Tag Archives: Siri Hustvedt

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.

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.)

Women who roam The Blazing World, Part II

The Blazing World_HustvedtThere are some intriguing and inspiring real-life creative women mentioned in Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel, The Blazing World, which is about a fictional artist, Harriet Burden, who believes that she does not receive the recognition her art deserves because she is a well-off, middle-aged woman. To remedy the situation Burden employs three young, upcoming male artists to front her next three exhibitions. The project has some unexpected consequences. I reviewed the novel a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, I presented three of the amazing women who roam The Blazing World. Here are three more:

Simone WeilSimone Weil (1909 – 1943)
Guided by compassion, the French philosopher, activist, and Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote consistently throughout her life, but her work began to be truly appreciated only after her death. She was prepared to suffer hunger or fight in Spanish Civil War for her beliefs. Shortly before her death, she joined the French Resistance in London, but never returned to France because of her poor health. For an introduction to her writings see Simone Weil: An Anthology (1986, reprinted in 2005 as a Penguin Classic). Apparently, Albert Camus said of her that she was “the only great spirit of our times”. And she herself said: “Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.

Susanne LangerSusanne K. Langer (1895 – 1985)
An American philosopher who specialised in art and the mind. Best known for her Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (1942), she was a pioneer in her field as one of the first women to lead a successful academic career in philosophy. It is interesting to note that the book has ten customer reviews on Amazon.com which were written between 1998 and the present. All but one reviewer gave the title a five-star rating. The latest review (14 June 2014) by LOGICRAT is titled “EVERYONE on the internet needs to read this book” and includes the following quote: “This is a profoundly important book, and is extraordinarily relevant to human life today.”

Fraces YatesFrances A. Yates (1899 – 1981)
Yates was an English Renaissance scholar renowned for her studies Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966), and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972). The Art of Memory is considered as one of the most significant non-fiction books of the past century. Between 1964 and 1981, Yates regularly contributed to The New York Review of Books. Yates was also a Shakespeare scholar and author of Shakespeare’s Last Plays: A New Approach (1975). Her last review for the NYRB, “An Alchemical Lear”, of Charles Nicholl’s The Chemical Theatre (1981), appeared posthumously with this note from the Editors: “We mourn the death of this brilliant and original scholar, a longstanding contributor and friend.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, Brainy Quote, The New York Review of Books Homepage

Interested in receiving a copy of The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt? Please take part in my BOOK GIVEAWAY this month and stand a chance of having it (among others) sent to you. Good luck!

Women who roam The Blazing World, Part I

the-blazing-worldThere are some intriguing and inspiring real-life creative women mentioned in Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel, The Blazing World, which is about a fictional artist, Harriet Burden, who believes that she does not receive the recognition her art deserves because she is a well-off, middle-aged woman. To remedy the situation, Burden employs three young, upcoming male artists to front her next three exhibitions. The project has some unexpected consequences. I reviewed the novel a few weeks ago.

Here are some of the amazing women who roam The Blazing World:

Cavendish-BlazingCavendish readerMargaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623–1673)
A scientist and writer who dared to publish under her own name at a time when this was not encouraged in women, Cavendish is the author of, among many other writings, the utopian romance The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666). In its epilogue she refers to herself as Margaret I, the ruler of the philosophical world. It is one of the earliest pieces of science-fiction writing. Modern readers can turn to Sylvia Bowerbank’s and Sara Mendelson’s (eds.) Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader (2000) for a taste of the Empress’s work.

Sheldon novelSheldon biographyAlice Bradley Sheldon (1915 – 1987)
A ‘daughter’ of Cavendish, she was the woman hiding behind the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. She wrote feminist science-fiction which was seen as quite masculine until it was discovered a decade after her first publication that she was a middle-aged woman. She was a pioneer in many ways. Widely travelled and well-educated, she was promoted to major in the US Army Air Forces during World War II, ran a business, worked for the CIA, and had an annual literary award named after her pen name: The James Tiptree, Jr. Award. It is given to works of science fiction or fantasy “bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society”. It was initiated in February 1991 by science fiction authors Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler. For a biography of Sheldon/Tiptree see James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips (2006).

