Tag Archives: Johannesburg

Review: Things Unseen by Pamela Power

things-unseen-by-pamela-powerFounded and headed by author Sarah McGregor, Clockwork Books is a new independent local publisher with a growing list of fascinating titles. Its latest release is Pamela Power’s second novel, Things Unseen, a psychological thriller set in the posh suburbs of Johannesburg. I first read it in manuscript form, and remember that I had to pause and take a deep breath after the shocking violence of the opening scene in which we witness the terrifying demise of a person and an animal. Let’s just say that the rest of the book is also not for sissies.

Not at first glance, but the following chapters are perhaps just as disturbing as the beginning. The novel attempts to describe the kind of violence which is nearly imperceptible to outsiders – emotional and psychological violence. We meet Emma and her husband Rick at their university reunion. Emma works for a local theatre company and she is friends with her boss Gay and her partner Sophie, a psychologist. Rick is an ambitious gynaecologist with a roving eye who treats Emma like a trophy, not a wife. She is aware of his numerous affairs, but turns a blind eye until she encounters Craig, her first big love, at the event. He is visiting from the UK where he’d settled many years ago. Faced with the question of what could have been, Emma begins to re-examine her life.

All is brought to an abrupt end the evening of the reunion when Emma, distressed about not being able to reach her mother nor their domestic worker Lizzie on their phones, abandons the alumni gathering and rushes back to discover her mother brutally murdered in their home, a mansion on a vast property meant for a large family with kids. Despite many attempts, Emma and Rick are childless. Their infertility is a source of great distress to Emma. The couple drifts further apart during the murder investigation and the tensions between them escalate upon the arrival of Ross, Emma’s troubled brother who lives in Australia. Emma is convinced that the main suspect in their mother’s murder – their gardener who is missing – could not be responsible for the gruesome deed although most clues point to the contrary. When her mother’s lawyer explains the unexpected wishes of the dead woman to her family, everyone is taken by surprise. And then Emma encounters a sickly sweet smell in their garden and the events of the night of the murder take on another evil twist.

Craig, a former policeman turned security expert, assists Emma in her search for truth. She refuses to look at the facts alone when her gut feeling tells her that they simply do not make sense. Craig trusts her intuition and applies his investigative skills to help her. Everything becomes even more complicated when they rediscovers their long-buried feelings for each other and begin falling in love again.

The main narrative is interspersed with a sequence of dark images from the past which gradually reveal the portrayal of the horrendous abuse of a child. It is clear that the child grew up to be one of the protagonists, an innocent victim turned ruthless perpetrator, but Power keeps the plot cards close to her chest and has the reader guessing who did what until the spectacular showdown at the very end.

Things Unseen is a fast-paced, haunting thriller which addresses our most intimate fears of invasions and violations in the context of present-day crime realities of the country, but also free of the socio-political context. What Emma and her family members experience could happen to anyone anywhere in the world. The challenges of the betrayals and losses she faces in her marriage will be known to many women, independent of race and class. The madness of grief and the inability to make sane choices when you are in its grips are part of the story. And Johannesburg, with all its social woes, is very much a character in the novel. Readers will recognise the everyday realities of the upper-middle-classes – the glamour and the horror of the rich and beautiful – but these form only part of the narrative drive, not a closer study of the underlying societal struggles.

Power is a scriptwriter and editor. Her dialogues are vivid, her characters are recognisable, and feel real. She has a wicked sense of humour which shines through despite the sombre themes. At the heart of her novel is a love story, a woman’s quest to reclaim and follow her dreams despite the horrific circumstances she finds herself in. Emma is surrounded by a tightly knit group of friends who help her to pull through and pursue her own path towards fulfilment. The characters grow on one as the story progresses and one can only hope for a sequel.

Things Unseen will appeal to readers who like to get lost in a good yarn. I can imagine that many will want to finish it in one sitting, so perhaps start reading when you have a nice pot of tea or a glass of wine ready on standby and know that, if you wish, you can disappear for a few hours into the world of Things Unseen.

Things Unseen

by Pamela Power

Clockwork Books, 2016

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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

1 July: Talking love and loss with Réney Warrington at Love Books, Johannesburg

invite vir love books
Next week at Love Books in Johannesburg, I will have the pleasure of talking to the author and photographer Réney Warrington whose debut novel October (also published in Afrikaans as Oktober) was one of my favourite reads of last year. At the moment, Réney is also exhibiting at the Circa Gallery in Johannesburg. From the few glimpses I have had of it online, I can’t wait to see the entire exhibition.
Apart from sharing a publisher (Protea Book House), being debut novelists, and writing about sexuality and the trials and tribulations of relationships, Renéy and I have something in common which has resulted in a meaningful exchange of letters and messages in recent months: grief. We have both lost Loved Ones at the beginning of the year and are trying to find our feet in a reality completely changed by the experience.

