Category Archives: Memories

“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.

Unbreakable: FLF 2016

Pam with Paige's quote

Pamela Power arriving at her first FLF

The feeling of impending doom had declared itself about a week in advance. André and I had been coming to the Franschhoek Literary Festival since its inception, sometimes as participating writers, always as readers. I can recall missing out on only one of the festivals because of travelling abroad. Since last year, I have been coming alone. Franschhoek in May is full of memories, literary and personal; before 2015, only positive. The FLF is a place where literature shines; where readers can mix and mingle with their idols or discover new books and writers to look forward to; where writers come out of their solitude to talk about their craft and passions, (re)connect, share stories, drink wine (occasionally wishing afterwards that it hadn’t been so freely available). Every year at the FLF, I have encountered fascinating readers and writers, met, or sometimes even only glanced, people who became very important to me, now dear friends.

 

Last year had been tough, but amazing in every respect. In one unexpected moment, I broke down, completely and utterly, but was held (thank you Alison Lowry), comforted (thank you Patricia Schonstein, who not knowing how to help otherwise, ran out into the night and brought me a volume of poetry where I found Karin Schimke’s poems, and reading them through the tears which insisted on spilling, I found inner calm again – enough to help another friend in distress later that night). I was alone, yet never alone.

This year, the loneliness beforehand was different, but just as overwhelming. And the closer the festival approached, the more desperate I became, reaching out for and grasping at anything which could save me from drowning. I felt so vulnerable, I nearly forgot how to breathe again. And once again, the beautiful people in my life – and the magic of their stories – provided a lifeboat, held me, comforted me.

Thursday morning found me soul-naked, on the edge of an abyss. Frightened, but brave, holding on. Loved. I knew what I had to do. At noon, I visited Parliament to pay my respects to a woman who crossed my path only briefly, but was a pathbreaker for numerous others all her life: Dene Smuts. Her family, friends and colleagues gathered in the old assembly building to celebrate this remarkable woman. I sat next to a friend who asked whether I had visited the place before. No, I said. She pointed out the spot just opposite us where Verwoerd was shot. And then pointed up at the gallery, and said she’d been present that day. This was also the room where the interim and current Constitutions were drafted, a process which Dene Smuts was closely involved in… Julia, her daughter (a fine writer who contributed to Touch), spoke beautifully about her mother. She moved me deeply with her tribute. Joanne Hichens was there, a friend of the family; now, my friend who – when she was still a stranger – came to me when I most needed her, bringing wisdom and care. I felt grand and intimate histories seeping in. Reeling, I drove home to meet another friend, freshly arrived from Joburg to spend the afternoon before the FLF with me: Pamela Power, the wonderful author of the equally wonderful Ms Conception. We had a late lunch at the Vineyard Hotel, basking in the sun in the Garden Lounge. She spoke about her idea for her next novel which sounds absolutely brilliant. In her hands, the theme and characters will thrive. I just know it!

Pamela at the Vineyard

In the evening, we drove out to Solms Delta where Richard Astor, Shaun Johnson, Mark Solms, Letebele Masemola and Vivian Bickford-Smith presented Jeremy Lewis’s recently published biography of Richard’s late father, David Astor: A Life in Print. To say that the event was inspiring would be the understatement of the year. Letebele Masemola reminded us that if it hadn’t been for The Observer’s coverage of the Rivonia Trial which brought it to the world’s attention, the accused would have been most likely condemned to death. David Astor was editor of the newspaper at the time. The stories and reports he ran saved those people’s lives. Just imagine if… Unimaginable! The power of the word, spreading, making it impossible for people to say, I didn’t know. History continuing to seep in…

David AstorRichard told me that our celebration of André’s life on Solms Delta the previous year the evening before the FLF sparked the idea for the celebration of his extraordinary father’s life this year. The link touched me.

Before the event, Pamela and I walked around Solms Delta at dusk and I showed her Philida’s bamboo copse. We drank divine Solms Delta wine and Astor pear cider, met up with book friends, made new ones, laughed, bonded. The celebrations continued at a Penguin dinner in Franschhoek later that evening. It was beautiful to see Pamela falling in love with Claire Robertson – sensitivities and wicked senses of humour connecting.

But I was on the verge of breaking again, despite everything. I drove home that night to seek refuge in my own bed, with my Furry Family, the place where I feel safest. Restored sufficiently to face the next day, I went back to Franschhoek to have breakfast with Austrian friends who were in town for the festival before attending my first session: Elinor Sisulu paying tribute to Sindiwe Magona, a woman of true greatness, our national literary treasure. Then, a brilliant panel on “breathing life into history” with Nigel Penn, Claire Robertson and Alex Eliseev, chaired to perfection by Mike Wills.

Then, sheer despair.

Everything seemed out of control. What could have been was slipping through my fingers, and there was nothing I could do. Helpless, small, I went into shock. It wasn’t the impossible that I longed for, but that which remained possible and was drifting away.

I was still in tears five minutes before the first session I was meant to chair, with three of my favourite authors: Niq Mhlongo, Mark Winkler and Nick Mulgrew. Friends witnessed my distress, but felt as helpless as I was. I was hugged, there were reassuring hands on my arms. I took a deep breath, dried my tears, and went into the Hospice Hall, knowing that no matter what, I would not fail these authors I admired and respected.

