for his next piece of music, but he opts for this song from Offenbach’s 1867 opéra comique, which, as customarily happens on the show, the producer fades down after a couple of verses so we can get back to the interview with our protagonist.
6. ‘Valsa Jadwiga’ from Robinson Crusoé by Jacques Offenbach
Towards the end of his twenty-eight years on the desert island, this supposedly solitary place becomes positively crowded with pirates who, with the help of Friday, Robinson manages to trick, as well as some Spaniards with whom he magically finds ink to make a contract with them over the future use of his island. The latter stages of the book are then about how he manages to return to England where a widow has invested some of his money from earlier voyages, which has unexpectedly made him a wealthy man – and we can only hope he doesn’t invest it in the South Sea Bubble, which would happen the year after Robinson Crusoe was published. His seventh piece of music is a version of the theme tune from his 1964 French TV series, played by Art of Noise, a British avant-garde synth-pop band from the 1980s.
7. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Art of Noise
The most famous scene in the entire book is when Robinson finds a solitary footprint in the sand and discovers that it is a different size from his own. The central human story is then the evolving relationship with his companion, rescued from the cannibals’ feast, who is famously named after the day of the week when Robinson’s prayers are answered, and he is no longer alone. That’s why this 1966 hit about the days of the week by the Easybeats in a cheerfully recent cover just had to be his eighth and final piece of music.
8. ‘Friday on my Mind’ by MonaLisa Twins
When asked how he will cope with being cast away on a desert island, Robinson replies that he is an expert, though he does say that after twenty-eight years already survived he would like to arrange to be rescued, as his model Alexander Selkirk was, after a mere four years. As he tells us in his book, he did have ‘three very good Bibles’ with him, rescued from the shipwreck, but he looks forward to reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare, especially a play he’s heard of called The Tempest, which he thinks might be of great value during his next stint in the Caribbean.
Robinson’s luxury is a Kindle loaded up with all the works which have been spawned by his creator’s original, and which he has not had the time or inclination to check out yet; but he thinks the solitude will provide a perfect opportunity to review them, and perhaps write a critical response to all the fake news that has been spread about him down the centuries.
The one piece of music he would save from the wreck has to be ‘Friday on my Mind’ because it will remind him of his dear companion who, most unfortunately, was murdered by other native peoples when attempting to negotiate with them in Defoe’s second of three volumes, also published in 1719, thus in effect creating the first franchise, a book called The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
Welcome to Episode Eight of DEL Island Discs! Our presenter this week is Sybil Ruth and our castaway is Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Sibyl Ruth graduated forty years ago, and as part of her English degree, she wrote a dissertation on Sylvia Plath.
It’s never easy to decide which eight tracks to take to a desert island and for Esther Greenwood, heroine of The Bell Jar, there is a particular challenge. It’s the soundtrack of our youth which makes the deepest impression on us. But for Esther her unhappiness, her preoccupation with achieving high grades meant that she couldn’t properly hear the music around her. Only later, as an optimistic young mother, would she have been able to look back on the music of this era and pick out some of its most enjoyable songs.
NB. You’ll note that Esther has not picked any miserable songs by 21st century indie bands and/or melancholy singer-songwriters. Despite a few progressive ideas, she was a creature of the 1940s and early 1950s.
1. Too Darn Hot – Broadway Cast.
For better or worse Esther’s adult life was shaped by one ‘queer sultry summer.’ Her New York hotel room was stifling, and by the time she got home to New England she was too depressed to change into suitable clothes and enjoy the fresh air. This was also a time of great frustration. Esther wanted to shed her virginity, but finding a suitable – or unsuitable – partner was not straightforward. So Cole Porter’s lyrics with their allusions to impotence and frustration would have been very apt.
2. Hound Dog – Big Mama Thornton
One of Esther’s many regrets is that she is ‘a terrible dancer’. While Doreen and lascivious ‘hound dog’ Lenny, the DJ jitterbug away at his impressive New York apartment – he’d have been playing the latest hits – she stands on the side-lines sipping vodka. But she relishes the air-conditioning and the glamour of the surroundings. Esther ‘wouldn’t have missed Lenny’s place for anything’
3. Kalinka (trad.)
Of all the men Esther encounters in New York, she will have the fondest memories of Constantin, a Russian simultaneous translator at the UN. When he invites her to his place afar dinner ‘to hear some balalaika’ records, she eagerly accepts his invitation, assuming that sex is on the agenda. It seems astonishing, given the rhythmic potency of the music, that no seduction took place. But their evening will have led to a lasting fondness for the balalaika.
4. Hernando’s Hideaway – Carol Haney
An especially unsatisfactory date ensues when Esther is set up with tango-loving Marco. When she protests, ‘I can’t dance’, he helpfully responds, ‘You don’t have to dance. I’ll do the dancing… Pretend you are drowning.’ The evening ends most unhappily, but Esther will have salvaged something from their encounter. At least she now knows that with a good lead, it’s possible to become submerged in dance music, to ‘blow and bend’ to its rhythm. Having freed herself from Marco’s clutches, Esther must have enjoyed the tango scene in The Pajama Game which opened on Broadway the following year.
5. Do I Worry- The Ink Spots
Esther is a worrier, a compulsive over-thinker. She’s unable to stop fretting about her future. And the person who worries her most is Buddy Willard. Initially he was useful. She gained status with her peers after he took her to the Yale Prom. But it’s scary that so many people expect her to marry someone she doesn’t respect – or even like. The soothing harmonies of the Ink Spots serve to validate her fears.
Am I frantic, ’cause we’ve lost the spark?
Is there panic when it starts turning dark?
And when evening shadows creep, do I lose any sleep over you?
