Monday, 25 June 2007

NWW 07 Session One: Geoff Dyer

The Existential Condition

Geoff Dyer led the first session on the Existential Condition. After a wide ranging introduction from Jon Cook, taking in Ovid, Mahon, Joyce and others on the nature of exile past and present, Geoff Dyer took the floor to open New Writing Worlds 2007: Exile and Imagination.

Geoff framed his approach to the wider subject of exile by talking about writers who have chosen to live abroad: an apparently 'minor' form of exile that still enables us to gain a particular view on the subject. He stated his aim of offering no thesis, no interesting case studies and no wide ranging international view. Instead he offered a series of pictures of English writers who made the decision to live anywhere but 'home'.

Does writing mean self-exile?

'Am I the last in the long line of working class, grammar school educated boys with a chip on both shoulders?' asked Geoff. Not quite, perhaps, but he turned to the work of DH Lawrence to explore the experience of another working class writer who lived his life moving from home to home and country to country.

Lawrence call England 'the country of the damned', and exclaimed a number of times 'I must go South!'. He made enough money to move around Europe and Asia but retained his Englishness, that included a rage against England, wherever he travelled and lived.

In 1922, writing from New Mexico to EM Forster, he noted 'one is a stranger nowhere more so than when one is at home' and this seems to offer a key to his views on belonging. For the flip side of being a stranger at home is a capacity to be at home everywhere.

While Lawrence was talking about geography, Geoff also felt that this sentiment of being everywhere at home could also apply to literary form. He honored those writers who 'crossed borders' from form to form, away from the comfort of the novel and in defiance of the arbitrarily drawn formal boundaries.

Auden and Isherwood were next up in Geoff's presentation. Both were said to have suffered artistic declines after leaving England for the USA. But in the case of Isherwood, the discoveies he made there were more important than the work he produced, Geoff felt. The utopian impulse of Californian life finds an echo in Lawrence's own utopian urges, and both writers find a bridge in the work of Huxley, another writer who moved away in order to find a sense of home.

Geoff finished off his presentation talking about Don DeLillo's The Names. Set within the International Risk community, the author portrays a 'supranational' business community in which each character seems to sound exactly the same. Lawrence was, in his way, trying to live a supranational life while at the same time constantly questioning and testing the sense of where he could feel both and home and free.

'Thank God I'm not free,' he said, 'anymore than a rooted tree is free.'

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