Monday, February 9, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and her Sister is
a fictionalised
 imagining of some of the
events in their lives.
There are some secrets that haunt us forever. We vow to never repeat it, but still, the mistakes keep on haunting us, becoming a thread that runs through our lives.

Such an event is at the heart of this wonderful novel, based on the lives of the writer Virginia Woolf and her painter sister, Vanessa and is a fictionalised account and imagining of some of the events.
Vanessa and Her Sister opens in 1905 when the sisters and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian Stephen, have just moved into 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, after the death of their father, their mother having died some years before. At home in the Bloomsbury district, they will soon come to scandalise “polite society” with their unconventional ways. They will start a “salon”, giving rise to the moniker the Bloomsbury group, and will have men and women conversing in their home at all hours of the night. Throwing convention to the winds and living free from the strictures of Victorian society is more appealing.

Painter Vanessa Bell,
sister to writer Virginia 

Woolf
“And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at home and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like,” says Vanessa.
  
This is long before Virginia marries, and the two are still the young and beautiful Stephen sisters, desirable and desired.

The story is told through Vanessa’s diary – although in reality Vanessa never kept a diary. Instead it was Virginia who kept famously kept one. 

But this is primarily Vanessa’s story and the story is told through her prism, and the fictional device is an effective one here. Vanessa’s imagined diary is like a painting – light seeps in through the lines, and there’s a poetic feeling to her words. Vanessa is a gentle, artistic sort – and this is rendered through the writing.

Interspersed through the diary entries though are letters and telegrams sent from the Stephens and the friends who orbited them and also formed part of the group – and so these move the narrative along too. This also provides another view of the group and the events, including some letters from Virginia as well, presenting another, sometime oblique view of things.

For those with an interest in the Bloomsbury group, there’s a frisson of delight in reading about them all in this fictionalised way. 
Lytton Strachey, member of
the Bloomsbury Group

There’s Lytton Strachey, biographer and writer, instrumental in getting his friend Leonard Woolf to seriously consider Virginia as a wife, socialite and literary hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, poet Rupert Brooke, art critic Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and so on. 

When art critic Clive Bell sets his sights on the Stephen sisters, he sets in motion a chain of events that will alter all their lives. Virginia is strangely distant and aloof, and he begins to court Vanessa. There’s no great love though for him, a fact she repeats to herself over and over, “I like him. But it stops there. I do not think I could love him. I remember Stella when she decided to marry Jack. I watched her with the critical eye of a younger sister but I could find no flaw in her certainty. ... She recognised him. ... She had been waiting for him. I do not recognise Clive. He is not mine.”

The young Virginia 
Woolf, whose attachment  
to Vanessa is beyond
the ordinary
And she’s able to resist his efforts, until suffering grief over the death of their brother Thoby, she gives in. There will be a wedding, Clive has his Stephen sister. But when his infidelities push to the fore, after she has given birth and isn’t as attentive to him as he’d like, she’s told that they are different and theirs is to be an open, more unusual marriage.

And when his eyes start roving towards her sister, we sense the delicate balance of the sisters’ love for each other might be threatened. Vanessa is protective of Virginia, ever watchful too that Virginia doesn’t slip back into her periodic bouts of madness: “It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages that squall.” 

And, “I could feel Virginia pulled taut, on the brink of something, and I was not up to a mad scene today.” 

Virginia with her intense attachment to her sister has not taken easily to Vanessa’s marriage or to her involvement with her two children. There’s a line where they ask if Virginia is Sapphic, and indeed her attachment to Vanessa seems to go beyond ordinary sibling love. Busy with her children, and her painting, Vanessa watches as Clive pursues Virginia, and Virginia dances dangerously on the edge of this precipice.
Virginia Woolf and
Clive Bell in 1910

Throughout Vanessa’s voice is carefully matched and measured against the others who will watch this scenario play out. The years play on, and the book comes to its dénouement with Virginia’s marriage to Woolf.

A delicate and fine study of sibling love with all its complications, this finely written novel brings the Bloomsbury Group to life in a way that is masterful and astonishing. Vanessa’s soft voice beautifully holds the thread of the narrative, and we’re left contemplating the complicated bonds of sisterhood, as well as the broader complications of the relationships that encircle us.

A fine, beautiful novel, a definite highlight. Priya Parmar’s research is worn delicately, lightly, yet brings this historical period to wonderful, broad life.

First published in the Pretoria News, February 1 2015 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Across a Green Ocean

Across a Green Ocean by Wendy Lee

A journey through the past
This charming novel by Wendy Lee opens with widow Ling Tang contemplating her derelict garden almost a year after her husband Han has died, segueing through her memories of him, of living in their house in the suburbs, both emigrants, he from mainland China, she from Taiwan. 

