Other writers

A Writer's Diary

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Relaunching a minor classic of South African writing.

Address by Tanya Wilson at the Book Lounge | 26 August.

Casting an eye over the titles of papers to be delivered at an academic conference in English studies: I wonder whether the authors of almost all these papers do not feel that deep, if secret, shame that comes from recognizing that they are a mere chorus-line dancing to the tune of someone else's music and choreography. I am reminded, in short, of those occasions when I felt myself to be someone who has failed in that primal obligation: to be an autonomous human being. And the almost ontological sense of guilt that goes with it.

Stephen Watson, A Writer's Diary | 8 April 1996.

On the Brink of the Mundane

On the Brink of the Mundane

Rereading Ivan Vladislavić: The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative.

(Much) shorter version at the New Statesman, 9 January 2015: Lost in Joburg: One of South Africa's most accomplished prose stylists gets a timely reissue.

Do copy-editors still use their time-honoured signs: the confident slashes, STETs and arrowheads, the fallen-down S that means transpose? Or is everything now done via the garish bubbles of MS Word Track changes?

Midway through Ivan Vladislavić’s 2001 novel The Restless Supermarket, the proudly anachronistic narrator Aubrey Tearle gives a disquisition on the delete mark. As a retired proofreader, regular writer of letters to the editor, and grumpy but occasionally endearing old man, he suggests that of all his erstwhile profession’s charms, this is the most beautiful and mysterious:

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I and I

I and I

Meeting Geoff Dyer.

Edited version published in the Mail&Guardian | 23 December 2014.

Can I use ‘I’ in my essays? The question, often asked by first-year literature students, isolates the problem succinctly. The first I in the sentence means me, the special, singular, irreplaceable self; the second is a devious linguistic particle: a shifty, worn-out pronoun forced on us all the moment we enter language. And the perilous thing about book festivals is that they tend to collapse the two. The I who has been flown out to Cape Town and given a name-tag is now asked to answer for, or ‘speak to’, the I on the page.

In this case, Geoff Dyer, with whom I sat chatting during the Open Book festival in September this year while we waited for a panel on ‘The Art of the Essay’ to begin – a bit like TV newsreaders used to before or after the bulletin. I told him that he was one of only two people I had ever written a fan letter to (the other was Terry Pratchett, but I was ten years old then). I asked him if he actually enjoyed going to literary festivals, being interviewed, the whole scene. ‘I can honestly say’, he replied, ‘that the only reason I write any more is to be invited to literary festivals’.

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Index

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Found poem

I always suspected the city was a falsification
I arrived too late
I bought it from a street vendor in Naples
I cannot find the title
I cannot remember
I can still adjust the devotional picture so your reconciliation with necessity may be known
I couldn't choose
I did not learn this today
I don't know who (who the hell)
I bequeath to the four elements
I don't understand how you can write poems about the moon

I Gave My Word
I have never believed in the spirit of history
I just close my eyes

The Life of the Mine

Remembering Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

Business Day | 22 July 2014.

‘…From the first lines of her first novel, The Lying Days, her prose has been scoured clean of any naïve lyricism. Its opening chapter, ‘The Mine’, unfolds as a virtuoso piece of descriptive prose: a complex narrative voice weaves us through the complex social geography of Rec Club and Married Quarters, of concession stores and the Compound, from where the general manager ‘borrows’ teams of off-shift miners to tend his enormous, lush garden. As someone who also grew up on a deep-level mining town, I can remember the extraordinary scale of these Company gardens, watered with undrinkable effluent from the workings underground, spilling all the way down the slope to the golf course where that contaminated water could still be smelt on all the fairways…’

Those single unshaded bulbs which burned everywhere in the prodigality of ‘mine electricity’, making the mine’s own daylight in sheds and offices and fly-screened Quarters of the Property, go out – following economic decrees as apparently immutable as natural laws.

Nadine Gordimer, On the Mines (1973).

Don't say 'problematize'...

For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of yourself; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist.  Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem...

...We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.

Virginia Woolf, ‘The Modern Essay’ (1925).

UCT lecturer in English Hedley Twidle presents the work of his top three graduate students from a seminar he ran this year on writing professional review essays. In this, the first of a three-part feature, SLiPnet presents Twidle’s introductory thoughts on the review essay as a literary-critical form, followed by UCT graduate student Anneke Rautenbach’s review of Dana Snyman’s book, The Long Way Home.

What is a review? What is an essay? And what is a review essay?

We discussed these questions during a recent seminar on (so-called) literary non-fiction at the University of Cape Town. The idea was to explore more varied, public and perhaps more lucrative modes of writing about literature than the research “paper”, or end-of-term “assignment” – both rather insipid terms for the kind of pieces that Honours and Masters students are required to produce.

In bald economic terms, postgraduate study consists in paying someone to read your work (sometimes a couple of external examiners too) and there it ends. But what about getting paid, and so contributing to a wider dialogue, all without sacrificing intelligence, rigour and (if necessary) difficulty? And how much self can one insert into an essayistic response to a text before it becomes self-indulgent? [Continue reading...]