Writers’ Other Lives

Books in Mafra
“We pay our writers to write,” my Norwegian friend Kristin said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and enlightened me about the Statens Kunstnerstipend, a “grant and guaranteed income programme with the objective to give creative and performing artists the opportunity to actively pursue their artistic career and to aid younger artists in establishing themselves as artists.” The programme offers diverse short and long-term grants as well as one-off bursaries for travel, study or material expenses for artists based in Norway. I was mostly fascinated by the “guaranteed income” support scheme: established artists can apply for this to provide them with the financial stability necessary for having “artistic enterprise as their primary form of occupation.” And the crux is that the recipients retain the right to this financial stability (paid monthly) until they reach retirement age.
Norwegians seem to take a much-quoted imperative to heart: “If you think culture is expensive, try ignorance!” The objective of their support programmes is to ensure that individual artists are able to contribute “to a diverse and creative wealth of art” in Norwegian society.

Listening to Kristin and reading about Statens Kunstnerstipend, I thought of the many writers I know in South Africa who struggle to make a living while pursuing their creative careers. For most, the situation is not desperate, but almost all pay their bills by other means than their creativity. I decided to approach a few of them to discuss the dynamics involved in being a writer and having an ordinary day job. Their valuable comments were often surprising and opened up many engaging ways of thinking about this topic.

We tend to think of creative people rushing home after long hours of suffering in their dreary jobs to lock themselves up in that special room of their own and devoting the rest of their waking hours to the Muse. What transpired from my interviewees is that, on the contrary, even though it is sometimes difficult to juggle their paid and creative work, they actually enjoy their money earning jobs just as much as they do their creative ones. Only the degrees vary.

Red InkAngela Makholwa is the author of the urban thriller Red Ink (2007) and the fresh-off-the-press chick-lit adventure The Thirtieth Candle. When she was fifteen, she decided “quite firmly” that one day she would publish a novel with “an authentically South African story”. Today, she is not quite sure anymore what that means, but she is definitely somebody who knows what she wants and how to get there. She runs Britespark Communications, a successful public relations and events management agency in Johannesburg, and feels fortunate to be “doing something that allows her creativity to flourish”.

Siphiwo Mahala is in a similar position. As Deputy Director for Books and Publishing at the Department of Arts and Culture, he works in his field, which gives him great satisfaction. He has always been passionate about reading and went on to study literature at university, finishing with an MA in African Literature at Wits. When he began publishing short stories, the overwhelming joy of “seeing his creative writing in print” inspired him to pursue this avenue further. He received the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Award for his first novel, When a Man Cries (2007), an incisive portrayal of township life in South Africa. He says that his day job is “essentially the best one that any literary enthusiast could do in the public service”. It includes the promotion of the culture of reading and writing and developing a sustainable book industry that encourages equitable development of all local languages: “The job itself is not too far from my personal ambitions hence it is so fulfilling.” Only drawback: “When a job is a passion it means that when something goes wrong it doesn’t end in the office, you take it home and your family falls victim of a situation they didn’t cause.”

When a Man CriesInspired by their day jobs, Angela and Siphiwo find that they can well manage the two spheres in their lives, creativity and work. However, sacrifices have to be made, as Siphiwo notes, and one has to accord creativity the time and space it deserves. Only then can you also “expect your potential reader to skip their favourite soap opera, miss hot gossip, and let the pots burn while reading your book,” he says.
Would they give up their jobs to write fulltime if they could make a living out of it? An emphatic yes in both cases in spite of the aforesaid. For Angela writing is “an esoteric experience” and she “envies those who can afford to do it fulltime”. Siphiwo considers writing his “first love”, but he is too realistic about making money out of it: “For as long as the culture of reading remains as low as it is currently in the country, we are not likely to have more than 10% of our writers writing for a living.” He might not write for a living, but he insists he “lives for writing.” Financial support from the government for writers would be welcomed by both, although Angela feels that it could make her feel obliged to write “about issues of enormous political or social impact”, while Siphiwo believes that any such support could truly work only with “a national writers’ association firmly in place.”

