(Original post from 2005. -Ed.)
Alison Fell, A.H.R.C Research Fellow, Middlesex University, London, U.K.
Alison Fell is a Scottish novelist and poet currently based in London, U.K. She has published 7 novels, 4 poetry collections and 3 anthologies of experimental fiction. She has been a Writing Fellow in Sydney, Australia, and at the University of East Anglia, University College London, Middlesex University and from September 2006 will be Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has read her work all over the U.K., and on British Council and publishers tours of Canada, the U.S., Australia, Germany, The Netherlands and Italy. Her literary archive was acquired by the National Library of Scotland in 2005.
Her novels cover a wide range of themes, from ‘The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro’, set at the Heian Court of 11th century Japan, to ‘The Mistress of Lilliput’, a Swiftian satire featuring Mrs. Gulliver’s travels, and the prize-wining ‘Mer de Glace’, a modern tragedy on mountaineering themes set in the French Alps. Her most recent novel is ‘Tricks of the Light’, and her most recent poetry collection is ‘Lightyear’, which tracks the calendar changes of time and the elements in an exploration of the fundamental links between humans and nature.
‘Deciphering the Decipherers’
For the last three years I have held a Research Fellowship at Middlesex University, funded by the U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Council. During this time I have been researching and writing a novel around themes of decipherment. A major aspect of this work – and the one which brought me to PASP in the spring of 2005 – has been my attempt to decipher the brief and brilliant life of Alice E. Kober.
Before coming down to Austin I spent time in public archives in New York City, where I managed to uncover hitherto unknown details of Kober’s life and family circumstances, some of which were touching to say the least. The 1930 Census, for instance, shows the Kober family living in a block of 6 story tenements in the South Bronx, which housed 48 families in each block. Across the landing lived a family of Italian immigrants with 5 daughters and 2 sons – in no more than 2 rooms, one imagines! No wonder, then, that Alice developed superhuman powers of concentration. Another riveting document was the Passenger Manifest of the ‘Statendam’, on which the Kobers sailed from Europe in May 1906. This revealed that Katarina, Alice’s mother, must have been pregnant when she set out – so Alice was conceived in Hungary and born in Manhattan., a true child of the New World.
Research for a novelist is rather different from scholarly research, and while I have great admiration for Alice Kober’s contribution to Linear B scholarship, my search has necessarily focussed more on character, motivation, background, and any life-details that can be gleaned from records, correspondence, or personal reminiscences. At PASP Tom Palaima kindly gave me full access to all the Kober materials. I was able to see the famous ‘cigarette carton’ files in which Alice catalogued the L.B. signs and sign-groups, and even to watch Sue Trombley at work with a sable paintbrush, flicking the dried skeletons of silverfish from the fragile yellowed paper. I pored over her Hunter College reports – straight As in Maths, Greek, Latin and German, Ds in Gym: not a Jock, then – and pounced on visual descriptions in a personal memoir written by one of Kober’s ex-Brooklyn College students, Eva Brann. I also read Kober’s unpublished monograph on the element ‘Inth’ in Greek, a manuscript whose margins are packed with the noted comments of those scholars whose opinions Alice most prized – Johannes Sundwall, for instance, and John Franklin Daniel, editor of The American Journal of Archaeology, and mentor and friend to Alice. One of my aims in visiting PASP was to access Kober’s correspondence with Daniel. (My novelist’s nose, I expect, always seeking evidence of relationship). When the file – which had been mislaid for some years – turned up, among the items therein was an early student notebook from the University of Pennsylvania, which we couldn’t at first attribute, as both Kober and Daniel had connections with the University – Daniel was awarded his PhD on the Cypro-Minoan scripts in 1941, and Kober attended Professor Speiser’s courses in Old Persian and Akkadian that same summer.Finally Tom Palaima’s graphology skills pinned the handwriting down as Daniel’s.
Previous to my visit, I had acquired copies of Kober’s correspondence from the archives of the Guggenheim Foundation, and also from the U. of Pennsylvania Museum, where in 1948 J.F. Daniel was planning to set up a Minoan Script Research Centre, which Alice Kober was to direct. (Something which sadly never came to be, owing to Daniel’s sudden death in Turkey in the December of that year, at the age of 38.) Those letters have filled some sequential gaps in the PASP collection, just as the Daniel correspondence and other items from PASP have filled gaps in mine. All the materials – addresses, certificates, etc – unearthed in the New York archives are now documented at PASP, complete with microfilm roll-numbers. I hope this material will help other scholars and biographers, and contribute to the overall picture of Alice Kober and the forces that formed her, not just as a scholar, but as a woman.
Since PASP is so clearly an archive of international importance, I was dismayed to discover that these days University funding passes on by without a second glance, alighting graciously on Petrochemical Sciences or Information Technology. In the heart of Bush country, does Mycenology stand a chance? Perhaps, as Tom Palaima remarked – not entirely in jest – the only answer is a return to the Monastery system. Certainly what stays in my mind from that final Saturday at PASP is an image of the three of us beavering away, monkish, among the cramped shelves. The fledgeling Alice Kober Fan Club, gossiping about our girl as though she were still alive and kicking. It’s a club that deserves more members.
Alison Fell July 2006