Spotlight on Staff: Professor Peter Boxall

peter boxall

Tell us about your research interests

I have a volume of collected essays in press, entitled The Possibility of Literature. Many of the essays in the collection have been written in the last couple of years, but some have been published over the twenty-five years of my writing career. Putting this collection of essays together made me realise that I have been turning over the same questions throughout my adult life – that is, what is it that literature makes possible, that other forms of thinking, writing and reading cannot? What forces – political, cultural, material – determine and delimit those possibilities?

I am now half way through a long monograph, entitled Fictions of the West, which takes that question in another direction, asking how works and acts of fiction give shape to our realities, at a time when the geopolitical, biopolitical and ecological forms which make such realities imaginable are in a state of profound change. At the same time I am co-writing a book about brevity in contemporary life, and another short book on the relationship between Samuel Beckett and the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. While working on these projects, I am also becoming increasingly interested in the phenomenon, in life and art, of the phantom limb.

Which book has had the biggest impact on you?

An impossible question to answer.

I read Samuel Beckett as a teenager, which diminished the earnestness of adolescence. I read Emily Dickinson in my thirties, which intensified the complexities of early adulthood. I read George Eliot in my forties, which widened the horizons of middle age.

But my life has been influenced by every book I have ever read.

What do you do in your spare time?

I don’t know if I have any spare time. I haven’t finished living my life yet.

Describe your ideal day.

I spent a sabbatical in Paris a few years ago, while I was finishing a book. I would divide my time between writing and walking in the city. I worked every day until late in the evening, when I would have a simple dinner of wine and cheese in a Paris café. For periods I would be visited by various of my children, or my partner, and the flat would be transformed from monastic cell to family home. They were pretty good days.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?

I am currently living both in Oxford and in Brighton – two of the best cities in the UK. It is perhaps a failure of imagination on my part to feel that, at the moment, these are the places in the world that I most want to live.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My father died when I was six years old. A parent that one loses in childhood exerts a particular kind of force – and my father was a doctor, so I rather automatically decided that is what I wanted to be too. I had a Damascene conversion of some kind in my early teens – but always harboured a fantasy that I might have been a doctor, or that in some other life I actually was one. I recently spent time with some surgeons, when preparing a book on the prosthetic imagination. Witnessing the work that surgeons actually do cured me of that delusion.

Who were your childhood heroes?

I have never been asked this question before or had occasion to ponder it. And I find to my surprise that my childhood heroes were almost exclusively male action duos from terrible television shows. Bodie and Doyle from The Professionals (I had a moody picture of Bodie on my bedroom wall). Starsky and Hutch from … Starsky and Hutch. Bo and Luke Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard. I have no way of understanding why this is so, and fervently hope that it says nothing at all about me, or them.

Do you have pets?

We have two cats, named Button and Maple. They joined our family when my youngest daughter was born, so she has not known life without them.

When they arrived, I was quite impatient with them, particularly with Button (who my son named after one of the many disobedient pets in Enid Blyton’s fiction). Button would steal food off my plate with a flick of his claw, eat the goldfish from our neighbours’ ponds, and behave in generally infuriating ways. The cats are both venerable now, though, and have assumed the dignity which comes with age. I have forgiven Button his misdemeanours, and feel we have come to an understanding.

Were you popular as a teenager?

I was a quiet, shy, nervous child, and for many years school was a torment to me. I made a friend, named Marcus, at around 13. We quickly became inseparable, and life from then on was better. I often think of him with fondness.

What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?

It took me some time, after finishing my PhD, to find my first permanent post, and I was hanging on by my fingernails towards the end of that long period of job hunting, teaching on hourly paid contracts for very little money.

The academic job market has only worsened over the last quarter of a century, and the thing I would most like to change about my profession is the precarity of life for those starting out. But I have never forgotten the feeling of joy on getting my first lectureship, or lost sight of what an enormous privilege it is to be doing a job that I love.

Why are we here?

The US novelist Richard Powers reflects on this question, in a rather bleak way. He cannot see, he says, what the evolutionary benefit of consciousness is. Thomas Hardy expresses a similar kind of scepticism. I ‘wonder’, Hardy writes in a poem of 1915, ‘if Man’s consciousness / was a mistake of God’s’. Both Powers and Hardy doubt that we are here for anything at all – but both express this scepticism as part of the urge to meet with others, and to make of that not knowing an act of shared thinking and feeling. This is perhaps what literature is – sharing unknowing as a reason for living. ‘And next I meet you’, Hardy writes, ‘And I pause, / And think that if mistake it were, / As some have said, O then it was / One that I well can bear’.

If you weren’t a member of the English Faculty, what would you be?

Not a doctor.

Peter Boxall is Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. He has written a number of books on the novel, including Twenty-First-Century Fiction and The Value of the Novel. He is editor of Textual Practice, and series editor of ‘Cambridge Studies in Twenty-First-Century Literature and Culture’. His most recent book, The Prosthetic Imagination, came out with CUP in 2020. He has a volume of collected essays forthcoming with CUP entitled The Possibility of Literature (2024) and is currently writing a book entitled Fictions of the West.