In the US, they had two children, Emily and Michael, raising them in the home where Ling looks at her long-forgotten lawn. Moving across to Emily – a hard-working lawyer, married to a filmmaker Julian. When she receives a call from her mother, worried about Michael, who hasn’t answered his phone in days and his voice mail is full, Emily reluctantly and worriedly heads off to the apartment Michael rented in New York, setting in motion a ripping apart of the layers that have held this family together.

Michael has absconded to China, it turns out. And when Emily arrives at his apartment, secrets start to unravel. She encounters his lover, David, she didn’t even know he was gay. Michael meanwhile is having his own adventures on the mainland and we follow him as he unwraps the mystery of his father’s silences, a legacy of his past that is soon revealed as he meets an old friend of his father’s. 1960s China and the legacy of a time of darkness is recounted. Michael has to come to terms with finding out what his father did in the time before he emigrated.

Secrets were kept and held tight
Back in America, Emily is struggling through her own ambiguous feelings about her long-term marriage and her husband, and seeing her unable to reach out to the man her daughter loves, but seems unable to connect to, Ling can only watch. She has no words to begin this particular conversation with her daughter. This has been a family watched over by a silent, almost autocratic father. Secrets were kept and held tight, the net such a thing demanded growing tighter.

But Michael’s actions and sudden journey is the catalyst that will throw a door wide open.

This is charming read, as I said, as the action follows all three across their journeys, Ling’s interior journey into her past, and her own momentous day, Emily’s growing understanding of herself and her marriage, and Michael’s very visceral journey through China, evoking a modern-day country so dramatically different from his own in a vivid way that is a delight to read, while leading him through to the past as well. Highly recommended.
   


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review of Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology volume 6

This is the sixth anthology of stories published from stories submitted to the Bristol Short Story Prize. This is an an annual international writing competition open to all published and unpublished, UK and non-UK based writers. Of forty short stories on the longlist, judges Ali Reynolds, Anna Bitten, Bidisha and Christopher Wakling then selected twenty to be published in this volume, with three writers receiving prizes for best first, second and third prizes.  Deadline for entry to this annual prize is April of each year, with 2014 winners announced this year in October.  The anthology is published in both print and e-book format, along with helpful bios and photos of the writers. Stories must be 4000 words, or less to be eligible .. Read more

Friday, January 16, 2015

From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant

The late Mavis Gallant's stories
are beguiling to read
The late Mavis Gallant’s stories are beguiling to read – they creep up on you slowly, until you find yourself devouring each mostly lengthy story, wanting more. This collection, first published in 1979, and now re-released at the end 2014 by Open Road Media, is peopled by ordinary characters, ordinary but for the fact that they are caught at the crossroads of European history, and their lives are shaped by the lengthy shadow of the second world war.

Comprising nine stories, the collection opens with ‘The Four Seasons’ which sets the tone for the atmosphere of these stories. They are located in a Europe battling to come to terms with the destruction wrought by the war, and the displacement of those lives affected profoundly by it.

In ‘The Four Seasons’, we are introduced to Carmela, somewhere on the French/Italian Riviera – the borders shift depending on who is in power, domestic maid to an English couple, the Unwins, and their three-year-old twins. Carmela becomes intertwined in their lives – to the point that towards the end she is no longer even receiving her salary. Chronically short of money, they promise when war breaks out that they will send her wages on, but we know that will never happen. Not quite friend, a maid who becomes entrenched in the family, the nervous Mrs Unwin relying on her more and more, Carmela draws on strengths the more privileged Unwins apparently have no access to. A compelling piece.

The effects come almost as a post-script

‘The Moslem Wife’, the second piece is a novella length tour de force. Netta Asher, the ‘Moslem wife’ of the title, takes over the lease of a hotel her father has run for years in the south of France. She marries her younger first cousin, Jack Ross, against her family’s wishes, but theirs is a happy marriage, bound by her loyalty to the business her father started, and Jack’s acceptance of life as the husband of a hotel manager, dabbling in his music. The atmosphere of a hotel on the French Riviera in the 1930s is vividly brought to life, and life flows slowly on, with its cast of characters, hotel guests, eccentrics who live at the coast and then Jack’s ailing mother who comes to stay. But war intervenes, once more, and as usual it will have a calamitous effect on all. The effects come almost as a post-script, long before that we are caught in the dramas of this world, Netta swirling at the circle of it all, and we, in turn, circle closer and closer to her.

In equally astounding ‘The Remission’ we are once more on the Riviera – this time with another English couple – Alec and Barbara Webb in the 1950s. Alec is dying and the National Health can do nothing more for him. And so they bring their three children with them, with Alec preparing to die in the sun.