Fortunately, my voice doesn’t shake when my body goes into shock spasms. I doubt anyone in the audience guessed that I was on auto-pilot, trying to control my trembling legs. I have sometimes hated myself for being able to graduate at the top of my class while my family home was breaking apart, but that’s how it was. Perhaps it is time for me to accept that this is who I am, always have been?

Niq spoke about witches being ordinary beings in his culture. I said I was a witch, but a rather modern one. I have given up on brooms and travel by vacuum cleaner only.

And I’d felt all along that safety nets would be required to survive the weekend, that I would have to rely on the love of my friends and safe places to do what was required of me. Days in advance, I had already arranged to have dinner with close friends that evening. After the event, with people telling me how much they had enjoyed our panel, all glowing and smiling with literary pleasure, all I could think of was: Get on that vacuum cleaner, Karina, fly away… I fled, forgot to have my books signed.

Something stirred in me that evening, watching the breath-taking sunset on the old Elephant Path which Philida, all courage and pride, walked before me to lay her complaint centuries ago. Against all odds. And just look how far she has come! In the car, I listened to a Mozart CD I got for my last birthday. Surrounded by all this beauty, seeping in.

At dinner, I was told that it was all right to feel misery at times. I was told of that one time when my friend was also in a tough spot, confessed to his buddy, only to be told, “I am sorry for all your shit.” I was told other stories that made me – made all of us – weep with laughter. A little boy I love dearly slept in my arms after dinner. The food was delicious. I might have had too much wine. But in bed that night I felt blessed. I slept, a realisation dawning which should have been obvious, but never occurred to me as clearly as that night. Unbreakable. I am fucking unbreakable, I said to my mirror image the next morning.

And that is when all else fell into place.

During the first session I chaired on Saturday morning with David Cornwell, Chinelo Okparanta and Nthikeng Mohlele, we spoke about “writing relationships” and I was no longer afraid to quote from one of the books under discussion, Nthikeng’s Pleasure:

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It has not escaped me that reading this novel in preparation for the FLF, finding this quote in the book the previous weekend, was at the heart of my distress that entire week. Because I know that not being even forty, I can die now. Transformed. I understand the chances of me being allowed to live this kind of love twice lie in the realm of magic. But I am patient, fearless. I can cast spells.

Meeting Nthikeng was a different kind of magic. He is the real deal, a writer of wisdom and beauty. What he wrote into my copy of his book assures me that there is a lot we can learn from one another. And I am eager. What an inspiration. What pleasure!

with Sindiwe

Photo: Fiona Snyckers

I arrived at the André Brink Memorial Lecture, given this year by our dear friend Sindiwe Magona, ready to celebrate love. Sindiwe made us reflect, laugh, cry – her words so deeply personal and universal at the same time. The way she spoke about André made me think about her: they both dare to speak truth to power. They do what writers do when at their best, and this insight was confirmed to me only minutes after the lecture for which Sindiwe received standing ovations: a woman walked up to the stage, asking Sindiwe to sign her copy of Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle. “By reading this book, I have understood so much. Thank you. Your words are an inspiration,” she said.

 

So simple, so obvious, so magnificent.

I sat next to Sindiwe and thought: This is what it’s all about, those precious moments of truth, recognition, connection. This is why we are all here. This is what gives meaning to what we do. It was a powerful and timely reminder.

For a moment I was angry with myself, that I hadn’t realised any of this earlier, allowing pain and anxiety to nearly spoil it all for me.

Jacqui and ScarlettI attended other sessions. Wonderful to get to know Scarlett Thomas a bit. As always a pleasure to hear Jacqui L’Ange talk about one of the best novels of last year, The Seed Thief. Victor Dlamini spoke brilliantly about Flame in the Snow. Listening to Victor, I could only hope that he would be the next person to give the Memorial Lecture.

At the tiny gathering for the official announcement of the Ingrid Jonker Prize for poetry that afternoon, we heard beauty captured in words.

At the Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlists announcement just after, we were joined by evil. The juxtaposition beyond bizarre. I still feel discomfort about the entire event, something inside does not want to come to peace, although who am I to feel disturbed when there were others present who had suffered the unspeakable at the hands of this man. Who invited him? Why did he accept? Why did he cry? Do psychopaths cry? Who had the right to ask him to leave? How much faith in justice do we have? Did we have the right to tell his story, discuss it, him, and not allow him to listen? I thought of other men whom regimes turned into murderers, who were responsible for the deaths of thousands, but who were welcome among us. The word ‘complicity’ was flashing red in my mind.

Dazed, I rushed off to a dinner which could have been a complete disaster, but was saved by wonderful readers. When invited, I hadn’t been briefed properly what was expected of me at the event. I went thinking I would just be a guest. It turned out I was there to entertain other guests as a writer at their table. The horror of the situation struck me for a second. As an introvert, I need to prepare, brace myself for such occasions. But I was lucky. I think a lot of luck was on my side that entire weekend. I ended up at two tables full of fascinating people, who were passionate about books, life. I asked for their stories. They shared willingly.

FlameI slept peacefully that night, far away from my home and my Furry Ones, in a king size bed covered in books. On Sunday, I woke up to a picturesque view of the Franschhoek vineyards. The glorious autumn weather was screaming, Isn’t it just wonderful to be alive!? I had my own last session about literary letters in which Finuala Dowling (one of my favourite poets, writers; also perfect at chairing such panels – I sometimes attend events she moderates, just because of her) spoke to Margaret Daymond about Everyday Matters: Selected Letters of Dora Taylor, Bessie Head and Lilian Ngoyi and Karin Schimke and me about Flame in the Snow. Friends were there in the audience again, glowing from what they had witnessed. Full of praise and encouragement. I attended my last session of the festival with a huge smile on my face, which only widened listening to Jenny Crwys-Williams interview Kathryn White, Paige Nick and Scarlett Thomas about “sex on the page”.

