Tag Archives: interview

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

Literary Couples: Alex Smith and Andrew Salomon

This is the first in a series of posts I would like to devote to Literary Couples. Think Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, or Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster.

I would like to begin, however, locally and very much in the present with two dear friends: Alex Smith and Andrew Salomon.

Alex, Andrew and their son Elias

Alex, Andrew and their son Elias


Photo: RHS

Alex Smith is the author of Algeria’s Way, Four Drunk Beauties, Agency Blue and Drinking from the Dragon’s Well. Her writing has been short-listed for the SA Pen Literary Award and the Cain Prize for African writing, and has won a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and a Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award. She lives in Cape Town with her partner, their book-loving baby boy and their dogs. Her latest novel is Devilskein & Dearlove.

Andrew Salomon is the author of a young adult novel, The Chrysalis, and his short stories have appeared in several journals and collections. He received a PEN/ Studzinski Literary Award for African Fiction in 2009 and was shortlisted for the 2011 Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. He lives in Cape Town, but his work as an archaeologist has taken him all over southern Africa and a few places beyond. Tokoloshe Song is his first novel for adults.

Alex and Andrew allowed me to ask them some questions:

Please describe your partner’s creative process.
Andrew: Alex gets an idea – whether it be a character or a situation, or something else – and she writes away. She has an amazing ability to get the words down, to just write thousands of words at a time. Just a few months after our son was born she had to write three novellas within one month, and she did.

Alex: I think we are both a bit secretive about new ideas – or maybe I just am! I often see Andrew typing up notes – fragments of things he has seen or words that have intrigued him – and I’ll come across files on our shared desktop (laptop that is) with extraordinary file names; I don’t open them, but when I inquire, it always turns out that the file is a page of these notes, which could for example be graffiti he has spotted on his way home in the train. So he hoards ideas, that’s probably the beginning of his ‘creative process’. Then he takes the plunge and starts writing a new novel or story. To be honest we have never discussed anything like our ‘creative processes’ so I have no idea what happens after that. I do know that he likes to get a first draft done in a focused period of time – so during that time he becomes quite single-minded about the task of writing; he’ll set himself a daily word target, that sort of thing. I also know that when it comes to editing, he is meticulous, far more so than I am – I always feel like a bit of a lazy slut in comparison to him when it comes to editing.

Are you each other’s first readers?
Andrew: Definitely, I know I can count on Alex to be truthful in her assessment, but also kind in the way she delivers it.

What is your favourite piece written by your partner?
Andrew: Alex’s latest novel, Devilskein and Dearlove is a wonderful read, and I am also a big fan of the book that came from her experiences living and working in China, Drinking from The Dragon’s Well – it’s a book that depicts her experiences very truthfully and that also paints an intriguing picture of a place caught in extremely rapid change, so rapid that now it could probably serve as an historical snapshot.

What is the best and worst aspect of sharing a life with another writer?
Alex: Well, I’m not really one to dwell on negatives, but if I must then probably the worst thing is that you have to be really thick-skinned as a writer because it entails all manner of disappointments – from awards you are shortlisted for but do not win to flat out rejections on various projects. So when you share a life with another writer, you experience those slings and arrows in duplicate – those aimed at yourself and those experienced by your partner. For me the best thing is just having somebody very close who loves books, loves stories, gets excited by possible plots and characters and even possible names, and who also really understands what this strange business of writing is like, both its wonders and its realities – small things like knowing what editing actually is (it’s interesting how many non-writers imagine that novels fall out of the heads of their authors in pristine condition and all ready for the typesetter).

Andrew: The best aspect is that you share your life with someone who understands the deep desire to write, to tell a story. So there’s never any explaining necessary about the need for time and space to do this, and we support each other in creating that time and place.
I’m not sure there really is a ‘worst’ aspect but Alex has an uncanny ability to misplace bookmarks, so she keeps borrowing mine, and I have a tendency to use bookmarks that usually have some kind of sentimental meaning to me, which I get to keep for only a short time until they get sent to the secret place of bookmark-no-return. Also, both of us being book-lovers, when we moved in together, our already-substantial book collections got combined into a giant collection and now we seriously need a room just for books, but there’s no chance of that in our postage stamp of a house!

D&DTokoloshe SongYou can win a copy of Alex’s and Andrew’s latest titles in my BOOK GIVEAWAY.

Book mark: The Night Watchman by Richard Zimler

The Night WatchmanChief Inspector Henrique Monroe of the Lisbon Police Department is brilliant at what he does, but gets help from a very unusual source. When a successful businessman is murdered under strange circumstances in his home, Monroe is called to investigate. The complex case awakens memories of Monroe’s distant past of growing up in Colorado with his younger brother Ernie, and threatens to unravel the fragile new reality the cop had been constructing around himself in Portugal ever since. His search for truth takes him to the country’s highest echelons of power. What he finds is horrifying, but tragically common. The Night Watchman portrays a troubled, corrupt society any South African reader will recognise. Tense, deeply felt, the novel asks a pivotal question: “Was it a paradox that truths left unspoken ended up taking away your voice?” The disquieting answers it provides are heart-breaking.

