Wolfson launches Oxford Centre for Life-Writing

Published on:

16 November 2011

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As part of its vision for the future of graduate education, Wolfson College gave an official launch to one of a series of Research Clusters, the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW), with an inaugural lecture and launch party held at 6pm on 15th November.

The new Centre will build on the existing strengths and activities of Wolfson College in biography and life-writing to become the natural home of life-writing in Oxford and beyond.

It will bring together a rich variety of approaches to the writing and study of life-stories and encourage those who write biography, memoir, and those who undertake research on life-narratives.

The inaugural lecture, entitled ‘All About his Mother: Reading Proust's Letters', was delivered by Michael Wood, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He was introduced by renowned literary biographer Hermione Lee, who, as President of Wolfson College and Director of the Centre for Life-Writing, heads a distinguished list of College members working in biography (including poet,  literary critic and biographer Jon Stallworthy) and related disciplines, from visual anthropology to museum curation, genetics to psychology.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:774:]]Professor Lee characterised Professor Wood's work as “fresh and free of academic stuffiness”. His crossing of genres and boundaries provided the perfect start for the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing.

Professor Wood expressed his pleasure and honour at being a part of the launch, having long held an interest in the writing of lives. In his lecture, he described the “different registers of truth” inherent in the routine intermingling of fiction and non-fiction that occurs in all life-writing, and argued for the parity of Proust's letters and novels in any attempt to interpret his life and work. He showed how: “Proust made his life's work a fiction, which both resisted and invited biographical interpretation”, with recourse to the illuminating, if biographically contested statements of Proust's: “Now that I have written my book, I am free to die”.

Turning to Proust's relationship with his mother, he vividly evoked a relationship of a love too extreme to bear, alongside unconscious antipathy; in so doing, bringing the psychoanalytical discourses of Freud, among others, to bear on his biographical interpretation.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload::]]The lecture by Professor Wood served as the official launch of one of a series of Research Clusters at Wolfson, devised to intensify and expand upon the College's existing reputation as one of the largest graduate colleges in Oxford and an international hub of interdisciplinary research.

The Clusters build upon, but remain distinct from, the work conducted in departments and faculties, drawing on the outstanding scholarly strengths within the College.

By providing inspiring spaces for innovative forms of academic collaboration and thought, they have helped to enable research projects such as Wolfson Fellow Donna Kurtz's pioneering CLAROS collaboration, recently launched by Chancellor of Oxford University Chris Patten.

The Research Clusters have already attracted considerable interest and external funding, and will continue to create graduate scholarships to strengthen the academic activity already underway. Planned projects include international conferences, cutting-edge digital technologies, and collaborations with museums and research initiatives across the world.

Forthcoming events of the Centre are listed on the OCLW events webpages, including a lecture on 7th February by winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize Alan Hollinghurst. The Centre will hold a triennial international conference in 2013, alongside current lectures, seminars, and a lively Life-Stories Society. Wolfson College is also happy to host events on themes related to Life-Writing. OCLW will also invite visiting academics to Oxford to pursue their research, and graduate scholarships will be attached to the Centre.

In keeping with the egalitarian spirit of Wolfson College and the ethos of the Research Clusters, this lecture was open to all, and enjoyed a healthy attendance of over 100 members of College, the wider University, and the general public. A podcast of the lecture will be widely disseminated from the Wolfson College website, Oxford Podcasts, and iTunes U in the next few days.