A crumbling Edwardian home is purchased for them by family members, and they go down for what they believe will be a short time there. But the years drag on. Alec grows weaker and weaker; the children grow older and it’s the girl, Molly, who will be responsible for bringing another man, a part-time actor, into their mother’s lives. When Alec goes, as he will, he will barely be remembered, life carries on as it will, some lives leaving nothing behind but wisps. The hapless Barbara is not a conventionally attractive character with her reckless abandon, her laissez-faire attitude towards money and her children, but such is the strength of Gallant’s writing that we’re drawn to her despite all these failings, compulsively reading on, the light of the Riviera shining throughout the story, illuminating love, and the growth we all twist through as we go on through our lives.

It’s a squalid, post war world, where the bath is rough enough to scour you and the flat reeks of tiredness and poverty
Equally brilliant was ‘The Latehomecomer’. Here we are introduced to Thomas Bestermann in 1950, recently released back to Berlin after being a prisoner of war and being caught up in bureaucratic delays in France, like so many other ‘late homecomers’. He returns to the flat his mother now shares with her new husband, a detail she only tells him about when they are standing at the front door. It’s a squalid, post war world, where the bath is rough enough to scour you and the flat reeks of tiredness and poverty. His brother is still missing, and his mother, in her early forties, is tired and resigned, covering her smile when she laughs, hiding the missing teeth. Strangers now to each other, they must navigate that awful space between them, a place where words can’t correct the chasms of the past.

Gallant's talent shines in this collection of post war lives 

‘Potter’ meanwhile focuses closely on a fortysomething a Polish poet and translator who falls for a feckless twentysomething Canadian girl/woman, Laura. Piotr, called Potter by her, watches as Laura routinely disappears, goes off with another man to Venice, with reassurances that he’s only an ‘old friend’ although they might find themselves in bed together. Piotr has a wife back in Poland, but while that relationship continues to wither away, Laura rips him in two, and we follow his agonising destruction as love tears him apart: “He hesitated; where love was concerned he had lost his bearings.” A beautifully told story that gets to the heart of unrequited love and lust and takes us right into Piotr while also providing a glimpse into the enclosed world of an ex-pat Polish community in Paris.

A meditative piece, a story that moves slowly across a day – Christmas

In ‘His mother’ we peer through the glass inside a Budapest flat: a woman lives alone after her son has managed to get out to Scotland, this is back in the Communist days. He marries, has children and his mother watches from afar, her life filled with memories, the past, letters from her son, “the insignificant sadness of a lifetime” while she shares her flat with a grandfather, and his pregnant granddaughter. She cannot kick them out, they are too powerful, know too much.

In the last story, ‘Irina’ we’re in central Europe now, where a woman who was once married to a powerful man now lives out her days in a flat with a new companion. When her grandson Riri comes to stay, he discovers that life has changed even for her. This is a meditative piece, a story that moves slowly across a day – Christmas – in lives that are quiet, yet no less ‘insignificant’ than any others.

Gallant’s talent in this wonderful collection shines a powerful beam over these lives, over moments, days, decades where the world turns, and lives spin and change in the tumult of the times and all that’s left is to hold on, and accept.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

Mrs Stevens ... 
Its homosexual revelations 
were considered scandalous 
when first published 
Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is re-published by Open Road Media in 2014, with an introduction by Carolyn G Heilbrun. It first appeared in 1965, and was her first openly gay or lesbian novel. Sarton, the poet, diarist and novelist, tried to reject the label “lesbian writer”, preferring to consider herself a writer who plumbed the depths of emotions and relationships, whatever the nature of the relationships being described.

Reading the novel 50 years after initial publication certainly reveals that some books are of their time: what might have been frank and almost shocking back then reads tamely now. The “lesbian” parts of the novel are meek indeed – blink, you feel, and you’d almost miss them. The story centres around the poet and one-time novelist Hilary Stevens, who had success with a novel when she was in her twenties, but has since turned to poetry. The novel takes place within a day of her life as she waits for interviewers from a literary magazine who are coming to talk to her that afternoon about her life and work. Within this framework, Hilary returns to episodes in her life.

"Love opens the doors into everything

Memory forms a counterpoint and backbone to the almost quotidian story of a writer waiting for interviewers, pushed to re-live her life through the past while anticipating their questions. The book reads as a mediation through a writer’s mind – the story weaving and meandering through her past, as she wakes, talks with a young man, Mar, who helps her with her garden, and goes through the hours until the interviewers come. We learns of Hilary’s young marriage, her novelistic success as a young woman in England at the time and her subsequent widowhood.

“Love opens the doors into everything, as far as I can see, including and perhaps most of all, the door into one’s own secret, and often terrible and frightening self,” she tells the young, questing Mar, searching in his own way through his own burgeoning alternative sexuality. The interviewers, Jenny and Peter, are young, polite, conscientious readers of her work, bringing a respect to the proceedings that Hilary has always craved.