The Night Watchman
by Richard Zimler
Corsair, 2014

Book mark first published in the Cape Times on 12 December 2014.

In 2007, I reviewed one other novel by Richard Zimler:

The Seventh GateThe Seventh Gate
Constable, 2007

In 1990 the discovery of seven manuscripts of the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Berekiah Zarco sparked Richard Zimler’s internationally bestselling novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996). Following its success, Zimler, an American living in Portugal, published two other novels about the Portuguese-Jewish Zarco family: Hunting Midnight (2003) and Guardian of the Dawn (2005).

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon explores the fates of the Jewish community at the time of the Lisbon massacre of April 1506. Partly set in nineteenth-century Africa, Hunting Midnight is the story of a friendship between the Portuguese John Zarco Stewart and an African healer and freed slave named Midnight. Guardian of the Dawn takes us back to Goa at the time of the Catholic Inquisition in the seventeenth century.

The fourth novel in Zimler’s independent historical novels series is The Seventh Gate. Set in Berlin of the 1930s, it portrays Hitler’s brutal rise to power and the effects it had on the Jewish community and the disabled long before Second World War began. It subtly exposes how a whole nation could succumb to the madness of the Nazi regime; some willingly, others under extreme pressure. Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life, Zimler’s Berlin of the 1930s is a nightmarish place where loyalty between family members and friends as well as each individual’s sanity and heroism are tested to the limits.

In spite of its harrowing topic, The Seventh Gate is the kind of novel that makes you relax after the first twenty pages, knowing that there is another five hundred in store for you before the final curtain falls. Driven by superbly drawn characters, strong dialogues, and the unusual but beautifully touching love story at its centre, The Seventh Gate is a tribute to all the people who suffered similar fates at the hand of the Nazis as the characters in the novel.

The story is told by Sophie. In the Preface of the novel she is a fragile eighty-nine year old living in America and being taken care of by her nephew. After a spell in the hospital she decides to entrust him with her memories of the past when she was a teenage German girl in Berlin of the 30s and the world began to fall to pieces.

Sophie tells the story of Isaac Zarco, a descendant of the Kabbalist Berekiah Zarco, and the members of The Ring, now a clandestine group of Jewish activists trying to fight the Nazi regime. It is also the story of her brother Hansi, a distant child whom Sophie loves dearly and whose life is threatened by the Nazis. Misunderstood by her mother, betrayed by her father and Tonio, the boy she has a crush on, Sophie has to make some tough choices, trying to protect Hansi and her friends from the Nazi onslaught. The sudden wave of mysterious murders, disappearances and forced sterilizations makes her and Isaac realise that Berekiah Zarco’s worst fears might be about to come true, centuries after he wrote his manuscripts.

Artistically talented and mischievous, Sophie is a heroine one will not easily forget. Her passion for the cinema, her growing sense of righteousness, her awakening sexuality, and her selfless devotion to the people she loves sparkle with authenticity. The novel is interspersed with the poignant sketches she draws of her friends, adding to this overall effect.

Much has been written on Hitler’s Germany, but Zimler’s The Seventh Gate reveals a side of its inhumane machinery which has not been as prominent in the renderings of the time as it should have been, as the novel carefully examines how the horrors we associate with the time of the war already started happening in the early 30s with everyone watching almost in complete silence. Zimler probes the questions of how power is consolidated by intimidation and propagandistic lies, but also shows how small acts of courage and integrity can stand in its way. As Sophie comments on her younger self: “I’m still too young to know that people need only be frightened for their lives to swear that night is day. And that they can believe it’s really true.”

In an interview with Boyd Tonkin, Zimler stated that the relationship between the siblings Hansi and Sophie is his “monument” to the victims of the Nazi war on the disabled. The author expressed his wish that “every reader who reads the book with an open heart will be devastated by what happens to them both.” Because of the powerful storytelling of The Seventh Gate one cannot help but be.

Review first published in the Sunday Independent on 25 November 2007.

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

An edited Afrikaans version of this article appeared as “Die miesies hy skryf” in By on 26 November 2011.

The madam he write

At eighty-eight Nadine Gordimer is throwing some more logs in the fire. Karina Magdalena Szczurek spoke with her about “certain kinds of attention”.

‘Do you know this author?’ I ask a waitress, pointing at Nadine Gordimer’s name on the cover of a book I am reading.

She shakes her head.