Kitty CityJudy Chicago (1939 – )
The American artist who is responsible for the coinage of the term “feminist art” and whose last name is all her own (she dropped her father’s and her first husband’s names when they both died to become Chicago). In her multimedia artworks and performances she knows how to use her knitting needles as well as her welding torch and incorporates both in her work. In the late 70s, she founded Through the Flower, a non-profit organisation which aims to educate people about women’s achievements in the art world. She is the author of several books, among them one co-authored with Frances Borzello about Frida Kahlo and one on our feline friends, Kitty City: A Feline Book of Hours (2005). Click here for Chicago’s Illustrated Career History.

Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, The James Tiptree, Jr. Award Homepage, Judy Chicago Homepage, Through the Flower Homepage

Interested in acquiring a copy of The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt? Please take part in my BOOK GIVEAWAY this month and stand a chance of having it (among others) sent to you. Good luck!

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!

Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

the-blazing-worldThe Blazing World_HustvedtReading Siri Hustvedt’s work is always a stimulating treat. She is the author of six internationally acclaimed novels and the recipient of the International Gabarron Award for Thought and Humanities.

I first fell in love with her essays on art and psychology of which the most recent collection, Living, Thinking, Looking (2012), is a wonderful example. The clarity and beauty of her novelistic and essayistic vision is matched by her stylistic virtuosity. The result is a deceptively effortless execution that leaves the reader completely fulfilled.

The Blazing World, Hustvedt’s latest novel, is perhaps her best to date. Similarly to her other masterpiece, What I Loved (2003), it ventures into the treacherous world of art, greed and fame. The novel’s unusual format imitates an anthology composed of various pieces – interviews, letters, statements, notes, reviews, editorial comments, and diary entries – all of which centre on the life and art of Harriet Burden. Tellingly referred to as Harry by her family and friends, Burden feels that her artistic talents have been eclipsed by three unavoidable facts of her circumstances: her gender, age, and marital status. Hardly anybody wants to take her or her art seriously because she is a woman, she is middle-aged, and she is the rich widow of the famous art dealer, Felix Lord. A lethal combination for any artist trying to make her way in today’s world.

Her whole life Burden searches for a way to dodge misogyny. She grows up with a father who wishes she were a boy. Tall and curvaceous, she feels unattractive. Her intelligence and intellectual pursuits don’t help and turn her into an outsider. Feelings of inadequacy follow her into her marriage to Lord, a philanderer with many secrets. As a mother she finds how hard it is not to repeat the mistakes of our parents.

The art she creates is highly sophisticated, but largely ignored. She wants “to blaze and rumble and roar”, but something that is nearly impossible to articulate, “something horrible”, weighs her down and then rises like bile to her lips.

She wants revenge. She wants to have the last word. After Lord’s death, Burden employs three male artists to exhibit her artwork as their own: “There will be three, just as in the fairy tales… And the story will have bloody teeth.” One after the other, the exhibitions garner the recognition and success Burden had been craving for, but instead of proving a point, they cause a great deal of turmoil in the lives of people directly or indirectly involved in the project Burden aptly calls Maskings.

The novel cuts close to the bone. As a woman artist, I also found myself reading with this huge indigestible lump of “something horrible”, “fat, leaden, hideous”, stuck at the bottom of my intellectual and emotional stomach, and I knew exactly what Burden was experiencing when attempting to break down the prejudices she encounters in her life. However, Hustvedt’s rumbling and roaring is reassuring.

Her The Blazing World shines as brightly as Sirius.

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 June 2014, p. 31.

Homecoming launch of Invisible Others

Photo by Roma Szczurek

Photo by Roma Szczurek

A small but very enthusiastic crowd gathered earlier today at the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch for my “homecoming launch” of Invisible Others. Thank you to everyone who made this one so special!

The first copies of Invisible Others at Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch, photo by Roma Szczurek

The first copies of Invisible Others at Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch, photo by Roma Szczurek

The shop is beginning to feel like an extension of our lounge. As Johan from the shop remarked, it is located almost in our backyard. I will never forget the first time I browsed there. I think it was Del who asked me whether I needed help. I was looking for a collection of stories by Etgar Keret. The bookshop did not have a copy. I bought another book and then forgot about the Keret. About two weeks later, I was done shopping at the centre and was putting some groceries into my car, parked in the vicinity of the shop, when Del recognised me and came out to say that they now had the Keret book I had been looking for the other day. Did I want to have a look at it?
Of course I did, and I was very impressed by such kindness and service. It is always a pleasure to go back to a bookshop where people care and know about books (which is not a given nowadays – I once had to spell Nadine Gordimer’s name at a bookshop…).