Poet, novelist and diarist May Sarton in later years 

They also open the door on another pre-occupation that seems quaint to debate now: whether women can truly be artists given the demands on them to wives and mothers, and the debate runs right through the past, through Hilary’s reminisces into the present day interview. Says Jenny to Peter while they drive down to Hilary: “I guess women pay a pretty high price for whatever talents they have. I guess it’s harder for them than it is for a man, always.” 
 
Peter counters with his belief that, “A writer’s life is obsessed, driven ... I just don’t believe you can do it with your right hand while your left hand rocks a cradle, Jenny!” The debate will come up again, and seem antique reading them from a distance that includes the feminist movement of the 1970s when so many barriers holding women back in the western world have tumbled, and being a woman writer or a woman anything is not quite the struggle it was back in the mid 1960s.

You have to read it rather differently 
Antique too, in its way, is Hilary’s assertion that she loved both men and women – as did Sarton herself. There are no tell-all passages in her reminisces or her comments in the interview with Peter and Jenny – the comments are almost an aside, even, barely there. Yes, they might have been more shocking back in that less frank and more straight-laced era. But reading them against a background of the 21st century means you start wondering what the fuss was about. But that’s the thing with reading this novel – you have to peel away the layers and read it rather differently than a contemporary novel.
 


An old paperback edition of Mrs
Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing 

The revelation of homosexual love was almost scandalous, shocking and Sarton’s publisher advised her against publishing it. That she did was an act of bravery, and meant she was forever after “outed” as a lesbian writer – which, as I mentioned, caused its own discomfort. I was curious to read this classic – having recently come to Sarton via her melodious, almost dream- like published journals. I found it somewhat meandering, with ironically, the past reminisces holding more interest, and containing more meat than the present day narrative.


“Good God, boy, you’ve only just begun!” 
The older Mrs Stevens comes across as somewhat pernickety, too cautious – a contrast to the younger, more daring woman who went on to choose writing as her life’s work. Perhaps that’s a consequence, so to speak, of age – the slowing down. When Mar complains of feeling so tired, at his young age, Hilary exclaims, “Good God, boy, you’ve only just begun!”

And yet, in many ways, this is a rich novel, a story that takes in the vicissitudes of time, what it means to be a writer, and one who lives alone, what it means to love, to survive, to live and question both the times you find yourself in, as well as to attempt to break out of those strictures, as the fictional Hilary Stevens attempted, and as Sarton herself so often achieved. Reading this novel against the biographical elements of Sarton’s life you can’t help comparing the fictional with the real life writer – there seems so much of Sarton transmogrified into the ageing Stevens, finally finding herself in her late, but welcome fame.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Stuff South African White People Like

It’s so often laugh out loud funny –
but at the heart of the witticisms, there’s a ton
of recognition and a truth that runs strong and clear
Stuff South African White People Like
by Christian Lander and Hagen Engler

They say relationships are like mirrors to us, showing us the various ways we interact with the world, highlighting aspects of our personalities we may not even have been aware of.

And so I felt as I read this volume and reached the end, having chuckled my way through so many of the pithy observations about white South Africans. And yet, I also felt strangely illuminated – as though I’d had a mirror thrust before me as a white person – and so much of what I do, think, say and how I react is most certainly, forgive the pun, mirrored back at me in this book. It’s so often laugh out loud funny – but at the heart of the witticisms, there’s a ton of recognition and a truth that runs strong and clear. How extraordinary to both recognise yourself and to be quite moved and affected by a volume that you picked up as a light-hearted read. 

And so to the book: written as sort of a guide to people of the paler hues, there’s advice on how you can get white people to like you, become friends with you and so on. Although so much is tongue in cheek, as I said, there’s so much that strikes right to the heart of whiteness, whether you’re English or Afrikaans speaking. I imagine a lot of whities will buy this one out of curiosity and as a sort of mirroring I’ve mentioned.

 “While white people certainly love ‘the cinema’, they are required to balance their interest in film with an interest in live theatre ...”

It’s divided into short, numbered sections and on first receiving I opened it randomly I came to section no 43 called “Plays”: “While white people certainly love ‘the cinema’, they are required to balance their interest in film with an interest in live theatre ... in spite of plays having minimal sets, so special effects, an interval and a higher admission price, white people believe that theatre is essential to any cultured city. It is not known if white people enjoy plays or if they are just victims of massive peer pressure from the 75 percent of white people who have acted in a play at some point in their lives. The best advice around this subject is to never accept an invitation from a white person or go to see a play. Often you will be supporting their friend or cousin and be stuck with a R10 ticket (at least) and three hours of trying to work out how close you are to the end.”

Ha ha and not a little bit too close to the bird – one of the many reasons I’d never move to (insert small town name in here) is precisely because there’d be no notable plays out on here. OK, OK, as I said close to the bone. Let’s move on.

