Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World

A collection of my essays and creative non-fiction. Kwela Books, 2017.

This is just a glimpse of my Experiences in an Abnormal World. I intend writing a Book if I ever have the opportunity, but medical attention is what I need at present.
Demitrios Tsafendas, Letter from Pretoria Central Prison

Excerpt in The Johannesburg Review of Books, 3 July 2017
The Firepool, Financial Times, 18 August 2017
Interview with Eusebius Mckaiser, Radio 702, 31 August 2017
Top 10 South African books of the year, Sunday Times, 12 December 2017

Real book available from The Book Lounge, Love Books and all good book stores
International shipping from Exclusive Books | E-book available on Amazon

Mentally exhilarating! A book I will return to again and again, both for its uncommon insights, and the quiet beauty of its prose.
Rebecca Davis

Hedley Twidle's work is exquisitely crafted, clever, self-deprecating, and, above all, deeply thoughtful. We are lucky to have a writer of his calibre working on contemporary South African material.
Jonny Steinberg

Hedley Twidle is an essayist of rare brilliance. His reach is remarkable. Whatever subject he touches, his writing is always luminous, astute and often darkly funny.
Rob Nixon

The sequence of the essays behaves almost as a collection of paintings – a polyptych of stories that are each exquisite and then add other layers as they ricochet against one another. 
Business Day

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A Very Strange Relationship

A Very Strange Relationship

Life writing, overwriting and the scandal of biography.

Reflecting on the Gordimer-Roberts affair: Biography, 41:1 (2018). Abstract.

Letter from Nadine Gordimer to an ‘importuning friend - or at least acquaintance’ (1973):

About our longstanding but tenuous relationship. You know, Ben, we have never been intimate friends. My intimates are very few indeed, and as time goes by and life gets shorter and art runs tantalisingly ahead and can't ever be firmly grasped, I see even my intimates more and more infrequently. And I don't make new ones. As for coming out to lunch with you, I can tell you again quite honestly that I never go out to lunch with anyone. It upsets my whole day. In the morning, I am conscious that at 12:30 I must go and change and paint my face; and in the afternoon, I'm drowsy from the luncheon wine or distracted by the talk. I've had to fight to keep myself to myself - after all, I've lived for more than twenty years in a family surrounded by husbands, children, and the need to consider and feed and listen to them. I've had, perforce, to create a self-discipline. And now I can't live any other way. That's how it is. You seem to have some sort of social inferiority complex (God knows why) that makes you believe that I snub you or don't like you. This is not the case at all, but I am embarrassed by your persistence in wanting to claim more from me than I am prepared to give. I don't want heart-to-heart talks, I don't want to be analysed and assessed, even though some might find that sort of close interest flattering. I don't want to enlarge the very small circle of friends for whom, once in a long while, I must take the trouble to cook dinner. So forgive me and accept our old, friendly acquaintance for what it is.

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Teaching / Writing

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Creative and otherwise.

Thirteen Ways in At the Foot of the Volcano: Reflections on Teaching at a South African University. ed. Susan Levine. HSRC Press, 2018.

... Showing examples of Cubism alongside such a poem is effective, of course, since students of the twenty-first century have visual literacy skills that are immensely advanced: the challenge is to get them to ‘translate’ such analytic techniques from the visual to the textual. Which is not always easy: ‘One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses,’ John Ashbery remarks in The Paris Review, ‘but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience’.

Without mentioning structuralism or De Saussure or using the word ‘signifier’, I also tried to broach the idea that ‘blackbird’ could in one sense be seen as an entirely arbitrary choice, easily replaceable with another word in this verbal algorithm. An ex-colleague of mine (now at Wits University) had been compulsively working up variations of the poem on his Facebook wall, and I shared one of them:

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of J.M. Coetzee.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three J.M. Coetzees.

[…]

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That J.M. Coetzee is involved
In what I know.

Monsoon Raag

A journey in sound.

The days would begin with singing, but we never quite knew where it was coming from. Male voices in unison drifting into our room while it was still dark, at the edge of waking. Early morning singing or chanting in Fort Kochi, voices coming from…we could never tell exactly: maybe the Basilica, the rooftop mediation hall beyond the football pitch, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association over towards Mattancherry. Days were edged by this unison singing, in and out of sleep, the sound of people beginning the day together.