I pay for my lunch and walk from the restaurant to Parktown West, Johannesburg. A jacaranda petal falls on my head as I approach the angular white house which Nadine Gordimer has called her home for the past fifty years.

The first time I arrived here in 2004, I’d felt sick with worry for a week beforehand, duly warned about Gordimer’s reputation as an interviewee who suffers no fools. And this was my first interview, ever.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

But when she realised that I wasn’t there to ask about her breakfast (the type of personal question she usually refuses to answer), she let down her guard. It was an invaluable experience.

My present visit is a déjà vu in this and other respects. I’m again first met by a staff member and inspected by an eager Weimaraner before being invited into the house. I walk through the kitchen, down a passage and past the narrow, light-filled study where Gordimer’s typewriter squats proudly on a small desk. She is waiting in the lounge. As I enter she folds a newspaper and puts her reading glasses aside.

It is the same room where we first met, but the furniture is arranged differently. She settles in an elegant rocking chair. I sit on a sofa opposite with a coffee table between us.

I have seen her look her age in badly taken photographs, but never in person. Today she looks radiant in a gracefully long white kaftan dress with a soft blue pattern. Her grey hair is stylishly arranged. Delicate earrings adorn her ears.

This time I am more at ease, but I still notice my hands trembling slightly as I set up the voice recorder. I can feel Gordimer’s lively brown eyes on me. A beauty at her age – she turned eighty-eight this month.

Few literary oeuvres can match Gordimer’s. Between the publication of her first story as a child in 1937 and today, the world has seen fourteen novels, ten short-story collections, and six volumes of essays. In 2010, her stories and essays were collected in two large tomes: Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 and Telling Times: Writing and Living 1950-2008.

When in the beginning of 2006 Ampie Coetzee spoke to Gordimer at a literary breakfast organised by Die Burger Book Club in Cape Town, she told him that her memory no longer allowed her to think in novel-terms.

The collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black was published a year later.

Now she’s finished writing another novel after all. I remind her of what she’d said at the breakfast.

She smiles. ‘I don’t know what was wrong with me then.’

Since 2001, when her husband Reinhold Cassirer died, all her books carry his life dates and the dates of their relationship on their front pages. The dedication moves me every time.

Throughout her writing life Gordimer has stuck to a strict routine, devoting the first part of the day to her work only: ‘I still feel in the morning when I get up now, I’ve got to be at my desk.’

André Brink recalls how many years ago, before he knew better, he tried to phone her before lunch. A staff member informed him that Gordimer was not available.

At André's 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

At André’s 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

‘The madam he write,’ he was told firmly, and he had to try again in the afternoon.

The statement is extremely telling, even if it was not intended as such.

Gordimer grew up into a position of privilege in apartheid South Africa. And yet, while many others went with the flow, she devoted her life to fighting injustice. Even though she is most uncomfortable about the designation, for decades she was considered the ‘voice’ and ‘conscience’ of South Africa in the world.

I first encountered her work at university. The story “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” (1991) pricked my interest in South African literature, and eventually brought me here for research, then for life.

It tells the story of an Afrikaner farmer on trial for shooting one of his farm workers. The racial and political circumstances condemn him, but the last line of the story overturns all our expectations: “The young black was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.”

Gordimer has often been accused of portraying Afrikaners unfairly in her work. Asked about it, she reminds me that when the time to protest came there was no prejudice. ‘We did it together!’

She is also quick to point out how Uys Krige was the first person who published anything of hers: ‘He encouraged me tremendously, gave me the most helpful criticism and was a very dear friend.’

She reads Afrikaans writers in translation, and regrets that she lost the Afrikaans she learned at school, or that she never learned any of the other indigenous African languages. ‘As I say, it’s terrible; I’m a very poor linguist.’

Gordimer’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, mostly considered too political or / and too challenging. But both judgements rest more on hearsay than an engagement with her actual work.

Occasional stylistic density prevents a more leisurely read, but allowed to sink in, her thought-provoking stories can be inspiring, revelatory, and life-changing.

Many see her 1994 novel None to Accompany Me as a purely political reflection of the transition period in South Africa’s recent history. Rereading it now, I am stunned by the accuracy with which she prophecies the dangers facing the fledgling democracy. But for me personally, the novel is one of the most profound portrayals of a woman’s journey to selfhood.

This again brings to mind the statement with which André Brink’s morning phone call was fended off, and another quality which has defined Gordimer’s career – her ambivalence towards feminism. ‘All writers are androgynous beings,’ she states repeatedly.

She caused an uproar when she withdrew The House Gun (1998) from the shortlist of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, reserved for women only.

‘I have been indeed and still am sometimes tackled, because I withdrew…and then I made this rather rude, I suppose,’ she reconsiders, ‘frank remark that we don’t write with our genitals.’