White people are complicated, say the authors. It’s one of the reasons they delay having children till their late thirties, why dinner parties can be such fraught occasions, why they believe fervently in therapy because it’s hard being so complicated, maybe it’s all the documentaries and “heavy” film festivals they attend?  Here we are with section 57 on Documentaries:  “As viewers white people like to watch these films because it helps them get a basic grasp on a complex issue in an hour or two. After watching a political documentary white people often feel as though they have learnt enough to begin teaching others about what they saw in the film.”

But it’s not all about culture, white people need to eat too and they, “need quality food to service, and where they purchase this food is an important as what they buy. In the white-people community Woolworths Food stores have replaced churches and cathedrals as the most important and relevant buildings in society.”

But quality costs, of course,  and when in a store, “they become unable to gauge what is a reasonable price to pay for anything”. Ouch. 

And the best way to endear a whitie to you? We’re still on food here, turn to the section 145 called “Cheese”: “As with wine, white people are expected to have an extensive and deep knowledge of cheese, cheese regions and proper cheese pairings.” But, never fear, head to Woollies, and “choose a cheese you’ve never heard of ... if you can introduce a white person to a new cheese, it’s like introducing them to a new spouse. They will remember it forever, or at least until they get bored.”

But there’s lots more that will strike a chord – from an almost universal white love of moleskin books, to the fact that so many writers’ retreats are filled with whites, because every white person wants to be a writer, to their love out branded name outdoor clothing (because you never know when a friend will call and invite you to climb a mountain, like, right now so you’d better be dressed for the climb), their love of living by the water and a huge affection toward and need to have dogs. They also only watch eNCA news, because it’s “independent and  stridently critical of the government and cordially respectful of people like Helen Zille and Thuli Madonsela, who keep the government on their toes”.  There’s the ever recurrent threat of emigrating, the almost universal white gap year overseas, the fact that white people made singer Rodriquez into a star before the rest of the world discovered him, and so this proves they have impeccable taste, a love of wooden floors and lastly, let’s not forget a passion for sports – from rugby to cricket – you’re made if you make some comment on the above and ask how the rugby’s going. As the season lasts all year around except for Christmas, you’re safe asking this question as long as there isn’t a bedecked tree in the corner of the room!

This is a wonderful read – the writing is clear, sharp, pithy and witty – both a fun and yes informative and enlightening addition to any bookshelf. Have fun with the reading – but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the mirror they hold up while you’re laughing and reading.

First published in the Pretoria News, October 20 2014 

The Road of Excess by Ingrid Winterbach


The Road of Excess never quite
gains the ground or follows the
momentum of the previous
Winterbach novels I've read in English 
This is vintage Ingrid Winterbach, who writes in Afrikaans, and is one of our most startling and original writers. Translated by Leon de Kock into English, this novel first appeared in 2011 under the title Die benederyk, when it took the 2011 M-Net Prize.

Winterbach’s voice is dry, at times verging on sardonic, and her novels are deceptively layered. They seem simple and straight-forward at first, the storylines following a seemingly simple arc, but it’s what beneath that counts. Four years after first encountering the stories in the English version of To Hell with Cronje, I’m still reeling after encountering the parched physical and emotional landscape of scarred and barely recovering Boer War soldiers as recounted in that story. In The Elusive Moth, I followed the story of Karolina Ferreira, an entomologist, in the equally dry landscape of a small Free State town. Winterbach pulls you, puzzled at first, and leads you out, profoundly moved by the experience.

Unfortunately though, and to my disappointment, The Road of Excess never quite gains the ground, or follows the momentum of the previous Winterbach novels I’ve read in English. There are moments of wit and drama, and a characterisation of a neighbour, Bubbles Bothma, that are high art, but essentially the novel remained flat for me. 

The Road of Excess tells the story of ageing artist, Aaron Adendorff, a widower, and lover of solitude, who finds his fortunes waning. His gallerist, Eddie Knuvelder, has promised him another exhibition, but the man has disappeared, leaving his two assistants fending him off and saying there are no plans for a future exhibition. Aaron feels adrift, cut off. Add to that that he asked to drive two up and coming artists to the Midlands, bored and cynical, they are nevertheless the one raking in the money and the publicity, getting to go to an important Berlin exhibition, a chance now denied him. No wonder Aaron’s mood is sour and disgruntled.

The novel is also peopled by a rich description of two other female characters, his domestic worker, the Sesotho Gloria Sekete, a woman who cleans for him, interrupts his day with her singing, and nasty habits like not using a cutting board to cut bread, splayed out in the kitchen, an inscrutable presence. Nevertheless, she serves as goalkeeper to the solitude he needs to create – keeping unwanted visitors to the door firmly away. Not that there are many.

Until the neighbour, Bubbles Bothma moves in with her frumpy dress sense, a need for lifts, and a way of insinuating herself into his life. Before long he’s giving her lifts, finding himself driving away from some fishy drama that is never explained and, surprisingly, discussing literature with her.  Bubbles, with her badly dyed hair job and her companion, never quite gives up her secrets, staying away for weeks, returning with her demands for a lift. Bubbles lifts the novel out of a moroseness that has settled on the main character, Aaron, and she remains a tour de force of characterisation, even if we never quite find out all we want to about her.

