At the very end of June, I attended and spoke at the Exile’s Return (or L’Exil et le Retour) EMiC conference at the Universite Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris. The conference was a full three days, from the 28th of June through to the 30th of June, of conference presentations, plenaries, roundtables, keynote talks and plenty of socialising with coffee, pain au chocolate (I honestly had a year’s worth of pain au chocolate, croissants and madeleines) and some incredible conference luncheons (most notable, in my opinion, was the incredible La Mosquee de Paris in Place Monge).
As you can anticipate, speaking of Modernism and exile (both willing and unwilling) – two terms so closely interconnected – there were a plethora of notes that I came home with, which literally filled a whole cahier. It has sat and burgeoned out at me on my desk ever since, berating me for not addressing, even in part, those engaging couple of days. So I decided that it would suffice, and perhaps even provide a more interesting (as more succinct and detailed) report to focus on just a few sessions and individual speakers that spoke to me. I took much this same approach with my report on the RMIT ‘Katherine Mansfield, the “Underworld” and the “Blooms Berries”‘ conference, and it worked quite well. So this post will be in two parts, part one detailing more of the conference in general and a smattering of NZ lit and part two detailing the two Mansfield panels, together with the keynote author – who was incredible – Alberto Manguel. I should note that I take a distinct New Zealand-focus in my reportage, mainly focusing on those panel discussions that dipped into our South Pacific writers.
The part of the Sorbonne that the conference was held in was L’Institut du Monde Anglophone, which was on the rue de l’Ecole de Medecine, Odeon/St Michel in the 5th Arrondissement. Traditionally the historic centre of Parisian medical studies, the Grand Amphitheatre, where many of the talks were held, was originally a medical dissecting lecture theatre. It seemed rather apt that we were sitting there, dissecting literature.
The conference opened with a plenary session ‘Modernism Reaching Out: From Paris to Planetarity’ in the Grand Amphitheatre. One of the speakers in this opening session was Dr Andrew Thacker from De Montfort University, whose lecture ‘Taking Root or Moving On? Modernism, Transnationalism, and Little Magazines’ spoke to the idea of cities as dynamic agents of change. This supranational approach, tied to the space and energy of the city (in this case, Paris), for a willing expatriate and urban dweller like myself, really spoke volumes. He discussed the transnational little magazine Broom (which I used to ferret out in the Auckland University library quite regularly a few years back – it’s there and it will make you swoon!), edited by Kreymborg and our very own New Zealander Lola Ridge, which was an apt exemplar within which to discuss modernism’s international allegiances. I have always been fascinated by Ridge’s editorial work on Broom, as such a high quality publication, bridging multiple countries, truly deserving of the title ‘transnational’.
On Friday, the Petit Amphitheatre session ‘Routes of the Modern’ struck a distinct NZ-lit chord. Held directly before an incredible luncheon at Bouillon-Racine (yes, I will be mentioning the French restaurants – it was France, after all) and on an absolutely sweltering day (those historical lecture theatres don’t have the best air conditioning – read: several smallish windows open in the roof), it was pretty impressive to grab my attention, but grab it did.
This session was conducted by three panelists – Marc Delrez from the University of Liege, speaking of ‘Rilke in Frame’, Mark Williams from Victoria University, elaborating on the Modernism of late Manhire and Teresa Gilbert from the Spanish National University, who discussed transnationalism in Mavis Gallant’s writing (Mavis Gallant’s fiction elicits a swoon from my corner). Marc gave a particularly erudite discussion on the iconic Janet Frame and the inevitable influence of the interiority of Rilke. Canvassing several Frame novels, this presentation encompassed a surfeit of connections between the two poetic writers, in particular, discussing Frame’s Faces in the Water, which was the first Frame novel I ever read and so still strikes a nostalgic chord.
Following on from the Modernist poetics of Rilke (and – dare I say it? – of Frame), Mark Williams gave his talk ‘Dark Furniture: The Lugubrious Modernism of Late Manhire’, which focused intensively on Bill Manhire’s poetry (and here I gave a huge satisfied sigh as poetry discussion swilled around me – for what is better?), particularly focusing on the poem ‘Kevin’. I adore the conversational tone of this poem, which seems, to me, to be so integral to both Modernism and peculiar to New Zealand lit – the ordinary demotic. Of course, there are other concerns, other considerations – the modernist bricolage, the subversion of antecedents, the matching of the disjunctive (radio beside death). What always strikes me about this poem, and which Mark discussed in detail, is the positing of the line: ‘They lift us’ (ah, Baxter’s prophetic!) – without it, the poem wouldn’t be the same.
The final speaker in this panel was Teresa Gilbert from the Spanish National University, illuminating Mavis Gallant’s transculturality and transnationalism. I first encountered Mavis Gallant through Katherine Mansfield. Her 1976 short story ‘The Moslem Wife’, published in The New Yorker, opens within the setting of an expatriate hotel run by Netta Asher, which is, so Gallant states, just down the road from where Katherine Mansfield wrote in the south of France. As a writer wholly dedicated to the short story form (Gallant has never written a novel or poetry) and an expatriate, the comparisons between the two writers are numerous. However, in this panel, Teresa focused simply on Gallant in her discussion, detailing her concerted recapitulation of emotionally (and physically) alienated figures which litter her fiction. What particularly struck me about Teresa’s lecture was the subtle distinction that she made between a national sense of self and nationalism, which is often used as a stick (of sorts) to beat others with. This was finely put and left me considering nationalism/the national self in an entirely new light and trying to hash out this distinction in terms of New Zealand lit.
After such a critically satisfying morning, however, it was time for me to debrief and indulge in some of those distinctive South Bank second-hand book stalls (see the semi-French Mansfield that I found below!) and a little excursion to Shakespeare and Company.
Stay tuned for Part II, which will appear in due course, and will detail the ‘Mansfield, Exile and the Self’ panel, which I spoke as a part of (!) and the afternoon panel ‘Mansfield and Gallant: International Modernism and Paris’, coupled with some gems from author Alberto Manguel’s presentation ‘First and Last Modernists: From Conrad to Borges’.