*

‘Join us for a morning raag’, said the man at the Kathakali Theater, bringing his palms together, bowing slightly, dropping his voice to whisper: ‘Most welcome’. He had one of those voices that tickles the eardrum, that creates ASMR-like shivers even at a distance, that you want never to stop. We would bow and intone it huskily to each other all through two months of travel in south India and Sri Lanka: ‘Most welcome’.

The idea is distinctive to Indian classical music – that certain scales and melodic sets are associated with certain times of day, or seasons of the year: the heat, the rains. But it seems (once you have heard it) utterly logical, beautiful, impossible to do without. A raag, or raga, is not quite a scale (because many ragas can be based on the same scale), and not really a tune (because the same raga can yield an infinite number of tunes.) It has no direct translation in Western music theory, but with it comes the idea that certain patterns of sound have specific effects on the mind and body, that they colour things, hence the Sanskrit origin of the word raag: concerned with pigments and tinting, tingeing or dyeing.

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N2

Reading, writing, walking the South African highway.

Social Dynamics 43:1 (2017).
Less academic version appears as 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at the N2' in Firepool.

N2. Curled up in that tiny alphanumeric are thousands of kilometres, hundreds of service stations, millions of tons of concrete. N2 can mean a London bus route; an intelligence officer in the US Navy; an anti-nuclear song by the Japanese indie group Asian Kung-Fu Generation. But for my purposes it is the longest highway in South Africa, which starts at an unfinished flyover near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly) for over 2 000 kilometres, then bends north and west below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

Major highways are not thought about much. They are pieces of infrastructure that (if working as intended) efface themselves, receding from view in the mirror. In his hidden history of the UK’s motorway system, Joe Moran suggests that this bland corporate terrain of tarmac, underpasses and thermoplastic road markings is ‘the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape’ in Britain: ‘The road is almost a separate country, one that remains under-explored not because it is remote and inaccessible but because it is so ubiquitous and familiar.’

Perhaps because of the late age at which I (after many failed attempts) got my driver’s licence, piloting vehicles along strips of tarmac has never quite lost its strangeness for me, and the psychology and social behaviours associated with driving are, I believe, complex and neglected domains. With the passing of the era of cheap oil, future humanity will look back on our cities with wonder, disbelief and disgust at how totally urban spaces were shaped around the velocities and demands of the private vehicle. So, an important strategy for environmental writing in the 21st century might be to estrange the practice of everyday life, to conduct an anthropology not of the distant and exotic, but rather of the near, the mundane, the everyday.

‘What speaks to us, seemingly,’ wrote Georges Perec in 1973, ‘is always the big event, the untoward, the extraordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motorcars is to drive into plane trees.’ But, he goes on, in our haste to measure ‘the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. “Social problems” aren’t “a matter of concern” when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.’

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Perception of Doors

Perception of Doors

A wry and delicate novel about the ancient human fact of migration.

Journey's End. Review of Mohsin Hamid, Exit WestFinancial Times, 25 February, 2017.

The tragedy of Europe today, Mohsin Hamid has suggested in his essays and journalism, is an inability to articulate a desirable future. Whether in Discontent and its Civilizations, his collected dispatches from New York, London and Lahore (the three cities he has called home), or his reflections on Britain’s response to refugees, he sees modern nation states as mired in an illusory nostalgia that forgets an ancient history of human wandering and scattering, of border-crossing and diaspora.

So what might the future look like if the free world extended real freedom of movement to the millions of people who choose to (or have no choice but to) leave their homes and seek a life elsewhere? This is the question that underlies his latest novel, Exit West, a thought experiment that pivots on the crucial figure of this century: the migrant.

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The Sound of Islay

The Sound of Islay

Introducing the Bodley Head / FT essay competition.

Financial Times | 11 November 2016.

1.

Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exaggeration. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live – and the days were getting shorter. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red waterproof panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies – stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you just arrive and take your chances.

I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to the ferry port on Loch Tarbert – one of the long fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. This was a mistake, since there was too much traffic on the mainland. Massive cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle in the lulls between showers but was soaked through my Gore-Tex by rain and truck spray. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst regularly into tears on the hard shoulder – homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.