"The name of the game is money, my friend. Where there’s art, there you’ll find the spirit of the times... The prices are way, way out. Astronomical. ...And anything goes. Art’s no longer alternative. Anything can be justified.”

And then, along with Aaron’s self doubt and feeling as if he has been left out in the cold by the artistic world, there’s his brother, troubled soul, Stefaans, a recovering addict. The novel is peppered with Stefaan’s SMSes to his brother – poem-like message filled with family history. Stefaans recounts incidents in their childhood, people they knew, his own life, and those that have populated it – leading Aaron into his own memories of the childhood he shared with his brother.

South African novelist Ingrid Winterbach,
one of SA's most startling and original writers 
No doubt this is a rich, detailed novel, despite the scarcity of characters – those that exist are strongly drawn, and memorable. The narrative swirls with Aaron’s art, his preoccupations – with death for instance, and a desire not politicise it by commenting on events but to go deeper, paint more personal themes.  Art is what feeds his soul he tells the inscrutable Mrs Sekete, and she disagrees.

And yet his obsessions with the absence of colour – using only white, black and red, with some green or orange point to his own soulful aridity. He wants to paint the hand of God, he says, and imagines it coming out of the canvas. 

These descriptions are both vivid and profoundly fascinating to read – the artist at work is always a source of interest.  Poking fun at the sometime pretentiousness of the art world too is rendered in a sidelong glance. One of the pretentious young artists Aaron escorts to the Midlands says, in the full arrogance of youth, “The name of the game is money, my friend. Where there’s art, there you’ll find the spirit of the times... The prices are way, way out. Astronomical. ...And anything goes. Art’s no longer alternative. Anything can be justified.”

Ultimately, it’s Aaron’s moroseness, his depressed character that must see us through this book of oddball characters, discussions of art, and a reaching into memory, and that’s its failing. You try to warm to him, but he remains perennially cold, just out of reach. There’s a lot to commend the story, and Winterbach’s at the height of her craft, if only there were some redeeming features in the figure of Aaron, some way of likinghim, even slightly, to feeling empathy for him. But instead, he pushes you away, which means this book moves along, certainly, but never flies off the page or leave you pondering, and moved long after the initial reading.

First published in the Pretoria News, September 22 2014 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Arctic Summer

Arctic Summer is a fictionalised biography
of the novelist EM Forster
Arctic Summer – a fictionalised biography of the writer EM Forster – marks a significant departure for South African writer Damon Galgut. 

In prose that is rich and languid, with echoes of the early more formal twentieth century language that Forster himself used, Galgut sets this novel firmly in a milieu that is as far away from this country as his other novels weren’t. 

(Although his novellas, In A Strange Room, were partially set in India – that was in a more contemporary setting.) 

The novel opens in October of 1912 as the SS City of Birmingham steams toward India with the novelist EM Forster aboard. He’s 33, has four successful novels behind him. Travelling with friends, he soon meets up with a man, Kenneth Searight, who’s made his life and living in India, and who will open a small window on a world that Forster has been too timid to open himself.

EM Forster lives with his mother, an arrangement that will continue until her death in the 1940s. Independently wealthy from a small inheritance, this means he has no need to work, and can instead devote himself to his writing, as well as moving within the small circuit of society he finds himself in.

And, crucially, Forster is gay, or a “minorite” as he will term it in his own words. One of the reasons he’s off to India is to meet up with a friend of his, Masood, whom he met six years ago in England, while tutoring him in Latin for his law degree.  It will be Forster who will want to take this friendship beyond the borders of that relationship, and Forster who will remain forever disappointed by so many men in his life who, while leaning towards homosexuality, settle for the norms of heterosexuality, in a world where this is more than encouraged and in which the result of Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment loom large over the consciousness of those who come to maturity in the early years of the 20th century. Sexuality frames this book – with each section being named after the men in Forster’s life, whether these were requited or unrequited encounters.   

Running along this seam is the story of Forster, a fictionalised biography that stays close to the facts, detailing both his struggles with writing, his difficult relationship with his somewhat domineering mother, (his absent father, dead) and his continual reaching out to the men in his life, his continual grasp at his sexuality, and search for a companion to share and open up with. This difficulty informs his writing too, and perhaps leads in time to the fact that Forster stopped writing novels after the publication of A Passage to India: “The problem was that he was writing about men and women, about marriage, which were subjects he knew nothing about. It was an ongoing vexation to feel that his true subject was buried somewhere out of reach, and could perhaps never be spoken aloud.”