On the way home, I visited a friend in the Devon Valley near Stellenbosch, was awed by the ridiculous views. We spoke about books and love and the nature of evil, had Nespresso and Mexican chocolate-covered nuts and coffee beans. She returned one of my Reachers to me, all satisfied with her latest adventure with Jack.

In the evening, the Furry Ones were eager to welcome me back home. I entered the house just in time to see Murray beat Djokovic in the Rome final. Miracles do happen. I went to the Waterfront to do some shopping: the bliss of driving through Cape Town on evenings like these… (Madonna dance tracks on full volume)! Before going to bed I looked up another dreaded piece of news, but both Poland and Austria seem to have scrapped through the Eurovision contest without embarrassing themselves too much this time (I watch every year if I can… yeah, I am South African by heart, but an Eurovision enthusiast still lives in there somewhere…).

On Thursday, Pamela told me about the energy one sends out into the world. That you must take care what you allow to go out as it will be returned to you. I thought of all the possibilities of experiencing beauty and meaning I, clouded by the pain, had nearly missed. Luckily – luck, that word again – only nearly. Luck is what we make of our opportunities.

I slept back home, covered in cats. In the morning I flew over to Noordhoek Beach where I always go to in times of pain and joy. I had the place to myself. Calm and beautiful. I sometimes think that my soul actually never leaves the beach. Perhaps that is why I have to visit often, to be fully restored to myself.

I walked, proud that I will continue gathering strength from walking along the sea, that there is no danger of me ever walking into the freezing waves. My footsteps all alone in the sand, I remembered that famous parable about Jesus… But I am not religious.

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During the most trying periods of my life, it seems I know how to carry myself.

The power of love, literature is the sea that sustains me. Because all stories are love stories.

And I can do fucking magic.

 

 

The Grandfather Clock

The Grandfather Clock

The clockmaker came out only at night. He arrived at the young widow’s house shortly after half-past eight. Books and remnants of a simple dinner lay across the table in the sitting room where the grandfather clock had been standing silent for a year. The woman pointed at the ancient instrument in the corner and folded her hands in front of her as if in prayer.

‘Sorry for your loss,’ he said.

‘Thank you.’

In the silence that followed, she could feel her heart galloping in her chest.

‘How long has it been now?’

‘A year, today.’

‘Ah. I’m sorry.’

They stood facing each other as time passed in slow motion.

‘So, what would you like me to do?’

She had summoned him earlier in the day, the explanation for the call vague. Something about an anniversary.

‘My husband had always taken care of it. It stopped when he died,’ she said.

‘So there’s nothing wrong with it? You just want me to get it going again?’

‘Yes.’ A prayer. ‘And please teach me how to keep it working.’

He nodded and opened his tool box, trying to concentrate on the task ahead instead of the woman beside him, tense like a coiled spring.

As the clockmaker set to work, she stepped back, watching from a distance. He asked about the key. She did not know what he meant, but eventually remembered the small black handle her husband had used to wind the clock. She was surprised how easy it was to keep the mechanism running.

‘It should be fine for a while,’ the man explained, turning the clock’s hands to the correct time, ‘but I’ll have to take it in for proper servicing soon.’

The clock chimed for the first time in a year. It took all her strength to keep her composure. Time stood still.

 

Before he left, she asked, ‘Tell me, do you think it’s true what they say, about your whole life flashing before you when you are about to die?’

‘I am not sure, dear,’ he said, reverting to the familiar address, not knowing how else to comfort the young woman.

He refused to take money from her. ‘Next time, when I service it properly,’ he said.

She thanked the clockmaker and gently closed the door after bidding him a good night. Alone, she leaned her head against the passage wall and cried.

The clock chimed nine. She counted the heartbeats and wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. She walked over to the grandfather clock. It towered above her in the silence of the night. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The stories of a long-lost friend returning home. She listened to the soothing whispers of its hands telling her about the future. They reminded her of violin music announcing a new dawn.

 

 

One of our greats in the making: Alastair Bruce’s Boy on the Wire

Wall of DaysThe first one arrived in manuscript form for evaluation. I started reading it in bed in the morning and nearly didn’t get up until I was finished. The exhilaration of the encounter is still with me years later. I thought I was reading one of South Africa’s greats. Galgut or Coetzee came to mind – not a debut novelist.

My reader’s report glowed with praise. The novel was eventually published as Wall of Days (2010), locally and abroad, also in translation. The author turned out to be a young man from PE who moved to the UK. Last year, Alastair Bruce published his second novel, Boy on the Wire, and it is just as haunting as his first.

In the Prologue of Boy on the Wire, John Hyde walks cautiously through his childhood home in Port Elizabeth. In one of the rooms, he sees a man, “or he imagines he can see the man … He knows, too, he cannot touch him, cannot touch the lying man. If he even touched the tip of his fingers to the man’s forehead, it would all be over.” Nothing is “clear”. What is real, what is imagined? Everything hinges on the distinction. The confrontation with the “man who lied, who told the story, a wild, fanciful story, about the death of a child, a hard and unyielding story” is what the novel is about.

