Tag Archives: Damon Galgut

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

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Interview: Ivan Vladislavić and 101 Detectives

101 DetectivesThe FollyMy first encounter with Ivan Vladislavić’s writing took place in a multidimensional construct of language and fantasy that is his remarkable novel The Folly (1993). It must have been around a decade ago when I moved to South Africa. Since then I have always returned to his books with a great sense of anticipation which has never been disappointed. His latest collection of stories, 101 Detectives, is no different, although it baffled me in the beginning. The first three pieces made me think a lot about the intellectual playfulness of The Folly. Some of the stories are set in recognisable and yet shifted or alternative realities which are quite uncanny. In a recent e-interview I asked Vladislavić whether this was his way of avoiding the cliché trap, of challenging the impression of one of his characters that “no matter what I do or say, or how I remember it or tell it, it will never be interesting enough” (“Exit Strategy”)? He hadn’t gone about it “deliberately”, he wrote, and mentioned that in his youth he read “a lot of sci-fi and was taken with writers like Ray Bradbury, who could twist the ordinary into the alien very skilfully through a kind of estranging lyricism”. Of his own early work he says that “the strangeness is more a product of language and imagery than of constructed setting.” More recently he had read speculative fiction again, “which may account for the atmosphere of a story like ‘Report on a Convention’. Many ordinary contemporary spaces are strange. One grows accustomed to it, but the precincts and lifestyle estates often have a weirdly layered, compelling artificiality to them. They’re at such an odd angle to the surrounding world that ‘shifting’ them would make them feel less rather than more peculiar.”

Reading and listening to Vladislavić, the key word I associate with his work is “intellectual”, especially in conjunction with “stimulation”, and it is the main reason why I read him. He challenges me, inspires me to question reality and literature, to perceive both more consciously and often with deeper appreciation. I delight in the engagement. When I think Vladislavić, I also think art, photography, beauty, language, and, perhaps above all, Johannesburg. Few have written as perceptively about Johannesburg as he, “mapping and mythologising” the city (in the words of Elleke Boehmer). Few can employ language to capture not only the beauty of experience, but the beauty of language itself to such stunning effect. Few have entered collaborations with artists of different media, as victoriously enhancing the disciplines in the process. In 2010, together with the South African photographer David Goldblatt, Vladislavić published TJ & Double Negative, a novel with photographs. More recently he worked with Sunandini Banerjee on an illustrated novella titled A Labour of Moles (2012), and 101 Detectives also includes a “Special Feature”: a gallery of photocopies of dead letters, ie letters never delivered to their intended recipients because of address errors and suchlike, referred to in the story “Dead Letters”. There are also images of the places they were supposed to have reached, taken from an exhibition in Poland dedicated to them.

What appeals to Vladislavić in this kind of exchange? I wondered…

Continue reading: LitNet

Book mark: Aerodrome Journal Issue 01 / 2014

Aerodrome coverFor the past fifteen months the digital version of Aerodrome has been an exciting platform for all things literary. Immensely pleasing to the eye, it publishes fiction, poetry, reviews and a particular favourite of mine: author interviews. Freshly launched, the first paper issue of Aerodrome is an aesthetic gem and opens with several interviews with writers and artists such as Isobel Dixon, Zapiro, Mary Watson, Anton Kannemeyer, Conrad Botes and Zoë Wicomb. It also offers the best of the first year’s digital content and includes a few specials which will appear online later. A personal highlight is one of the exclusive features: an inspiring interview with Damon Galgut in which he states that you can recognise a real writer by the way they approach language. In this respect, Megan Ross’s short story “The Accidental Colour” and Jane McArthur’s poem “The Girl from Witwatersrand” delight.

First published in the Cape Times on 31 October 2014.

