Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Poetic truth

Notes from the Henley Literary Festival 2015

My favourite event in Henley's social carousel has come round again. For one glorious week (the sun always shines), I swan about the Henley Literary Festival on my own little voyage of intellectual discovery. This year I am attending talks on subjects as diverse as babies being born to mothers incarcerated at Auschwitz, black holes, the debutantes at Bletchley Park and an Indian suffragette. Every year I fall under the spell of the written word, marvelling again at its power to capture the gamut of human experience and inspire emotion.

Jane Hawkings, memoir writer and first wife of physicist Stephen Hawkings
Jane's memoir was a way
of 'unburdening' herself
It doesn't matter whether it is fiction or non-fiction: a good piece of writing is always authentic or truthful in an artistic sense. Whilst talking about his latest novel (The Dust that Falls from Dreamson the Great War, author Louis de Bernieres told us how he toyed with writing a biography of his family, but decided he didn't want to upset his father. "I've gone back to the normal plan which is to tell colossal lies," he said. "But there is poetic truth [in the book]." His guiding principle was to recreate what individuals felt as they became caught up in the war.

Jane Hawking, first wife of the physicist Stephen Hawking, touched on a similar theme when she described how she was approached by a film company to make a film based on her memoir, Travelling to Infinity. "It had to be sensitive, true-to-life and not shirking the difficulties of living with motor neurone disease," she apparently told Working Title, the company that went on to produce the blockbuster film, The Theory of Everything

Though Jane quibbled with some of the inaccuracies in the film (such as its account of where the couple met; they actually met in St Albans, not Cambridge), she described the film as "emotionally true". So much so that she nearly passed out when she watched the footage of actor Eddie Redmayne falling over in a Cambridge quad as the motor neurone disease took hold. 

To 'catch the essence'

Biographer Wendy Holden and Holocaust survivor Eva Clarke
Wendy Holden and Eva Clarke

Eva Clarke, a baby born on a train in 1945 en route to the Mauthausen death camp in Austria, also spoke at the festival of her mother's reactions to films of the period. Eva recalls how her mother, Anka, "was trembling when she came out of seeing The Pianist", a film about a Polish Jewish musician struggling to survive in the Warsaw ghetto. The story of Eva's mother has been set down in a biography, entitled Born Survivors, by Wendy Holden. The book is about three pregnant women who survived Auschwitz and managed to conceal their condition until they gave birth at the end of the war. 

When Wendy asked Eva if she could write down her mother's story, Eva replied: "I have been waiting for you for seventy years." For her part, Wendy was rigorous about her research and determined "to catch the essence of who [the three women] were." Eva's passion to publicise her mother's story derives from her conviction that "it could happen again and to prevent it from happening again."

At several points during Wendy and Eva's presentation, I felt close to tears, so evocative was their description of life in the camps. A reading of a passage from Born Survivors transported us to a yard in Auschwitz where women were stripped naked on arrival and questioned by the guards. It was bleak and unrelenting and for a few moments I was there, re-experiencing their terror and struggle to survive. Such is the potency of this book, as well as this festival and of writing in general, where there is a poetic truth to be told. 


Born Survivors by Wendy Holden
Three young women pass through the gates of Auschwitz, separated from their husbands and newly pregnant. Alone and frightened, they face an uncertain future.

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