Skip to main content

Eva Hoffman - mixing genres

As part of the life writing seminar series at Kingston University, this evening writer, academic and former literary editor Eva Hoffman gave a talk on 'mixing genres' and also gave a reading from her novel, Illuminations.

Eva Hoffman began by referring to her critically acclaimed memoir, 'Lost in Translation' (1989), which came about when she wanted to write something on the transliteral - an intersection of the subjective and the objective, which would also reflect herself as a Polish Jewish immigrant into America. At first she toyed with the idea of writing an essay, using herself as a case study, but it then became the memoir. Finding the right form, she says, can be a tricky business. She spoke of fiction versus non-fiction and gave the oft-quoted 'the writer has a contract with the reader', when referring to non-fiction, i.e. it has to be true and not invented. Yet she then also acknowledged that all fiction is, if only in part, autobiographical. I asked her whether she felt that fiction was a misnomer that we should see to replace, as it clearly breaks this contract if, by 'fiction', the reader assumes it to be totally invented? She said no, that it only pertained to non-fiction. I suppose there are too many blurred lines between truth and fiction in fiction and, there is more of a duty not to invent in non-fiction, but that it doesn't matter as much if one passes off autobiography as fiction, but certainly not biography.

She spoke of the trauma that was involved in her exile when she emigrated to Canada, at the age of thirteen, but how it was an 'informative' trauma. She certainly seems to have learnt a lot from the process of acclimatising to a different language and culture. But then it seems as though there was more recognisable trauma in Poland. Eva Hoffman was born in Cracow in 1945 to Jewish parents who escaped the holocaust by hiding in the Ukraine. In Canada she found a very different life where she had to learn to speak English and that, during this time, she found she had no way of projecting her personality and from this she realised the importance of language not only in creating the self, but in creating the self to the self - one's interiority - without language it becomes dark. She then moved onto several readings from Illuminations, about a female pianist, based on herself, as she studied the piano whilst still in Poland, and how intensely she feels the music and romance. She meets a Chechyen freedom fighter, or, 'terrorist', a Romantic of a different sort and it charts the meeting of these two romantics. Hoffman says that she had first thought about this novel prior to 9/11 and when the twin towers came down it changed everything. She was not going to write the novel as she felt it would be seen as capitalising on it, especially to include the terrorist. And so she left it a little while before returning to it. One of the themes of Illuminations is how art can contain the passion of the freedom fighter - the violence. Hoffman's reading from the novel was enchanting - she has the immigrant's way with the English language, wanting to show her wide vocabulary, and this results in a prose that is excellent at description, so much so, that I must order it.

Popular posts from this blog

Who was Mary Burns?

On 7th January 1863 Mary Burns was found dead from a suspected heart attack. She was 43 years old. Since her death Mary has received barely any attention despite the fact that she spent over twenty years as the common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and the co-founder of Marxism.

Born in 1822, Mary was the oldest surviving child of textile dyer and factory operative, Michael Burns, and Mary Conroy, Irish immigrants from Tipperary. Mary’s parents had married at St. Patrick’s in an area known casually as Irish Town, one of few Catholic churches in Manchester at that time. The year of Mary’s birth and her infancy were significant in that Manchester was still dealing with the aftermath of the event that became known as the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, a peaceful protest of the working-classes on the site of St. Peter’s Fields in which several people were killed and hundreds injured. The Massacre occurred when magistrates, alarmed at the size of t…

Booker Shortlist announced

It's been a while... I know. Dog walking on the Downs, a bit of theatre, a bit of baking, a bit of writing etcetera etcetera. I also managed to read two complete books in the past month, which I was so pleased about. I had not read a whole book for about a year. The first was A Lie About My Father by Scottish poet/writer, John Burnside; a very well written memoir about father and son, but like all memoirs, some unreliability I felt. Poignant and tragic in equal measure. Then my husband returned from Cyprus (too hot for me this time of year, I can barely cope with England!) with Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. He loved it. And then I read it and also loved it. I had originally picked it up several years ago but didn't get beyond Amiens, where the first section is set, but was really glad I did this time around. Another incredibly well written book in the style of a good Victorian! I felt a bit unsure about bits of Elizabeth, in the later section, but I have never learnt so muc…

Good Canary

Forgot to mention that we went to see Good Canary at Kingston's Rose Theatre last week. Star role played by the brilliantly intense Freya Mavor, who plays a speed addict. It's directed by John Malkovich - his UK's theatre directorial debut. Will try and post more about it later.