Emma after the launch, reading Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World

Emma after the launch, reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World

Today at the launch, I had the honour of being interviewed by the wonderful author Emma van der Vliet. We spoke about the influence of film on Invisible Others, particularly the 1992 film Damage, staring Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons. Often when I write, individual scenes come to me in the form of film-like images and the medium is an inspiration for my work. There is one line in Damage which I found haunting: “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.” Konrad reflects on it in the novel. We also discussed how the novel began, how the main characters formed in my head, and how Cara refused to be written the way I’d first imagined her. The first images of Konrad I had in my mind were connected to a jersey a hitchhiker my Mom and I picked up in Poland many, many years ago wore. The young man told us he’d knitted the jersey himself. Konrad, also an avid hitchhiker in his youth, owns a jersey like that in the novel. Emma also asked about my writing process. When I was still working on my thesis about Nadine Gordimer’s post-apartheid writing, I found many references to her strict schedule of devoting the mornings to her stories. Inspired, I tried to do the same, only to discover that I could not write one decent sentence in the mornings. (Recently, a friend gave me a sign I love for my kitchen: “I don’t do mornings”.) I am an afternoon person. My best time for writing is after lunch and coffee, that is when I am at my most prolific and inventive.

By Renée le Roux

By Renée le Roux

It was great to see Renée le Roux at the launch whose amazing artwork has been an inspiration for Dagmar’s art in the novel. Before encountering Renée’s work, I couldn’t find a way of responding to abstract art, but the first time I stood in a room full of her paintings I understood and felt what abstract art was about. It was such a thrill and discovery. Her images spoke to me like no other. Her “Mommy’s Boys” are in my study and despite their sadness, make me smile every day.

Thank you to everyone else who was there!

Launch cakeThis is the launch cake which Emma and I enjoyed for our breakfast after the talk. The woman who baked it is going to hear from me soon. It is always good to know where to get a divine chocolate cake, definitely one of my all-time favourites.

Thank you for this delicious literary treat: launch, cake and all!

First steps

Invisible Others is making her first steps in the world. These are some of the questions I have been asked about the novel during the launch last Tuesday (interviewed by S.A. Partridge) and during the Woordfees event (interviewed by Ingrid Winterbach) on Thursday. A rough reconstruction of my replies follows.

How does it feel to hold the novel in your hands?
It still doesn’t feel real. I think it will take a few weeks to sink in, to properly realise that something that has lived on in my head for so many years is finally out there, contained in an object that has turned out to be so beautiful. I am grateful for all people involved in the production process of the physical book, especially Hanli Deysel and Danél Hanekom, whose ideas, designs, guidance and the willingness to cooperate were exceptional. It isn’t a given that an author is included in the decision-making pertaining to this part of a book publication.

How did the novel begin?
As a short story, and with a single image. For a long time I’d thought of myself a short story writer, but I was curious whether I could write in the longer form. To test myself, I went to a writer’s retreat in Calvinia and began writing my first novel there. In the course of my stay in Calvinia I realised that I could do it, but the story I was writing (a more typical first novel about growing up) was too autobiographical, too close to the bone, and I was not prepared to share it with an audience, at least not yet. So the manuscript ended up in my drawer. I then picked up an unfinished short story I was working on at the time. It began escalating into something longer and eventually resulted in Invisible Others. But it all started with an image of a woman and a man having a picnic in a park I knew in Paris. That scene is still in the novel. I knew that they were somehow trying to reach out to one another, but it was not easy for them to connect. The novel became an exploration of the reasons behind this difficulty.

Will there be another novel, or are you returning to the short form?
I am working on a YA novel, and I have a half-finished speculative fiction novel waiting on the backburner. But I love short stories and will continue writing them. I am intrigued by the challenge of the short story, of having to make every word and gesture count. Sometimes I feel that everything I write is about gestures, tiny imperceptible things like a glance or a twitch of a finger can change the course of a story. Capturing these moments in fiction fascinates me.

