|A Fantastic Legacy: Day Two
||[Oct. 9th, 2014|08:56 pm]
For the second day of the Diana Wynne Jones conference, we transferred to the University: this was a much easier journey, just train and metro, though the surroundings were less entertaining. My only real gripe about both venues was that neither seemed to have a cloakroom - literally, somewhere to leave your coat. There was evidently somewhere at the university for people who had stayed overnight to stash their luggage, but my notes say: "I am the White Queen. I have my bag, my notebook and my coffee - therefore, I have left my coat somewhere..."
The morning was divided into parallel sessions: you chose between two themes, and heard a series of (usually three) short papers, followed by questions and discussions.
With hindsight, I might have made some different choices; and I may have been confused by having shuffled my papers somewhat. I was working from the running order I had printed off from the website, which had the merit of setting out the speakers in the parallel sessions at a glance (the booklet listed them after the schematic programme, adding more detail), but the disadvantage that some things had been changed, and the changes were reflected in the printed booklet but not on the PDF on the website. This was counterintuitive, and I had trouble grasping it: "Did I hear that correctly?" I asked no-one in particular at the end of the introductory session, "did she really say that the printed version is more up to date than the website?" "That's what she said..." came an equally bemused voice from behind me.
I would not, though, have changed my choice of first panel, Literary and historical traditions. Victoria Symons' paper on Twisting Words: Medieval Perspectives in Diana Wynne Jones' Power of Three started my day on a high note: it was exactly the kind of close reading of the text that I enjoy, and it was about a book that I had re-read as part of my pre-conference preparations ('Oh, might as well re-read one of the early ones...') and been surprised and delighted by. In fact I'll save most of what I have to say about this paper for a separate post about Power of Three itself, but will note here, as a foreshadowing of steepholm's keynote talk, how immensely illuminating I found a slide in which Victoria Symons simply stacked up three panoramic photographs of the three locations of the book: the mound, the wetlands, the farmhouse. Frances Foster was entertaining and informative about DWJ's classical references (though I confess that what I remember most clearly is not her erudite references but her reading aloud of the Greek text - that is, written in Greek letters - from The Ogre Downstairs). The session ended with Molly Brown talking about Arthurian refractions in Hexwood, but I felt that her focus was elsewhere: she did talk about the Arthurian material in the book, in particular the multiple sources from which it is derived (Malory, but also Spenser and T.H. White), but my notes are primarily about the construction of Hexwood, the different timelines and circles of 'reality'. Then again, Hexwood is not one of my favourites, and when people tell me what is so great about it, I tend to feel yes, I see, that's clever... rather than experiencing it as a wonderful book.
After coffee, I chose a panel on Chant Family Values in preference to Gods, writers, lives. I must have had a reason, but I can't now say what it was. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of words like 'feminism' and 'Goddess' that made me nervous (though with fjm hosting the panel, I'm sure all would have been well). And I was intrigued by the extent to which, when we discussed (as, sooner or later, most of us did) which of DWJ's books we had read first, the list was dominated by Charmed Life*. For whatever reason, I found myself learning more than I had expected about Laplanche and his theories on formative trauma (his association with the Château de Pommard was not mentioned; would I have paid more attention if I had known that he also made serious Burgundy?). I was glad that someone who was not me asked the key question, and received the answer "In terms of authorial intent, I think that a limiting paradigm..." Indeed: it limits the discussion to the topic I am interested in. To be fair, the paper was interesting in itself, and I took this reply as permission to stop writing "Yes, but..." and relax, which made it more enjoyable. I didn't entirely accept Laurel Richards' argument, either, but at least she was talking about the books: "No matter how much she [DWJ] likes him [Christopher Chant], she can't make him a good parent." And it was a pleasure to realise that I had met Laurel before, while she was working in the archives on her dissertation, and we had dined at a Persian restaurant with fjm and chilperic (and indeed durham_rambler and desperance) - I had completely forgotten that, and it was a good memory to retrieve!
One of the doors I passed on my way to the ladies' during the break had a sign on it: "WASPS' NEST - PEST CONTROL DEALING". It seemed the perfect way to deter intruders, and I wondered what was really going on behind the door - and what would have been going on, if DWJ had been writing this?
There was time for one more panel before lunch, and I opted for the stream on humour, because it wouldn't do to overlook how very funny these books are. Two interesting, but apparently not very memorable papers (when I came to write this up, I had completely forgotten that there had been a third morning panel). Perhaps I should have gone instead to the session on Howl's Moving Castle: I'm more interested in the book than in the film, but I'm always interested in the nuts and bolts of translation, and references afterwards sounded as if there'd have been a certain amount of that. Ah, well.
Lunch was not only and opportunity to talk to fjm, but she had lured Anne Fine to come and join us, so that was a pleasure. Also, the (vegan, and substantially gluten-free) lunch buffet included kale crisps - and, speaking as someone who does not like kale, they were wonderful.
We reconvened for one final "parallel session", which was parallel only to itself: three international speakers gave their papers to the full audience. Anything they said has been overshadowed in my memory (and in my notes) by steepholm's closing keynote speech on Enchanting Places: Readers and Pilgrimage in the Novels of Diana Wynne Jones.
I could write a whole other post on this illuminating and thought-provoking paper, even at this late stage when the end of the post is in sight: but a better idea would be fore you to go and read it - it's online. Catherine Butler proposes a taxonomy of ways in which real world places may appear in the fantasy novels of DWJ (and others):
I wonder whether these represent four distinct cases, or whether they are points on a continuum: examples could be moved between 2 and 3, for example, according to the reader's familiarity with the location in question. Your mileage may vary, and one of the strengths of the paper is that it engages fully with both the writer's and the reader's experience of the text. I might also suggest an additional case, in which local colour is provided by the use of details which are sufficiently non-specific to allow readers to see the text as mirroring a locality with which they are familiar... But I said I wasn't going to do this.
- As named, identifable locations (Bristol in Fire and Hemlock and Deep Secret);
- As un-named but still identifiable places (Glastonbury in A Tale of Time City;
- Places which can only be identified by external evidence from the author (Chysauster in The Merlin Conspiracy;
- and finally, places which the author is able to identify by an effort of will as colouring her fictional places, but is reluctant to recognise as equivalents (some locations in Howl's Moving Castle.
And that was that. A group of us wandered off to Northern Stage for a quick drink, after which Anne very kindly gave me a lift home.
*I was unusual - and was surprised to discover how unusual, even among the older participants - in having read all her children's books as they came out (that is, as the Puffin paperback editions appeared).
There was, sort of, a Day Three: I could have gone to the Tyneside Cinema at Sunday lunchtime for a screening of Howl's Moving Castle. But I had other things to do on Sunday - things like going on holiday.