The linguist exploring questions of love and loss

Emma Wilson remembers waiting in an icy corridor for her admissions interview at Newnham College, a place she describes as “exactly right for me”. Today she specialises in French literature and cinema — and is drawn to topics that are “sometimes joyful, often dark”.

Emma Wilson at Corpus Christi College (Fred Lewsey)

I’m interested in the senses and how we express them. I look at letters and diaries, documentaries, home movies. The topics I’m drawn to are emotionally charged. Birth and death, loss, the erotic — subjects that are sometimes joyful but often dark.

My research focuses on French literature and French cinema, from 1950 up to the present day. But I also take detours into Spanish and Italian film, most recently the work of Alina Marazzi.

The first film that made a mark on me was Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. I must have been ten or so when I saw it, and it left a strange impression with its lushness and its sensuality. It introduced me to the concept of a narrative without a conclusion, that stories could be open-ended.

My imagination was encouraged very early on. I grew up in a small flat surrounded by books. Books lined the walls, books piled up on the floor. My mother is a writer. She worked at home so writing seemed a natural thing to do. I started keeping a diary when I was four — and even now I keep notebooks of images.

At my all-girls school I discovered French literature. I read the novels of Colette and then went on to read Marguerite Duras. A school holiday on the French coast clinched it. I was encouraged by some amazing teachers who spotted that I had the ambition to do well academically. Although I was shy and rather solitary, I was intensely competitive.

I came to Cambridge to study French and Latin at Newnham College, moving from one all-female environment to another. As a feminist, and someone who finds women’s company supportive and nurturing, it was exactly right for me — but I realise single-sex education isn’t right for everyone.

My Cambridge interview is fixed in my memory. I remember waiting in an icy corridor, with that heightened sense of anticipation. I was interviewed by Ann Duncan, an extraordinary specialist in French Symbolism and Latin American fiction. We discussed French poetry and all the time I was intensely nervous. When the offer of a place arrived in the post, it was like a revelation of what was possible.

The Cambridge I experienced as a student was liberating but daunting. There were so many opportunities and expectations. I remember sitting in the dark in a wonderful lecture by Patrick Boyde on Italian art and feeling horror about a Latin translation I had to get done and an essay I had to write.

I spent a year in Paris doing a PhD on the novels of Michel Tournier. I worked in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the beautiful Richelieu site, and went to seminars with Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. It was 1989, an extraordinarily dynamic time to be living abroad: the Berlin wall was coming down.

Cambridge has been home for all my adult life. I’ve always thought of myself on the edge of things. Living in Cambridge, I’ve made a circle of close friends; most of them are people I work with. As much as I love it here, I also spend a lot of time in Europe.

I became more and more interested in the visual arts especially arthouse film in the French-speaking world. This came from cinema-going in Paris and also through a job I had for a time as an usher at the Cambridge Arts Cinema when I was writing up my PhD.

I’m pleased that we’ve introduced film, particularly European cinema, into a growing number of courses in the Modern and Medieval Languages Faculty. It gives students the chance to engage closely with visual material. Within the faculty, the Centre for Film and Screen offers graduate programmes covering diverse areas in the field. We’ve just started a new module ‘Moving Image outside the cinema’.

In May, the Italian director Gianfranco Rosi came to the Centre for Film and Screen as Filmmaker in Residence. The invitation came from JD Rhodes, director of the Centre. Rosi’s award-winning documentary, Fire at Sea, is set in Lampedusa, the island in the Mediterranean where thousands of refugees have arrived.

I’ve never lost the habit of reading for pleasure. I read widely, not just the books I’m working on. At the moment I’m reading the letters of Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann to the poet Paul Celan. I’ve become absorbed in their story and have been reading her novels and poetry.

Teaching at Cambridge is a huge privilege as our students are so motivated and sensitive. I work mostly with final year undergraduates and graduates. It’s a great pleasure to see them thrive. Some remain in academia and become colleagues. I learn so much from them all.

Music is an accompaniment in my life but I’m not naturally musical. At school there were 30 girls in my class and 27 were in the choir. I was one of the three who weren’t. I go to the occasional classical concert and I like listening to music while I’m working, often the radio station France Musique. I love Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, and listen a lot to French singers like Juliette Gréco, Françoise Hardy, Barbara and Dalida.

Swimming is what I do to relax. Best of all is swimming in the sea somewhere warm. I’m not a very good swimmer but I love it. Being in the water is a way of being part of the elements. When you swim you’re suspended, in your mind. Some people in Cambridge swim in the Cam but I’m not tempted. I go to Parkside Swimming Pool most days instead.