One of her stories, “A Journey”, was reprinted in the South African October edition of Playboy.

‘How do you feel about being published in the magazine?’

There is no issue for her. She does however make one crucial distinction. ‘I would hate to be published anywhere which was racist,’ she says. ‘I would refuse.’

Her parents were Jewish, but she is a self-declared atheist. She recently caused, in her own words, ‘great offence in America’ with her story “Second Coming” (2011) in which the son of God walks across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape. The possibility of life’s or humanity’s re-creation is rendered impossible, because as the last one-sentence paragraph tells us: “The sea is dead.”

‘What was the Americans’ problem with it?’ I’m curious.

‘Well, it’s not for me, sitting here in South Africa, this little unbeliever in any religion to say that Jesus is coming…using this as the ultimate example it should be, for people who revere Jesus and the idea of a second coming, that he should find the world destroyed. It’s a story about the environment.’

Gordimer’s Get a Life (2005) was probably the first green novel in South Africa. She is one of a handful of local writers who now consistently champion the environment in their work.

* * *

While she gets some tea, I glance around me. On three sides of the room shelves brim with books and CDs. A vase of strelitzias and a few sculptures of different origins catch my eye. A walking stick rests against the other side of the sofa. The room opens on a large patio and a magnificent garden in full bloom. The cushioned bay window looks like an ideal place for reading. It makes me think of something she’s just said:

‘I have recently reread Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and I have reread the whole of Marcel Proust and now I can read French sufficiently to read it in French. And there are so many others. When I look at my bookshelf, I say, my God I must read that again before I die.’

Bodo, the dog, appears at the same time as the tea tray. Marie biscuits are on offer.

‘How do you like your tea, weakish?’ she asks.

‘Strongish’

‘Oh good!’

Bodo is allowed one cookie while she pours the tea. As she lifts the heavy pot her fragile hands betray her age for the first time.

I cannot help but think of the three thieves who forced their way into her home in 2006 and brutally removed her wedding ring from her finger.

‘Did the attack have any lasting effects on you?’

‘You know, I hesitate to answer this because it sounds as if I’m saying that I am brave. I’m not… The only thing of consequence, practical consequence, is that I now have these wires around the house… But I’m not brave…I choose to go on living here…my reality is here.’

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

She has been accused of lacking courage to criticise the ANC. But following her late friend, the American intellectual Susan Sontag, Gordimer believes that ‘to be a moral human being, is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.’

Very often she is the first to pay attention and fight with any means available to her for the causes she believes in.

Recently, together with André Brink, she drew up a petition against the planned legislation curtailing freedom of speech in South Africa and introducing ‘apartheid-type censorship all over again.’ The petition was not only signed by just about every writer in the country, but also many international writers whom Gordimer approached at the time during a visit in Sweden.

‘Let’s keep [the protest] going. Throw another log in the fire!’ she says.

The presidency was not impressed.

‘President Zuma didn’t have the courtesy to send us, representing so many others, an acknowledgement.’

In a recent HARDtalk interview she told Stephen Sackur that real loyalty to the ANC means the right to criticize the party, of which she is a member. She spoke of the disappointment she felt about the values that were being betrayed by the ANC. I prod her for more particulars.

‘First of all the fact that power is used in a very personal way.’

She is also deeply disappointed about the government’s handling of education.

‘The schooling is so bad.’ She is shocked at the discrepancy in entry requirements for university students from different backgrounds.

‘We can’t keep our black comrades out of universities. My God, who would want to? But what is the point of them coming in if they can’t cope. It’s humiliating for them…’

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

On the way to O.R. Tambo I ask the shuttle driver whether he knows the author Nadine Gordimer. I also ask a few SAA attendants. No recognition.

While awaiting my flight, I pose the same question to the middle-aged gentleman next to me. He is the only person to respond positively to my question. Does it matter that he is white and at least two decades older than the other people I’ve approached?

I am confident most Poles would at least have heard the name of the Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska at school.

* * *

Still in Gordimer’s lounge, I dare ask a personal question.

‘What makes you really happy?’

A short silence; my heart stops.

‘André would say chocolate,’ I volunteer out of desperation.

‘Well, that’s an evasive answer… I’m also very fond of black chocolate, but of course that’s a taste happiness.’

Another pause.

‘I have been unbelievably lucky by having forty-eight years with the love of my life, and I have that to treasure. Sometimes it is painful to do so, but other times…it’s there, I had it.’

Interviewing Helen Moffett at the South African Book Fair

Girl-wallpaperThis Sunday I will be interviewing one part of the Helena S. Paige trio, Helen Moffett, on books, bars, and boys at the South African Book Fair.

A girl walks into a bar (and talks books):

Sunday
15 June
2pm

Cape Town International Convention Centre
Literary Forum 2