Boy on the WireThe narrative takes us back to a Sunday in the December of 1983 when John, his brothers Paul and Peter, and their parents travel to the mountains in the Karoo for a family holiday. But only four of them return home. And there are no real survivors. The tragedy literally plunges them all into an abyss.

Trauma disrupts time, memory and narrative. Storytelling can be one of the most efficient mechanisms of attempting to deal with it. In order to cope with the death of one his brothers, John tells a story. But his version of the events leading up to the tragedy has severe consequences for the family: “The death of a child – there’s no coming back from that.”

We encounter John again in his thirties. In his early twenties, he’d left his family and South Africa behind, making a clean break and emigrating. Alienated from his past, and from himself, he marries Rachel and makes a successful living in London. But one day he sees a figure outside his window which draws the illusions of his past into the fragile reality he has built around him, and he is forced to return to South Africa to confront the mystery of that fatal December day in the Karoo. But as Rachel will realise: “If you examine a mystery closely enough, for long enough, certainty will follow. Certainty, but not necessarily truth.”

Boy, Bruce can write! It is austere writing, but not without a certain lyricism. No words go amiss, all hit the target. At times, the narrative tension becomes relentless, even to a point of frustration. Bruce is a master of creating smokescreens for his readers. In both, Wall of Days and Boy on the Wire, you are never sure what the real story is, or who in the story is real or imagined. The beauty of his novels lies in the intriguing mind games – it is impossible not to want to know what happened. But Boy on the Wire is not a light, entertaining read. The novel is emotionally exhausting. It creeps under your skin.

Boy on WireWhereas Wall of Days was as close to perfection as a novel can get, I had some difficulties with the characterisations in Boy on the Wire. The portrayal of John and Rachel’s relationship after his return to South Africa wasn’t convincing enough for me. I could not relate to Rachel’s responses to the unfolding of the events and found the explanations of her behaviour implausible in a few moments. Furthermore, I am not sure that readers who are unaware of the effects of trauma on the mind will find enough narrative guidance in the story to read John’s mental states as plausible. I also found my suspension of disbelief tested when it came to the simple day to day logistics of inhabiting an inherited house.

Despite these reservations, which took very little away from the impressive impact Boy on the Wire had made on me, I can’t wait to see what Alastair Bruce will do next. Without any doubt, he is on his way to becoming one of our greats.

Boy on the Wire

by Alastair Bruce

Umuzi, 2015

“Your library is your soul”: Reflecting on Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins_Costa

Despite her substantial literary success, I did not know Kate Atkinson’s work before A God in Ruins was recommended to me by a friend whose taste I value. It won the Costa Novel Award in the beginning of this month, as did Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life (2014). The two are related, but can be read independently. I hope to turn to the sibling soon, as A God in Ruins is one of the most exquisite novels I have ever read, and the idea of Atkinson’s backlist reassures me greatly.

A God in Ruins is many things. It is the story of a British family set against the historical background of the past century. It is a novel about war and its aftershocks. It is a fine enquiry into human nature. But above all, it is a declaration of love for literature, its power and its manifold mysteries. And it is highly ambitious. What astounds about A God in Ruins is that it never falls short of these formidable ambitions. Such novels are rare. They take root in your mind and blossom in your soul. Even ferocious readers encounter a novel like this only once in a while.

The way it captures fiction’s ability to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed is striking. It is poetic in style as well as in its wisdom. For me personally, A God in Ruins was a magical key. It opened two doors in my life. Two doors connecting the past to my fragile present: one appeared while I was still reading, the other after I’d finished the novel. I stepped through the first, an imaginary one, during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with the world and yourself. It was around midnight. I was lost in the arms of a comfy easy chair; a soft caramel light illuminated the room. When I looked up from the book, I saw something so beautiful that I wanted to hold on to it forever. But I was scared to disturb the scene by searching for my camera, so I turned to the last blank page of A God in Ruins and drew a sketch of what was in front of me: a moment of flickering hope. It is also engraved in my heart.

The second door was real. It is the door to my late husband’s library. There are innumerable books in our house. We have roamed among them with the great pleasure that exploring books can bring only to two readers in love. When I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André. It was published a few weeks after his death. But I knew, had he been alive, I would have passed the novel to him the second I was finished with it that early Sunday morning, and I would have asked him to read it immediately so that we could discuss it in detail. Instead, I was all alone in an empty bed and all I could do was weep. What I have discovered about grief and loneliness is that it is not the lows which are unbearable, but the emptiness of the highs, when all you want to do is experience them with the person you love and there is no-one there to hold you…

Continue reading: LitNet

Chris Barnard 1939 – 2015

“And now Chris Barnard…” Breyten Breytenbach wrote for today’s Die Burger.

I did not know Chris and his wife Katinka well, but the few times I spent in their wonderful company are locked away in my heart as warm memories. They were both kind to me, open, welcoming. André loved them. We visited their home in Mpumalanga in 2007 where I took this shot of a photograph hanging in their house (Chris and André in the middle):
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More recently, I remember a day when we sat together in the sun outside their house in Onrus, drinking what from that day on became my favourite South African bubbly: Krone Borealis. There were strawberries and laughter. The warmth of friendship.

My thoughts are with Katinka and her loved ones.