The book runs back through time – from when Forster first meets Masood, as well as his occasional flirtation with another friend of his, who will seek comfort within the confines of a heterosexual marriage. Or an evening spent with an acquaintance where he meets another man who hints at his suppressed sexuality, and then commits suicide. All along the warnings are there – transgress beyond the norm, let it be known, and, watch out, there be dragons beyond that horizon.

His six months in India remain with him – living on through memories, growing slowly towards the completion of “the Indian novel” which nonetheless takes years. India comes alive within this section – a colonial India of ever-present heat and poverty, as England’s hold on the sub-continent begins to loosen and sway, as the country agitates for independence.

The First World War intervenes, which finds Forster taking a job for the war effort in Egypt. It’s here that he finally unshackles himself of his burdensome sexuality at the age of 37; and then enters into an unequal relationship with an Egyptian tram driver, Mohammed. “His loneliness was now so big that it had become his life...” A loneliness that is only assuaged, and that only in small measure, by this coupling. But there too – time and love, if love is what passes between them in this unequal coupling – is rationed, parcelled out, as life intervenes. Yet, it’s painful reading of this affair – an affair that seems as doomed as any of the unrequited passions Forster must undergo.

And, yet, alongside this, life continues. The war ends, Forster returns home to England, his mother and the stultifying life he leads there, where desires must be subsumed, hidden. Only the writing of his secret erotic stories provide some kind of relief.

The text is sprinkled with the names of the members of the famous Bloomsbury group – Lytton Strachey, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell – and there’s a frisson of pleasure in encountering them within a novelistic setting.

Forster accepts a post a secretary to an Indian Maharajah, returning again to the sub-continent, older, yet, still struggling with his writing: “He’d brought the damned manuscript of his novel with him, thinking that being in India might wake the story up again. But the effect, strangely, was the opposite, the continent pressed on him so hugely that he could barely see it.” And, once more, he tries to find his way through his forbidden sexuality, this time enlisting the help of his boss and paying for it in a more visceral way than ever before. The barber, Kanaya, will serve. The couplings are passion-less; Forster gives vent to his frustration through violence, and for, the first time, one loses sympathy with the man, using his dominant position, subjugating the Indian man meant to please him in a way that is difficult to read about.     

The novel meanders to its conclusion – the publication of Forster’s last novel – which was a major success when he published it in 1924 and ends there. Forster of course lived on, dying in 1970 at the age of 91. There’s a sense of sadness that encloses you as you finish this read – Galgut’s writing is polished, yet crystal-sharp, effortlessly leading you on as the story continues its trajectory. A life unlived in so many instances – and yet who can say a life is truly unlived? Forster lived as he did – making what experiences he could, while caught within the bounds of his own timidity.

Galgut’s sensitively told novel reads as both monument to a man caught within his personality as well as the times he lived, while throwing a harsh spotlight on those times, the strictures and the fears, a time when practising anything but the norm of heterosexuality wasn’t always, sadly, worth the sacrifices.  

Arctic Summer illuminates the man, the writer and the sexual being behind the fame that came to accompany him, in a way that is both sadly enlightening while being compellingly readable.  

First published in the Pretoria News, June 17, 2014 


Ruminations on love and writing: interview with Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard as Oupa in
The Shadow of the Hummingbird
“This is the smallest play I've ever written, but it has generated more noise than the others. I never thought it would impact on people the way it has,” says playwright Athol Fugard. It’s an early weekday morning and I’m talking to him on the wide stoep of the guesthouse where’s he staying while he’s performing in The Shadow of the Hummingbird at the Market Theatre. He’s smoking on his pipe, and the sweet smelling tobacco wafts my way as we talk, mostly about this new play, and its genesis.  His partner, and collaborator on the play, Paula Fourie sits close by smoking.

At times, hadedas punctuate our conversation half way through, flying noisily through the air, screeching their presence at us, a far cry from the quiet shadows and suggestions of the hummingbirds which punctuate this latest play as motif throughout its gentle telling.   

On the surface, The Shadow of the Hummingbird is a quiet play. At just an hour in length, it’s set in two parts. The first sees an old man, a retired South African school teacher, Oupa, now living in retirement in California, played by Fugard himself. He’s kept notebooks for years – and is searching for a particular entry from among the clutter of books and notebooks in his room.

These excerpts are from Fugard’s actual unpublished notebooks – a habit he continues to maintain today. He likens the habit to what Virginia Woolf said about “capturing the image on the wing” and adds that keeping a notebook for writers is akin to the finger exercises of a pianist: “Writers must put pen to paper, capture the flower you’ve seen, the thought you’ve had. One of the questions I always ask young writers is whether they keep a notebook.” 

There’s something about a shadow that Oupa is seeking, and he can’t find it in the play.  He goes through many entries, reading fragments from each.  There are lists of bird sightings – Fugard is an avid bird-watcher – ruminations on death, on the meaningless of the turning of the new year, a paean to Port Elizabeth, love, the eager anticipation of having a grandchild, and the ever elusive search for the entry with the shadow, shadow as metaphor for life itself,  and then the final reckoning.