Do I worry? You can bet your life I do
6. Massachusetts – Gene Krupa and his Orchestra feat. Anita O’Day
Esther may appear unenthusiastic about returning from New York – but this is because of having to spend the summer with her mother. Childhood places remain important to her, and even at her most depressed she gains benefit from exploring them. Once Esther’s had the chance to benefit from therapy, to establish herself elsewhere, it’s easy to imagine the rush of pleasure she will experience at the prospect of revisiting her home State
7. My Heart Belongs to Daddy (Bea Wain)
Who could be expected to love a mother, who keeps going on about the importance of a) virginity and b) shorthand typing? Esther’s refusal to conform to these expectations may be linked to having lost her father as a child. But she would approve of the partnership between the singer Bea Wain and her husband Andre Baruch. The couple presented a radio show together.
8. La Mer – Charles Trenet
Esther studied French at High School, and wishes to travel in Europe. Till she can get there, proximity to the ocean is best. Her happiest early memories involve ‘running along the hot white beaches. The sea a source of rebirth ‘The water had spat me up into the sun, and the world was sparkling all about me like blue and green and yellow semi-precious stones’. This record is probably Esther’s favourite out of the eight.
For her luxury Esther who ‘loves food more than just about anything else,’ and whose favourite dishes are ‘full of butter and cheese and sour cream’ will choose a large American refrigerator.
On the island she is going to take a break from literature. But Esther does need a project to which she can apply herself. So she’ll take along Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol.1. Julia Child’s complex recipes will occupy her till rescue comes.
Many thanks to Sibyl Ruth for being our guest presenter this week!
This week’s castaway is Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater (1995), and our presenter is Professor David Brauner of the Department of English Literature.
Sabbath’s Theater is Philip Roth’s masterpiece. Its protagonist is one of the great anti-heroes of literature: equal parts King Lear, Humbert Humbert (from Nabokov’s Lolita) and Krapp (from Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape), but ultimately sui generis.
The novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes (mostly the latter) of Morris (Mickey) Sabbath, a 64-year-old ex-puppeteer, theatre director and disgraced former academic. Unhappily married to a recovering alcoholic, Roseanna, the true loves of Sabbath’s life are his mother, who never fully recovers from the death of Sabbath’s older brother, Morty, at the age of 20, in the Second World War; his first wife, Nikki, who mysteriously disappears one day in 1964; and his long-term mistress, Drenka, who has recently died of ovarian cancer, leaving Sabbath bereft and planning his own death.
As ever in Roth, however, the plot is almost incidental. What makes the novel utterly compelling is Roth’s prose – by turns exuberant, indignant, lyrical, melancholy, hilarious and heart-breaking — and the tragicomic character of Sabbath, a man whose outrageous amorality and nihilism paradoxically invests him with the transcendent power of a prophet.
1. ‘Dry Land’, Joan Armatrading.
As a young man Sabbath serves in the merchant navy. If the ‘gift of love’ that the narrator of ‘Dry Land’ offers may be far removed from the sexual adventures that Sabbath enjoys, the ambiguous line ‘I’ll promise you so much more’ is very apt for the opening section of Roth’s novel, which is entitled ‘There’s Nothing That Keeps Its Promise’.
2. Metallica, ‘Master of Puppets’
At Sabbath’s puppet shows ‘the atmosphere was insinuatingly anti-moral, vaguely menacing, and at the same time, rascally fun’, which sums up Metallica’s song rather well. The song also deals metaphorically with addiction, something with which Sabbath’s wife, Roseanna, struggles, without much help from Sabbath himself (he wouldn’t like Toto’s ‘Roseanna’, in case you were wondering!).
3. Claire Teal, ‘Messin’ With Fire’
Sabbath enjoys nothing more than setting things alight (metaphorically). He is a misanthropist who, like the protagonist of this song, loves to expose the hypocrisy of those who are ‘holier-than-thou’, believing that at heart ‘we’re all arsonists!’
4. Warren Zevon, ‘Mr Bad Example’
Sabbath prides himself on behaving badly and offending everybody – Warren Zevon’s comic song is the perfect theme tune for him.
5. Indigo Girls, ‘Ghost’
Sabbath is haunted by the ghosts of lost loved ones and even has regular conversations with his dead mother.
6. Blondie, ‘Hanging on the Telephone’
Sabbath loses his job as a drama teacher at a local college when an audio tape of him engaging in phone sex with a student comes to light.
7. Thea Gilmore, ‘The Dirt is Your Lover Now’
(the song begins at 11.25 mins in to the album)
Sabbath compulsively visits Drenka’s grave, communing with her in ways that I won’t reveal here!
8. Leonard Cohen, ‘You Want it Darker’
Sabbath also spends much of the novel thinking about suicide and trying to find the ideal plot in the ideal cemetery, although in the end he decides that he can’t end his own life as ‘Everything he hated was here’.
Sabbath would certainly appreciate the time to reread The Complete Works of Shakespeare: the epigraph from the novel is one of Prospero’s lines from The Tempest (‘Every third thought shall be my grave’) and at one point he goes begging on a subway train, reciting passages from the moment in King Lear when the old king is reunited with Cordelia (‘I fear I am not in my perfect mind’ etc.). But I think his choice would be The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, whose ‘Meru’ is quoted in full in the novel and with whose mad, raging old men he has much in common.
Although he has long ceased to practise puppetry because of arthritis, Sabbath’s luxury would have to be a puppet theatre, if only so that he could continue to amuse (and torture) himself with memories of his youth!
Which disc would he save from the waves?
It would have to be ‘Mr Bad Example’ – it evokes Sabbath’s anarchic, iconoclastic,
(self-)satirical spirit perfectly.