The opening passage of the chapter “Sestigers, Censors and Security Police” from André’s memoir, A Fork in the Road:

It was during the years leading up to my return to Paris in ’68 that censorship turned really bad. The situation was surprisingly complicated. Among the events that held me in South Africa, there was the emergence of a new generation of Afrikaans writers, the Sestigers (‘Sixtiers’); among those that prompted me to leave was the almost simultaneous crackdown of censorship. The complication lay in the fact that, in the South Africa of the Sixties, neither could be imagined without the other.

Within only a few months of my return in August, 1961, I received a letter from the young author Chris Barnard (no relation, I should make very clear, of the surgeon who a few years later became famous for succeeding with the world’s first heart transplant). Chris was then fiction editor of the magazine Die Brandwag, for which I had during my student years, and even during my stay in Paris, written potboiler short stories. He offered me an opportunity of emptying my drawers of old manuscripts. But much more importantly, he broached the subject of ‘a new generation’ of writers in Afrikaans. This was something that had much preoccupied me in Paris. I had even written an impassioned essay for the magazine Huisgenoot pleading for such a new wave of writing: taking my cue from the Dutch writers known as the Tagtigers (‘Eightiers’) of the previous century, who had swept away all the dead wood of conventional writing in Holland to establish a spectrum of bold and passionate prose and poetry that infused the Romantic movement in the Low Countries with the inspiration of Impressionism and Symbolism. In our context, of course, it was no longer a matter of Romanticism, but all the ripple effects of Modernism and Existentialism. My essay wasn’t published until several years later, as a kind of nostalgic backward glance, but from the correspondence with Chris it was soon evident that we were fired by the same kind of vision for a drastic overhaul of Afrikaans fiction.

Ever since the Thirties, when a group of young Afrikaans poets had boldly established radical new forms of individualism, our literature had been striving to break away from the more conventional expressions that had characterised it since the time of the First Language Movement in the late 19th century. Various spasms of renewal had followed, but these were invariably restricted to poetry. Fiction and drama still lagged depressingly behind; and by the time European literature was already experimenting with exciting new forms of writing, Afrikaans fiction was still largely stuck in 19th century Naturalism, echoing, at second or third hand, the surface features of the bleaker endeavours of the form, but without the passions of the great Russians, or the genius of a Hardy or a Hamsun, let alone an Undset, a Proust or a Musil. Our fiction, as the poet N. P. van Wyk Louw characterised it, was still locked in a local, cosy kind of realism dominated by locusts, drought and poor-whites.

Now came the discovery that a new generation of Afrikaans prose writers was waiting in the wings: we had widely different backgrounds and styles and interests, but one passion we shared – to bring Afrikaans literature, particularly fiction and drama, up to date with the rest of the world. Most of us, by that time, had spent shorter or longer periods abroad, mainly in Paris, and that experience emphasised the parochial closeness of the local cultural scene. Chris had not yet taken his gap year, but was preparing for it – in spite of the misgivings of his then wife. I can remember her arguing: ‘I’m really not eager to go to Europe. I’m scared that it may change my view of the world, and I’m so happy with the one I have right now.’ What made the comment memorable was that it exactly captured the attitude of all too many Afrikaners at the time.

Several authors had begun to move into prominence during the fifties. The early leading figure was Jan Rabie (born 1920) with his piercing brown eyes and defiant black goatee, strongly inspired by French writers like Henri Michaux and the Existentialists during his long stay in Paris, whose work was in no small measure one of the reasons why I ultimately decided to go to Paris myself – and one of the consolations about coming back in 1961, when he broke new ground with his passionate explorations of the Afrikaners’ early interaction with Africa. There was also Etienne Leroux (born 1922), a Mephistophelian figure always obscured behind dark glasses, soon to become the leading novelist of the generation, whose outrageous satires in the vein of the myth-mongering of his time provoked the religious and political establishment with his irreverence and wit. But he presented this establishment with a peculiar challenge: as the son of a respected cabinet minister in the Nationalist Government, he was not an easy target for ostracism or attack. Bartho Smit (born 1924), a dramatist, deceptively gentle in manner and appeareance. As a publisher, uncomfortably ensconced in the right-wing house of Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel, later Perskor, he became something of a mentor to most of the rest of us and was the moving spirit behind the quarterly journal Sestiger which, for the two years of its existence, became the mouthpiece of the whole group. After early work in a conventional, if charming, vein, Dolf van Niekerk (born 1923), a self-effacing loner, made an electrifying impression with his existentialist reimagining of early 20th century Afrikaner history. The other Sestigers were younger. Adam Small (born 1936) was the only coloured writer in the group, an affirmative presence with his angry and satirical poetry, his virulent rejection of apartheid, and his brilliant play, Kanna hy kô hystoe (Kanna Comes Home), which brought Afrikaans drama up to date with what had been happening in the rest of the world: an evocation of the lives of a coloured family who are forced to bear the brunt of the only one among them who manages to break away and lead a prosperous life in Canada, until the death of the materfamilias, Makiet, forces Kanna to return home. Abraham (Braam) de Vries, born in 1937, whose eyes, forever gleaming behind thick glasses, missed nothing, soon became adept at exposing the terror and magic that lurk below the surface of the everyday. And of course Chris Barnard (born 1939), a gentle giant, revealed an early interest in the taboos of apartheid before making a decisive break with realism in favour of symbolism, and an exploration of the absurd.