The Image of a Pie: Reflections on Open Book 2014

Niq Mhlongo, Chris Beukes, Malaika wa Azania and Natalie Denton
I cried twice. No matter how much I tried to control myself, the tears kept coming and I was grateful for the pack of tissues I had in my handbag. I should have started shedding tears at the beginning of the event, when the woman who is our national treasure, Sindiwe Magona, noticed that we were only a few people in the audience while the whole of South Africa should have been attending. But it was only when Sixolile Mbalo, the soft-spoken, beautiful author of Dear Bullet, Or A Letter to My Shooter (2014), pointed to herself with her most articulate hands and used the possessive pronoun “my” to refer to the man who raped, shot, and left her for dead, that the dam of anguish broke inside me. In my own personal reality I speak of “my friend”, “my brother”, “my husband”. To have to survive a reality where a rapist is internalised into “my rapist” is nearly unbearable to think of, and yet, as Ekow Duker, the third panellist of the Open Book Festival event presented by Rape Crisis, mentioned, “We get more upset when our soccer team loses than when a woman is raped.” That is the reality Mbalo lives, and courageously survives, every single day of her life. All of us should take note and salute her. Any moment, her fate could become that of “our friend”, “our sister”, or “our wife”.

“Women are ghost heroes in our struggle.” – Niq Mhlongo

This year’s Open Book unfolded over five days from 17 to 21 September in Cape Town. It was filled with insight and inspiration. Apart from the moment described above, laughter dominated. The second time I shed tears, they were also an expression of joy. Speaking about her touching Good Morning, Mr Mandela (2014), Zelda la Grange told Marianne Thamm that Madiba destroyed all her defences just by holding her hand when they met. La Grange’s life bears testimony to one of Thamm’s remarks: “Mandela made us better people; that’s what good leaders do.” The conversation between these two powerhouse women was undoubtedly a highlight of the festival. Judging by the faces and comments of people present at the event, most felt its magic.

“Let it all come out and let us talk about it.” – Mandla Langa

Sixolile Mbalo’s and Zelda la Grange’s life stories capture the immense span of the spectrum of South African everyday experience. And it is essential for our humanity to pay as much attention to the one story as to the other, even though it is in our nature to gravitate towards happiness and success.

“Memory is always a fiction we tell ourselves.” – Rachel Zadok

Continue reading: LitNet.

Jonny Steinberg, Mervyn Sloman and Mark Gevisser
Niq Mhlongo, Geoff Dyer and Zukiswa Wanner
Raymon E Feist, Deon Meyer and Andrew Salomon
Zelda la Grange and Marianne Thamm

Open Book Festival 2014

Between 17 and 21 September the literary community in Cape Town will gather for the fourth Open Book Festival.
Open Book
In past years, apart from attending as a passionate reader, I have had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favourite authors at Open Book: Craig Higginson, Rachel Zadok, and Kgebetli Moele among them.

This year, I am in for another treat: I’ll be talking to Andrew Brown, Ekow Duker and Jonny Steinberg about the impact that the content of their books has on them (OFF THE PAGE, Friday 19 September, 4-5pm, Fugard Studio).

The day before, I’ll be chairing Open Book’s TRIBUTE TO NADINE GORDIMER with Imraan Coovadia, Billy Kahora and Margie Orford who will read from Nadine Gordimer’s work and share stories about her influence on their creative lives (Thursday, 18 September, 2-3pm, Fugard Theatre).

And last but not least, I’ll be the ‘little rat’ (=szczurek) next to two literary greats: Michiel Heyns and Damon Galgut. Our session – WRITING SEXUALITY – will be chaired by Karin Schimke (Wednesday, 17 September, 2-3pm, Fugard Studio).
Emma-van-der-Vliet-and-Patrick-DeWitt
For the full festival programme click here: Open Book 2014.
Imraan-Coovadia-and-Sarah-Lotz
Photographs: Open Book 2013.

So far so good: Best of 2014 book giveaway

Best of 2014_1
For me, one of the best tests for a good read is whether I find myself wanting to share it with others. The bookshops I visit will testify to the fact that I often return to the same title over and over again when searching for presents. I don’t know how many copies of the original versions and their translations into other languages I have bought in the last few years of, among others, Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf, or Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, or Alastair Bruce’s Wall of Days, or Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The authors of these books must have enjoyed at least a bottle of really nice wine or bought a book or two by other authors from the royalties my book-shopping sprees have generated for them. And it makes me happy to think that this might have been the case. Cheers!

