Keeping It New
Despite the title of this year's Julia S. Phelps Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, "Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be: Homage, Appropriation, and Influence," Margot Livesey is all in favor of borrowing, quoting, and appropriating from other writers.
Livesey, the Evelyn Green Davis Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, delivered a rich and engaging lecture to a full house at the Radcliffe Gym in December. She freely acknowledged her own literary borrowing, starting with taking the title of her lecture from Hamlet. And her most recent novel—The Flight of Gemma Hardy (Harper, 2012)—is a highly praised reimagining of Jane Eyre.
It is through such interactions, Livesey argued, that artists can achieve Pound's dictum "Make it new." "He was not referring to the world but to art," Livesey explained; she pointed out that James Baldwin offered a similar message in "Sonny's Blues" when he wrote that the blues keep "the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted" new because "it always must be heard."
Livesey herself is a lender—even a major donor, in the artistic sense—within the world of literature. In her introduction to the lecture, the former Radcliffe Institute fellow Claire Messud praised Livesey for her generosity as a teacher and a mentor and for the eloquence of her ongoing literary conversation with other writers. But Messud, the author of the acclaimed The Emperor's Children (Knopf, 2006), also said that Livesey is "insufficiently sung," which she attributed to a critical gender bias toward stylists rather than for writers who, like Livesey, offer readers "prose that is beautiful but not obtrusive."
Livesey punctuated her talk with slides juxtaposing works by Titian, Edouard Manet, Brice Marden, Mickalene Thomas, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, and Sarah Sze RI '06. She interwove discussion of poets ranging from Christopher Marlowe to Anthony Hecht to examine the way they have grappled with familiar themes of love and mortality by responding to one another's work, often with comic effect.
Referring to writers such as Jane Smiley, Cynthia Ozick, Jean Rhys, and Michael Cunningham, Livesey said novelists pay tribute to their predecessors in many different ways. Some retell an old tale scene by scene. Others attach a familiar beginning and end to a different storyline, place characters in a different setting to explore political and cultural changes, or tell a well-known story from a different point of view. Still others incorporate elements of a beloved book into an autobiographical narrative.
Livesey said that when she wrote The Flight of Gemma Hardy, she was "writing back" to Charlotte Bronte, "recasting Jane's journey to fit my own courageous heroine and the possibilities of her time and place." Livesey is working on her eighth novel at the Institute and the first that's set in the United States. Judging from the warmth with which her talk was received, many readers are waiting to see what she might borrow to make the old story of human suffering and delight new again. As James Baldwin said, "There isn't any other tale to tell."
Lynne Weiss is a Boston-based freelance writer.