On the fringes of the Sestiger group the most important new writer was Breyten Breytenbach, who had settled in Paris in 1960, while I was still there, although we did not meet until 1964, when Ingrid and I were on our disastrous way to Spain. Breyten hit the world of Afrikaans letters like a force of nature, splashing a Black-Southeaster rain of surrealism, existentialism and Zen Buddhism across the still rather arid South African landscape. For many years, and in the minds of many people, the appellation of Sestiger applied pre-eminently to Breyten. Yet he persistently refused to be regarded as a member of the ‘movement’, both before and after his imprisonment from 1976 to 1983 on largely trumped-up charges of ‘terrorism’.

Others on the periphery of the core group of Sestigers included the master of Chekhovian impressionism, the short-story writer Hennie Aucamp; Elsa Joubert with her explorations of Africa and her persistent redefinitions of the Afrikaner world and heritage; and Karel Schoeman, who rather preciously cultivated the image of the enigmatic outsider, whose delicate prose explores the human condition within a South African context. In his best work he is a consummate novelist, but he resolutely steered a course separate from that of the Sestigers.

And then there was Ingrid. Who was a Sestiger in all but name, and who produced the major poetic work of the time in Afrikaans. Her prose alone, a handful of exquisitely wrought stories and sketches, should qualify her for inclusion in the group. So did her dramatic break with the ancien régime represented by her father, her uncompromising rejection of apartheid, and her embracing, under the influence of Uys Krige, of the free-verse forms of Lorca and his South American successors.

Last year, for Chris’s 75th birthday, André wrote the following tribute (published in Die Burger, if I remember correctly):

Dit was in die vroeë jare van die Sestigs, toe ek nog in Parys aan die studeer was, toe ek vir die eerste keer ’n brief van Chris Barnard uit Parys ontvang het. Daarmee het ’n korrespondensie aan die gang gekom wat tot vandag toe nog nie heeltemal sy einde bereik het nie, ofskoon die klimmende jare ons al op verskillende maniere probeer bykom of stilmaak het.

Op ’n tyd het Chris beplan om met sy destydse vrou, Annette, vir die eerste keer op Grahamstad by my en Estelle, my eie eerste paaltjiewagter, te kom kuier. ’n Nogal rampspoedige eerste kennismaking, want soos dit teen donkeraand geblyk het toe die Barnards hul bagasie uit die motor wou gaan haal waar ek die tasse al met die intrapslag uit die motor in die straat vlak voor die voordeur wou gaan aflaai en ons gesamentlik agtergekom het dat daar g’n teken meer was van ’n tas klein of groot nie. Waarskynlik het ons toe al pens en pootjies ingesleep geraak by die gesprek waarmee ons toe reeds begin het en waarby daar tot heden vandag toe nog nie tekens van ’n verslapping sigbaar is nie.

In die loop van daardie aand het Annette al wat flikker is, uitgehaal om dit aan die twee jong konstabels by die gestrande motor te vertoon, toegelig met histrioniese vermoëns wat vir my heelwat meer beïndruk het as vir Estelle: sy het verseg om in die swyende tweestryd tusen die twee vroue kans gesien om selfs maar ’n aks bes te gee. En Chris het ’n oorpyn ontwikkel wat vir niks wou skrik nie. Maar dit alles het minder as niks geweeg vergeleke met ’n lotsbestemming nie.

In die tussenjare was daar in die vriendskap al korter of langer hiate, om beter of swakker redes, van die soort wat jy maar in byna elke menslike verhouding teenkom; maar nooit – selfs nie in die maande wanneer dit tydelik tot stilstand gestotter het as een van die twee, of soms albei, deur ‘omstandighede buite ons beheer’ – voorlopig onkapabel was nie, was daar werklik enigiets gewigtigs in die weer nie. Chris was vir ’n ruk weg Parys toe, en daarna weer ek, en daarna is hy weer getroud, en toe weer ek, en toe weer ek, en toe weer ek, ensovoorts. Maar iets het tussen die twee van ons bly aanloop asof daar nooit enige onderbreking was nie. Op ’n onderwaterse vlak het ek en hy daardie gesprek tot vandag toe bly deurvoer. Nou is hy en Katinka saam, en ek en Karina, hy in Mpumalanga en ek in die Kaap. En mits die vlees geneë voel en die vermoë behou, behoort dit tot in lengte van dae so voort te gaan. Onder destyds se Sestigers is daar vandag nie danig veel meer oor nie, so ons sal maar aanhou tot waar die karrentjie sy staanplek kry.

Daar is min wat hierdie afgelope jare – nou waaragtig al meer as vyftig! – nie neerslag gekry het in ons korrespondensie nie. Soveel veugdes, soveel hartsere. Soveel huwelike, soveel egskeidings. Toe ek Ingrid destyds ontmoet het, was Chris een van die eerste vriende wat in ’n brief daarvan gehoor het; en ook hy wat heel eerste was om van die patetiese digpogings te siene gekry het wat ek vir Ingrid geskryf het. Oor die jare was ek jare lank een van sy eerste lesers, en omgekeerd (en vandag bly hy een van die bestes). Dit was – en is – wat ons probeer eerlik hou het teenoor mekaar. En dit is nie te versmaai nie.