Things improved when I boarded the ferry to Islay (pronounced Eye-La). A couple bought me lunch because I fixed their punctures. All us cyclists rolled off the boat ahead of the vehicles – we would encounter each other at different jetties and pubs and bunkhouses all through the isles: instant camaraderie. I visited distilleries and hiked to a bothy in a remote cove. The cottage was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots all arranged there like the Marie Celeste. I half-expected a party of spectral hill walkers to come back any minute, but no one ever did. It was just me, myself and I – pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights.

When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place where you must constantly check yourself for ticks, since the island is full of deer. Jura is also (I learned) the place where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four, and worked on the memoir ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fictional prose – and I have always taken it as significant that this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. Orwell would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped – boulders being stirred on the ocean bed, like the long, drawn-out roar of a passing plane.

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Sea Power

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From Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, and back again.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard (excerpts) | Africa is a Country | 10 September 2013.
With photographs by David Southwood | Memory Card Sea Power.

A genre-busting book, Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard does a rare thing: it is non-fiction that breaks the mould of works that look in on the continent from the outside. It shows the ancient and complex connections that exist within and beyond African borders in emotional, historical, cultural and metaphysical ways that others shirk from.
Billy Kahora

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Could Do Better

Could Do Better

Not sure about J. M. Coetzee's Schooldays.

New Statesman | 5 October 2016 | PDF

Finding it very hard to muster any reaction whatsoever to J M Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus, I broke an unspoken rule and quickly clicked through the early reviews. TheAustralian provided a loyal, deferential description of the latest novel by its best-known literary immigrant, but most responses ranged from the cool to the exasperated. Under the heading “J M Coetzee has lost the plot”, one reviewer suggested that the most affecting page in the book is the one that lists the 2003 Nobel laureate’s previous works.

I had also been pondering this forbidding, vaguely hourglass-shaped litany of literary achievement – flipping back to it repeatedly when coming (generally nonplussed) to the end of the book’s short, gnomic chapterlets. At the top of the list, there are the longish early titles, such as In the Heart of the Country and Life and Times of Michael K; at the bottom, it widens out again into the recent collaborations with Paul Auster (Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011) and Arabella Kurtz (The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy). In the centre, the one-word narrow waist formed by Disgrace: a novel widely lauded abroad but often reviled in Coetzee’s native South Africa, and one that seems to have marked the end of a certain kind of risk-­taking in his work.

This latest book continues a retreat into more cerebral, disembodied fictional worlds – novels advanced largely by stilted, rather coy Platonic dialogue through which characters emerge less as verbal approximations of people than philosophical propositions, to be tested in a carefully controlled, not to say sterile environment.

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The Institute for the Less Good Idea

The Institute for the Less Good Idea

Visiting William Kentridge at his Johannesburg studio.

Profile for Financial Times magazine | 2 September 2016 | [PDF].

My (longer) edit, with The Nose reinstated:

I knew I was at the right place because of the cats. Two sculpted, spiky creatures faced each other atop the gates in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthy, jacaranda-shrouded suburbs. I recognized them from drawings, etchings and films – in which cats emerge from radios (Ubu Tells the Truth), curl into bombs (Stereoscope), turn into espresso pots (Lexicon). Now they had become metal, swinging open to reveal a steep driveway and above it a brick and glass building perched on stilts amid foliage: the studio. A gardener directed me past some cycads to the right entrance and there an assistant ushered me in to meet William Kentridge. He was wearing a blue rather than a white collared shirt, but in all other aspects conformed to his self-appointed uniform: black trousers, black shoes, the string of a pince-nez knotted through a button hole, the lenses stowed in a breast pocket when they were not on his nose.

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Half-lives, Half-truths

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Svetlana Alexievich and the nuclear imagination.

Reflecting on Voices from Chernobyl for the South Africa PEN essay series
18 August 2016.

In my twenties I worked for a while as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went ok, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You never worried whether the person next to you was enjoying it. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.

I watched hundreds of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that “The Fat Years Are Over” – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They take him to a remote cabin and try some political re-education, intent on making him see the error of his ways. (It turns out, of course, that he was once a passionate anarchist in his youth.) I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise – this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue – is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point...

Read more on the PEN SA website 

Kingdom of Rain

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An interview with Rustum Kozain.

