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This item is taken from PN Review 146, Volume 28 Number 6, July - August 2002.

Some years ago there was a storm in the English press about the critical reception of a concert of Benjamin Britten's music in Paris. A critic in Le Monde dismissed Britten's work as possessing 'too much content'. Perhaps the critic in its rancour the British press did not quote the critic's words was commenting less on the subject-matter of Britten's music, more on its subordination to its subject matter, its if you like literariness, the fact that Britten's musical medium was so dependent on narrative, character, psychology, language, on strictly extra-musical elements, like Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian paintings which depend on literary sources. Such paintings must be read, such music must be read. This is not mixing media in a synaesthetic spirit, but subordinating one medium to another.

The fact is that when a writer is writing a poem, a story, a text aspiring to the condition of literature rather than to the condition of music or the plastic arts, he or she is often writing beside the point. Poems are made not with ideas, Mallarmé reminded his painter friend, but with words. Herein lies one of the gulfs between the concerns of a general reader and those of a true writer one kind of true writer, in any case. A general reader may be after entertainment and the instruction that comes with relevance, access, familiarity, understanding, content, in terms that paraphrase can extrapolate. The otherness of achieved literature is offputting if it is perceived and acknowledged at all. That otherness can best be described as formal, and form is not something the general reader has words for.

This issue of PN Review reaches subscribers a couple of weeks late and we apologise. The cause has been the Literatures of the Commonwealth Festival, organised by Manchester Metropolitan University, from which this magazine emanates, and by Carcanet Press and PN Review, as a cultural prelude to the Commonwealth Games. PN Review's involvement was as inevitable as it was desirable, given the mission the magazine has declared down the years and its openness to writing from all over the world, but especially the Anglophone world. PN Review sponsored a series of five lectures, and there were discussions and interviews which will, we hope, find their way into our pages.

The lectures began with a powerful statement about writers of Caribbean and African descent in the United Kingdom, by the candid and direct E.A.Markham. His lecture, together with William Dalrymple's radical take on the English in India before the Victorian age and entitled 'The White Mughals', raised crucial questions about definitions not only of post-colonialism and its starting discourses, but about the post-imperial culture in which such discourses have arisen.

Bill Manhire lectured about Antarctica, where he was a kind of Writer in Residence. His portrait of the white continent consisted of literal description of the place, a vast insistent nature that preserves vestiges of the great explorers, and the imaginative overlays of two centuries of writers and artists who have projected on to the tabula rasa a variety of utopias and fantasies. Colonisation can be an act of imagination rather than historical imposition and violation.

The concluding lectures were the most baldly contentious. Tariq Ali considered 'The Clash of Fundamentalisms', considering in particular the false and fraudulent takes on Islam among western politicians and the media, and the vested interests which perpetuate the stereotypes upon which pragmatic political decision are based, with sometimes catastrophic historical consequences. His theme was the failure of language to engage the variety of historical, cultural, religious and ethnic particulars in the world today. Entailed in such a failure is the shortcoming of literature itself. His lecture was not without its own rhetorical overemphases, its own Aunt Sallies, but a valuable dialectic emerged.

In the final lecture Germaine Greer called into question the idea of Commonwealth itself, presenting it as selfserving, a means of retaining some of the moral advantages and insidious structures of a discredited political order. Her sense of the static nature of Britain's educational and political culture partook more of Cambridge, perhaps, than of the less privileged, more open and not entirely unwholesomely 'theorised' English environments in which the majority of modern academics and writers teach. We hope her lecture, when transcribed, will appear in these pages.

The benefit of such festivals, open as they are to the public not only as audiences but as interlocutors, is obvious. Writers come in contact with dialects, forms and idioms quite alien to their own, engage in dialogue with people from different corners of the forest. They also meet readers, some of them with serious and urgent questions to put. The works, the written words, are focal, not (for the most part) the personality of the writer. Reader and writer move beyond the mere marketing nexus where their transactions usually take place.

It is important, however, that the lecture and the recorded discussion and debate be printed so that dialogue can surround them. A festival is the beginning rather than the end of a process. If successful, it works against the 'setting apart' of literature and the contemporary emphasis on market rather than audience, on consumers rather than readers. It leads into the abiding question of form in its various manifestations throughout an evolving array of literatures.

This item is taken from PN Review 146, Volume 28 Number 6, July - August 2002.

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