Tussen hom en Bartho is die eerste gedagtes oor die moontlikhede vir vormgewing van Orgie gewissel. Met verloop van tyd het ek en hy elkeen, as ek nou reg tel, vier kinders verwek, en hande vol romans, verhale, draaiboeke en ander pennevrugte die lig laat sien. Oor en weer het ons gehelp om probleme uit te stryk, kritici uit te sorteer, idees te toets, mekaar op die skouers te klop, skoppe onder die gat te gee, of so na aan trane afvee te kom as wat ’n mens jou gevoeglik durf veroorloof het. Nie een van ons het verwag om so oud te word dat ons dertig van die agterkant af sou kon bekruip nie. En destyds was Sestig nog net ’n literêre begrip, g’n werklikheid of ’n simbool of ’n ding nie. Vandag is die wêreld ’n anderster plek. Maar op die een of ander manier probeer ons byhou. En ons kan nog altwee, deur die genade of een of ander moedswilligheid ons variasie probeer opsê van: Ek was toe Bart Nel, en ek is wragtag nog hy. En halleluja!

(Thank you, Izak de Vries, for proofreading the original text.)
Chris's books

Great, even life-changing – the books of 2015

Another great year of reading is coming to an end, although it did not start that way. I am grateful to the love that has returned my passion for reading to me when reading – when life – became unbearable.
books2015
Knowing how few books one can read in a lifetime (I won’t depress you with the estimate), I have become quite selective and wise about what I read. Thus, out of the sixty-three books I have read this year (until today, some not for the first time), almost all were good, thirty-one were great – among them were a few which were life-changing – and only two I did not finish. Of these two, one was brilliant, but I was reading it on 6 February and have not been able to return to it. The other one I had wonderful hopes for, but I was so disappointed and frustrated that after a hundred pages I decided not to waste more of my time on it. In the spirit of the festive season, the perpetrator shall remain unnamed.

The great ones I have finished, I would like to divide among four categories: relevant, delightful, exquisite, and life-changing (whereas some, of course, overlap).

There are old-time favourite authors on my list like Alexandra Fuller and Ivan Vladislavić, but also new discoveries like Pamela Power or Mark Winkler.

Relevant
Ingrid Jonker: A Biography by Louise Viljoen
Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace by Paul Morris
A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
J. M. Coetzee and The Life Of Writing: Face-To-Face With Time by David Attwell
Books That Matter by Marie Philip

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
(A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion)

Delightful
The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth
What Poets Need by Finuala Dowling
Ms Conception by Pamela Power
What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
The Chameleon House by Melissa de Villiers
Embers by Sándor Márai
Tribe by Rahla Xenopoulos
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

I had a very efficient guano maker installed in my bath.
(The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell)

Exquisite
The Long Dry by Cynan Jones
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller
101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
The Dream House by Craig Higginson
The Alphabet of the Birds by SJ Naudé
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom
the myth of this is that we’re all in this together by Nick Mulgrew
Wasted by Mark Winkler
Notes from the Dementia Ward by Finuala Dowling

We have to admit our massive love for people. If we don’t ever need to know its depth, we just feel the light on the surface.
(The Long Dry by Cynan Jones)

Life-changing
Flame in the Snow / Vlam in die Sneeu by André Brink and Ingrid Jonker
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Water: New Short Fiction from Africa
Mountains in the Sea: A Celebration of the Table Mountain National Park by John Yeld and Martine Barker
The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

I would like to single out two books I haven’t written about. Yet. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher.
A God in Ruins
Atkinson’s novel is one of the most exquisite books I have read in my life. Its beauty and its declaration of love for the power of literature to capture eternity, to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed are staggering. Personally, I will always associate the novel with two seminal moments in my life. While reading it during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with yourself and the world, I saw something beautiful and drew a sketch of the scene at the back of the book. It is also engraved in my heart. And when I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André, but then something happened which gave me comfort and hope and the book will always be at the source of these feelings when it comes to reading. I hope to write about it before the year is over.
The Art of the Publisher
Calasso’s book speaks about everything I have ever known, felt, dreamt about or hoped for in publishing. I have known for years that one day I would become a publisher myself. The Art of the Publisher made me realise that the time has come to make that day become reality.

In/sanity: Mark Winkler’s Wasted

WastedWhere does sanity end and insanity begin?

Can anyone who intentionally kills or violates another person be thought of as sane?

Earlier today while driving, I saw a man, probably homeless, standing next to a garbage bin and talking to himself. It might have been the same man who a few months ago passed me in the street and out of the blue started screaming at me, forcing me off the pavement into heavy traffic. I was fortunate that cars avoided hitting me just in time. I wasn’t hurt, but petrified. I haven’t walked that route since.

I still like walking in our neighbourhood though, and do it nearly daily (it helps to keep me sane).

There were times this year when I did not feel sane myself. Grief is not a mental illness, but it is a state of vulnerability that makes you often act insane. I have experienced some really mad stuff since February. There were days when I thought of Valkenberg, and the idea seemed strangely serene. There are times in one’s life where all you want to do is lie down and let others take care of you. Just some peace and quiet, punctuated by kindness. We all have moments when we long for such spaces.

Water coverI finished reading Mark Winkler’s second novel, Wasted (Kwela, 2015), this morning, hence all these thoughts about in/sanity. I picked up the book because of the excellent story Winkler contributed to Water: New Fiction from Africa (forthcoming from Short Story Day Africa). I felt this was an author I wanted to get to know better. I have not been disappointed. Wasted is one of the best novels I have read this year. Well written (with an opening that is impossible to resist, and a middle and end that are even better), tense, darkly humorous, unpredictable and thought-provoking throughout, Wasted is one of those novels that creep under your skin. It strikes an admirable balance between seriousness and entertainment. Winkler manages to pull off that tough task of making you care for quite an unsavoury protagonist: Nathan Lucius is an enigma for most of the book and one approaches the unfolding of his story with trepidation, but you simply need to know what makes him tick.