The last six months have been particularly plentiful in good reads. I’ve been lucky. There is nothing worse than finishing a great book and encountering a dozen duds before discovering the next good one (especially if you are like me and finish most of the books you’ve started). But 2014 is turning out to be a really satisfying reading year. Of the books I’ve read until now there are twelve that I have either already bought for or at least wholeheartedly recommended to others.

The twelve titles in no particular order:

Ash WednesdayAsh Wednesday by Ethan Hawke (2002)
My dear friend Isabella and I have been fans of Ethan Hawke, the actor, since high school. I will never forget how we saw Great Expectations with him and Gwyneth Paltrow at a student cinema in Łódź – the screen was made out of three bed sheets and we sat on ordinary kitchen chairs in the audience… When we found out that Hawke was a novelist, too, I bought Isabella his debut novel as a present, and ever since then I have been meaning to read one of his books myself, but somehow never got around to it. But then earlier this year, I accidently saw Reality Bites again and thought of Isabella and decided to make up for lost time. Ash Wednesday was a real treat: Jimmy and Christy are in love, pregnant, and want to get married, but nothing is simple when you are young and life with all its choices looms large around the corner. On a road trip across America they confront their secret dreams and hidden fears, risking everything for what they believe in. Ash Wednesday is written in a crisp prose that carries you across the page like a good old Chevy Nova across an alluring landscape. It has turned me into a fan of Ethan Hawke, the novelist.

The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough (2013)
I was asked to write a short review of this book for the Cape Times. The book broke my heart because it resonated so much with my memories of my native Poland. It saddens me that the one characteristic that Russians and Poles are (in)famous for in the world is their heavy drinking. Alcoholism is a plague which has taken a heavy toll on both countries. I believe that things are changing in Poland, at least that is what my family and friends assure me of, but it will take at least a generation or two for the new ways of life to have real impact on society and to begin to heal the wounds. Bullough explores the historic trauma at the root of the pandemic with incisive insight. Anybody interested in understanding that part of the world will be wise to read The Last Man in Russia. It not only throws light on the past of the region but also its current situation.

A Sportful MaliceA Sportful Malice by Michiel Heyns (2014)
I brought this book back from the FLF. It is the funniest novel I have read in the last few years. I take books with me wherever I go and I found myself reading this one in a few public places where I got a lot of curious stares from strangers because I couldn’t stop laughing while reading. Every page brings a smile to one’s face, and some of the humour is truly and deliciously dark. A Sportful Malice takes the reader to Tuscany via London Stansted on a nightmare Ryanair flight which turns out to be the least worrisome aspect of Michael Marccuci’s trip. Micheal is a gay South African literary scholar. One of his many Facebook contacts offers him a house for rent in a small Tuscan village where Michael plans to finish the book he is currently working on. On his trip, Michael encounters the obnoxious Cedric, a clumsily inexperienced but not unwilling Wouter, his eccentric (to say the least!) landlord and his wife, and the irresistible Paolo. But nobody and nothing is as it seems. Full of himself, Michael is too blind to realise that he is not entirely in charge of his fate. The novel is told in a series of Michael’s letters to his lover back home. As always, Heyns’ prose is pure pleasure, and the humour of A Sportful Malice is sheer delight.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)
I had the honour of reviewing Galgut’s latest for the Cape Times. I read an advance proofs copy but have bought the strikingly pink hardcover edition for a young friend who is discovering and exploring his sexuality. A lot has changed in our society since the days of E.M. Foster, but despite our amazing constitution, there is still so much hatred and bigotry around that it makes one desperate. It is such a precious gift to find that other person who shares your dreams and longings. What sex or gender that person is shouldn’t concern anybody else but the people doing the searching and the finding.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner (2009)
While reading up on the touching and wise film The First Time, I accidently stumbled upon the trailer for The Maze Runner. It intrigued me and when I realised that it was based on a novel I decided to read the book before the movie came out later this year. It didn’t disappoint. Fast-paced, the novel itself is like a maze. You have no clue where you are going to end up turning the next corner. And the ending just makes you want to read more. I was relieved to discover it’s the first in a series. I’m a sucker for stories about friendship (one of those got me hooked on the writer whose book is next on my list here!) and I liked the portrayal of the dynamics between the characters in The Maze Runner. The thrilling action all around was a bonus.