The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes — which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals...

Wasafiri, 31:2 | 2016 | 76-80

RK [...] The idea of sonority — I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] — that I can’t write like LKJ in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.
HT I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness...

Dagga (An Extract)African Cities Reader 1

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?
– Gilles Deleuze

Literatures of Betrayal

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Risk, collaboration and collapse in post-TRC narrative.

The Eleventh International Conference for Literary Journalism Studies ‘Literary Journalism: Telling the Untold Stories’. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande so Sul. Porto Alegre, Brazil, 19-21 May 2016.

Abstract

While the first decade of post-apartheid South African literary production saw a range of works which responded with journalistic and impressionistic immediacy to the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the second decade of democracy has been marked by a wave of what might be called post-TRC texts: more distant and recessed forms of accounting for the ‘unfinished business’ of the transition. This piece explores a series of texts that grapple with questions of betrayal and collaboration in the varied and complex senses of those words. Hugh Lewin’s Stones Against the Mirror (2011) meditates on the collapse of the African Resistance Movement after one of its key members betrayed his closest friends in the mid-1960s. Jacob Dlamini’s Askari (2014) explores ‘The Strange Saga of Mr X1’, a man who defected from the ANC’s armed struggle to become one of the most notorious collaborators with apartheid’s deaths squads. The co-authored work There Was this Goat (2009) addresses itself to an ostensibly ‘strange’ or ill-fitting TRC testimony by Notrose Nobomvu Konile, the mother of a young man betrayed and killed by apartheid operatives as one of the Gugulethu Seven in 1986. Each of these texts is about an historical act of betrayal; but at the same time their ambitious and experimental ways of telling risk other forms of unstable, contentious or ‘disloyal’ disclosure in the public sphere. As such, I argue for an idea of the literary as a work of betrayal in multiple senses: one which allows us to glimpse what the act of assembling and responding to cultural texts might involuntarily reveal about the post-apartheid settlement in a larger sense: its conditions of rhetorical possibility, its cultural strictures and the contours of increasingly fragile expressive spaces.

The TRC’s purpose was not to dispense justice but rather, as its grandiose name suggests, to extract from its witnesses a collective historical truth with which to reconcile a divided country. But what if the truth is not comforting? What if the truth is useless? What if too much of that truth is irretrievably lost to the past, because the only people who knew it were killed by it?

Philip Gourevitch, New Yorker, 30 April 2012.

Xolobeni and the Violence of 'Development'

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Screening and panel discussion hosted by Environmental Humanities South.

For over a decade, members of the Amadiba community in Xolobeni have expressed their opposition to mining titanium on the sand dunes of Pondoland, on the Wild Coast of South Africa. This community is also opposing the extension on the N2 toll highway that will be required to transport the minerals from this remote rural area.

In screening ‘The Shore Break’ documentary, we hope to open a conversation about how to think beyond the language of ‘development’, with its many binaries and trade-offs. How to listen to those affected? How to engage without imposing? How to imbue political voice? How to overcome the binary language of development discourse, which is framed as for or against, either/or, mining versus ecotourism?

The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

Curriculum change: problems and possibilities. 

Third Space Symposium: Decolonisation and the Creative Arts. ICA | Hiddingh Hall, University of Cape Town | 13-14 May 2016.

Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? | New York Review of Books | 9 October 1986:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions...The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading…”

If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.

It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.

What is this thing called ‘literature’, and how does it work? What does it mean to read the classics from where we are – Shakespeare and 19th-century novels transplanted to southern Africa like those street signs, DICKENS, COLERIDGE, KIPLING, set down incongruously in the suburbs of Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River? Are we dealing with ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’? What is the purpose of it all anyway, when others in the university are working on solar panels or vaccines for drug-resistant TB? What will be in the exam?

These are questions that all of us teaching in the big undergraduate courses must field and grapple with each year. We have to think hard about how to broach the core ideas of literary studies over thirteen weeks. How to do this in a way that is engaging and critically astute, but also so that it will not exclude any members of the student body? It is all very well to talk about how the literary work might ‘estrange’ what we think we know, and make the familiar unfamiliar. But how can theoretical ideas of productive artistic difficulty be explored in a way that does not estrange members of the student body – many of whom, at least in first year, do not have English as a first language.

