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Sian Norris talks modernism, Paris and the women of the Left Bank

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist, currently working on her first novel, The Red Deeps. As writer-in-residence at Bristol’s Spike Island, she runs a series of literary salons that bring together reflections on the Left Bank of 1920s Paris with cutting-edge literature from across the UK. We caught up with Sian to ask her about modernism, women, and the program she’s putting together.


You’re a writer-in-residence at Spike Island in Bristol. What will you be doing there?

Lots! I designed a really busy residency program and so now I’m very busy trying to fulfil all its criteria.

The main focus of the residency is to edit the latest draft of my novel, which focuses on women’s lives on the 1920s Left Bank. I’ve been working on it for a while now and it’s really at the very exciting stage of talking to agents. It’s the task of honing the text to make it the best it can be, and I’m really looking forward to getting an agent who I can work with to improve the book and send it to publishers.

At the same time, I’ve organised a program of salon events and creative writing workshops with adults and children. The first adult workshop is very much designed to be interactive with the current exhibition at Spike Island by Lubaina Himid. It’s so inspiring to be in this brilliant arts space and work with the exhibition. I’ve also designed a schools’ workshop program, working with Bristol sixth form students.

Then there’s a collaboration with Rife magazine, mentoring a young writer, Kaja Brown, who is absolutely fantastic – a really exciting talent. I’m also running an online reading group recommending specific texts by modernist women, and I published an e-book of essays about women in the Left Bank community.

Finally, I’m also developing some new work which is really thrilling. It’s in the very early stages but I’ve got a good feeling about it. So really, really busy.

What drew you to the women of the Left Bank? What was your first – or most memorable! – encounter with this thread of modernism?

My first encounter with this world was buying a Colette paperback from Barter Books when I was 14. It was The Vagabond, a proper orange and cream old school Penguin. That got me totally hooked on Colette. I was really fascinated by this cool bisexual woman living in Paris, performing on stage, writing novels, writing journalism – she just seemed incredible.

Then, when I was 16, I was at the local library and found Andrea Weiss’ Paris Was a Woman. And suddenly it wasn’t just Colette. It was this whole community of women living and working in Paris in the 1920s – supporting one another, mentoring or publishing one another, and creating boundary-pushing, experimental and avant-garde work. I became an addict, buying US copies of Djuna Barnes’ Ladies Almanack, searching for Janet Flanner articles online.

After Colette I think the next writer that really caught my interest was Barnes. I read Nightwood when I was 18 and wrote my A-level coursework on it. I’m actually re-reading it right now, and every time I am stunned at the dense complexity of her prose, how poetic and evocative she is. I found her a really fascinating writer.

Then when I was at university I started reading Gertrude Stein and Jean Rhys. What I loved about Rhys was her ability to write despair, about the experience of being poor and female and desperate. And what I loved about Stein was how funny she was! There are so many funny moments in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

I think Stein was the most important encounter. What I find fascinating about her is how she took all the things we expect or accept about literature and turned it on its head. She asked us what writing would be like if we stripped out allusions, if we wrote what we see, what is truly there.

I’m also really interested in Shari Benstock’s theory about the coded lesbian sexuality in her writings; this idea that she’s creating a new register of language that communicates something very centred in woman-ness and lesbianism. I often try and describe my reaction to Stein as a “heart reading” rather than a cerebral one, if that makes sense? In that sometimes I don’t understand what she means but I feel something about what she means, it feels quite bodily and physical. I think it’s something about the repetition and rhythms.

I also really love H.D and, I adore Flanner. If I could go back in time and have a drink with someone it would be her.

What are you reading at the moment?

As I said, I’m re-reading Nightwood, after reading Lauren Elkin’s essay in The Paris Review about women living in 1920s Paris and walking around the Left Bank. It’s a book I revisit a lot and the way I read it, or feel about it, has changed a lot since I was 18. In fact, I need to buy a new copy really because it’s so hard to read it with my 18-year-old self’s notes scribbled in the margins! I love it when books mean different things to you at different stages of your life.

I’m also reading a lot of Martha Gellhorn’s essays and selected journalism. She’s incredible. Her writing on the Spanish Civil War is so evocative and frightening, and her novel The Stricken Field is too. I mention those two aspects of her career in particular because, sadly, a lot of what she writes feels far too familiar with what’s happening today in Syria and in the refugee crisis.

Tell us about your literary salons. It seems to me that, just as Stein promoted so many writers who we know so well, this is a chance to promote some interesting voices – maybe even the sort of voices that are still overlooked in the twentieth-century canon.