Paula Fourie, Fugard’s partner and
 co-writer of The Shadow of the Hummingbird
 
Fourie was responsible for writing the first section. Fugard had written the play, but it was too short to be performed, and it was decided that Fourie would edit and go through some of the notebooks, and combine them into the text, hitting upon the idea of Oupa reading the entries. Fourie worked through 20 years of unpublished books. However, as she explains to me, the process was an alchemy in terms of combining fiction and non-fictional elements. Oupa isn’t Fugard – so there were some changes, such as not including the notebook entries on rehearsals for The Captain’s Tiger, for instance. Fugard adds that this really is an example of the collaborative nature of theatre, that theatre itself is a collaborative form.

Fugard explains that there were two seminal images that served as the genesis of the play. When he was based in California, he was writing and kept being alerted to the shadow of hummingbirds flitting around the birdfeeder on the patio outside. “Every morning I watched the shadow for a few minutes.” He also remembered making an entry in my notebooks in the early 1960s when I was writing the Blood Knot – the last entry I read on stage – the seed stayed with me for days.”  

Returning to the play, Oupa’s search is interrupted by the arrival of his grandson, Boba (Marviantos Baker)  who instantly becomes part of a fun game the two appear to have played for years with Boba slaying his grandfather, now the teacher from the black lagoon! Fugard’s real grandson Gavyn served as the inspiration here for the grandson.

This was another opportunity to collaborate further, as Fugard notes. In the American version of the play, which was staged prior to its south African run, the role of the grandson was played by two 10-year-old twins alternating in the role – because of their youth, they served more as foils to the role of Oupa. But Baker, although being 23, could look 13, and thus became an older grandson, “which took the play to a new level, and opened up areas of the play, with Marviantos making his own contributions,” says Fugard. 

On stage, this fun banter and play turns to serious talk as watch the two navigate the realities of their relationship – Oupa is estranged from his “stupid” son – and bonds with his beloved grandson only through these secret meetings. The love between grandfather and grandson, the two is palpable and fierce.

Athol Fugard takes the role of Oupa alongside Marviantos Baker as
Boba, the grandson, in The Shadow of the Hummingbird
This is a cerebral work – and in this last section Oupa quotes an allegory of Plato’s to the boy, and then goes through War and Peace, holding up the book as a standard to this young child, who, in his youth, doesn’t always get all the allusions and references Oupa wants to impart. This is also as much a play about that bond as with the final reckoning and slow acceptance of what’s inevitable, after a long life.

But it’s the thread of love that runs through the play alongside the search for shadows that intrigues and I want to ask about the line of love in the story. In one notebook entry, we hear: “Living through another Death and once again I know that it is only through love that I will resurrect myself.” The vicissitudes and habit of love continue to echo through the story, and then, towards the end, Oupa quotes from Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “What is ‘love’? he thought. Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists. . .everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”  

Fugard says, “Love is the only energy I’ve ever used in writing – if I don’t love that individual on paper, it doesn’t work. But it has presented wonderful challenges, for example in Boesman and Lena, loving Lena, a victim of a dark and complex relationship is easy, and yet with Boesman, the character, I also fell in love with him, although that was a severe challenge. And, in writing, I have to leave negative emotions outside the door, hate, anger, jealousy, it leaves nothing on the paper.” 

For the future, Fugard continues to leave a trail on paper. There’s a new play due to be performed in March next year, and he has an idea for a second novel, perhaps to be titled, Dry Remains, the title taken from the five stages of decay the body goes through after death, from fresh to bloat, active decay, advanced decay and finally dry remains.  “Maybe we can look at a life in the same way,” he muses. (begin poss cut: His first, novel, Tsotsi, was turned into a successful film in 2005. 

But for now, Fugard is treading the boards again – an acting role he took on because, “I felt I could do a better job of Oupa than anyone else. He’s performed the role from the US to South Africa, and describes the first performance in the US as “like being in a holding cell of the gallows. But Oupa posses me so completely on stage. In a strange sense I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Perhaps,” says Fourie, “Oupa is a version of you, what you could have become?” She’s referring to the fact that Fugard may have become a teacher.

“Partly that,” he answers, “there’s something else though.”

As he says goodbye and steps through the wooden doors of the guesthouse, I remember the other phrases he used early on in referring to himself, and the mix between him and character he plays. Eyes laughing he’d said, “It’s me in my various disguises – as an old schoolteacher or you can also call me Helen Martins in drag!” in an allusion to the play, A Road to Mecca. Or, another line he used to refer to himself, eyes, twinkling, taking delight in the strange twist of words of juxtaposition of thought: “A man who loves in strange and crooked ways.”  


First published in The Sunday Independent and Weekend Argus, August 17 2014