We know he sleeps with the light on, has a dubious approach towards personal hygiene, does not allow anyone into the sanctuary of his flat where he collects old photographs of strangers he imagines as members of his family, and his relationships with his work colleagues, his widowed neighbour, a friend suffering from cancer, and his real family are unusual (if that is the right word), to say the least. The why behind his behaviour comes as quite a shock around two-thirds into the novel. But even earlier, around one-third into it, we come to the first unsettling revelation. The ending blows your mind.

What fascinates me about the novel is the portrayal of this character who is so recognisable and yet so foreign. You read along, and, if you’re honest, you allow yourself to realise that, yeah, I have done some similarly crazy shit, and, yeah, I have had similarly dark thoughts. The lights, the solitude, the blackouts, longing for forgetting, incapability of dealing with the frustrations of the everyday – been there, done that (perhaps not exactly to such extremes, but the point is that one can associate with it). Not wanting to spoil the surprise, let me just say that fortunately most of us don’t end up like Nathan. But it is a fine line that we all tread. That is what makes him such a great character. It’s easy to feel him.

Winkler is also the author of An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Absolutely Everything (Kwela, 2013) that I hope to get my hands on tomorrow at the celebration of The Book Lounge’s 8th birthday party. Wow, time does fly! Allow me to hope that it heals, too.

The heart has spaces – the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Drawing in Ingrid's letter of 15 October 1963
In the beginning there were the women of his past, a ghost among them. André Brink had never been afraid to love. After the life-defining relationship of his youth with Ingrid Jonker, her suicide, and four divorces, at the age of 69 he had the guts to say yes to a delicate possibility.

When we met in Austria towards the end of 2004 I was terribly young, on the verge of a divorce, broken by betrayals, and almost paralysed by mistrust. Continents and cultures apart, 42 years between us, the odds staked against us could not have been higher. Yet we somehow mustered enough courage to dare the impossible and turn it into reality. For ten years, the first thing we did every morning after waking up next to each other was to smile. No matter what. Of course it hadn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And coming to terms with our respective pasts was our greatest challenge.

André first introduced me to Ingrid in a letter on 23 December 2004:

She was a year or so older than me, and light-years older in terms of sexual experience. It was an incredible, hectic, heady, head-over-heels love of extremes, swinging wildly from ecstasy to the depths of misery; and it became just too exhausting and demanding. After two years (and several break-ups and new starts) she started a new love-affair, and then I did too (both of us, I think, grasping at possibilities of getting out of our own relationship which had become suffocating). And so it ended. She had one more mad love-affair, and committed suicide.

Coming to live with André in the South African spring of 2005, I very quickly realised that in order to know him – truly know him – I had to understand what had happened between him and Ingrid 40 years earlier. We both had to. No other woman in André’s life had left as indelible a mark on him as Ingrid. No other haunted me as much in the beginning of our relationship.

I am proud of countless things André and I have achieved together, but the one that made all else possible is the space we created in our relationship for sharing, for being painfully open with each other. André and I met at Vienna International Airport when I went to pick him up and accompany him on the train journey to Salzburg, where he was participating in a symposium I’d helped organise. On that trip we began a conversation which, literally, lasted ten years until I told him I loved him for the last time and closed his lips with a final kiss just before he died earlier this year. It was a stripping of minds and hearts. Time after time, we stood completely soul-naked in front of each other, risking everything, and eventually knowing that love would prevail, always, no matter how terrifyingly ugly the revealed truth – on both sides – was. It is the kind of knowledge which can lay any ghost to rest.

At the end of Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato, my favourite philosopher, Mark Rowlands, writes: “If I could repay you with a wish it would be that you find something in your life so important that without it you would not be the same person. If you’re lucky you’ll have it already.” The relationship with Ingrid was such a thing for André. He wrote in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (Harvill Secker, 2009): “On that memorable afternoon of 15 April, 1963, a group of us were gathered in the lounge of Jan Rabie’s rambling old house in Cape Town, when Ingrid walked in, barefoot and provocative, and the movement against censorship officially began, and the course of my life was changed.” Her influence permeated everything: his personal life, and, just as crucially, his writing. One only needs to look at André’s women characters, walking in Ingrid’s footprints across the pages of his novels, to comprehend what an impact their meeting had on his creativity. And they are only the most obvious example. But despite the evidence, for many years André was exceedingly reluctant to speak or write about Ingrid after her death.

At the time of our engagement in early 2006, together with Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, André was working on the new translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems which would result in the publication of Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau, 2007). It must have been during this period that he showed me his and Ingrid’s correspondence for the first time. He kept the letters in the same place as his diaries which he reread for the writing of the introduction to Black Butterflies, the first text of its kind after many years of silence. An intimate treasure and a chunk of literary history many had wondered about for decades, even back then the letters had an irresistible appeal for me. Although my grasp of the Afrikaans language and literature was shaky at this stage, I understood their importance as a key to André’s life story and to the creative and intellectual forces culminating in the literary movement of the Sestigers. We looked at them together, he told me their story, and allowed me to comment on the translations as well as on the introduction. The title for the collection followed from a suggestion I’d made. Being included felt like a form of exorcism.

I wrote in my own diary of the time: “Dear Ingrid, are you smiling at us after all?”

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