Old writer, young wife: The life and times of the fifth and final Mrs Brink

karina-in-austria

Afrikaner novelist André Brink married Karina Szczurek when he was 71 and she was 29. They were together for 10 years before he died on a plane, beside her, high above Africa. She has just finished writing her memoir, in which she recounts her life with South Africa’s most celebrated and controversial novelist. Andy Martin went to Cape Town to talk to her about life after André…

Continue reading: INDEPENDENT

Book confessions

simonsalento

  1. Have you ever damaged a book?

Minor damage only. During the week I usually only read in bed and if I give up on a book it can end up thrown across the bedroom. If they hit the wardrobe at an angle, they usually glance off, but if it’s a direct spine-on hit, the damage is visible.

  1. Have you ever damaged a borrowed book?

Never that I remember. Someone must really like a book to recommend it, let alone lend it, so that would be unforgiveable, as would damaging a library book.

  1. How long does it take you to read a book?

It depends on the book and on where I am and what I am doing. Earlier in the year I took 6 weeks to finish a book, while when I was holiday I was reading one a day or every two days.

  1. Books you haven’t finished?

Too many…

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A peak inside the mind of Jostein Gaarder

Write On

Dressed all in black from head to toe, Jostein Gaarder does not come across as an internationally acclaimed best selling author and novelist.

“Human beings have always asked philosophical questions”. This would have been the first sentence of Sophie’s World according to Jostein Gaarder if fate had not intervened. He almost groans in pain at the thought. When Gaarder first started writing Sophie’s world, he assumed that it would make no money. It started out originally as a manual on philosophy before the protagonist Sophie came to him.

His shoes are scuffed, his hair uncombed but from afar, he seems happy and animated. When Jostein talks, he does so with gesticulation and enthusiasm – it’s as if he can’t get the words out fast enough. Knowing that he was a philosophy teacher prior to becoming an author, one can almost imagine him standing in front of blackboard in that when…

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One day at The Star Soweto Literary Festival

Pam and BontleCamaraderie. That is the word which comes to mind when I think back to the one day I spent at the fabulous Soweto Theatre, attending the inaugural The Star Soweto Literary Festival. It was quite a whirlwind affair. A day of talks, improvisation, laughter and tears. I invited myself. The moment I heard that the festival was happening – and it was organised in a shockingly short amount of time – I volunteered to speak, chair sessions, whatever, just to be there. I felt it in my bones that it would be special, and I wanted to be part of it.

I was not disappointed.

Darryl Earl David, the founder of the three-day festival which took place last weekend, first announced his intentions at the end of June: “To create a truly non-racial literary festival in a black township, something that has never ever been done before. A start has been made in Khayelitsha. But that was more a book fair, not a literary festival. I have always maintained Soweto looms large in the literary imagination of South Africa … Soweto is the cradle of black literature. It was home to the canon of black literature in South Africa – Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sephamla Njabulo Ndebele, Miriam Tlali, Ellen Kuzwayo and Benedict Vilakazi.”

Pam and MohaleThe day I was there, Saturday, the presence of the spirits of these literary giants was palpable. The attempt to establish “a truly non-racial” space for writers, artists and the public to engage with one another’s ideas was a great success. I attended with a dear friend, Pamela Power, the author of Ms Conception and the upcoming psychological thriller, Things Unseen. We came away inspired, glowing, and moved to the core.

Continue reading: LitNet

with Pam and Kalim

Book review: Writing What We Like: A New Generation Speaks, edited by Yolisa Qunta

Writing What We LikeFor a white person, reading Writing What We Like: A New Generation Speaks might feel like gatecrashing a party where some ugly truths will be revealed about you. Provocative and penetrating, Writing What We Like is a difficult book to review when you happen to be white, because one feels that one should not be talking at all, but listening only. One is torn between possible accusations of one’s own “intellectual arrogance” and the need for dialogue. And yet, a way to disrupt entrenched ways of thinking and to establish connections across barriers imposed on us by a turbulent and harrowing history is to try to imagine ourselves into the skins of others. That is where creativity and empathy begin – in writing, reading and interpretation – where we cease to view ourselves in any other categories but human. The ultimate goal is understanding, coupled with compassion. Everything else will follow from there.

If there ever was a timely book, Writing What We Like is definitely it. It is the brain child of Yolisa Qunta, who over the period of the past two years interviewed and collected essays written by her fellow young black South Africans for this remarkable publication. Only a few of the pieces first appeared elsewhere.