Die DreiThe Three by Sarah Lotz (2014)
I’m supposed to review this novel so the proper review is pending. For now, I would just like to confess that I am a Stephen King virgin. I remember Isabella devouring King novels but I’ve never really felt that they were something for me. I have seen some of the films based on the novels, enjoyed Carrie and Misery very much, and my favourite TV series at the moment, Haven, is based on one of King’s short stories, “The Colorado Kid”, and yet I haven’t felt tempted to turn to the books. I did buy a King novel for my brother on his 30th birthday (the novel was published the same year as he was born). But still, no King for me. Until now that is. After reading Lotz’s The Three – brilliant, riveting – and seeing King’s endorsement on the back cover, I have decided to give the man a chance since he has shown some really good taste there. I bought The Shining yesterday. Incidentally, it was published in the month and year of my birth. And JohaN from Protea Bookshop informed me that the sequel is out. Fortunately, unlike other readers, I won’t have to wait 37 years for it!

Bare and BreakingBare & Breaking by Karin Schimke (2012)
Schimke’s collection also came back home with me from Franschhoek. I haven’t felt so excited about a volume of poetry since Tracey K. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars (2011). I read Smith’s collection a few weeks before the prize announcement (which made me jump up and down with joy) and was simply bowled over by the power and wisdom of her words. Schimke’s volume has similar qualities, but it exhibits an intimacy and eroticism that I haven’t encountered in contemporary poetry for a long time. She writes skin and desire, allowing the reader to get lost in both. In simple images she captures the miracles of a couple’s everyday life, how those little wonders remain hidden from others but never cease to amaze those who experience them. The violence of desire explodes on the page and splits you open. Bare & Breaking echoes those moments when you face the inevitable, when loss threatens your sanity, when you can’t help longing for all the wrong reasons. And when you get to the last poem in the volume you will be struck by the quiet after the storm. Poetry can be so satisfying!

And speaking about ‘quiet’, next on the list is:

Quiet by Susan Cain (2012)
The book made me properly understand something about myself that I have always known only intuitively. It probably is such a bestseller because it resonates with a lot of people. Life has become somehow simpler for me since reading Quiet. It helped me crystallise certain ideas on how to stay in tune with my inner qualities. In the words of Ruben, the protagonist of André’s The Rights of Desire, “I don’t like shouting.”

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (2014)
Hustvedt is one of only a handful of writers who have never disappointed me. A friend introduced me to her work and I have read every single title she has published. Every time I open one of them, I know I will be challenged, enriched and entertained. I bought a copy of The Blazing World for a friend even before I read my own, because I knew that one couldn’t go wrong with a novel by Hustvedt. I am waiting for the translations into German and Polish so that I can share the book with friends and family abroad. I reviewed The Blazing World for the Cape Times.

Road of ExcessThe Road of Excess by Ingrid Winterbach (2014)
Translated from Afrikaans, The Road of Excess was a wonderful companion read to The Blazing World. They are both set in the art world and deal with the insecurities of creativity and fame. Aaron Adendorff is a renowned painter recovering from cancer. After more than two decades of prosperous collaboration, it seems that the owner of the gallery where Aaron usually exhibits is threatening to drop him. Inexplicably though, he sends two new darlings of the art world Aaron’s way and asks him to assist them. All this time, Aaron is getting the weirdest messages from his brother, a recovering alcoholic, intent on confronting some uncomfortable truths about their family past. To make matters even more disturbing, Aaron’s home is invaded by the unforgettable Bubbles Bothma, a neighbour from hell, who is threatening to save Aaron from all his demons, if she doesn’t accidently get him killed first. A profound and funny read which lingers in one’s mind long after the last page is turned. I have now read all of Winterbach’s novels available in English and am hoping that my Afrikaans will be good enough one day to enjoy the ones which remain untranslated. Her work is extremely versatile, engaging, and her supple prose shines through even in translation.