One of the things about Stein’s salons is that she created this space where so many of the Big Men of Modernism TM came together and she mentored them and supported them and then BAM! Everyone knows who Hemingway is and Stein is seen as a niche, weird interest. What’s going on there I wonder? Smells of sexism to me. . .

Stein really recognised that she was seen as the Personality rather than the Writer, particularly in the States. So while other writers respected her work – Flanner wrote in the New Yorker that ‘no other writer is so respected by the American modernists than Miss Stein’ – the public was more interested in her as the character.

Anyway! My salons are designed to create a space for established and emerging talent to share their work. With that in mind, I’ve booked a range of speakers who are at different stages in their careers but all have a public profile, be it a book or two, or a performance record. Then there’ll be space for an open mic where local writers can share their work.

And yes, re: promoting interesting or marginalised voices. It was so, so important to me to ensure that the salons reflect the exciting diversity of the UK literary scene – a diversity that is too often not represented! So, for example, I have booked almost 50/50 BAME/white writers to challenge the often all, or mostly, white line-ups at literary events.

I’ve also programmed more women than men, again to challenge those imbalances, and the salon of  March 16 was women-only (in terms of speakers; men could attend as audience members). And again, there’s a mix of speakers regarding career stage – some have a very established publishing track record, are on their fifth, sixth books. . . others have a book coming out this year. Then there’s me, who will hopefully have a book out soon!

Learn more about Sian’s work at Spike Island here, and follow her on Twitter @sianushka.

Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities (University of Vienna, 29th September – 1st October)

Irish writers made diversely vital contributions to literary modernism, to an extent arguably disproportionate to the country’s size and population. A few – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, especially – have been central to the modern literary canon. The new modernist studies since the 1990s has tended to provide more historically detailed and archivally evidenced readings of these central figures, while space has also been found for hitherto less regarded artists. Networks of publishing and activity have also been under consideration, and the relation between the overlapping concepts ‘Irish Modernism’ and ‘The Irish Revival’ has been rethought, mainly resulting in greater overlap.


The conference on Irish Modernisms held at the University of Vienna this Autumn set out to increase the attention on the previously overlooked and to bring marginal figures and issues to the centre, filling some of the ‘gaps’ in its title. The call for papers cited the Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism (2014) as a starting point while encouraging work on ‘marginal modernisms and previously neglected genres, forms, and sites of publication or expression’; the conference would be ‘dedicated to testing the borders of Irish Modernism’. This project might be called revisionist, if that term were not already so overloaded with freight in Irish Studies. In the event, numerous papers dealt with well-established names – though in one decentring development, none directly addressed the figure seemingly most central to the whole epoch, W.B. Yeats. This brief report will not seek to cover every paper (strong material on the more canonical writers will go undiscussed below), but rather will note a few elements of the conference in relation to its specific aims of exploring the field’s margins and borders.


In any consideration of canonical ‘gaps’ and absences of attention, questions of gender must figure prominently. The Irish canon of the modernist period is plainly dominated by male writers, raising the question whether this primarily demonstrates a dearth of opportunities for women writers at the time or a failure of critical attention over subsequent decades. No doubt both factors are involved. Some discussion at the conference suggested that women had found access to networks of publishing and publicity easier during the Irish Revival (here meaning, say, the pre-Rising years), and harder subsequently (during the notoriously censorious and restrictive Free State). The middle-class women activists and thespians detailed in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2014) might provide evidence for that view. But much work can still be done to bring into focus the writing of Irish women in the period. One simple way this conference did that was to feature two women as keynote speakers, both of whom focused on women writers. Professor Patricia Coughlan of Cork University spoke on Elizabeth Bowen, perhaps the most canonically settled of all Irish women writers of the period. (Two other papers also addressed Bowen’s fiction.) Professor Coughlan also remained a constant source of knowledge and authoritative perspectives on a range of issues throughout the rest of the conference. In a second keynote address, Lucy Collins of UCD introduced the work of a number of Irish women poets, including Blanaid Salkeld and Sheila Wingfield. Discussion of the poetry was prefaced by an extensive consideration of the nature of canons and periods, and how these more mid-century poets had fallen between the visibility of the Revival at one end of the century and of Eavan Boland at the other.