Autobiographobia

Chekov had what he described to another correspondent in 1899 as “autobiographobia”... Seven years earlier, when V. A. Tikhonov, the editor of a journal called Sever, asked him for biographical information to accompany a photograph, Chekov made this reply: Do you need my biography? Here it is. In 1860 I was born in Taganrog. In 1879 I finished my studies in the Taganrog school. In 1884 I finished my studies in the medical school of Moscow University. In 1888 I received the Pushkin Prize. In 1890 I made a trip to Sakhalin across Siberia—and back by sea. In 1891 I toured Europe, where I drank splendid wine and ate oysters. In 1892 I strolled with V.A. Tikhonov at [the writer Shcheglov’s] name-day party. I began to write in 1879 in Strekosa. My collections of stories are Motley Stories, Twilight, Stories, Gloomy People, and the novella The Duel. I have also sinned in the realm of drama, although moderately. I have been translated into all languages with the exception of the foreign ones. However, I was translated into German quite a while ago.

The Czechs and Serbs approve of me. And the French also relate to me. I grasped the secrets of love at the age of thirteen. I remain on excellent terms with friends, both physicians and writers. I am a bachelor. I would like a pension. I busy myself with medicine to such an extent that this summer I am going to perform some autopsies, something I have not done for two or three years. Among writers I prefer Tolstoy, among physicians, Zakharin. However, this is all rubbish. Write what you want. If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical.

From Janet Malcolm, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001).

How to change your view of Africa | Chimurenga in the FT

Simon Kuper in the Financial Times | 27 January 2012. I once had coffee in Cape Town with a Cameroonian named Ntone Edjabe. He ran an English-language journal called Chimurenga, but what I remembered from our chat were his vignettes of Lagos (where he’d studied) and Johannesburg (where he went next). In Lagos, he said, you’d be driving down the highway and suddenly see a guy selling cars on the highway. Lagos was crazy, and yet it felt entirely safe. Whereas Johannesburg seemed sane, but never felt safe.

I sent Edjabe some articles, but otherwise forgot about Chimurenga until a recent issue arrived in the mail. (Declaration of interest: I’m proud to say I have an article in it.) I read it and was staggered. I’d always thought the zenith of journalism was The New Yorker, but in parts, Chimurenga is better.

It’s also more surprising: I love well-off media types from New York or London, but by now we do tend to know how they think. By contrast, reading Chimurenga you keep thinking, “Who knew?” Who knew that (as one article recounts) Bloemfontein has a literary scene of authors and critics writing for no money, guided by a Nigerian immigrant, and headquartered in an Afrikaans literature museum? Chimurenga changes your view of Africa, and of journalism... [Continue reading]

Chasing Shadows

  Santu Mofokeng | Chasing Shadows

These photographs explore a part of me which I have so far neglected in my work, – my spirituality. There are several reasons why it was ignored: ambivalence, embarrassment, fear of the political and other implications or perhaps the deflection of my gaze...

I grew up on the threshing floor of faith. A faith that is both ritual and spiritual – a bizarre cocktail of beliefs that completely embraces pagan rituals as well as Christian beliefs. And while I feel reluctant to partake in this gossamer world, I can identify with it. It does not strike me as 'peculiar'. Yet, I still try to avoid being trapped in its hypnotic embrace, which seems to mock my carefully cultivated indifference and self confidence. I feel ambivalent about my ambivalence, embarrassed at my embarrassment.

Santu Mofokeng, 1997.

Platform | South African Photography and Contemporary Literature Zoe Wicomb and Ivan Vladislavic | Bergen Kunsthall, 14 January, 2012.

From Venice to Varanasi | James Wood on Geoff Dyer

Walter Benjamin once said that every great work dissolves a genre or founds a new one. But is it only masterpieces that have a monopoly on novelty? What if a writer had written several works that rose to Benjamin’s high definition, not all great, perhaps, but so different from one another, so peculiar to their author, and so inimitable that each founded its own, immediately self-dissolving genre? The English writer Geoff Dyer delights in producing books that are unique, like keys. There is nothing anywhere like Dyer’s semi-fictional rhapsody about jazz, “But Beautiful,” or his book about the First World War, “The Missing of the Somme,” or his autobiographical essay about D. H. Lawrence, “Out of Sheer Rage,” or his essayistic travelogue “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.” You can spot Dyer’s antecedents and influences—Nietzsche, Roland Barthes, Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera, John Berger, Martin Amis—but not his literary children, because his work is so restlessly various that it moves somewhere else before it can gather a family. He combines fiction, autobiography, travel writing, cultural criticism, literary theory, and a kind of comic English whining. The result ought to be a mutant mulch but is almost always a louche and canny delight...

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/04/20/090420crbo_books_wood

The Intimate Orwell

The Intimate Orwell by Simon Leys | The New York Review of Books.

Diaries  by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison London: Harvill Secker.

Even in the heat of battle, and precisely because he distrusted ideology—ideology kills—Orwell remained always acutely aware of the primacy that must be given to human individuals over all “the smelly little orthodoxies.” His exchange of letters (and subsequent friendship) with Stephen Spender provides a splendid example of this. Orwell had lampooned Spender (“parlour Bolshevik,” “pansy poet”); then they met: the encounter was actually pleasant, which puzzled Spender, who wrote to Orwell on this very subject. Orwell, who later became a friend of Spender’s, replied:

You ask how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you…. [Formerly] I was willing to use you as a symbol of the parlour Bolshie because a. your verse…did not mean very much to me, b. I looked upon you as a sort of fashionable successful person, also a Communist or Communist sympathiser, & I have been very hostile to the C.P. since about 1935, and c. because not having met you I could regard you as a type & also an abstraction. Even if, when I met you, I had happened not to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet someone in the flesh you realise immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken with anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labour M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes & are lost forever more...