Breyten Breytenbach, A Monologue in Two Voices by Sandra Saayman (2014)
My short review of this title is being processed for publication, but I can say here that this book simply as an object offers the reader a gratifying aesthetic experience. It is beautifully and carefully produced, includes a variety of reproductions of Breytenbach’s artworks, and encourages the reader/viewer to perceive them in context.

Bloody LiesBloody Lies: Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case by Thomas and Calvin Mollett (2014)
My review of this bold book should be published in the near future, so I won’t repeat myself here. I can just urge anybody interested in the history of the case to read Bloody Lies and to look at the Molletts’ website: Truth 4 Inge. If you are following the Oscar Pistorius trail, this book might also be for you. Bloody Lies is a highly informative, page-turning read.

I would like to invite other readers here to tell me which books have made such an impact on you in the first half of this year that you wanted to share them with others. At the same time, please let me know 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 end of July 2014 and send you the book you have chosen from my list of twelve titles. I will include my own Invisible Others in the parcel.

Happy reading & sharing everyone!

Four stories from Touch longlisted for TWENTY IN 20

TouchI am delighted to announce that the following four short stories from Touch: Stories of Contact by South African Writers have been included on the 50-titles strong longlist for the TWENTY IN 20 project which aims to publish an anthology of the best twenty South African short stories written in English during the past two decades of democracy:

“File Under: Touch (Avoidance of, Writers); Love (Avoidance of, Writers). (1000 words)” by Imraan Coovadia
“Threesome” by Emma van der Vliet
“Salt” by Susan Mann
“The Crossing” by Damon Galgut

Other Touch authors are also on the list, but with different stories:

Byron Loker with “New Swell” from his debut collection by the same title (2006)
Ivan Vladislavić with “The WHITES ONLY Bench” from Propaganda by Monuments and Other Stories (1996) and “The Loss Library” from The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories (2011)
Zoë Wicomb with “Disgrace” from The One That Got Away (2008)
Mary Watson with “Jungfrau” from Moss (2004)
Henrietta Rose-Innes with “Homing” from the collection by the same title (2010) and “Poison” from African Pens: New Writing from Southern Africa (2007)
Alistair Morgan with “Icebergs” from The Paris Review (2007)
Liesl Jobson with “You Pay for the View – Twenty Tips for Super Pics” from Ride the Tortoise (2013)
Nadine Gordimer with “Loot” from the collection Loot and Other Stories (2003)

About Touch: Stories of Contact (2009):

For this unique and impressive anthology, some of South Africa’s top storytellers were invited to interpret the theme of touch. The result is a scintillating collection of twenty-two stories about all kinds of human interaction. There are tales of love lost, and of discovering intimacy. Some describe encounters with strangers, others examine family relationships. Most deal touch in a physical sense; one or two explore the idea of ‘keeping in touch’.
Touch: Stories of Contact brings us work from such established luminaries as André Brink, Nadine Gordimer, Damon Galgut and Ivan Vladislavić, and exciting new voices such as Alistair Morgan and Julia Smuts Louw. Whether poignant or humorous, fictional or autobiographical, these innovative tales remind us of the preciousness of touch and are a testimony to the creative talents of South Africa’s writers.
All the authors have agreed to donate their royalties to the Treatment Action Campaign. Every copy sold therefore contributes to the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Touch Contributors: Emma van der Vliet, Michiel Heyns, Elleke Boehmer, Susan Mann, Willemien Brümmer, Julia Louw, Anne Landsman, Byron Loker, Maureen Isaacson, Ivan Vladislavić, Zoë Wicomb, Imraan Coovadia, Jonny Steinberg, Mary Watson, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Alex Smith, André Brink, Damon Galgut, Alistair Morgan, Liesl Jobson, Nadine Gordimer, Lauren Beukes.

(From the short stories I know, I am also thrilled to see “Where Will He Leave His Shoes” by Karen Jayes, “The Pigeon Fancier” by Sarah Lotz, “Porcupine” by Jane Bennett, “A Visit to Dr Mamba” by Andrew Salomon, among others, on the list – these are the kind of stories you will never forgot after reading.)

