For the final night of the 2014 Arthur Miller International Literary Festival last Tuesday, the set-up was a little different. Rather than there being a table and chairs, with the obligatory glasses and bottles of still and sparkling water on stage, a projection on the wall implied that this was to be a lecture of sorts, rather than the Q&A format which had been such a success for the past couple months of the festival.
The guest for this, the final evening of the 23rd festival was, fittingly, UEA’s own Richard Holmes (over his time at the University, Holmes has directed the Lifewriting MA and been a professor of Biographical Studies). One of the country’s leading biographers, Holmes stated early that for him, biography has always been both “an art and a vocation”, but before delving into such depths, he was sure to thank the audience for “swimming here” (it was a particularly inclement Norwich evening).
For a biographer, according to Holmes, “the pivotal question” to ask oneself when approaching a subject is that of “Origins…where does a person’s life really begin?” For an evening filled with illuminating insights into the relationship between a biographer and his subject, perhaps the most vivid was the notion that the biographer is similar, in some sense, to a waiter, “someone who attends to their subject, who tends at their elbow”.
But before finding these subjects, or even choosing to be a biographer, Holmes believes that one of the driving forces behind his continual desire to study others is the enjoyment he derives from finding “hope in human nature, and how we all struggle”. In this sense, biographers really are a great help to the rest of our self-esteem; they consistently reveal that beneath the heights of success their subjects often reached, there was a life and a struggle akin to our own.
Holmes’ research has certainly seen him encounter a few struggles himself. One trip, which he recounted during his talk, led to his being rescued from a shipwreck in the North Sea, evidencing how the life of a biographer can sometimes stray perilously close to the often-adventurous lives of their subjects. If Holmes sees the biographer’s journey as one “from empathy, to sympathy, to judgement”, one wonders where near-death experience falls within the process.
One of Holmes’ defining, award-winning books is The Age of Wonder, a fêted narrative about the history of science, and the pioneering discoveries of the late eighteenth century. It was written, he says, to address and dispute the idea that Science and the Arts are two incompatible disciplines.
This is a topic that has come up often at present and past incarnations of the Literary Festival – at least while I’ve been here. Last year, a passionate moment of conversation during the visit of Ian McEwan and Sir Paul Nurse also focused on the neglected possibilities of a relationship between the two fields. Why do evenings at the festival return to this topic so much? Perhaps because at a University the two worlds work much closer together, both geographically and literally, than they ever do in the ‘real’ world. Exchanges of ideas between groups, whether it’s between different academic disciplines or a biographer and an appreciative audience, are something to always be celebrated, much like the successful end of this Autumn’s Literary Festival, and the coming of another one in Spring.