It’s been a rather busy month since my last update. The project with John has now been fleshed-out – though we’re delaying the launch of the website for a few months and the AHRC application for a few weeks due to scheduling and deadlines. Almost all of the costings are done, so we’re now moving on to the writing. More on the project once the first draft of the application is finished.
In the meantime I’ve taken over co-ordinating the literary theory module at the University of St Andrews, EN3201, and it has been fun putting together the reading list and planning the classes. A great opportunity to teach some of the theory that I’ve been passionate about and to familiarise myself with things I’ve never gotten round to reading. Really looking forward to the start of term. I’ll post a link to the course when the website goes live.
In terms of my own research, while I’ve been continuing work on The Devil’s Footprints, I’ve also started preparing a piece on Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon in light of a call for papers. I’ll write a dedicated post about it during the next week.
Though the new project, and its grant proposal, continue to monopolise the majority of my time, I thought I would provide an update on how my research is going.
I seem to be currently working on both essays, concurrently, which I think is mainly due to not having had a prolonged period of time to write and concentrate on a single work, meaning that I have been reading in fits and starts – fitted in around drafting a case for support and having meetings.
As I mentioned previously, my essay on Glister has taken a slightly new direction and at the moment my research has been mainly on biblical intertexts. I’m putting together some close readings, particularly on Job and Revelation, and I think this is helping me conceptualise the opening section of the novel where, at the moment, I believe I want to focus my reading.
The Devil’s Footprints, however, seems to be rising once again to prominence and I had a breakthrough on Monday – appropriately enough a moment of second sight. I realised that while a tripartite structure was the correct way to proceed, the order in which I conceived of the sections was wrong. Once I switched them, viewing the ending first and the penultimate section second – reversing the novel’s chronology – the structural and conceptual problems I had found with the essay evaporated. The change meant that the moment of failed compassion was now the beginning of the essay, as it had been the genesis of my own research and interest in the novel. I also changed the balance of the sections, lengthening the third part, and shortening the first two sections. I hope (project permitting) to have a complete draft down by the end of August.
As the essay on The Devil’s Footprints comes together I’ll add a further update providing more detail.
Been a busy month.
The collaborative project with John Burnside is now officially up and running and I’ve started a research position at the University of St Andrews, contracted until February in the first instance. We’ve titled the project Saint Hubert and the Deer and it will consist of a series of twelve multi-media publications on selected ecological topics, combining creative work and ecocriticism, and placing them in dialogue. At the moment we’re putting together a funding application for an AHRC highlight notice and most of the last month has been taken up with drafting the various sections and attachments of the application form, and arranging assorted meetings. Hopefully by the end of this month or next we should have submitted.
With the extra travel I’ve been reading rather than writing – principally biblical research for the Glister essay. After a really helpful conversation with Jake (as always) another angle has occurred and I am thinking about doing The Devil’s Footprints second.
Further updates as things develop.
In a further attempt to capitalise on my (probably temporary) post-retreat inability to procrastinate I’ve managed to finish my essay on A Summer of Drowning (though I do still need to chase down a Sartre quotation as I don’t have Being and Nothingness to hand, but that should only take a few minutes tomorrow). I quote below the hopefully error-free abstract:
Desire as “havoc in the fabric of the given world”: Subjectivity and Text in John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning’
A Summer of Drowning (2011) outlines two divergent modes of seeing: a limited, given form of vision, and an alternate, more individualistic perception. The essay argues that the principle differentiation between these two modes centres around their contrasting perspectives upon the role of desire. While the former advocates the transformation of desire into a heteronormative narrativity, theorised through the critical lens of Edelman’s monograph No Future, the latter form of desire is unmediated and uncontained, explored within the novel through the destabilising presence of the huldra, Maia. Engaging with these differing conceptions through a close reading of Liv Rossdal and Martin Crosbie, the essay proceeds to explore the role of these two modes of vision in the act of writing — both critically and creatively – arguing that Burnside’s text questions the very possibility of writing as a means of engaging with the interrelation of self, society and desire.
I’ve decide to write the next essay on The Devil’s Footprints, rather than Glister. The starting point is a quotation, ‘a willed blindness’ (p.208), and a recent essay of John’s called Walk the Tightrope. My initial conception is to divide the work into three parts which is something I’ve never really done in my writing, but I think it suits the project.
The first section will concentrate on a close reading of a passage from ‘Traffic from Paradise’, viewed through the lens of ‘Walk the Tightrope’ and looking at the way in which Michael Gardiner strips back the self. The epigraph will be ‘being present, being stripped of all pretence. Being myself at last, empty-handed, with nothing to defend’ (p.197). Building on this, the second section will focus on a close reading of ‘The Curlew Sandpiper’, addressing issues of connection and compassion – of how to reach out to the other, using the final few lines of the novel as a starting point:
I feel sorry for him, I suppose. I never speak to him, or give out any signal that I know who he is, but there are times when I want to take him out to the point and show him the birds. (p.224)
The third section will then be about the act of writing, both creative and critical (as well as questioning any such division), and, through the lens of ‘Walk the Tightrope’ and ‘Strong Words’, discussing the potential of writing to act as that bridge, and as a form of dwelling.