Fresh from Franschhoek: FLF 2014

Nadia and I at the FLF, photo by Jennifer Platt

Nadia and I at the FLF, photo by Jennifer Platt

Another FLF has come and gone. It was my first one as a participating author. My event with Nadia Davids was a real joy. Nadia is wonderfully articulate, kind, a pleasure to talk to, and more beautiful in real life than in any photograph. We discovered that on top of everything else we have in common, she left South Africa the year I first arrived here. We seem to be leading these uncanny parallel lives. I hope there will be many more points of contact. We read from our novels, spoke about writing place and history, being first-time novelists, the genres we write in, and our lives as writers and critics.
With Nadia
(Jennifer Platt from the Sunday Times twitted live from our event.)

The guest of honour at the FLF this year displayed her eloquence with light, shade and colour, bathing Franschhoek in its autumn glory. This is my favourite time of the year, and the beauty of autumn days like these past two fills me with a sense of wonder like nothing else. (There was this one autumn day in 1990 when my mother was hanging up laundry in our garden in Church Street in Warwick, NY, and I was just there, watching her, surrounded by the reds and browns and yellows of dying leaves, basking in the early morning light, the sun on my back, and silence between us when I thought, This is where love comes from, from the beauty of this world, it is nourished and sustained by it. Despite its craziness, the weekend reminded me of that day.)

André with Breyten Breytenbach at the FLF

André with Breyten Breytenbach at the FLF

Franschhoek had all its other treats ready for us. Books and book lovers everywhere. The programme offered tons of stimulating encounters. The food and the wines were divine, as always. Gable Manor, the guest house we stayed in, was charming and cosy. In the words of Kgebetli Moele, the author of Untitled, who left a comment in the guest book the day before us: “Perfection!”
All that was missing was the time and space to enjoy it all, but festivals are by nature hectic creatures, especially if one is participating, leaving you dazed and exhausted for days afterwards. There is something about a festival that often puts me on edge. It’s not the participating on stage or being part of an audience, but rather the in-between of awkwardness when these boundaries are blurred.

I attended four sessions and a show during the weekend. The highlight was the show: Pieter Dirk-Uys’s AND THEN THERE WAS MADIBA! I have heard him speak at FLF and other events before, seen him numerous times on TV, and have cooked with Evita for years now, but I had never attended one of his live performances. Now I know that by not making it to one earlier, for years I have been depriving myself of laughter and insight. I will not be so stupid in the future. Dirk-Uys as Madiba or Zuma or Verwoerd was a sight to behold. He was priceless as Winnie. And underneath all the laughter and fun was a profound message of hope and being all together in this beautiful mess we call the New South Africa. There is always hope for a nation capable of laughing at its follies.

The sessions I attended were truly inspiring, worth every cent:

WHO GETS TO DECIDE WHAT’S LITERATURE
Jenny Crwys-Williams talking to Karin Schimke, Lauren Beukes and Imraan Coovadia about the interactions between authors, critics and readers. I found the following comments interesting:

Lauren said that nowadays authors have to be more social and put themselves out there. As Jenny pointed out, Lauren is highly successful in exploiting social media for book-promotion and is one of the few young South African writers who can write full-time because of commercial success. Lauren said that as a social person she counts herself lucky to be able to engage in the world of social media and enjoy it. She also said that she was fortunate in finding an agent who understood her vision. Lauren helps to promote other local writers by hosting The Spark on her blog. When she started with it, the idea was to have a white and a black writer alternatingly, which has proven impossible. It seems that black writers were not responding as readily to her requests as white writers (I had a similar experience when compiling Touch: Stories of Contact for which I was subsequently criticised, but I did approach many more black writers than ended up in the anthology; for various reasons some chose not to participate in the project; both Lauren and Imraan donated their fantastic stories for which I am still very grateful). She also praised her South African editor, Helen Moffett, who allows her to perform all kinds of acrobatic stunts in the air because she knows who is on the ground waiting to catch her if anything goes wrong. (As part of the trio Helena S. Paige behind the Girl series, Helen is not only a successful novelist, but also a sensual poet and a nurturer of South African literary talent.)

