Tag Archives: biography

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?”

Continue reading: LitNet

Even better: Best of second half of 2014 book giveaway

GiveawayIn July last year, I listed here my best reads of the first half of 2014 and gave one of the titles away to a randomly chosen person who commented on the post. The lucky winner was Solomon Meyer and I sincerely hope he has enjoyed his copy of The Maze Runner.

I would like to do the same for the second half of 2014 which turned out to be an even greater reading success than the first. Old friends & new discoveries made the list. I decided, however, to concentrate on fiction & non-fiction only. In no particular order:

?????????????????????????I love historical fiction and it hardly ever comes better than Claire Robertson’s The Spiral House (Umuzi, 2013). I heard Robertson speak at the FLF last year and was immediately intrigued. During the festival, the novel was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and won subsequently to my, and many other readers’, delight. Written in a mesmerising prose which takes you into the heart of local history, the novel is a rare gem which should not be missed. Apart from anything else it is such a beautifully produced book. Well done, Umuzi!

The VisitorAnother historical title, Katherine Stansfield’s The Visitor (Parthian, 2014), will feature on all my favourites lists for a long time to come. I had the pleasure of reviewing it for the Cape Times. A gift from Robert, a dear friend with whom I studied and practised fencing at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, this beautiful debut novel came to me when it was most needed. Set in a fictional fishing village in Cornwall towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, it tells the story of three friends and their community. The sea is their constant companion and witness to the love, loss and longing unfolding at its shore. Last year, I wrote an essay about the sea and its influence on my own life as a woman and a writer. The Visitor has triggered many memories and helped me focus on the task at hand. Stansfield is also a remarkable poet. Her debut collection Playing House is a delight.

People's PlatformI love engaging with the internet even though I am deeply aware of its pitfalls. I still remember AltaVista, the first chat rooms, or waiting for a page to open for twenty minutes (if you were lucky!) while doing my homework on the side. I have been fascinated by the medium for nearly as long as it exists on a global scale. The People’s Platform – Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor (Fourth Estate, 2014) is one of those must reads if you want to consciously participate in the digital age and not be simply reduced to a consumer, abused by power and greed. Culture is one of our most precious resources and treasures. To allow it to waste away in this precarious environment is criminal.

Dont Film YourselfAnother must for the internet age: Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex and Other Legal Advice for the Age of Social Media (Penguin, 2014) by Emma Sadleir and Tamsyn de Beer looks at the legal implications of our interaction with social media. The authors spell out the dos and don’ts of the diverse platforms: Twitter, Facebook, etc. The book is informative and strangely enough very funny despite telling some very grim internet stories of people losing their reputations, jobs, friends and serious money over online blunders. Also essential reading for anyone wanting to marry Kate Winslet.

Divided LivesAnybody who reads me will know how much I admire Lyndall Gordon‘s work. Her latest, Divided Lives (Virago, 2014), raises my admiration to another level. Just looking at the shelf where I keep all her wise, powerful biographies and memoirs reassures me. She has brought so much sustenance and joy into my life as a reader, writer and woman that I am certain I would be a very different, and much poorer, Karina today without having encountered her books. May there be many more to come.

adultsonlycoverA rather racy read, and not all the stories in this anthology were my cup of tea, but there were some which I found very exciting, on the literary not literal level, of course ;) Showcasing some of the talent we have here in South Africa, these erotic short stories cater for nearly all tastes. Funny, thrilling, and exquisite at times, it is a rewarding read (see my review: Adults Only – Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality edited by Joanne Hichens, Mercury, 2014).