Qunta was concerned about the “dearth of books” published by her black peers and felt “duty-bound to record” their lived experience of transformation. She hopes the book will “help to shape the debates currently taking place in the workplaces and the bars, and over dinner tables ekasi and in suburbs across the country”.

Twenty-four contributors deliver twenty-eight pieces ranging in topics from hip hop and Rhodes Must Fall to Nkandla and BDSM. Unfortunately no biographical notes about the authors were included in the collection.

Continue reading: LitNet

Reader Confessions

BOOK BLOKE (@bloke_book) started this ‘Reader Confessions’ and I was tagged by Andy Martin:

1. Have you ever damaged a book?

Never on purpose. Some people consider this a crime, but I enjoy breaking the spines of books; I believe it’s the only way to make them feel read. I am highly suspicious of people who don’t.

2. Have you ever damaged a borrowed book?

Not that I recall. And I never break the spines of other people’s books, even if I suffer while reading them gently without ever properly opening and consuming them as they should be. God, I sound awful, don’t I?

3. How long does it take you to read a book?

Depends on the book. I have been taking my time with Don Quixote for about two years now. I do not want it to end, so it is a few pages at a time every few days or even weeks. I have been savouring Dracula for a few weeks now. Brilliant. I also took my time with Virginia Woolf’s diaries. A Jack Reacher doesn’t last long despite its lengths. Most other books two to four days.

4. Books you haven’t finished?

Recipes for Love and Murder. No comment. (I might lose a Twitter follower, or two, with this answer.)

5. Hyped/Popular books you didn’t like?

I usually stay away from them, and if I do pick one up, it has to come highly recommended by someone I trust as a reader.

6. Is there a book you wouldn’t tell anyone you were reading?

No. I am never ashamed of reading books.

7. How many books do you own?

Close to 20 000, still counting. I am the custodian of André’s magnificent collection.

8. Are you a fast/slow reader?

Fast, unless slow is required.

9. Do you like to buddy read?

I am not sure I want to know what this means…

10. Do you read better in your head/out loud?

Only in my head. I love being read to, something I miss terribly from the time I had with André.

11. If you were only allowed to own one book, what would it be and why?

An Instant in the Wind by my late husband, André Brink. I have re-read it several times and every time it only gets better. It would always remind me of the love of my life.

Well, that’s it and now I have to tag some people so here goes.
I tag: Sally Partridge, Melissa Volker, Pamela Power.

Books

Book review: Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher

Susan FletcherI welcome every Susan Fletcher novel with open arms. Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is her sixth. It completely delivers on the promise of its predecessors. Set in the Provencal town of Saint-Rémy where Vincent van Gogh spent a year of his life in an asylum and painted some of his most widely recognised works, the novel tells the story of a local woman whose life is disrupted by the arrival of the Dutch painter. Jeanne Trabuc is the wife of the asylum’s warden. In her fifties, a mother of three, she goes about her daily routines, remembering her adventurous youth and watching out for the mistral, “wind of change, of shallow sleep.”

Something about her husband’s latest patient unsettles Jeanne. Her curiosity about the man who is known for having harmed himself and for having appeared naked in public leads Jeanne to break her husband’s rules about not visiting the asylum or engaging with any of its patients. She goes to meet the fascinating stranger and a tentative friendship develops between them. Jeanne makes it possible for Vincent to leave the asylum to paint: “And he walks, Jeanne thinks, as reapers walk back from their trees: a sense of a day’s work done. And does he glance at the white-painted cottage as he goes? Jeanne likes to think he does. A glance, as if in gratitude. This newly untethered bird of blue overalls and gold.” She recognises his talent, believes in his sanity. He in turn reawakens her senses and long forgotten dreams.

Jeanne thinks of her grown-up sons who are making a way in the world for themselves and her friend Laure whose desire for freedom had led her to abandon her husband. She recalls the crippled woman who took care of her when Jeanne’s mother died after giving birth to her. And her loving father whom Jeanne nursed towards the end of his life after he’d suffered a stroke.

As a young woman, Jeanne had “been bold, reckless. Not caring for rules.” She’d once stood half-naked in the yard, “her wet hair, like a wing”, and understood the freedom and power of such exposure. Now, her body ageing, her marriage empty of tenderness, she realises that there is still something that she wants from fate, and it is not what she has, “a little life of washtubs and duty.”