FLF books1Karin conceded that as a journalist she understands that she should be participating in the world of social media, but admitted to finding it exhausting. She made a wonderfully vivid comparison between twitter and being at a crowded cocktail party where all one longs for is a breath of fresh air, but getting to the door proves to be nearly impossible. (I cannot say how grateful I was for that image – I am too frightened to even enter that room – I am the one outside in a quiet corner, sipping the champagne, and reading a book). Karin did not get out of her way to market her book of poetry Bare & Breaking when it was published in 2012. Like most writers, she would love to be able to write in her chosen genre fulltime, but has to make a living otherwise. She has no illusions about being able to live off writing poetry in South Africa, but that is not what it is all about for her. As a writer, one has to understand one’s motives for writing, she said.

Imraan spoke about the difficulty of talking about the reading experience which is deeply personal and not always easily shareable. I loved his comment about the fact that a change in taste is proof of a “living mind”. He also mentioned that for him there are different ways of being a writer in the world. He referred to Damon Galgut who is shy and simply gets on with his writing without unnecessarily putting himself out there. He also said something very interesting: Why spend so much time on publicity if the reason you write is to get rich? Instead, one could invest the time in becoming a billionaire by other, more straightforward ways. For him, writing is about the “book and you”.

(After the session I bought a copy of Karin’s Bare & Breaking. Some time ago, I published a review of four Modjaji poetry titles, three of which I found outstanding, one less so. The positive comments I made about the three books went largely unnoticed. For my comments about the fourth one I got lynched. The heated reaction of the publisher and friends of the author to my negative remarks about the fourth volume sadly put me off further Modjaji titles. This is how I missed out on Karin’s book until now. But some of her comments about the volume and her own approach to writing made me curious enough to ignore my decision to keep away from Modjaji titles. On Saturday evening, I read some of Karin’s poems in the luxurious bath of our room with a view at Gable Manor and the moment I got out, I made my husband read them. We were both bowled over by her “sound-shades”. I look forward to discovering the rest of the volume.)

Here is one gem:

“Morning Work” by Karin Schimke

We are cocked and angled
together like an African chair,
groin-hinged and eye-locked,
small-talking the sun up.
At the join we are genderless
until – out of two flat triangles –
something flowers at us,
blooms bright as though
our eyes are suns
and it must find light.
We give it light, and we laugh,
and then bury it, lids shut,
so it can seed again.

THE CONSIDERED CANON
Imraan Coovadia spoke to Nadia Davids and Michiel Heyns about the Western and the South African literary canons. All three are novelists, reviewers and academics.

FLF books 2Nadia said something very moving about academics having the “privilege of learning to read deeply”. She sees the text as a social document that operates in the world, not only as something read for pleasure. During our talk the day before, I asked her whether her own novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was an attempt to write a people into history who had been underrepresented until recently, and she said yes, admitting that it was done with the full awareness of the pitfall of representation. That was her reason for including minute details of everyday Muslim family life in her story of specific historical moments (time round forced removals from District Six, the state of emergency in1986 and the year 1993, just before the first democratic elections). Michiel mentioned that while reading Nadia’s novel he was aware of her having read Jane Austen. What a compliment for any writer!

