Against oblivion

Filed under: FictionNon-fiction

As she is introduced as President of the RSL, Marina Warner addresses Fellows and Members on the duty of writers to retell history.

Fellow writers, dear friends, good evening.

Colin Thubron is such an inspiring and eloquent presence and has been such a generous, considerate, sure-footed and courteous President that I hesitate to try and stumble along in his footsteps. When I first met him – when I was not so wrinkled, as Leontes says of Hermione – he was setting out for India. And he is now setting out to walk the length of the Amur, one of the longest rivers in the world. I would like to have composed a praise song to thank him for everything he has done for the RSL and for the help and advice he has given me over the years, and for all his own adventurous and expressive work so far and more to come, but we writers know how words fail even the wordsmiths in such situations, how hard is the struggle against banality. I just hope I can live up to his style in more ways than one. And I thank you all – Michael Holroyd, our President Emeritus, and the Vice-Presidents and Council members; Lisa Appignanesi, Tim Robertson and the staff – for entrusting me with the role. It’s a huge pleasure to greet the new Fellows, too, and the three Benson medallists.

I said ‘we wordsmiths’ and I have been wondering about the reach of that ‘we’, because a distinctive trait of writers is that they/we don’t settle comfortably into a group or groups; there probably aren’t any common features except for this singularity, independent-mindedness, and determination to speak and write with a unique voice. I’ve been pondering how best I can serve the Society’s aims, since we can only presume to speak as a ‘we’ sometimes. David Dabydeen said recently that what he loved about England, when he arrived from Guyana in the 1960s, was that ‘it’s a literary place’ – and I think that is the nub of our we-ness. We live in an old country of words and are in the business of forming it still. When I look at the list of Fellows of the RSL, I see that those words are travelling words, looping, migrating, flowing from and to multifarious other places, cultures, countries and continents: it’s a remarkable and elating list. The books Fellows have written make an unusual and extensive library all on their own, and that melancholy galaxy of the Fellows whose deaths this past year we are remembering tonight gives a glimpse of the range and variety.

But we are bonded as a ‘we’ perhaps above all by that very profound need not to be uniform; to be polyvocal, contrapuntal, dissident, singing each to each from a different rock of our choice. Yet I notice that the mounting turmoil in this country and in the Middle East and the United States has done something to the way writers are thinking about their work: literature – including imaginative literature – offers a forum for retelling history and philosophy, envisioning alternative angles of view, interrogating commonplaces and prejudices. A year or so ago, speaking in the United States, Ursula Le Guin declared, ‘Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.’

Many much discussed novels, plays, essays and poems are consciously taking up acute areas of debate and conflict – and often by addressing received ideas which have circulated in earlier writings, and then engaging with them in extensive conversations across time. J.M. Coetzee is one of several writers who tilt the New Testament in new directions. Kamila Shamsie revisits Antigone in her new novel, Home Fire.

Hilary Mantel, in her sparkling Reith Lectures, explores historical fiction as investigation, working from the records, filling in the gaps. ‘History and science, too, help us put our small lives in context,’ she said, and then gave the processes of imagination an uncanny twist: ‘But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.’ Margaret Atwood declared something very close to this in her lectures called ‘Negotiating with the Dead’, but she extended the claim far beyond historical novels. Writers write against oblivion, to fill the gaps and change the view, and these resurrections and summonses – our efforts – can be unexpectedly super-successful. For very many of us, Hilary Mantel’s Anne Boleyn and Thomas More have eclipsed earlier incarnations of them to imprint her fictional creations on collective memory, in the same way as Richard iii will always come up in the mind’s eye for me as Laurence Olivier playing Shakespeare’s villain. Figments of imagination can take up occupation of memory more deeply than factual accounts; and factual accounts have a way of turning into fancy as time passes. Herodotus was an historian, but has now become a teller of tales – wonderfully rich, entertaining, erudite but not a writer of a document of record, not at least all the time. The same could be said of Freud; he saw himself as a scientist, but has become one of the great storytellers of the psyche.

The defeatist axiom of W.H. Auden, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, misses the mark, because anxiety now clusters rather around the very power of books to imprint their vision of experience and shape actions and future ends. Atwood commented recently that books aren’t a good in themselves, but can be dangerous (viz. Mein Kampf ). It’s a contest of words, and she has chosen to write politically charged fables, and has inspired others to think of imagination as an instrument of warning: a beacon lit on a hill to tell others of dangers approaching. We – I think I can use the pronoun – have come to hold that literature matters because, among many things that it does, it has a huge unpredictable effect – on what is thought and spoken and felt and valued in a society. And it doesn’t depend on reaching readers per se, because today’s rapidly proliferating media are conduits of every genre of literature, mashed up together – Pride and Prejudice with Zombies.

I’ll end by juxtaposing three quotations about literature that are guiding lights for me; like the spokes of a wind rose on a map, they face in different directions.

The other day, the poet Andrea Brady gave a wonderful talk called ‘The Determination of Love’. She argued that attending to something as absorptively, as writing demands, is close to an act of love, for which embodied language – in the absence of actual bodies – is the medium. She went on, ‘artistic remembrance spurs the drive for the conquest of suffering and the permanence of joy’ – a thought that comes from Herbert Marcuse, a name from the past. This principle rings with helpful wishfulness, that writing as a form of art can bear us, in times of great strain and violent hostilities, towards what needs to be valued and endure. Hannah Arendt, who unlike Marcuse is often invoked these days, faces outwards with even stronger determination, engaging with the world outside and its business. In her post-war book The Human Condition she writes, ‘Stories are a form of action, the way we insert ourselves into the human world’ – ‘the ability to produce stories is the way we become historical’. Literature – stories in multiple forms – does not perhaps follow history as much as shape it.

Finally, a famous image from Rilke, much loved by me, so as not to forget that ‘the longest journey is in’. In 1925, he wrote, ‘We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly gather the honey of the visible, in order to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.’

I would have liked to be witty and bright, but these are times of trouble and they made me reflect in a heavier mood, perhaps too much so at a summer party. Yesterday was the anniversary of Jo Cox’s murder and her family asked for resistance in gatherings and fellowship, not mourning.

There will be feasting now and in the future: let’s keep spreading feasts of words.

Marina Warner gave this speech at the 2017 Summer Party.

Related RSL Fellows

Dame Marina Warner 1984