Tag Archives: Man Booker Prize

The heart has spaces – the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker

Drawing in Ingrid's letter of 15 October 1963
In the beginning there were the women of his past, a ghost among them. André Brink had never been afraid to love. After the life-defining relationship of his youth with Ingrid Jonker, her suicide, and four divorces, at the age of 69 he had the guts to say yes to a delicate possibility.

When we met in Austria towards the end of 2004 I was terribly young, on the verge of a divorce, broken by betrayals, and almost paralysed by mistrust. Continents and cultures apart, 42 years between us, the odds staked against us could not have been higher. Yet we somehow mustered enough courage to dare the impossible and turn it into reality. For ten years, the first thing we did every morning after waking up next to each other was to smile. No matter what. Of course it hadn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And coming to terms with our respective pasts was our greatest challenge.

André first introduced me to Ingrid in a letter on 23 December 2004:

She was a year or so older than me, and light-years older in terms of sexual experience. It was an incredible, hectic, heady, head-over-heels love of extremes, swinging wildly from ecstasy to the depths of misery; and it became just too exhausting and demanding. After two years (and several break-ups and new starts) she started a new love-affair, and then I did too (both of us, I think, grasping at possibilities of getting out of our own relationship which had become suffocating). And so it ended. She had one more mad love-affair, and committed suicide.

Coming to live with André in the South African spring of 2005, I very quickly realised that in order to know him – truly know him – I had to understand what had happened between him and Ingrid 40 years earlier. We both had to. No other woman in André’s life had left as indelible a mark on him as Ingrid. No other haunted me as much in the beginning of our relationship.

I am proud of countless things André and I have achieved together, but the one that made all else possible is the space we created in our relationship for sharing, for being painfully open with each other. André and I met at Vienna International Airport when I went to pick him up and accompany him on the train journey to Salzburg, where he was participating in a symposium I’d helped organise. On that trip we began a conversation which, literally, lasted ten years until I told him I loved him for the last time and closed his lips with a final kiss just before he died earlier this year. It was a stripping of minds and hearts. Time after time, we stood completely soul-naked in front of each other, risking everything, and eventually knowing that love would prevail, always, no matter how terrifyingly ugly the revealed truth – on both sides – was. It is the kind of knowledge which can lay any ghost to rest.

At the end of Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato, my favourite philosopher, Mark Rowlands, writes: “If I could repay you with a wish it would be that you find something in your life so important that without it you would not be the same person. If you’re lucky you’ll have it already.” The relationship with Ingrid was such a thing for André. He wrote in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (Harvill Secker, 2009): “On that memorable afternoon of 15 April, 1963, a group of us were gathered in the lounge of Jan Rabie’s rambling old house in Cape Town, when Ingrid walked in, barefoot and provocative, and the movement against censorship officially began, and the course of my life was changed.” Her influence permeated everything: his personal life, and, just as crucially, his writing. One only needs to look at André’s women characters, walking in Ingrid’s footprints across the pages of his novels, to comprehend what an impact their meeting had on his creativity. And they are only the most obvious example. But despite the evidence, for many years André was exceedingly reluctant to speak or write about Ingrid after her death.

At the time of our engagement in early 2006, together with Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, André was working on the new translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems which would result in the publication of Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau, 2007). It must have been during this period that he showed me his and Ingrid’s correspondence for the first time. He kept the letters in the same place as his diaries which he reread for the writing of the introduction to Black Butterflies, the first text of its kind after many years of silence. An intimate treasure and a chunk of literary history many had wondered about for decades, even back then the letters had an irresistible appeal for me. Although my grasp of the Afrikaans language and literature was shaky at this stage, I understood their importance as a key to André’s life story and to the creative and intellectual forces culminating in the literary movement of the Sestigers. We looked at them together, he told me their story, and allowed me to comment on the translations as well as on the introduction. The title for the collection followed from a suggestion I’d made. Being included felt like a form of exorcism.

I wrote in my own diary of the time: “Dear Ingrid, are you smiling at us after all?”

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Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke's

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke’s

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

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

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

What a way to end a Wednesday!

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

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

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

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.