A_Man_of_Good_Hope_frontA Man of Good Hope (Jonathan Ball, 2014) is Jonny Steinberg at his best. I have a friend who says that when she grows up she wants to be Jonny Steinberg, and I can’t blame her. In his latest, Steinberg tells the story of a man on the most remarkable journey which takes him from Mogadishu via South Africa to even more distant shores. Asad Abdullahi goes through hell and back and on his trip teaches us what it means to hope and dream when it seems that all is in vein. I listened to and interviewed Steinberg during the Open Book Festival last year. For my reflections on the festival see “The Image of a Pie”.

invisible_furies_coverAnother of my favourite authors, Michiel Heyns, launched A Sportful Malice at the FLF last year and the novel featured in my July giveaway, but later in the year I turned to his previous title, Invisible Furies (Jonathan Ball, 2012) and enjoyed it just as much, not only because it is set in my beloved Paris. After a long absence, Christopher travels to Paris where he encounters a world of beauty and intrigue. He is there to help Eric, the son of a friend, come to his senses and return to South Africa. But Eric has some surprises in store for him. Nothing is what it seems in the City of Love.

The Snowden FilesThe Snowden Files – The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding (Guardian Books/Faber and Faber, 2014) is another eye-opener when it comes to the workings of the internet and governments all over the world. Harding reveals the background to the Snowden story and all its scary implications. A tense read of history unfolding in front of our eyes. I hope there will be a follow-up book and some kind of decent resolution to this saga on all fronts.

The Alibi ClubA discovery from last year’s Open Book Festival, Jaco van Schalkwyk’s The Alibi Club (Umuzi, 2014) is one of the most refreshing South African fiction debuts of the last few years. Set in New York in the decade around 9/11, it tells the story of a South African working at a club and interacting with its regulars in the heart of Brooklyn. Tight, impact prose, distinct characters, well-paced storytelling – the stuff of a great promise. I am very curious what Van Schalkwyk will do next.

Travels with EpicurusNot only a delightful book, but a reminder of what good booksellers are for: Travels with Epicurus – Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age (Oneworld, 2013) by Daniel Klein was recommended to me by Johan Hugo from the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch. Johan and I have been talking books for years now, so he knows what André or I might enjoy. With this enlightening read he was spot on for both of us. We literally devoured the little book. It is one of those that makes you feel good about the world and your place in it. And it was only written because of Klein’s initial fear of acquiring dentures… Inspiration is a curious thing indeed.

LullabyThis is also a book Johan introduced me to, knowing that I would be interested in another Polish-speaking author writing in English: Anna’s family emigrates in the 1980s before the changeover in Poland and settles in New York. Missing her roots and extended family, every summer Anna returns to Poland on her own and spends the holidays in her old neighbourhood where she befriends Justyna and Kamila. Together, they survive the ups and downs of puberty: jealousies, hang-ups about their developing bodies, the turbulences of first loves, budding sexualities and substance abuse. Some things go horribly wrong and one day Anna refuses to come back for another visit. Years later, another tragedy brings the three friends together again. Poland is undergoing its own transition while the young women face the new reality and try to pick up the pieces of their broken dreams. The Lullaby of Polish Girls (Quercus, 2013) by Dagmara Dominczyk is a fast-paced story of growing up in a migratory world.

MoonTigerI have a friend whom I see roughly once a year for coffee or lunch. Every our encounter inspires me and gives me food for thought for the next year. The last time we spoke, Penelope Lively came up and he recommended that I read Moon Tiger (André Deutsch, 1987). I have read some of Lively’s other novels and there was even a time when I contemplated writing a thesis on her work, but it was not meant to be. Moon Tiger, however, made me want to go back to her writing again. It is an intense, beautiful study of the nature of history with a grand love story at its centre.

TalesAnother local novel that made a huge impact on me this year: Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System (Umuzi, 2014). I was asked to review it for LitNet and decided to do some catch-up Coovadia reading in the process, which proved most entertaining. But this latest is, for me, Coovadia’s best up to date. We speak about ‘post-apartheid’ fiction all the time, but I sometimes wonder how many novels deserve the title in the sense that they have been truly written from that perspective. Tales of the Metric System is definitely one of them.

