Tag Archives: André Brink

Stories with strawberry jam and clotted cream

In the night of 9 February 2016, on the twelfth anniversary of my first arrival in Cape Town, I dreamt that I was in a hospital. In my dream, André died there. A few days later I came to pick up his belongings, but no one was willing to assist me. They shoved me around the place, ignoring my distress. I felt desperate, lost. I wanted to take care of his possessions but nobody was keen to help me. And then out of the blue someone offered support. I woke up, relieved.

I signed the contract for my memoir about the relationship I had with André, The Fifth Mrs Brink, that morning. Afterwards, I returned home to find that our grandfather clock had stopped working without any apparent reason. I got it going again, but both the dream and the silent clock disturbed me.

In the late afternoon, on my way to a book launch, I had a terrible car accident in which I killed our beloved Brink Mobil, the ancient green Mercedes André and I used to drive. My friends told me later that I did not kill the Old Lady, that she died protecting me. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that having the accident on the same day I signed the contract was a sign, signalling some kind of closure or an impending massacre. I hoped for the former, but had no way of knowing which it would be.

Three weeks later, I walked across the city to pick up a rental car provided by my insurance company. Passing the accident spot on an overhead bridge, I could still see the rust-red stains where the Brink Mobil had bled to death.

I walked past the funeral parlour where they took André after his death – he did not die in a hospital but on board of an aeroplane flying over Brazzaville.

I also passed a big red building in Woodstock which caught my eye because it looked quite new and impressive. I considered getting a coffee from a place on its ground floor.

Woodstock is where long ago I once appeared on a friend’s doorstep in one of her dreams. She told me the next day that I’d looked lost and just stood there, clutching a book to my chest. The same friend works in the big red building now.

I finished the first draft of The Fifth Mrs Brink in July. In September, I asked for the rights to my book back. I had to leave; I had no way of staying. If I wanted to truly take care of my and André’s stories, I had to find a home for them elsewhere. I submitted my memoir to another publishing house. They made me an offer. My new publisher gave me a book she thought might interest me: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, an account of how people survive, and make sense of, tyranny and massacres – by weaving tapestries of stories to keep us safe at night. The words of Second-Hand Time live in my bones.

In the evening of the 1st of November, someone asked me online which great writer I would like to have tea with. There is only one: The One. He liked his tea white with two sugars. And when he wanted to spoil me, he baked scones for us for breakfast.

scone

jonathan-ball-publishersI don’t know what I dreamt in the night of the 1st of November, but I know I slept through it. That in itself is a gift, a good omen. Uninterrupted sleep had become rare in the past few months, although I am mastering it again. In the morning of the 2nd, I had a scone at my favourite coffee shop. I drove to Woodstock in the little car that a friend lent me after my accident. I parked underneath the big red building, found my way upstairs to the 4th floor where kind people were waiting.

It is perhaps fitting that the publication of The Fifth Mrs Brink will be delayed by a few months next year to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first time I became a refugee when my family escaped the tyranny of Communist Poland and sought asylum in Austria.

szczurek-arriving-in-safe-haven

Arriving on the doorstep of Jonathan Ball Publishers, I felt like a refugee who had sailed through treacherous waters in a derelict dinghy and found her way to the shores of a safe haven. With only my ancient fountain pen in the bag I carried, I was seeking asylum again.

Massacres and tyranny can be intimate, private, go nearly unnoticed.

I am not the only one who survives by telling stories.

My stories are safe now.

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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

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

FLF 2016: my scheduled events

FRIDAY 13 May:

Water coverStationsAffluenza

[45] 16h00 Writers of few(er) words

Karina Szczurek chats to Mark Winkler (Ink), Nick Mulgrew (Stations) and Niq Mhlongo (Affluenza) about the art of keeping it short while ensuring impact.

 

SATURDAY 14 May:

[67] 11h30 Writing relationships

Under the Udala TreeLike It MattersPleasure

Chinelo Okparanta (Under the Udala Trees), David Cornwell (Like It Matters) and Nthikeng Mohlele (Pleasure) get to the heart of how writers depict love, sex and friendship through their characters. Chaired by Karina Szczurek (Invisible Others).

[74] 13h00 André Brink Memorial Lecture

Sindiwe MagonaAndré

(Photographs: Victor Dlamini)

Karina Szczurek welcomes you to the second annual lecture in honour of her late husband André Brink, and will introduce Sindiwe Magona (prolific author and writer-in-residence, University of the Western Cape). She will offer an outsider’s take on this giant of South African letters in a talk titled “André Brink: enigma, betrayer, villain or hero?”    

 

SUNDAY 15 May:

[116] 11h30 Literary letters

Everyday MattersFeatured Image -- 1244

Finuala Dowling chairs a discussion with Margaret Daymond (Everyday Matters: Selected letters of Dora Taylor, Bessie Head and Lilian Ngoyi), Karin Schimke (Flame in the Snow) and Karina Szczurek (Flame in the Snow), about what the personal correspondence of significant figures reveals about their writing, themes and lives.

Book tickets here: FLF 2016 

KarinaMSzczurek

 

 

KARINA M. SZCZUREK is the author of Truer than Fiction: Nadine Gordimer Writing Post-Apartheid South Africa. She is also the editor of Touch: Stories of Contact, Encounters with André Brink; Contrary: Critical Responses to the Novels of André Brink (with Willie Burger), and the 2015 SSDA anthology, Water: New Short Fiction from Africa (with Nick Mulgrew). She also writes short stories, essays and literary criticism. Her debut novel Invisible Others was published in 2014.

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.

 

 

“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.

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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