Lucy Collins’ paper did the most to introduce truly little-known writers. Other papers tended rather to turn a spotlight on writers with some reputation: thus Daniel Curran and Karl O’Hanlon on the poetry of Thomas MacGreevy and Denis Devlin respectively. Fionna Barber, a scholar of art history, brought visual arts more to the fore; the fine Dublin painter Mainie Jellett was an intermittently recurring reference point. The conference seemed to have an appetite for such material, suggesting that comparisons and connections between literature and painting might be a border to test in future. A different tendency was the revelation of obscure works from well-known names. Two examples stood out: Michael McAteer reported on The Queen of the World, a science-fictional time-travelling pot-boiler from the renowned mythographer Standish James O’Grady, and Michael Connerty disclosed the existence of scores of turn-of-the-century comic strips by Jack B. Yeats. A slide show offered examples of the strips, which were an extraordinary spectacle: animal characters including a clever circus horse (a possible connection with Yeats’ better-known paintings of circuses), a venerable flying proto-superhero named Dickie Bird, and the consulting detective Chubb Lock Holmes (which might call to mind Hugh Kenner’s whimsical comparison, in the 1950s, of Sherlock Holmes to W.B. Yeats). Questions remain about the material: did Jack Yeats write the scripts as well as draw the pictures? But Connerty’s material posed the relationship between modernism and mass culture in a spectacularly entertaining new way.


One other theme was an emphasis on networks and institutions rather than individuals. Tobias Harris talked of Dublin magazines of the 1920s, raising questions about the role of printers as well as writers. With characteristic originality and flair, Ronan Crowley introduced the roman a clef as a genre of the Irish Revival, with a long list of novels cutting across seemingly disparate spheres from naturalism to Ulysses and Murphy. And Des Lally, a scholar based in the West of Ireland, reminded us of the importance of Dublin’s Gate Theatre in the 1930s, as a cosmopolitan home for the arts which also sheltered marginal and prohibited sexual identities. It seemed to me that such a paper could point the way to further accounts of places and social spaces that enabled the production and circulation of the modern Irish arts.


Some overarching questions were aired in a closing panel. Should the corpus of ‘Irish modernism’ be extended in time, even all the way forward to Eimear McBride? My own sense is that what academics call ‘modernism’ as a whole has expanded enough by now, and if anything we need ways to keep the category in check. Still, if the corpus of relevant works enlarges to take in lesser-known authors of the era, then in what way are the new works to be read? Would Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ or data mining be a more suitable way to handle such large hoards of textual material? Or do those hitherto neglected authors, like those cited by Lucy Collins, deserve more sustained individual attention? Should we, Paul Fagan wondered aloud, revisit such critical classics as Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition (1962)? And when will George Moore come back into fashion?


From a distance, one might wonder at the conference’s location. Irish Studies may naturally thrive in Ireland, but it has also found homes around the rest of Europe like that of Vienna’s Centre for Irish Studies – fostered notably by the late Professor Werner Huber, who died just months before this conference and was remembered fondly here. It might be true that fully to understand Irish writing, you need to spend time in Ireland. But it could also be that the discussion of such writing is sometimes enhanced by taking it elsewhere, to a kind of neutral territory. Co-organizers Tamara Radak, Paul Fagan and John Greaney can be commended for making Vienna such a place at this conference.


About the Author

Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His books include Joyce’s Critics (2004) and Flann O’Brien (2005).



Ben’s fairy tales: how The Storyteller sheds new light on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy

Whimsical twists exist everywhere in Walter Benjamin’s fantastic newly translated collection: an ill empress considers a set of scales which she deems as fine enough to weight the world; a lovestruck baron has gone bankrupt by renting a palace solely to see its mysterious madame; a man with the name “Elephant” revealed as the origin of the animal’s name.

Benjamin unfolded his theory of fairy tales in his essay “The Storyteller” (1936), after which this collection is named, writing that “the first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales”. This short story collection explores the themes of dreams and fantasy, landscape and travel, and play and pedagogy.

The collection is, like the late nineteenth-century Parisian arcade was to its author, a phantasmagoria. It extends an enigmatic world with uncanny creatures and suspenseful happenings between the conscious and the subconscious, between utopia and dystopia, between images and words, and between the ordinary and the exotic.

The first section contains portraits of dreams and fantasies. A desperate nightwalker encounters a speaking rock in forest. A dwarf confronts twelve images emblematic of his unrealised desires in a New Year’s Eve gala. Snippets of childhood and families telling of Benjamin’s attachments in exile turn up as dreams – or texts in his archive of memory. He wrote these fragments between 1906 and 1912, with some pieces from late 1920s and 1930s.

The non-linear narratives of these dreams, to a certain extent, anticipate the modernist aesthetics before the onset of European modernism. They find echo in canonical works such as the mythical parody in Ulysses, the dystopian city in The Waste Land, and the flâneuse in Mrs Dalloway. These stories, with their emphases on dreams, archetypes, and folktales, also illustrate his longstanding adherence to the Jungian idea of the “collective consciousness” which appears in The Arcades Project (Belknap, 1999).