The DigAn absolute highlight of last year’s and this year’s reading is the discovery of the Welsh author, Cynan Jones. I subscribe to the New Welsh Review. I was reading an old issue of the magazine which included a review of Jones’s rewriting of a Welsh myth, Bird, Blood, Snow (Seren, 2012) and I was intrigued. I googled, as one does, and found that he’d written a novel with a central Polish character, Everything I Found on the Beach (Parthian, 2011). A Welsh author writing a Polish character was too much to resist, so I ordered the novel and Jones’s latest, The Dig (Granta, 2014). Last night, I started The Long Dry (Parthian, 2007) and am enthralled by it like by the other two titles. In the meantime, I have discovered that Jones has also published two other novels which might be tricky to get since they seem to be out of print, but I am patient and persistent, and eventually, I intend to write a longer piece about his work. Literary discoveries get seldom better than this. I am a fan for life.

Station ElevenEmily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Picador, 2014) was sent to me for reviewing. Also a writer to watch out for. The novel is speculative fiction at its finest and belongs with the Atwoods & Le Guins of the literary world. It is a genre which has always appealed to me and I hope to write in it myself one day. Station Eleven tells the story of a handful of survivors of a lethal flu which wipes out most of the human race. Disturbing and touching at the same time, it contemplates the big questions in life while telling a gripping story.

The Night WatchmanRichard Zimler has been a friend since we first corresponded about The Children’s Hours: Stories of Childhood. His work is an inspiration. I have been a fan for years. His latest novel, The Night Watchman (Corsair, 2014), is set in Portugal, but it tells a very familiar story of abuse, power, corruption and the sense of hopelessness we all face in this world when confronted with any of these evils. Zimler never goes for easy answers. His stories are nuanced, beautifully written (he is a master of dialogue) and always full of life’s wisdoms. It is an honour to know and to read him.

D&DTokoloshe SongTwo local friends, Alex Smith and her partner, Andrew Salomon, have published novels last year with Umuzi (again, gorgeous covers): Devilskein and Dearlove, Tokoloshe Song. Both are fantasy novels, very different though, but equally entertaining. Most days I am not a fantasy fan, but when it is done well, like these two heart-warming and enchanting books, even a non-believer’s heart melts. I loved the characters, their unusual universes filled with magic and wonder, and their stories which kept me spell-bound. I might convert after all!

Devil's HarvestAnd speaking of the devil, Andrew Brown’s Devil’s Harvest (Zebra Press, 2014) is not an easy read. Heart-wrenching and honest, it tells the story of a British botanist and a Sudanese woman who is a survivor of a genocide. The story of their journey through South Sudan is one of those that had to be written and has to be read. Brown did an excellent job at making sure that it is not forgotten. This was my first of his novels, and certainly not the last. Something to look forward to in 2015!

OctoberAn accidental encounter on twitter, of all places, revealed that I share a publisher with Réney Warrington. October (Protea Book House, 2013) is a subtle love story of how two damaged women struggle through emotional numbness to find a way back to life. The photographer Jo is shell-shocked by the divorce of her parents and her sister’s homophobia. When she meets the famous pop singer Leigh who has to overcome a serious illness and a troubled past, Jo does not expect to ever heal again. Despite serious doubts, they decide to give their relationship at least a fleeting chance…
Warrington is also a photographer and October includes a few startling images that poignantly illustrate the narrative.

This DayAnother twitter encounter resulted in my reading this meticulously crafted novel about a day in the life of a grieving woman. Having lived through the worst imaginable ordeal for a parent, Ella now has to take care of her husband who is suffering from severe depression. As each heart-breaking day dawns, she leaves massages in the sand for the sea to wash away. It is in the water that she also confronts her deepest hopes and worst fears. Poetic, full of insights, and simply beautiful, Tiah Beautement’s This Day (Modjaji Books, 2014) is an remarkable achievement.

Please let me know:
1) which books have made such an impact on you in the second half of 2014 that you wanted to share them with others?
2) which of the titles I’ve mentioned above you would be interested in reading yourself?
From your comments, I’ll draw one name at the beginning of February 2015 and send you the book you have chosen from the list of my favourite titles.
(Just to clarify, it seems this wasn’t clear: The winner will get a brand-new copy of the book they chose from my list.)

