Monday, April 19, 2004

On the Lecture

I feel like I'm falling behind. I didn't get to Montaigne over the weekend and I took the day off from all things computer yesterday. My repetitive tendonitis is flairing up again, between spending all day on a computer at my paying job and then coming home and continuing to use a computer for writing and blogging, well, my body is beginning to protest. I've begun my strengthening exercises that I should have been doing all along. The only thing left is to wear my wrist brace for extra support and not spend so much time on the computer. So goes the trials and travails of this modern world. On the upside, taking the day off from the computer yesterday allowed me to write my Grandma a long letter. I also got in some good spring cleaning and reading time. So I guess I can't complain too much. But the big deal of my weekend was Saturday night. My Bookman and I went to the University of Minnesota for a free lecture by A.S. Byatt. Yes, that A.S. Byatt, author most notably of Possession. A large crowd of about 500 turned out to see her. It was a tweedy bunch, filled with English professors of a certain age, English majors required to attend, snobby overdressed literary types and snobby underdressed literary types, and the rest of us who just like to read a well written book. We had to sit through a speech by the Head of the university English department. He had to explain why the lecture was free (an endowment) and how deeply and eternally grateful the English department is for the endowment. You'd think the woman who had created the endowment wasn't dead and the Head was kissing up, hoping for an additional infusion of funds. Then he introduced not A.S. Byatt, but the Associate Chair of the English department whose job it is to make sure the best students get the best education. At first I thought I didn't hear that correctly, but my beloved confirmed it. We hoped he didn't mean what he said. But he is the Head of the department, someone who is careful with words, so it makes me wonder. Anywho, we then had to sit through the Associate Chair's babbling about what an amazing writer Byatt is. Well, duh! That's why we were all there wasn't it? And then came his not very brief analysis of Byatt's work. Finally, Byatt took the stage. Now I've seen her face on book dust jackets but just her face. She is a short woman, about 5 foot two. She is also plump. My beloved said she looked cuddly and he wanted to run up and give her a squeeze. Thankfully he didn't. She had her sensible black purse on her shoulder and set it down on the lectern and proceeded to dig through it for her glasses which she then put on, took off and then never wore the rest of the evening. She lectured for about an hour and a half in her upper crust British accent. The lecture, "On Ghosts and Documents," was about historical fiction, particularly her historical fiction. She declared she decided to write historical fiction for three reasons:

  1. She wanted to write complicated sentences with dependent clauses.
  2. She gets to write about exciting things we don't know. For instance, George Eliot writes a note to a friend that she'd meet her for tea on Thursday. Presumably she did. What happened? A biographer couldn't say but since Byatt is a fiction writer, she can make it up.
  3. She has a desire to correct modern preoccupations. In other words, she gets to remind us that there were other things going on in the 50s than James Dean.
Besides, she told us, when she tried to write modern fiction she ended up writing in iambic pentameter and couldn't stop. Byatt didn't talk much about specific books of hers, but she did take time toward the end to talk briefly about Possession and The Biographer's Tale. One of the interesting highlights was a story she told about a comment from a reader of Possession who told her that the book makes a clear declaration that you cannot completely understand an author's work unless you have biographical information. Byatt was surprised by this. She said she realized then that she had inadvertently made such a statement with the book. Thus, The Biographer's Tale was born as an answer to her accidental statement. Lecture done and the audience of about 500 clapping in appreciation, Byatt gathered her papers into a folder, hiked her purse up on her arm, turned to leave the stage and forgot that since she is short she was standing on a 4 inch high platform. She tripped, but didn't fall. Her papers spilled across the stage. The audience stopped clapping and collectively gasped and sat in silence, watching the poor woman. The English department Head came scurrying from backstage and helped Byatt pick up her papers, took her arm, at which point the audience began clapping again, and escorted her from the stage. She'll probably never come back to Minnesota again.