Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival 2018

Cabinet of Living

Cabinet of Living - Credit: Archant

The 10th book festival celebrates the 200th anniversary since the publication of Frankenstein with a host of events remembering Mary Shelley’s masterpiece

Cabinet of Living

Cabinet of Living - Credit: Archant

It’s hard to believe it’s a decade since the Ham&High first teamed up with the London Jewish Cultural centre to run a literary festival.

Over the years, the celebration of books and writing has taken a decidedly north London twist with workshops, walks and talks by local literary talent including Andrew Marr, Diana Athill, Andrew Morton, Michael Palin, Tracey Chevalier and Yotam Ottolenghi (and from further afield Martin Amis Howard Jacobson and Sebastian Faulks.)

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, with two venue changes from Golders Green to Swiss Cottage, and the merging of LJCC with what is now JW3. Firmly settled at its home in Finchley Road for the past four years, this year’s Lit fest runs from October 4 – 8 and channels the spirit of Mary Shelley 200 hundred years after publication of her groundbreaking novel Frankenstein. Shelley was born in The Polygon, Somers Town and often visited her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s tomb in nearby St Pancras Churchyard, where the poet Percy Shelley wooed her.

On October 5, JW3 will be transformed into Geneva, 1816 for Dinner at the Villa Diodati, which recreates the famous evening when Lord Byron, Percy, Mary, and her step-sister Claire Clairmont vyed to come up with the best ghost story. Mary won and two years later she published Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus anonymously.

The genre-defining sci-fi novel has spawned a hundred books and films and the evening will include readings and a meal by in house restaurant Zest.

Visitors can also explore the memories of Victor Frankenstein on October 7 in a free 30 minute experience created by Pure Expression and featuring extraordinary objects from his life. On October 8, Lyndall Gordon speaks about her group biography Outsiders, which looks at how women writers, including Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf, had to reimagine themselves in order to write and be free.

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And closing the festival on October 8 is a multimedia performance by the Cabinet of Living Cinema which collides the world of Frankenstein with Israeli Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Homo Deus.

Cabinet co-founder Kieron Maguire describes Future Shocks as a mash up of text, film clips and graphic illustrations with a harpist, percussion, clarinet, and viola creating a live soundscape,

“We’ve written loops and layers of music inspired by cinematic scores, it’s a dark, intense, electronic sound, integrated with aspects of European folk music and an ethereal harp,” he says.

Maguire immediately spotted “fascinating parallels” between Shelley’s novel and Harari’s 2016 book, which imagines a future where humans can upgrade themselves biodynamically.

“Just as we are on the verge of doing what Shelley imagined 200 years ago, Harari projects into the future and speculates about where the internet and our current technology will lead us in 100 years.”

“A wealthy class of humans will use biotechnical engineering to create longevity, upgrade their consciousness, and other things we can’t possibly imagine. It’s an exciting and terrifying vision, a leap of imagination akin to the way that people reading Frankenstein in 1818 would have felt about Shelley’s remarkable ideas. She saw these experiments in galvanism, using electricity to shock bodies into motion, and wondered what would happen if you created a being that had its own mind and freewill?

“What would your relationship be with that being?”

The piece explores how Shelley fed her own experiences into her nightmare vision to imagine the creature’s feeling of being ostracised and abandoned by a creator who is disgusted by it.

“The years leading up to thepublication of Frankenstein were traumatic for Mary with seismic changes,” says Maguire.

Between 1816 and 1818, Mary endured the suicide of half sister Fanny, social disgrace and debt following her elopement with the (married) Percy, and the death of two children, all overlaid by the feeling she had caused the death of her mother who died from complications following her birth.

“In 1816 when she lost her half sister she wrote this sad moving letter that is unbelievably close to the words that are spoken by the creature. It’s clear she was using the book as a conduit for the things that were happening to her. Brought up with her mother’s feminist ideas, she was vitally aware of the role of women and how they were disenfranchised.”

Maguire has meshed together Julia de Graaf’s illustrations, text from letters and both books, along with extracts from films by Jean Cocteau and Maya Deren.

The Cabinet is inspired by 1920s surrealism with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a huge influence.

Maguire admits: “It’s a tricky, challenging medium that demands a lot of the audience, it’s visual yet with text so if people miss a bit it can be hard for them. but it can be so evocative and effective.”

Bookings and programme details on jw3.org.uk/lit-fest