Saturday, 21 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich 2014 (1)

All this last week I have been attending the Worlds Literature Festival sessions in Norwich. Worlds is a mixture of conference and festival, a chance for many writers, some great, some very well established, some new from all over the world, to get together and discuss their art in closed salons as well as to read and talk to the public (see the public events in the top link).

The salons are intense three-hour affairs where two authors each give a short paper on the theme of the year, and then the rest engage in a chaired discussion. These papers are titled 'provocations'. There are four days with one three-hour session each, that is to say eight provocations, each day having its public readings from the invited writers.

I love these occasions because they are full of fascinating ideas and approaches from marvellous writers from various points of view. They come from China, Japan, Korea, Australia, India, USA, Poland, Italy, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Norway and many other places. They bring their perspectives with them. Being of a quick and inquisitive nature I tend to leap in and ask questions looking to understand and relate the points being made.

Maybe because of this, maybe because I am just local and someone has to do it, this is the third year running that I was asked to write the summing-up on the last afternoon, which meant condensing twelve hours of conversation into about half an hour and hoping to make a coherent whole out of it.

The next few blogs, including this one, will present that summing up in episodes. Protocol means that I can give the name of the provoker but not the names of those who commented so have had to find formulations to suggest the direction of the debate. In other words the text is mine. I have tried to represent as many views as was possible and hope I haven't interwoven too many of my own positions.

The theme this year was Nostalgia, though for reasons of my own that will become clear at the end, I have added the idea of 'homeache'. Within the conference it was the word 'nostalgia' that was used. It is that which was discussed in one way or another, so here beginneth.



Nostalgia is about memory, about remembering as a public act or a private act and the relationship between the two. At some point the act reaches the condition of nostalgia.

In the act of remembering we may be seeking for the raw, the naked and the authentic in a search for truth while at the same time struggling to avoid an easy substitute from which the meaning has not only drained but has turned against itself. It pits the sometimes harsh terms of love against the seductive associations of clichéd romance.

Since nostalgia is such a problematic term it is worth seeking some instances of its use as a term. In doing so I felt fairly certain that given its romantic associations it would make a good name for a perfume.

And I was right. NOSTALGIA is indeed the name of a perfume - for men. Here is part of a review - not an advertisement - of the brand.


“The rather aptly named Nostalgia briefly made me feel like the racing legend, Mario Andretti, in a 1970s Alfa-Romeo Spider convertible or like the ultra-cool Steve McQueen in his Jaguar XKSS.

Close your eyes and imagine a powerful old car on a racing track set in a birch wood forest. The smell of diesel fuel is in the air, along with the cracked leather seats of the ancient vehicle, and the smell of campfire smoke from a fire in the trees beyond. Bergamot swirls its sweet juices into the mix, along with vanilla, amber and earthy patchouli. As you rev your engines, and press your foot on the pedal, you speed away so fast that you leave the diesel fuel far behind, and enter into a vanilla, amber cocoon nestled amidst the birch trees. There, you take shelter in a haze of creamy, warm, lightly powdered vanillic sweetness infused with campfire smoke.

As Nostalgia dries down, the sharp and rubbery scent of its top notes softens considerably, with the composition attaining an elegant quality. Now it is a vision of cigars dipped in cognac. And yet Nostalgia possesses a daring edge, provided by the tarry and smoky refrain that is very distinct in the woody and musky heart of the fragrance.”
It’s a simple smell, but then, Nostalgia is a return to a simpler, more nostalgic time.”

But of course there is a perfume for women too, that uses the softer French word, Nostalgie. Here is a review of that.


“Do you recall the opening of Van Cleef & Arpel's First? Everything denoting luxury, power, femininity, class and wealth was added into producing that powerhouse last-of-the-McAldehic clan; a fragrance as shimmery as the brightest yellow sapphires, as frothy as the sparkliest bubbly in iced flutes, as melodious as Jenny Vanou singing Dawn's Minor Key. I was instantly transported in those times, back when First's precious metal wasn't somewhat tarnished due to reformulations, upon testing Nostalgie.

Instead of staying in the “ladies who lunch” crisp floral category, Nostalgie morphs darker, warmer, and more animalic. The violet leaf and patchouli hint at Jean Patou 1000’s sophistication, but the jasmine and rose keep Nostalgie from feeling as world-weary as 1000 sometimes can.
The floral notes, ringing as wonderfully bright as little taps on a glockenspiel, are tightly woven together to present a tapestry of hundreds of tiny dots which, like in pointillism, seen from a distance blur into a delightful image.
Somehow it all comes out as elegance.”

The suggestions put before us by Jon Cook were:

first, that nostalgia may fulfil the narrative desire for a formal imaginative return to some former state, such as Odysseus’s return to Ithaca;

second, that it represents a peculiarly modern sensibility, this time instancing Schiller where the poet opposes civilisation to nature and suggests that nostalgia is a desire to escape from the former to the latter;

and, third, that nostalgia might even be the hankering after a place one didn’t actually like. He instances Seamus Heaney where Heaney writes of fellow poet Derek Mahon’s self-exiled longing for the intolerable conditions of strife-torn Belfast.

The first PROVOCATION will follow in the next post.


ermferrari said...

Find the point about Mahon very interesting - having read down it seems to fit with the often viciously contrary nature of nostalgia. Like Denise Riley's provocation on this matter too.

Have you ever detected jealousy of conflict in artists? In the sense that they long - similarly to Mahon - for a place/time they wouldn't like that they detect in other artists?

Great posts! Sounds like a stimulating conference!

George S said...

Jealousy of each other? I am sure it's there but writers are good at not letting on - unless they're drunk. Jealousy of misfortune is also possible. And thank you for your response.