Catherine studied English at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. She moved out into academic and practical politics, lived in New York and Moscow and learned Russian and Spanish, before returning to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge for her PhD as an English-Russian comparatist. She has taught literature of the last two centuries at the universities of Cambridge, Greenwich, and most recently Oxford. She is the author of The Art of Comparison: How Novels and Critics Compare (Legenda, 2011) and is Vice-President of the DH Lawrence Society.
‘Pilgrimage without Shame: D.H. Lawrence in the Alps’, BBC2, Culture Show, November 2013.
Native German, Russian, French, intermediate Spanish.
Regeneration follows the efforts of a First World War psychiatric doctor to uncover the triggers of his patients' trauma. This work induces in him a trauma which is a pale shadow of his patients'; whilst our reading of this novel induces in us a trauma which is a pale shadow of the doctor's. Is Barker, psychiatrist-like, forcing us to confront the cause of our historical unease about that war? Or does she want those of us who have no such unease to feel it for the first time? Either way, she is using a medium – art – which has limited efficacy in the novel itself, in comparison to the most advanced version of psychiatry available in 1916.
Atonement is structured around a series of oppositions: war and peace, guilt and innocence, literature and medicine, imagination and fact. The novel seems to elevate fact above imagination by showing the disasters that the latter can lead to. The central villain of the piece is a fantasist-novelist. But the work as a whole takes the form of a novel which breathes imagination into historical fact, and in doing so undermines the binary distinctions on which the novel appears to turn.
Beckett's thirty-five second play was sent on the back of a postcard to New York in 1969, where it was encorporated in an erotic revue. It consists of a silence, a cry, an inhalation, a silence, an exhalation, a cry, and a silence. The cry is pre-recorded and on stage is only rubbish. This mini-lecture considers whether this play should be read as an allegory for life, how it can be produced, whether it should be filmed, whether it is minimalist in the same sense as white canvases are – and whether it is ultimately a joke on us: rubbish.
Barnes's title is provocative; it announces that this is not in fact a history, but a novel. The novel (or short-story collection) questions the possibility of giving a straight account of history by asserting that history is always partial, and always a story. On the other hand, it clings closely to certain historical facts – notably the turning back home of a ship of Jewish German refugees by America in 1939. Ultimately, it is an anti-history in the service of history – it both respects facts, and urges us to be canny in responding to the stories which are told about them.
A Week in December takes the pulse of London in 2007. It describes a web of characters connected by economics, politics, coincidence, and lust, of whom only a minority are the kind of people who would read A Week in December. Those, however, are the characters of whom the novel most approves – especially those who would endorse its contention that the real villains of London life are not young, confused, misled Muslim fundamentalists, but psychopathic hedge-fund managers who degrade society by their greed.
Snowdrops is a thriller set in Moscow in the early 2000s. The protagonist – an English lawyer - is unwittingly involved in major financial and violent crime, having failed to understand that the thriller is not merely the filter through which he enjoys seeing the city, but is in fact the genre of the city's life. Yet even once he has understood this, he loves the woman who deceived him, and the city which gave him an intensity of experience to which England can never come close. The novel is a document of a time in which Moscow life imitated art, and English expats lived it with a combination of revulsion, and intoxicated attraction.
Shakespeare's Sonnet 88 is the first of a mini-sequence in which the poet anticipates his friend's rejection and declares his intention in such a case to take the friend's side against himself. However in this Sonnet – as in the rest of the 154 – things are never as they first seem. A rereading reveals a Sonnet which makes a sly but brutal attack on his would-be critic and painfully-beloved friend.
Narrators are almost all we have to go on – so how can we know when they are being unreliable? This mini-lecture looks at how narrators are undermined by contradictions and ommissions in their accounts (factual unreliability), by their incoherent or distasteful views (ethical unreliability), and by naivety (unreliability of sophistication). These varieties are explored particularly in relation to post-war English-language novels with narrators who are male, young, intelligent, arrogant, and dangerous.
Chapters are deep in the structure of most prose works, doing much of the supporting and some of the embellishing – but they are rarely paid much attention. This mini-lecture considers what chapters do, how authors and readers use them, how they are named, how they are shaped, how they begin and end, and what we have to gain from paying them more careful attention.
When we 'read' a book, a lecture, a situation, or a face, are we doing the same thing? How much do these activities have in common? What do we mean when we say that someone has gone to university to 'read' English literature? This mini-lecture looks at the very various activities encompassed by the verb 'to read', and explores what it means to learn how to read.
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