In their considerations, both authors allude directly and indirectly to an aspect of state-sponsored support for artists about which Sven Eick, author of the socio-critical novel Apetown (2007), feels strongly: “I am firmly behind the notion that artists should challenge society rather than attempt to have society endorse their work.” He also believes “that the tax-paying public should have the right to choose whether or not they want to support writers, i.e. by buying their books, and that it’s not the government’s business to fund writers on their behalf.” Sven highlights the corruptive aspect of making money with creativity: “If writing novels were to become my only source of income, then inevitably I’d begin writing novels to make money, and that would represent a corruption of the creative process for me. I think a 50/50 balance would be about right.” By which he means that he’d also “always want to do something other than writing.”

ApetownSven was working on cruise lines when he realised that he was destined to become a writer. He wrote regular updates of his experiences which attracted “a small, but dedicated following.” He knew then that he should invest more “energy” into writing. Today, he earns his living as a copywriter for a network of sports websites: “I find many aspects of the sports I cover interesting. Sport is really about narratives, and despite being somewhat saturated by the amount of sport I cover I still find these narratives interesting and engaging.” He wants to continue with a similar but more creative line of work in the future: “I’m interested in the business aspect of the internet, how to keep content free and informative whilst still generating revenue using non-intrusive and targeted advertising. However, I’d obviously prefer to write more creative content than the grunt work that occupies a lot of my time.” And even though he would not accept financial help from the government as a writer, he wouldn’t mind making money out of books, so that he could continue to write at leisure. “I guess this is any writer’s dream,” he says. “I just don’t want to become a book-a-year Wilbur Smith type.” He also suggests that “instead of governments paying writers it might be useful to fund initiatives like the Boekehuis in Calvinia, or other low-cost writers’ retreats where we could go away to write at no expense.”

Other writers would endorse state-funded grants, but like Sven, they cannot imagine giving up their other occupations in order to write fulltime. Multitalented, with degrees in drama, journalism, and creative writing, Willemien Brümmer always knew that she wanted to be “An Artist”, but it took her a long time to find her individual path. She published her debut short-story collection, Die dag toe ek my hare losgemaak het (The Day I Let My Hair Down) in 2008. She actually writes for a living, writing feature articles for By, the Saturday supplement of Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad. Almost stumbling into journalism by accident, Willemien felt in the beginning that it was not creative enough; “it felt like stealing,” she remembers, and the wrongly perceived lack of creativity made her ashamed to call herself a “journalist”. She realised how inseparable journalism and creativity were only fairly recently. A few years ago, while completing her MA in Creative Writing, she wrote profiles of people “in the news” for Die Burger’s weekly column Oop Kaarte and recognised how similar the methods for writing articles and writing short stories were. The only difference is that “reality is often far more interesting than anything I can come up with,” she admits.

Die daagThis dimension of her work is decisive. She draws inspiration for her fiction from the stories she encounters in real life: “In my next book, fiction and journalism come together closely.” Still, writing fiction feels like “chocolates after dinner”, like “spoiling yourself,” says the Calvinist in her. As a perfectionist, Willemien invests a lot of time in each journalistic article, and despite having a lot of freedom in what she writes about, she sometimes feels torn between having to write about yet another subject and wanting to engross herself in the one she is currently working on. “It’s simply not enough to have only one week to write about somebody like Sindiwe Magona,” she laments about a recent assignment. “Nor is it easy to distance oneself from a story one is working on for a couple of months. It’s like falling in love; turning away can be a painful experience which also poses a lot of ethical questions. It’s not a natural situation; one has to become calculatedly distant and that’s not the kind of person I really am.” In this respect, Willemien would not hesitate to accept a grant to support her writing, journalistic and fictional: “It would allow me to concentrate, work in-depth, on both. In an ideal world I would write a book about each subject.”

Similarly, in an ideal world, the talents of Helen Moffett would not go to waste. “I wear many hats,” she writes on her blog. It would take an entire walk-in cupboard to display all, or at least some, of them: academic, copyeditor, mentor, teacher, cricket expert, and most recently the co-author of Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket (2008) and author of the sensual poetry collection Strange Fruit (2009). With four academic degrees and thirty years of experience, Helen does not have a regular income because her health dictates that she work as a freelancer. Academic editing for clients all over the world pays the bulk of her bills. There is also fiction editing, manuscript assessment, training (writing workshops for academics and NGOs), copywriting, ghost-writing, and occasionally a life-saving royalty cheque courtesy of one of her prescribed academic titles.

As for Willemien, creative writing feels to Helen like “sitting down to pudding”. She has her notebook always at hand, because “poetry happens anytime”, and she has enough notes for stories, novels non-fiction to keep her busy for the rest of her life, if she could only afford to give up her bill-paying activities, especially academic editing. “If I have any kind of break, I write like mad,” she says with a dreamy smile on her face, “and I eagerly accept commissions for fiction. This means I get a deadline and the piece must be finish on time, allowing the work equal value and importance. It always feels like a holiday.”