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is a story about change and courage, about breaking silences and not being afraid to reach out for what we expect from the people we share our existence with. Fletcher’s portrayal of Jeanne’s awakening is subtle and profoundly moving.

Fletcher’s prose is mesmerising, seductive. There is no other way of putting it. She paints emotions with sensitive strokes, but in bold colours. As she caresses language, words glow under her pen. Her work is full of light and nuance. Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is a joy.

Review first published in the Cape Times, 19 August 2016.

 

Book review: A Good Life by Mark Rowlands

A Good LifeThroughout the years, few oeuvres have enriched my intellectual life as much as the works of the Welsh philosopher Mark Rowlands. At some stage, we are all confronted with the question of what makes life worthwhile, how to make the time we have on this planet meaningful. Unfortunately, not enough of us ask how to live in such a way as not only to enjoy the journey, but simultaneously do as little harm as possible to our fellow travellers, whether they be other humans, animals or the environment. We all muddle on. Rowlands does not claim to have the answers, but his attempts at approaching possible conclusions are fascinating to engage with.

Some of Rowlands’s books are written for experts in his field of knowledge and are not as easily accessible as his bestsellers Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality or The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness (still a personal favourite which belongs to that wonderful category of books I claim as life-changing). His latest, A Good Life, is also written for the general public and comes with an intriguing twist that will thrill all passionate readers, even more so if they happen to be writers as well.

Unlike Rowlands’s other books, which are clearly non-fiction and often include autobiographical elements, A Good Life is actually a novel. It is a philosophical inquiry into what constitutes the titular good life, but it comes in the form of dystopian speculative fiction. In 2054, while South Florida is quickly sinking into oblivion because of the rising sea levels, the fictitious character Nicolai finds a manuscript written by his late father and annotated by his mother. He decides to complete it with his own comments on the narrative his parents had left behind, never certain how much of their text is fiction and how much is fact. The book seems to be telling their life story by tackling such crucial issues as abortion, compassion and empathy, marriage, animal and environmental rights, euthanasia, and death. The discussion of these topics is at times unsettling, as it shakes up many widely held beliefs. At the same time, anything that Rowlands writes is always full of delightful humour and reassurance that not all is gloom and doom. There is hope and real goodness in the world.

It is not too late to recognise how we are all connected; not only to each other, but to the planet we call home. Compassion is one of our main tools. It is fuelled by the imagination. A Good Life as a whole makes a stunning case for the “colossal power” of literature: “We are all just words somewhere.” When you reach the final pages of the book, the different strands of the narrative intertwine to reveal something quite simple, and yet it feels as if a miracle had unfolded right in front of your reading mind. That is the beauty of a Mark Rowlands book.

Rowlands on lit

A Good Life: Philosophy from Cradle to Grave

by Mark Rowlands

Granta, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 5 August 2016.

“That’s what friends are for”

This time it was rage. No melancholy insomnia, just a big fat stick of fury ready to explode, the fuse much too short. I had been so livid that I walked around wanting to headbutt people, especially myself for being… well, not wise, to put it mildly. A volatile state. And once again Jack arrived, all in black, mattress-pressed, and ready for another clandestine rescue mission. He has a knack for showing up when most needed. Ryno sent him. A clandestine mission expert himself, Ryno is my publicist and friend, aka Work Husband, and he knew how much I coveted Reacher #21, Night School. When the proof copies arrived in his office, one was rushed off to me. And so I went back to night school with Jack and learned some valuable lessons about his rules. Recently, I had failed to follow one, and paid dearly for disobeying. Jack knows how to trust his gut feelings, follow his instincts, analyse, predict, outsmart, wait – patiently – and strike when least expected. Night School is vintage Reacher, all tension, wits and charm. Frances Neagley is back at his side. And oh, that crisp writing which seduces me every time. Yes, all men want to be like him, all women want to… Obviously! Because:

“…her hands flat and open, her palms close to the bed, hovering, skimming a cushion of air, as if she was balancing.”

with Jack

In September, Andy Martin, the “gonzo academic”, author of the must-read Reacher Said Nothing, is one of the international Open Book Festival participants in Cape Town. If you are a Reacher fan, or a surfer, come and listen to him talk about both.

In October, the second Jack Reacher film is released, based on Never Go Back.

Night School will be published on 8 November 2016.