Back in A Preliminary Sketch (1) I briefly mentioned the possibility of a collaborative project that was at a conceptual stage. The first element of funding has come together and I’m going to be lucky enough to work with John Burnside, putting together a pilot and applying for further grants to fund a longer series. The project should have its own blog/website in the next month or so, so I’ll leave the details for that and provide a link when it goes live.
I’ve received feedback on the essay and it’s been very positive. Only significant criticism has been of the introduction, which confirms a suspicion I had that it might be more suited to a chapter. The feeling was that it was too concerned with the place of A Summer of Drowning in John’s fiction, rather than focusing specifically on the novel. Jake also felt that a more conventional academic opening would set up a better contrast with the more experimental ending. I’ve given that a try and it seems to be an improvement. Going to leave it for a few days and then come back to it fresh.
Finished re-reading Glister and am torn on which way to go. I’ll devote a specific post to that when I’ve thought about it some more.
Also been feeling that I need to do more on desire. The piece that comes to mind isn’t really either academic or creative so I’ll just have to see where it goes. Update on that to follow.
Just a quick update.
Finished the first draft of the essay on A Summer of Drowning last week and it came in just under the limit – at about 5800 words. As predicted, I had to leave out the discussion of Ryvold and Angelica, but I think the more experimental ending incorporates those perspectives on desire and prevents the work from becoming simply a binary analysis. I’ve been lucky enough to have had some offers to comment on the draft, so I’ll wait for some feedback before I begin polishing.
In the meantime, I’ve started work on the Glister piece. I’m lacking a preliminary title, but I think Eliot’s The Waste Land will prove a useful intertext. I’m tempted to divide the piece into sections – to mirror the structure of the novel and the poem – but that’s never really suited my writing so I’ll have to see how it goes.
Longer update when I have a more concrete outline of the next piece.
A quick progress update.
The essay, including experimental ending, is nearly at a complete first draft stage. The writing has been a really enjoyable process, very liberating to ‘open up’ again, whatever that means. The only sticking point has been the problem of length. It was close to 8000 words at one point – without any discussion of Angelika, Ryvold and Kyrre. This posed the problem of how to condense the length without compromising either the experimentation or the depth. The current solution is to focus exclusively upon Liv and Martin. While this creates a manageable scope (sort of), it runs the risk of turning the essay into something dialectical; type and antitype. The challenge in subsequent drafts is going to be making sure that doesn’t occur, that the essay retains its nuance, ambiguity and complexity without being overly long. I console myself with the thought that when the time comes to put the together the monograph on John’s work there will be plenty of room to incorporate discussions of Angelika, Ryvold, Kyrre and Maia within the experimental structure.
On an unrelated note, I’m also in the final stages of putting together an outline of my monograph (PhD thesis) on Don DeLillo entitled ‘[T]he Language of self’: Strategies of Subjectivity in the Novels of Don DeLillo – thanks to Jake for some helpful feedback. Though I wont claim I’m enjoying writing the outline, reading through the PhD again for the first time since the viva I was glad to find I still loved the work. Was a nice feeling after hearing horror stories of disenchantment and revulsion. It should be finished by next week so I’ll post it in its entirety (it’s currently sitting at about four pages).
Here’s the final version of the research proposal. Thanks to Fiona for her feedback:
‘I’m not crazy – I know enough, after all, not to talk about these things to the living’1: Portrayals of Apophenia and Addiction in John Burnside’s Later Prose.
Since the publication of A Lie About My Father (2006), John Burnside’s fictional and non-fictional prose has increasingly explored the boundaries of mental illness and addiction. Characterising both his work and subjectivity as apophenic in nature, the second volume of his memoir, Waking up in Toytown (2010), addressed the shaping effect of this diagnosis – a concern which also mediates and informs his three contemporaneous novels: The Devil’s Footprints (2007), Glister (2008), and A Summer of Drowning (2011).
In its exploration of these liminal states, Burnside’s prose provides a subjective and affective counterpoint to conventional medical discourse surrounding such conditions, challenging the privilege which underlies and enforces the boundary between sanity and illness. While, as Foucault notes, structures of power such as medicine and psychology encourage a turn towards discourse, such an imperative speaks within strictly policed bounds of sense and non-sense, of what is factual and non-factual; an act of translation echoed and subverted in the title quotation of this research proposal and in Burnside’s work in general.
My project thus proposes to combine an analysis of material obtained from Burnside’s archive – housed in the nearby St Andrews University library – with detailed close readings of his prose texts, and two as yet unpublished interviews, to explore how his writing challenges, re-inscribes and re-defines the boundaries of medical discourse.
The initial research outcomes of this analysis will consist of two article-length interviews discussing these themes in Burnside’s work, and a series of three journal articles addressing The Devil’s Footprints, Glister and A Summer of Drowning. This will form the basis of a subsequent, monograph-length study of how such concerns have shaped the possibilities of John Burnside’s later prose.