How does an academic background inform your writing?
I am aware of trends, patterns, some theory which is a good and a bad thing. As a writer, I would like to build on existing developments, but not be trapped by them. Having a very individual and specific migratory background, and yet being thoroughly shaped by my knowledge of local literature, I believe I can contribute something different to the scene. At the same time, very often being aware of what is happening can be limiting and discouraging.

Carolina's park

Carolina’s park

You write about Paris with a clear sense of place. Do you know it well?
I wrote about a deeply personal side of Paris – the spaces I know and love in the city, like the Polish Bookshop or some of the restaurants and parks mentioned in the novel. But I don’t want to claim that I know Paris well. It is a city which constantly eludes me no matter how eager I am to grasp it.
I was also very much aware of the fact that Paris is one of the most written about places on the planet, and that I did not want to compete with such a significant body of work. Trying to do justice to the setting, I concentrated on a few familiar, intimate spaces. I worked from memory, but also took photographs, drew little maps, made many notes, and used Google Maps for verification. But there was a moment where imagination took over and the descriptions in the novel do not always correspond 1:1 with reality. Also, I discovered that during the time it took me to write the book some places I used as settings had changed: a restaurant I mentioned disappeared completely; the bookshop changed its layout and expanded. In that sense, the Paris of the novel is at times a purely imagined space.

Both Cara and Konrad find refuge in Paris – why Paris as a runaway place?
For Cara, the reason why she chooses Paris becomes obvious as the novel progresses. For Konrad, it is a place that is essential to his research. From the first, Paris was always part of the story. The story chose it. On the one hand, I persisted with the setting because I liked the idea of it being an unusual place for a contemporary English-speaking South African to emigrate to. It used to be much more obvious for Afrikaans speakers to travel to Paris in the 50s, 60s and beyond. A whole generation of Afrikaans writers were shaped by their Parisian encounters. On the other hand, I did not want to write another novel about an exiled South African returning to the country of their birth. Cara and Konrad do not emigrate because of socio-political or historical circumstances, but for purely personal reasons. I wanted to write about a different migratory experience which reflects a different aspect of the reality of our globalised world – one where people migrate and choose to stay or even move on, but do not return to their country of origin. In that sense, I wanted the novel to defy expectations.

What about other research?
My characters know a lot more than I do about art, history, typesetting or geography. They have different passions and fears from mine. I wanted to make things which originated in my head come to life for others. I had to read up enough on all these subjects in order to make them believable.

And national identity?
There are two ways in which I wanted to engage with issues of identity in the novel: as an everyday experience without necessarily political or historical connotations; and an academic pursuit where these connotations matter strongly, but are nearly entirely confined to the research Konrad does, they do not spill over into his own lived experience. But on the whole, I wanted to remain on a rather superficial level while handling these issues by concentrating on the nostalgia for one’s country of origin in daily life which manifests itself in preferences for certain food, music, art, reading, drinks, proverbs, or customs. It was important for me to show that despite these obvious and natural longings, like so many people in today’s world, Konrad and Cara can make a home for themselves away from the places of their birth.

In the novel, you come across as an authority on art. What is the role of visual art in your life?
To be honest, I know very little about visual art apart from my own responses to some artists’ work. I have a deep love for beauty and objects. There is something about the timelessness and reliability of an object which fascinates me. I surround myself with objects which have meaning for me, some of these are art pieces – hardly ever of any general value, but always of enormous personal value to me. One of the reasons I fell head over heels in love with The Book of Happenstance (by Ingrid Winterbach) is the portrayal of the relationship the main character has with her collection of shells. It is one of the most, if not the most, accurate description of what I often feel for objects which matter to me, and what their loss means to me.
I am a huge fan of Siri Hustvedt’s work as a novelist and as an observer. Her books on art and looking at art are inspiring and moving. The theory is just as important as the response, and the clarity of her presentation of both is astounding.

Which artists, if any, inspired the art in Invisible Others?
These might seem like completely incompatible influences, but for Lucas’s work I thought of Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele and Tamara de Lempicka; for Dagmar’s work I thought of William Kentridge and Renée le Roux. But no specific real image inspired any of the imagined paintings which appear in the novel. It was more like the combined mood of these oeuvres that I tried to capture in the art featured in Invisible Others.

