Tag: Literature

‘One of the best things about academic research is how eclectic and varied it can be’

With the teaching term over, staff turn to their research and have more time to attend conferences. Dr Fiona Barclay was speaking at a conference in Leeds last week. Here’s what she has to say about it:

“One of the best things about academic research is how eclectic and varied it can be, and how it offers the chance to investigate the significance of familiar cultural phenomena. For example, many people in the UK and further afield will be familiar with Downton Abbey, and its fictional portrayal of the ups and downs of an upper-class family around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s an example of a family saga, which is a genre often used by writers to examine the changes taking place in the nation, using the fortunes of an often middle- or upper-class family as a way to stand in for the experiences of society more generally. So, in Downton Abbey we see the effects of the First World War on the different classes, and see how the class structure evolves over time; it’s a microcosm of the changing nation. The conference which I attended in Leeds last week focused on portrayals of the family saga in literature, TV and radio, but not just in English: it brought together academics working on texts in French, German, Spanish and even Czech and Japanese. So we heard papers on the great literary family sagas of nineteenth and twentieth-century France, some of them running to 27 volumes, but also on the East German equivalent of Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’ , which told the story of a typical socialist family in the GDR, and TV series on the Mafia such as ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Gomorrah’.

My own paper looked at the French settlers who lived in Algeria until it became independent in 1962 and they were forced to resettle in France. It looked at novels which recount the tale of four generations, from the earliest settlers in the 1840s onwards, and showed how the writers used the tremendously difficult experiences of the early pioneers, many of whom were soon killed by violent conflict and disease, to justify the privileged existence of their settler descendants, who were very poor but not as poor as the Arabs they lived amongst. But the novels are not solely about justifying the settlers’ treatment of the Arabs: they also suggest that Algeria itself is a family of characters in conflict. By presenting the warring Europeans and Arabs as the ‘brother enemies’ Cain and Abel, and considering whether the act of colonization might be a re-enactment of the original sin of the ‘first man’ (which is the title of the Algerian philosopher Albert Camus’ last novel), these writers use the form of the family saga and draw on Biblical ideas about family inheritance and the ‘sins of the fathers’ to ask difficult questions about colonialism which it would be unthinkable to ask in other contexts. Given the furore which greeted President Emmanuel Macron’s recent suggestion that colonialism was ‘a crime against humanity’, this is one contentious issue which will continue to provoke strong reactions for a long while to come.”

Many thanks to Fiona for sending us this blog post and we look forward to posting more about other research activities over the course of the summer.

A Conversation with Jean-Pierre Jeunet

In May of last year, I was contacted by a colleague at St Andrews who asked if I would be willing to chair a discussion with Jean-Pierre Jeunet at the Byre Theatre. This ‘Conversation with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’, as it was billed, was being held to launch a new series of cultural events at the theatre, and I was asked to chair the event because I had written a book about Jeunet’s films (with the searingly original title Jean-Pierre Jeunet, published in the University of Illinois Press Contemporary Film Directors series in 2008).

2016 Elizabeth Ezra Jeunet cover

I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing, not because I would have to moderate a discussion in front of hundreds of people; not because I hadn’t thought much about Jeunet’s films since I’d published the book; and not because I would also be interviewing Reif Larsen, the author of the novel on which Jeunet’s latest film was based, but whose work I had not read. None of these things bothered me unduly: I was used to standing up in front of large groups of people; I could swat up again on Jeunet’s work in preparation for the interview; and Larsen’s novel looked as though it would be fun to read. No, what bothered me was the fact that I had never met Jeunet before, and I knew that when artists and critics meet, things don’t always go well. It’s one thing, as a scholar, to work on someone who is long gone—say, Shakespeare, or Méliès—and who, therefore, cannot contradict your interpretations of their work. But it is quite another thing to come face to face with someone about whom you have devoted an entire study, and who might not like what you have said about them.

But then I read Larsen’s book, and I loved it. (The book is called The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a title changed in the film to The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet.) I enjoyed the novel for its own sake, but it was also immediately apparent why Jeunet had been drawn to it—it exhibits a quirky inventiveness, a boundless energy very similar to that found in Jeunet’s films. In fact, I learned while preparing for the interview that Larsen had been influenced by Jeunet’s work when he wrote his book, which makes for a kind of endless chicken-and-egg story if you think about it too long.

2016 Elizabeth Ezra TS Spivet poster

Meeting Reif Larsen an hour or two before the event on the 14th of October began to put me at ease. Both he and his wife, Russian literature scholar Katharine Holt, were extremely likable, and, since they also came from the US, we swapped stories about the Old Country, and about our experiences as expats in Scotland. But then Reif said casually, no doubt oblivious to the fact that he was confirming my worst fears: “Jean-Pierre can get a little funny at times. Don’t take it personally. He really hates academic interpretations of his work.” Great, I thought; just fantastic.

And indeed, when Jeunet himself appeared before our entrance on stage, our conversation was initially quite stilted. I asked him what he was working on at the moment, and he said, somewhat testily, “Sex.” I took his response to mean a film about this topic, rather than a personal exploration of the subject, though I was in no hurry to find out which of these two alternatives he intended. I imagined our interaction on stage as consisting of similarly halting exchanges, and began to think that maybe this event wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But here’s the thing: once we were seated on stage and began talking in earnest, Jeunet’s wariness melted away, and he was absolutely charming. We had a great conversation, which somehow seemed to flow quite naturally; Larsen and Jeunet already had a good rapport with each other, and the three-way dialogue format worked well. The time flew by. In other words, it was all good. Afterwards, we went to dinner at a lovely restaurant (which was also much better than I had expected), where I sat between Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Reif Larsen, and we talked about the works—the novel, the film, and even the scholarly book—that had brought us all together.

2016 Elizabeth Ezra Jeunet Larsen pic
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Elizabeth Ezra and Reif Larsen