Review: Divided Lives – Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Divided LivesOn 26 November 2012, Time published this tiny obituary: “DIED Valerie Eliot, 86, who married TS Eliot in the last years of the great poet’s life; she edited an edition of his epic The Waste Land that included annotations by Ezra Pound.” Not even three dozen words to sum up the life of a woman who was infinitely more than just an editor of her famous husband’s most famous work. When they married towards the end of his life, “Eliot at last found himself ready for forgiveness. Horror, gloom, and penitence came to an end with his discovery of the unconditional love of a young woman,” writes Lyndall Gordon in TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life (1998).

In her biography of Eliot, Gordon retraces the poet’s insatiable search for perfection and his troubled relationships with the women who accompanied him on his quest: “His passion for immortality was so commanding that it allowed him to reject each of these women with a firmness that shattered their lives.” The exception was his second wife, Valerie, who despite being his junior by nearly four decades was the one who bestowed grace upon the final years of his life. Gordon’s biography emphasises the profound change Valerie’s love brought to Eliot in the light of all his previous precarious commitments.

In her biography Henry James: His Women and His Art (1998, revised edition 2012), Gordon sums up the distinguished writer’s ability to explore “the inward life: the unvoiced exchange and the drama of hidden motives … his skills, as well as a power, beyond that of any other man, to plumb the unknown potentialities of women”. James never openly acknowledged the influence such strong, independent women as the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson had on his writing life and his heroines, but it was immeasurable, as Gordon’s biography shows. While in Venice last year, I was reminded of a striking scene she describes in the book: Henry James helplessly trying to drown Fenimore’s black dresses in one of the lagoons a few weeks after her death. Like balloons the dresses kept surfacing…

Continue reading: Review of Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Published by Virago Press, 2014

Book mark: Divided Lives – Dreams of a Mother and Daughter by Lyndall Gordon

Divided Lives_book markDivided LivesWith their profound insight and stylistic elegance Lyndall Gordon’s biographies of such renowned authors as Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, or Emily Dickinson have been enriching the biographical genre for decades. She is also the author of one previous memoir, Shared Lives (1992), chronicling the fates of three women she grew up with. In Divided Lives, Gordon shines a light on another unique woman in her life, her mother, and their remarkable bond which shaped both their lives. From early on, Gordon was invited to be her mother’s confidant, to take part in her inner world of literary pursuits and hidden passions. More of a sister or a close friend than a daughter, Gordon witnessed her mother’s struggles with illness, lack of opportunities and recognition. All the while she continued the search for her own voice, trying to navigate the path through the wonders and challenges of childhood and womanhood.

Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter
by Lyndall Gordon
Virago, 2014

An edited version of this book mark was published in the Cape Times on 15 August 2014. My full-length review of this title is to follow soon.

Wednesday

When I get a little moneyEver since the summer of 1993, I’ve had this thing about Wednesdays. Special things used to happen to me on Wednesdays. But when I came to live in Cape Town, for a while Wednesday became my least-favourite day of the week. Fortunately, routines can change and miracles do happen. About two years ago, Wednesday reverted to being an ordinary day like any other. But yesterday, Wednesday hit again with the full force of all its magic and I was reminded of kisses, falling stars, the Baltic Sea, literary lectures, and the colour blue. Yes magic.

Most of my days centre on books, but yesterday brought with it an avalanche of bookish delights.

Beijing OperaRecently, I read a book which mentioned a dim sum restaurant in Cape Town with the glorious name Beijing Opera. I discovered my love of dim sum during a trip to China in 2008. It was soon afterwards that I met Alex Smith and read her wonderful account of travels in Asia, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well. She loves dim sum and tea as much as I do, so it was a no-brainer whom to invite to go with me on an exploration of Beijing Opera. We celebrated the recent publication of her latest YA novel, Devilskien & Dearlove, with some delicious gao, bao, and pu-erh tea.