Invisible Others is a timeless story where technology takes a backseat – was this a conscious decision?
Very much so. It also reflects my own life and attitude towards social media, media in general, and the internet. I love the opportunities technology and media offer, but I have also become very cautious in using them. The internet provides us with enormous advantages; it can enrich our lives, but it can also be a dangerous tool with a sting. The exposure to media nearly destroys Cara’s life. She consciously tries to hide from it all. Konrad is weary of the pitfalls of the internet and yet can’t resist its temptations. To his credit, instead of speculating, he tries to keep an open mind and find out what he needs to know from the only person who can tell him the truth about what happened.

Why the attraction of love triangles and dysfunctional relationships?
When we are honest with ourselves, most of us will have to admit that there are many things – essential things – in our relationships with others which we cannot articulate – such as our fears, desires or passions. I have always been fascinated by this inability to communicate between people, and personally, I have worked all my life in my relationships to conquer it. But often instead of communicating, we end up falling into triangular relationships – not necessarily with other people, a hobby or work can be such an escapist third party – to satisfy what cannot be brought to light in the relationships which truly matter to us. We are mostly suckers for suffering. We need to suffer to feel alive. There aren’t many people out there who are happy without drama, who can appreciate the simple, good things in life.

Do invisible others doom relationships before they even happen?
They do. For better or worse, we carry around the memories and ghosts of people who have shaped and influenced our lives and very often we are either unaware of their presence or not courageous enough to admit to it or face it. These invisible others can interfere with our present relationships if we allow them to haunt us. Finding a way to see and understand these spaces and figures makes relationships possible, or not, if we fail. This is where fiction comes in for me: writing is often an attempt at trying to penetrate those spaces.

What drives Cara into the affair?
A powerful attraction. She falls for the wrong man and persists in the relationship. It seems to me that we often stay in relationships because we believe that we have already sacrificed so much for them, we simply have to make them work, even if the only sensible thing to do is to cut one’s losses and walk away.

Why should the reader identify with her?
I hope readers will travel a journey with Cara similar to my own. When she appeared to me in that picnic image in the park, she started off as a puzzle, a mystery, one I did not particularly warm to, but one who intrigued me. I wanted to understand her, to see what made her tick, and almost inevitably I started caring for her in the attempt. Cara defied me. She showed me that sometimes people do terrible things not because they are terrible people, but because they can’t help themselves. One can appreciate or forgive a lot as long as one understands the reasons. This is part of what Siri Hustvedt refers to as “a call for empathy” and the reason why I chose the passage from one of her essays which explains this phrase for the epigraph of Invisible Others.

The ending of the novel was puzzling – can you comment?
The ending somehow surprised me as well. It has everything to do with the fact of how Cara took over her own story, how she did not allow me to leave her entirely in the lurch (as I was keen to in the beginning). It is an open ending. It is wonderful for me to see how some of my readers are beginning to interpret it. Deep in my heart I can feel what happened to Cara, but I still want readers to decide for themselves.

In the novel, Cara turns to reading for solace or guidance. What would you like readers to take away from this novel?
I suppose a bit of both, but mainly solace – I don’t feel that I have the right to guide anybody. But if readers find a moment of truth or revelations in the novel which penetrates their own invisible others and inspires them to explore, communicate, understand these spaces, the magic of fiction would have happened, and that would be more than I would dare to hope for.

You are married to one of the most important contemporary South African writers with an overwhelming oeuvre to his name. Isn’t it a bit intimidating?
Not at all. In the beginning, when I started getting to know André I was a bit scared of his creative process. I know that for many it can be a process of solitude and exclusion and I did not know how I would fit into, or around, it. But then I discovered how open to sharing André was, how generous and supportive, and I relaxed completely. Our studies are at the opposite ends of a passage in our house. There is a lot of communicating going on between them, and invitations to tea.
André’s body of work is enormous, and I am its greatest fan. It doesn’t intimidate me because I have no intentions of competing with it – that would be ridiculous. My writing is very different, the stories I want to tell are my own. I am grateful for all of André’s support and expertise, but I also know that it works both ways. I offer the same to him. There is no room for intimidation in our personal and literary relationship.