Strange FruitHaving constantly to worry about making a living, diminishes Helen’s potential as an academic as well as a creative fiction and non-fiction writer. She says an unambiguous yes to any grants for writers, however modest. Many wonderful opportunities slip by her because she cannot afford to invest her energies in them. In the last seven years, she has been trying to write a book on gender violence, a crucial topic in contemporary South Africa, and one that Helen is an expert on. “It’s tough to write; I’m only able to make any progress when I get a bit of funding for the project, but I still have some way to go.” Asked what she would do if she didn’t have to worry about the end of the month, she says she would write and devote more time to teaching: “I love teaching, but there is so little pay in it. Yet, I feel that it is my moral responsibility to transfer my skills. I just can’t lock up all that education and experience I’ve been fortunate to acquire over the years; not being able to pass it on is terrifying, but I have very little choice.” Even so, she insists on teaching a few courses a year, however poorly paid.

Drinking from a Dragon's WellIn comparison, Alex Smith fully intends to “make a living out of creative writing”, but she also wants to continue working in other areas as long as they do not sap her creativity. At present, she is a tutor for a novel writing course and a bookseller at Exclusive Books. “Working with books keeps me grounded. I’m a story addict and seeing the dozens of new titles arriving every day is heartening, but it also doesn’t allow for any illusions of grandness about writing. I feel writers and booksellers are readers’ servants.” Alex’s grandfather was a dedicated book collector, travelling to London to buy everything from antique tomes to rare first editions. She grew up surrounded by books and being around them makes her “immeasurably happy.” She has authored two herself, the novel Algeria’s Way (2007) and the travel memoir Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008). A third, Four Drunk Beauties, will be published next year. Talented and prolific, with a Creative Writing MA under her belt, Alex wouldn’t say no to financial support for creativity, but doesn’t feel anybody owes her anything. Having studied business science, for some years Alex earned a good salary as a successful creative and marketing director of a textile company. “But I always wanted to be a storyteller,” she stresses. “The way things are now, I’m free to write, and the price is debt, but it is my choice to be in this position. My heart’s desire is to explore real and imagined places, and play with turning those into stories.” Knowing her literary output and determination, one cannot help but feel assured that she will succeed at what she does with such unmistakable passion.

One author who has managed to write himself out of dire poverty is the inspirational Zanozuko Mzamo, or Zyd, as many know him. He is the author of a motivational book called A Year of Staying Positive (2007). Zyd grew up in Johannesburg, went into exile in the 1970s, studied economics in Zambia and Bulgaria, and returned to South Africa in the early 1990s to work in commerce. He was deeply unhappy with what he was doing, struggled to keep working, and eventually ended up broke and homeless. It was devastating, but the experience set him out on a journey of “soul-searching and gift finding”. He asked himself, “Who am I? What am I here for?”

A Year of Staying PositiveTo find answers, he visited libraries, fell in love with self-help literature, and discovered writing as a way of encouraging people. In 2005, he applied for a job at the community newspaper City Vision and even without pay persisted in publishing a weekly motivational column that garnered him a lot of recognition. He received so much positive feedback from his readers that with the help of Colleen Higgs and the Centre of the Book, he decided to self-publish 52 of his articles in book form. “A couple of publishers turned me down, but I wouldn’t be deterred, not even by the initial scepticism about the book in my community.”

His persistence and initiative were recognised by Carl Wesselink of the Kuyasa CDM Project (developing energy efficient housing in Khayelitsha). Carl Wesselink saw that Zyd’s book could inspire people and offered to buy two thousand copies of it to distribute in Kuyasa as well as to pay Zyd’s salary for a year. Today, Zyd coaches people in personal development and self-improvement in Kuyasa. He considers reading an indispensable ingredient of both. His latest initiative is the Teach a Child to Read Campaign, and he has two more books on the way. He finds the idea of state-funded support for his writing intriguing, but is scared that it would make him lazy: “I like challenges,” he points out. “When I was about to drown, I found my calling,” he says, relaxed and confident. “I hope to sell a million copies of my books.” His mere presence inspires. It’s easy to believe that he will make it.

All seven authors I spoke to seem to have found the right niches for their many talents. Financial support for their creativity wouldn’t drastically change their lifestyles, just utilise their talents in more efficient and rewarding ways. They all seem to have discovered what Zyd writes in one of his essays: “Life is what you make it.”

Sources:
http://www.kunstnerstipend.no/english/

First published in WORDSETC 6 (September 2009).

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.’