I returned home already smiling to the fantastic news that one of my all-time favourite authors was longlisted for the Man Booker with a novel which I adore: Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

In the evening, on my way to Alex’s reading at Clarke’s Bookshop in Longstreet where Devilskien & Dearlove is set, I stopped at two of my other regular hunting grounds, the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch and the Book Lounge, to pick up three books that have been waiting for me. I am struggling to finish Stephen King’s The Shining (I was expecting more creepiness; as it is, the only thing that creeps up on me on nearly every page is the word ‘overindulgent’), but I do not want to give up on him just yet, so I ordered the one book apparently every beginning writer should read: On Writing. I believe in second chances, and staying away from creepy hotels.

Divided LivesThe other two books were Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform and Lyndall Gordon’s Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter. I have read all books written by Gordon. Her biographies of writers – Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Mary Wollstonecraft – are simply brilliant. I don’t know how I would have survived many periods of doubt in the last few years without these insightful, empathetic, passionate, beautifully written books on lives of writing. Divided Lives (what a cover!) is different, because it is a memoir. I’ve been following its reception in the UK and have a feeling that I am in for a magical treat.

I found out about Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform through the New York Times. I have been reading books about the internet for years in order to be able to participate more consciously in its evolution, i.e. to use it wisely instead of being stupidly abused by it. Not sure that I am succeeding, but in the words of Manuel (Fawlty Towers): “I learn, I learn!” Perhaps now that I have joined twitter I need the books more than ever, but so far, my experience with the service has been quite positive. I treat it like a radio station: I tune in and out when I feel like it. Occasionally, I tweet. I follow God and Jennifer Lopez, so I feel in safe hands. (I might even make it to Facebook one day – in the words of my compatriot Conrad: “The horror! The horror!”)

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke's

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke’s

So: There I was at Clarke’s Bookshop, still smiling from the dim sum lunch and the longlist announcement, with a handbag full of books I couldn’t wait to get into bed with, listening to Alex’s beautiful reading voice, surrounded by shelves and shelves of exquisite second-hand books, then chatting to friends and other book lovers about Stephen King and literary podcasts, when…DDDRUM RRROLL…I spotted a copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Face to Face (1949), the first book she ever published. And because my handbag was stuffed with only three books, and because after the shopping spree I was on the verge of being completely broke again (“When I get a little money…”), I bought it, of course.

I flew home on the wings of a booklover’s happiness and arrived to the news of winning a copy of Jane Austen by David Nokes in the Great Faber Finds Summer Reads Giveaway:

“We are about to shut up Finds Towers for the summer, pack a bag full of odd-sized vintage paperbacks and catch a plane to somewhere sunlit and contemplative. In case you haven’t got your own bag packed yet we can, perhaps, make it all a bit easier for you. We are giving away a copy of each of the following thirty (that’s 30) superior Faber Finds titles.”

What a way to end a Wednesday!

How did I find out about the giveaway?
On twitter.

I’m off with my own bag full of odd-sized books in search of a glass of sherry and a fireplace…

Happy reading everyone!
And have a great Thursday. (It’s Set Menu Dinner Club time at Beijing Opera tonight.)

Book mark: DF Malan and the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism by Lindie Koorts

MalanFor somebody acquainted with only a broad outline of South Africa’s turbulent past, this blow by blow account of DF Malan’s life, told against the background of the crystallisation of Afrikaner nationalism and its most lethal exponent apartheid, was a real eye-opener. Deeply religious and driven by a strong sense of duty towards his people, Malan was prepared to make great sacrifices to achieve what he believed in: a South African republic where the Afrikaans-speaking community leads economically and culturally viable lives. He navigated the minefields of the country’s volatile political landscape in the first half of the twentieth century with determination that nearly obscures the warped racial ideology which drove him. Although this is Koorts’ first biography, she weaves the individual life story into the larger socio-political context with meticulous skill. At times her narrative reads like a political thriller where the villain is indistinguishable from a hero.

An edited version of this book mark was first published in the Cape Times today, 13 May 2014, p. 32.