The centre of the collection is a series of travelogue and journeys through lands and seas. Benjamin was a sickly child when he was small, so going onto the streets of Berlin was most exciting. Such “erotic tensions of modern city life,” as the translators highlight in the introduction of the volume, never left him. In the late 1910s, he travelled to Bern, Capri, Moscow, Ibiza, and Paris; some of these would become places in which to set his stories. The narrator in “The Cactus Hedge”, for instance, recounts the metamorphosis of an ancient cactus hedge which inspired an Ibizan’s crafting of Negro masks. Aimless strollers or suspicious stalkers are ubiquitous in this central section, in which Benjamin shows that city spaces are allegorical locations with embedded meanings, as in “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”.

The last section, “Play and Pedagogy” are new evidence for reconsidering Benjamin’s conventional image as a writer “mired” in hyper-academism. In these stories, he emerges as an educator with a keen interest in riddle, brainteaser, and play. This section reflects a recent interest in Benjamin’s pedagogical, playful side, as exemplified by other recent publications of translated archive materials like Radio Benjamin (Verso, 2014) and Walter Benjamin’s Archive (Verso, 2015).

Benjamin had a sustained interest in word puzzles and rebuses: In the First World War, Benjamin and his wife, Dora, corresponded with Gershom Scholem, their friend, who was under observation in the army by encrypted letters; in 1938, his imprisoned brother, Georg, sent some riddles through his sister-in-law, Hilde, to Benjamin as birthday present.

Stories in “Play and Pedagogy” also testify to the lasting influence of Benjamin’s early years’ boarding school mentor and educator, Gustav Wyneken. Wyneken promoted a doctrine of Youth Culture, which purported that the young were more spiritually, morally, and intellectually superior to the old, and the youth were hence expected to equip themselves with a full range of artistic culture and scientific knowledge. Benjamin’s confidence in the youth’s creativity and intelligence is marked in the collected responses to his radio challenges in “Fantasy Sentences” and “Radio Games.”

In order to subsist during exile, Benjamin got a job to broadcast a series of 20 minute programmes entitled Youth Hour on German radio between November 1929 and March 1932. These included interactive radio programmes for children. He gave them keywords to write poetry; the children would then send their works to Benjamin in the following week to be read out in the programmes:

Corner – emphasis – character – drawer – flat

On the corner – he said it with emphasis – I saw a character that was flat like a drawer.

Benjamin’s interest in nurturing children’s creativity to challenge conventional linguistic rules is evident in his word games in these programmes, while the interest in opening multiple possibilities and interpretations in language would later be developed in seminal works such as The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), which presents a defence for allegory against symbolism.

From Virginia Woolf to T.S. Eliot, the early writings of modernists have always been overshadowed and underrated. The publication of this collection follows the recent archival turn in modernist studies. This collection invites readers to reconsider Benjamin not only as an established theorist, but also as a creator imagining a world of tradition, hopes, and wisdom during a time of persecution. It would particularly engage both novice and experienced Benjaminians, but would also interest those who simply enjoy stories. The volume alters reader’s way of receiving Benjamin as a critic known for his dense and elusive writings. By highlighting his childishness, the collection brings fore Benjamin’s eccentricities to bear on his prophetic vision of a philosopher.

The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness by Walter Benjamin, illustrations by Paul Klee, is translated and edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski and published by Verso (240pp, £9.09)

About the author

Jessica Siu-yin Yeung is PhD Candidate in the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her current research focuses on the intersection of life-writing and allegory.

She has been awarded scholarships to study in Hong Kong and previously taught English Literature subjects at BA levels at Caritas Institute of Higher Education and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Her articles are forthcoming in Virginia Woolf Miscellany and a/b: Auto/Biography Studies. Her Twitter is @jsyyeung

What we’ve enjoyed this week

Your weekly round-up of the best modernist (and modernish) links from around the web, chosen by the editors of The Modernist Review.

We’ve enjoyed…

“A Room of One’s Own” for Today’s Artists
An NYC exhibition tracing Woolf’s legacy on contemporary artists.

African Modernism
William Harris in Review 31 discussing architecture, colonialism, and modernism.

Vanessa Bell to break free from Bloomsbury group in Dulwich show
Exciting news – Bell will have her own show at the gallery next year. Kudos to the gallery for another female artist exhibition: it’s currently showing the work of Winifred Knights.

Shock of the New: Los Angeles vs. Modernism
How was modernism received and enacted in the city, described in 1950 as “vulgar, extroverted, spontaneous, energetic, proudly unsophisticated – Los Angeles discouraged a civilized sense of art historical continuities.”

A Cherokee Fashion Designer Who Mixed Native Modernism with Midcentury Trends
Profile of Lloyd “Kiva” New and his career as a fashion and textile designer.

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