Nadia, Imraan and Michiel at the FLF

Nadia, Imraan and Michiel at the FLF

Imraan, who is an excellent book reviewer with the kind of gutsy eloquence which I lack, quoted from the curious Wikipedia entry about South African literature which made most of the audience shudder. Hope was expressed that people engaged in writing these entries will amend it to reflect less biased views. Imraan asked the panellists to name their own personal South African canons. The Story of an African Farm was there for both Nadia and Michiel. Michiel mentioned Bosman, Paton, J.M. Coetzee (Age of Iron and Disgrace); Nadia added Woza Albert!, The Island, Gordimer and Brink. Outside of South Africa, Nadia made a special mention of Anna Karenina, and Michiel of Middlemarch. Harold Bloom’s conservative take on the Western canon was discussed. Imraan found that according to Google the most mentioned South African books are Long Walk to Freedom, Cry, the Beloved Country, Country of My Skull, Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying, Spud, The Smell of Apples, The Power of One, and Master Harold and the Boys. He added Burger’s Daughter to the list himself, because “it should have been there.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Michiel Heyns is one of my favourite local book reviewers. (For five years, I’d had the honour of reviewing books alongside Imraan and Michiel for the Sunday Independent under the editorial guidance of Maureen Isaacson.) I always say that when I grow up I want to write reviews like his. I also had the privilege of working with him on Encounters with André Brink. Michiel is one of the few South African authors who see the entire world as their fictional playground, daring to write about topics other than local. I applaud him for that! Exciting news is that Michiel’s latest novel, A Sportful Malice, has been published last week. Talking about the Western canon, or any canon for that matter: the title derives from Shakespeare. Definitely something to look forward to! During the discussion, Michiel mentioned merit in relation to Nadia’s reference to the text as a social document. He spoke about literature and the canon as a “moral guide”, of showing you “how to live your life”. A test for any text is whether you are prepared to reread it, he said. I also think of it in terms of whether you want to share it with other people. The moment I find myself buying the same title over and over again for my friends, I know I have encountered a good book.

AFRICAN PASTORAL
DominiqueHarry Garuba talking to Dominique Botha, Claire Robertson, and André Brink about their latest novels, False River, The Spiral House, and Philida, respectively.

Claire and Dominique are first-time novelists. Like André, Dominique writes in both languages, Afrikaans and English. She recommended to everyone in the audience to write in Afrikaans if they could, as she was thrilled with the kind of enthusiasm and reception she encountered on the Afrikaans literary scene. Her novel is based on her family story and she has kept the names of her family members in the book: “It’s my take on something that may or may not have happened,” she said. She is of the opinion that “it is much better to write truth and call it fiction than to write fiction and call it truth”. (During questions from the audience, I asked about her decision to keep the real names for a fictionalised story. She said the names were beautiful and that changing them would not have removed the problematic aspect of the situation. The people involved would still know that they are being written about, only the larger public not. I’m not entirely convinced. In cases like this, I always try to imagine what it would be like for me: I would feel uncomfortable about my own brother writing a fictionalised version of me and using my name for it in a novel. It simply would feel that it wasn’t me. Why my name then? If he was writing a memoir or biography, and attempting to reconstruct memories in the process without intentionally fictionalising them, I would have no issue with him telling anything about the family past we share and using my name. In a novel based on fact, on the other hand, I feel that a name change signifies that fiction is part of the parcel, that the people are no longer the ones you knew in real life but partly imagined characters who might reflect on real people but are their own creatures. This is particularly true for me when one writes about people who are still alive and who owe their own versions of a story. I don’t want to pretend to have final answers to this complicated process, not even for my own work, but I think it is an aspect of writing that should be treated with utmost care.)

Claire, who had the rare experience in South Africa of having her book go beyond the first impression within a very short period of time, spoke about the idea of a farm novel which not only connects us to the land but to something much larger. After she’d finished her novel, it revealed to her that what she had been writing about is the “urge to perform acts of rescue”. While writing, whether as a novelist or a journalist, she looks for “tragic flaws”, not “wickedness”, in people, whether it is in the men of the Enlightenment or the architects of apartheid.

Tellingly, I forgot to note who during the discussion said that memory is a “very personal and unreliable thing”.

Victor and André

Victor and André

For André, whose novel Philida was born on and delves into the history of the nearby wine farm Solms-Delta, the act of writing begins when fact ends and imagination takes over. Through writing the story of Philida, he felt “enmeshed in my own life”. Philida could voice things which were difficult to communicate otherwise.
In the fourth event I attended (LITERARY DOYEN) Victor Dlamini, an insightful and patient interviewer (and one of my favourite photographers), spoke to André about his career, belonging, and Philida.

A note of thank you: Thank you Liz for all your kind words about my novel (you made my day!). Thank you to all for a weekend of literary delights!

Books sold (that I know of): 1 (thank you Nols – very kind of you! I hope you will enjoy it)
Books bought: 3
(I’m clearly not in it for the money.)

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.