To the John Rylands library to see Marina Warner (does the Dame come before or after the Professor?) give her lecture Oracular Narrative: Timing and Truth Telling. This was a very pleasant event, with a drinks reception beforehand, and then the lecture itself in the historic reading room of the grand neo-Gothic building:
The lecture, accompanied by some striking visuals in a slide show, had clearly grown out of Dame Marina’s recent work on fairy tale, particularly the Thousand and One Nights. She made the point that prophecy, in its widest sense, dominates discourse: markets deal in futures, reporters and experts speculate on what happens next, rather than accounting for what has happened, and so on. She linked this to the presence of prophecy in art and literature, in a very wide-ranging talk that took in Shakespeare (particularly The Winter’s Tale), the carvings of Amiens cathedral, the Mabinogion, Kafka, Judith and Holofernes, and the Qalendars’ tales in the Arabian Nights, among many other topics.
As well as exploring the role of “what will be” in these texts and artefacts, she looked at how that tradition manifests itself in contemporary world literature. The novels she chose were by writers who had been considered for the International Booker Prize, whose panel she chaired last year. All, shamefully, were new to me – more titles for the TBR pile. Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine sounded intriguing, maybe an African Rushdie; Ibrahim al-Koni’ s Gold Dust deals with universal themes in a desert setting; Gamal al-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat uses the fictional biography of a historical figure to make political points about recent Egyptian politics; Radwa Ashour’s Siraaj is an Arabic take on sub-Daharan African geopolitics; and the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy of Resistance seems like an extraordinary tour-de-force from Dame Marina’s description on the Man Booker prize site.
So, much food for thought, expressed in clear and crisp sentences that engaged the listener without attempting to baffle with jargon. Marina Warner is a genuine public intellectual. We need more like her.
(Image of Marina Warner: Dan Welldon)