DF Malan and the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism
by Lindie Koorts
Tafelberg, 2014

Review: Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer coverThe publication of every new book by Damon Galgut is a literary event par excellence. Two of his latest three novels were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. He is the recipient of many other accolades, including the local CNA Prize for The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book from the Africa Region for The Good Doctor (2003). Galgut’s beautifully supple prose, his mastery of narrative forms, and his feel for characterisation always offer a rewarding literary experience. Arctic Summer is no different.

Like Galgut’s last novel, In a Strange Room (2010), Arctic Summer is partly set in India. Galgut’s descriptions of the places his astutely drawn characters traverse are as always a feast for all senses. In many other respects, however, it is a great departure from Galgut’s previous work. Evoking the early life of the British novelist E.M. Forster (1879-1970), Arctic Summer is a biographical novel, focused on its protagonist’s travels to India and Egypt as well as the relationships he shared with his mother and the few men who stirred his love and desire.

It is the time after Oscar Wilde’s trial and exercising caution in the display of one’s sexual longings is paramount to one’s survival. For most of the novel, Forster’s yearnings remain unfulfilled. The struggle to articulate what is one of the greatest taboos of his time and to put his desire into practice – whether in life or his work – takes centre stage in the novel.

Arctic Summer opens in 1912 with Forster on board a ship heading for India where he intends to visit Syed Ross Masood, a young Muslim man to whom he had been a tutor in England. The two men developed a deep, yet often unsatisfying, relationship, which is clouded by Forster’s love for Masood and his heterosexual friend’s inability to respond to his unwanted advances. The trip unfolds in unexpected ways. But it is Masood and the stay in his native country that eventually will inspire Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India (1924).

It is only in Egypt during the First World War when Forster volunteers to work for the Red Cross that at the age of thirty-seven he is seduced by a recuperating soldier. Then he meets and falls in love with Mohammed el-Adl, a tram conductor, who despite being also heterosexual and later happily married, allows Forster certain sexual liberties and appears to share his affections.

During Forster’s later sojourn in India he becomes embroiled in a relationship with Kanaya, a barber at the court of the Maharajah Bapu Sahib to whom Forster becomes Private Secretary. Devoid of feelings which he so desperately craves and blackmailed by Kanaya, Forster feels lonelier than ever.

Galgut brilliantly describes not only the precarious situation in which gays, or “minorities” in Forster’s terminology, found themselves at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also the pitfalls of power relations across race and class that accompany Forster’s ventures into the land of mostly unreciprocated love. The subtlety with which Galgut imagines the shifts in Forster’s psyche and the way his discoveries impact on his work, especially A Passage to India, the posthumously published Maurice and the unfinished Arctic Summer from which Galgut’s own title derives, is remarkable.

Even though with this novel Galgut enters the well-established field of fictional author biographies (locally, Michiel Heyns’s The Typewriter’s Tale or J.M. Coetzee’s Foe spring to mind), there is a great risk with imagining the lives of real people, especially well-known historical figures. Reading Arctic Summer, I often had the feeling that it is a novel where it should have been a biography and a biography where it should have been an autobiography. It is specifically Galgut’s dedication of his novel which echoes Forster’s original dedication of A Passage to India to Masood that makes one question the real inspiration and background of Arctic Summer. The parallel suggests that at least some of the emotional and psychological texture which Galgut ascribes to Forster’s and Masood’s relationship in Arctic Summer might have an autobiographical source.

Judging from the acknowledgements, Galgut’s research into E.M. Forster’s life must have been extensive. But like most readers, I’m neither a Galgut nor a Forster scholar, so it is impossible for me to judge where and to what extent the lines between Forster’s life and Galgut’s imagination and own experiences blur. Even more difficult is to define why such “untidy borders”, in the words of critic Ellen Rees, trigger occasional twinges of unease when reading the novel.

And yet, there is no doubt that this meticulously crafted book is a tribute to an intriguing man and his work. A deeply felt, melancholic novel which charts the subliminal links between creativity and desire and brings to life a fascinating literary figure, it is another bright feather in Galgut’s literary cap.

Review first published in the Cape Times on 28 March 2014, p. 32.