Friday, May 15, 2015

The Warm Glow of Literary Lights

Last night I attended the first of the literary events I had booked for at the Wheeler Centre, that being the double header of married literary lights Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn.

They are now both 81 years old, but they certainly don’t look it nor had their mental acuity been tempered by age. Both events were interesting in different ways.

Claire Tomalin is a noted biographer of such literary figures as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. She created a storm of controversy when she revealed in her biography of Dickens, that he had long term mistress, for whom he abandoned his wife and children. Claire Tomalin also wrote a biography – The Invisible Woman - of said mistress, Ellen Ternan,  a young actress, who by all accounts led a very interesting life, ending up, after Dickens death, as a respectable woman, managing to keep her relationship with Dickens and her previous less than respectable life a secret until her death.

mary w

Claire Tomalin was interviewed by local writer Toni Jordon and spoke at length about her life and works.

She wrote her first book, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft in her late thirties, her life up to that time being busily filled with her career as Literary Editor for New Statesman and The Sunday Times as well as bringing up her children.

The Wollstonecraft biography was a great success and won the Whitbread Book Award in 1974. I have a copy of the hardcover, but it is not the first edition, which according to Claire Tomalin, was a small issue. My copy is the second edition published in 1975. However I did take it along last night and got it signed by the author.

A somewhat out of focus Claire Tomalin signing books.

The discussion evolved into the question of how Claire Tomalin chooses her biographical subjects. She remarked that in the process of researching and writing a biography she felt as if she was obliged to live their life and she was attracted to subjects that she could love. Her emotional engagement with her biographical subjects was profound and she admitted to weeping when she wrote of their deaths. She makes a point of literally walking in her subjects shoes, traversing on foot the locations in which they lived their lives.

Her favourites, she stated were Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Pepys.

It was an engrossing hour of conversation and I was delighted to have been present for it.

The event was pretty well booked out and was held at the Wheeler Centre in the former Barry Hall in the South Wing of the State Library in Little Lonsdale Street. The audience was mostly in the older age group, though I did spot a few young faces.

The Michael Frayn event was a completely different kettle of fish. He was introduced by Chris Mead , the Literary Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, so his emphasis was more on Michael Frayn’s theatrical creations, though the acclaimed literary light is noted for his journalism , novels and screen writing as well as his dramatic works. His segment was titled “How To Begin”, so Michael Frayn began by talking for at least twenty minutes on how he came to a writing career.

Also out of focus, Michael Frayn speaking on the podium.

He was a humorous and entertaining speaker, having a fine sense of irony and an appreciation for the ridiculous things life throws up, relating several stories where he was the butt of the joke.

This year, 2015, is the 50th anniversary of the publication of his first novel The Tin Men, and he has 10 other novels to his credit. His plays include Copenhagen, Democracy and Noises Off.

He didn’t start to write for the theatre until the 1970s, eschewing the literary form out of prejudice caused by a rejection of his first attempt at theatre in his University days. 

I notice on the Wheeler Centre website that events are recorded for posterity, so you can view some past events about a month after they occurred, should you be interested in checking them out.

It was a chilly day yesterday, Melbourne shivering under an early onset of winter, so it was good to venture out and bask in the warm glow of literature. It’s a pity my photos didn’t turn out well, but I was nervous about taking photos in the venue, so the two photos above are sneak shots hastily snapped on my smallest and not very good camera.

Next Tuesday I am looking forward to seeing the David Mitchell - Jonathan Lethem double header at Deakin Edge in Federation Square.

The horse racing scene is rather dull in Melbourne at the moment with the Group 1 action happening in Adelaide this weekend and in Brisbane throughout late May and June, but I have booked for several concerts over the coming months, the first being Iris Dement on 28 May.

I’m particularly delighted that my favourite artist Ryan Adams is coming in July. Both his Melbourne shows have already sold out, but I managed to get tickets for both nights.

I’ve got winter covered, entertainment wise at least.


Whispering Gums said...

I know what you mean about the warm glow. I love hearing literary people speak - well, most anyhow. Occasionally you get one who is not comfortable speaking but most I find are interesting, thoughtful people. I have only read one Frayn novel. Keep meaning to read more. Didn't know he was 81! And of course I've read Tomalin's biography of Austen.

Anne S said...

Claire Tomalin did talk about her biography of Jane Austen, saying that she spent time in Jane's home area as part of her research. She has always loved her biographical subjects and feels that she is living their lives when she writes about them.

I've only read Tomalin's biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (years ago) but after hearing her speak, I intend to read more. I note that they are all available for Kindle.