Tag Archives: Mark Rowlands

Book review: A Good Life by Mark Rowlands

A Good LifeThroughout the years, few oeuvres have enriched my intellectual life as much as the works of the Welsh philosopher Mark Rowlands. At some stage, we are all confronted with the question of what makes life worthwhile, how to make the time we have on this planet meaningful. Unfortunately, not enough of us ask how to live in such a way as not only to enjoy the journey, but simultaneously do as little harm as possible to our fellow travellers, whether they be other humans, animals or the environment. We all muddle on. Rowlands does not claim to have the answers, but his attempts at approaching possible conclusions are fascinating to engage with.

Some of Rowlands’s books are written for experts in his field of knowledge and are not as easily accessible as his bestsellers Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality or The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness (still a personal favourite which belongs to that wonderful category of books I claim as life-changing). His latest, A Good Life, is also written for the general public and comes with an intriguing twist that will thrill all passionate readers, even more so if they happen to be writers as well.

Unlike Rowlands’s other books, which are clearly non-fiction and often include autobiographical elements, A Good Life is actually a novel. It is a philosophical inquiry into what constitutes the titular good life, but it comes in the form of dystopian speculative fiction. In 2054, while South Florida is quickly sinking into oblivion because of the rising sea levels, the fictitious character Nicolai finds a manuscript written by his late father and annotated by his mother. He decides to complete it with his own comments on the narrative his parents had left behind, never certain how much of their text is fiction and how much is fact. The book seems to be telling their life story by tackling such crucial issues as abortion, compassion and empathy, marriage, animal and environmental rights, euthanasia, and death. The discussion of these topics is at times unsettling, as it shakes up many widely held beliefs. At the same time, anything that Rowlands writes is always full of delightful humour and reassurance that not all is gloom and doom. There is hope and real goodness in the world.

It is not too late to recognise how we are all connected; not only to each other, but to the planet we call home. Compassion is one of our main tools. It is fuelled by the imagination. A Good Life as a whole makes a stunning case for the “colossal power” of literature: “We are all just words somewhere.” When you reach the final pages of the book, the different strands of the narrative intertwine to reveal something quite simple, and yet it feels as if a miracle had unfolded right in front of your reading mind. That is the beauty of a Mark Rowlands book.

Rowlands on lit

A Good Life: Philosophy from Cradle to Grave

by Mark Rowlands

Granta, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 5 August 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree by Jami Yeats-Kastner

sam_and_me_hard_pear_tree_covGrief is a curious creature. When you lose a beloved person, everything changes. You even have to learn to breathe anew. None of it is predictable. The process is highly individual. Reading Jami Yeats-Kastner’s heart-wrenching memoir about the death of Sam, her youngest son, was perhaps not the wisest choice for me after having experienced the greatest loss of my life, the death of my husband. Yeats-Kastner’s journey, however, is very different. Yet her story resonated with me in unexpected ways and gave me a measure of comfort.

“The Day It Happened” for Yeats-Kastner and her family was 8 February 2013. Her eighteen-months-old son drowned in their pool. That day she became the “Crazybutterflylady”, guided by signs in the form of butterflies on her path to acceptance and to herself.

As my favourite philosopher Mark Rowlands says: “To be at our best we have to be pushed into a corner, where there is no hope and nothing to be gained from going on. And we go on anyway.” Yeats-Kastner repeats the sentiment in the opening of her book: “Sometimes you need to be completely broken to find the most powerful part of yourself.”

As she notes, losing a child is “universally accepted” to be the greatest of pains. It is the loss of a life not lived, of the immense potential and its beauty. It is unbearable. Those left behind live in a void that is undefined: “If you lose your parents you’re an orphan; if you lose your husband you’re a widow. But what is the name for us, the broken ones? There isn’t one, because people can’t accept that it should happen.”

What Yeats-Kastner shows is how to transform the heartache of such a loss into a force for good. She seeks out messages which lead her on a path of discovery. She realises that in order to continue a meaningful life, to be a good mother to her other two sons (one of whom has severe low muscle tone), to be a loving wife and a fulfilled person, she needs to preserve her space and cultivate her creativity. Not afraid of what others might think of her, she pursues all avenues – whether spiritual, religious, or alternative – to achieve her goals. Together with friends, she starts a charity in her son’s name and learns to appreciate “life’s great truths”.

Nothing is easy. Guilt feelings persist. Reproach from others has to be confronted. There are days where everything seems impossible. Yeats-Kastner confronts it all with searing honesty and does not flinch, simply asking that we do not judge her too easily. She describes her family’s ordeal and their courage to find a new life. They move house, take up new professional challenges, and follow the butterflies which seem to appear out of the blue, but are in fact constantly around you if you are bold enough to look for and acknowledge them.

Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree is a moving memoir of survival, healing and hope.

Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree
by Jami Yeats-Kastner
Jacana, 2014

Review first published in the Cape Times, 2 April 2015, p. 24.

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!