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Negative Spaces

Negative Spaces

A visit to a deconstruction site.

Diary, Financial Times, 15 April 2016 | PDF

Deconstruction: a notoriously hard-to-define mode of textual analysis associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, distantly descended (my Dictionary of Critical Theory tells me) from Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that there are no facts, only interpretations.

But also, I recently learned, a term in architecture and building. Deconstruction means the selective dismantlement, repurposing and reimagining of existing physical structures. The other day I was shown around a deconstruction site in the docklands of Cape Town, where a 90-year-old grain silo complex is slowly being converted into the biggest museum for modern art on the African continent.

Taking as its centrepiece the collection of businessman Jochen Zeitz, the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) may sound a bit like a German-engineered coffee maker. But this not-for-profit institution, set to open in September next year, is being touted as our answer to the power station that became Tate Modern, or the Nabisco factory on the Hudson river that is now DIA Beacon.

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Nuclear Summer

Nuclear Summer

A walk through South Africa's nuclear pasts and futures.

Power Trip: Where will Zuma's nuclear dreams take us?
Sunday Times, 7 Feb 2016 | Photographs by Neil Overy (above) and Barry Christianson.

Recently I took part in a "walking residency", making my way from Cape Point to the centre of Cape Town. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics - 12 of us hiked along coastlines and firebreaks and through informal settlements.

We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the site of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the landmass; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. We put away our electronic devices and began remembering our dreams...

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Waterlog

Waterlog

A journey through the public pools of greater Cape Town.

Solitary but sociable, easeful but dangerous, gloriously escapist but inescapably political - a swimmer’s progress is full of paradoxes...

Openings columnFinancial Times, 8 January, 2016.

Waterlog #3 | Sea Point Pool | 19.01.16

Since Silvermine there have been terrible heat waves; fires leaving smoke all over the city’s horizon; helicopters toiling through the night, scooping up water from the reservoirs, dropping it in tiny white plumes on the shoulder of Devils’ Peak.

A banner appeared, taking up the whole face of an apartment building at the top of Long Street: Zuma Must Fall. Then an ANC-led march ripped it down, turning on a man who (allegedly) called out Zuma se ma se poes! On social media, self-appointed pundits explain that singling out the President is tantamount to racism, and that mob violence is only to be expected. People can only be insulted for so long.

Can you blame a man for wanting to go to the water?

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The Art of Fear

The Art of Fear

A novelistic re-imagining of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich.

Review of Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time.
Financial Times | 15 January 2016.

On January 28 1936, Pravda carried the most chilling music review of the 20th century. “Muddle Instead of Music” was an unsigned editorial but many suspected that Stalin himself had penned it: only a dictator could get away with so many grammatical errors. Two days earlier he had walked out of an opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, leaving its composer Dmitri Shostakovich white with fear. Until then, the work had been acclaimed worldwide, but now the 29-year-old’s success was turned against him: “Is it not because the opera is non-political and confusing that they praise it? Is it not explained by the fact that it tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music?” An opportunity for clear, realistic art that could uplift the people had been squandered by this straying into dissonance, cacophony and “formalism”: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.”

The short text changed Shostakovich’s life utterly. He cut it out and started a scrapbook of all the attacks against him orchestrated by the Party, studying them carefully, working out how to survive the coming terror. “Now they were not just reviewing his music,” we read in The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s novelistic reinhabiting of the composer’s world, “but editorialising about his existence”.

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A Useless Life

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Literary biography and the limits of 'research'.

Visions of Tsafendas | Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies | Volume 16, Issue 4, 2015.

Research seminar, research cluster, research output. The word is almost a fetish within the contemporary academy—but what does “research” actually mean in a discipline like literature? And what happens when a research project overspills its bounds, or pushes up against disciplinary limits and protocols? In this piece, I explore such questions via the figure of Demetrios Tsafendas, the “mad Greek” who assassinated apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, supposedly acting on instructions from a tapeworm inside him. It is one of the strangest facts in South African history; it is also, of course, a kind of fiction, and one that has been refracted into a range of literary and artistic works. Reading across both official and “creative” archives, I address a range of methodological problems that I encountered in attempting an academic treatment of Tsafendas and his (as the presiding apartheid judge put it) “useless life”.

Download PDF.