Photo by Tereza Linhartová, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
“The sense we make gets broken all the time,” as in life as it is in art. What we try to make sense of on the page seems a futile action – what is fixed becomes formless when we raise it to life. The London Literature Festival refers to itself as a celebration of the written and spoken word, and so it seems natural that one of their events would be the Goldsmiths Prize lecture, a prize that is awarded to a piece of fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. Even more fittingly is the choice of Helen Oyeyemi as one of the prize’s judging panel and the guest speaker for this lecture, as among the current generation of writers, it is undeniable that she is ceaselessly testing the limits of what constitutes the novel with great skill and verve.
Beginning from her debut novel The Icarus Girl, published almost twenty years ago, her skill in peeling off the layers of the startling truth and whimsical style of writing has only grown with time, with her latest one Peaces having us reconsider the bounds of what is to be expected. There is a plot, a structure, and what appears to be a consistent narrative; and yet in spite of following these twists and turns, in a manner us readers are able to expect, Helen leads us to subvert our own expectations in the process. On this night, she was joined by Erica Wagner for the lecture and following Q&A. Less a delivery than a tribute to the concept of the novel, and subsequently that of language, it sings to the at once mischievous and truthful nature of her other works, most strikingly Boy, Snow, Bird, a personal favourite of mine from her collection.
Helen asserts that it is not a lecture, but a series of comments, and for us to decide whether or not we all agree with them. Much of it describes the concept of the novel and words differently, and it is rife with references to other works of art and literature writers such as Wallace Stevens, Emily Brontë, Franz Kafka, and so forth, with her own crystal-sharp commentary. “When you speak, you stop thinking,” and we “fall back on stories to maintain our thought”. The implicit meaning of these comments will have us questioning ourselves, and what we learn is hopefully for the better. Helen’s exuberant joy with each recitation, each ode to words, startlingly enough, does not bring us with her along her journey; rather, she seems to be accompanying us on ours instead, like a guide with a lantern traversing the murky forest. This is not unlike her statement on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, for which she does not throw herself into the past, nor does it come into the contemporary; it instead exists in the now with her, and dovetails into an earlier statement from the night of how stories act as accompaniment into the remotest regions. Similar to how she says that characters have lives that escape the bounds of the story, our feelings and interpretation of any story is the same, for we draw on an endless well unknown to anyone else, and thus our relationship with art is one that exists solely in the world of interiority.
This lecture may not have seemed at first glance to fit in with the theme of ‘Trying’; admittedly, before I went into it, I thought considering the purpose of the Goldsmiths Prize that it would be an encouragement to challenge the bounds of language and form of the novel. While that is not to say that it wasn’t, it instead made us place the novel beyond ourselves. To do so is an impossible task, as we will have to be intimately familiar with ourselves and all that comes with it. Yet we must try anyway, as what we may find is an incomparable richness— this seems the central point of this celebration of the beauty of the imagination and the nebulousness of escapism.
This article is part of STRAND's coverage of London Literature Festival 2023.
Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor