Essays

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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Juice Time

A wayward tribute to Alice Munro... and Raymond E. Feist.

Electricity gone down from Flower Road to Davenport. No internet on a Sunday. Peace.

Yesterday’s swimming is still in me, in my shoulders and hair. Clifton 3 ½ beach with A. We splash out to the rock, but are too cautious to jump off it, slide back into the water over the barnacles. We run into Anna, Jemma and their friends, in knitted swimwear and dungarees. ‘Mary’s daughters’, says A., ‘They march to the sound of their own djembe.’ The beach is packed: the real girls thread their way between the incorrigible babes, looking for a place. Today the wind has stopped entirely and I want to go back. But she is having lunch with her grandparents and I know that a swim that perfect comes only once a year.

Reluctant to start work over the last weeks: lazy, a little depressed. To remedy it I try to break all routines, to force the days into new shapes. Sitting in a Turkish steam room in mid-afternoon. Shopping for shirts with D. at 9am, when the Waterfront is deserted. We have fish and chips at 11am and he says the harbour scene reminds him of the Canadian island where he grew up. Not the motorized pirate boat pulling out with the tourists, but the cranes and industrial mess behind. I ask if he is proud of Alice Munro and the Nobel.

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N2

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Financial Times | 20 September 2013.

The N2 is the longest highway in South Africa. It starts at an intersection near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly), then bends inland below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

It is 2,241km long. Can it be done justice in 2,241 words?

Original (and longer) version published in the wonderful Prufrock magazine: www.prufrock.co.za

Indefinite Delay

Prisoner in the GardenThe Last Days of Nelson Mandela. New Statesman10 October 2013. Cover Story. ...Caught off-guard in someone else’s charade, resisting it, indignant, defiant – the image captures something of Mandela’s ubiquity and distance, the hypervisibility but simultaneous opacity of the man. And just as his passing is not fitting any of the pre-rehearsed scripts, so his words, preserved in the world memory of the internet, point towards some other, different calculus of the political and personal that has already passed away – a language that is anachronistic, delayed, unsettlingly late...

History written on a woman's body

2013+09 Pistorius.inddNew Statesman | 6 March 2013.

The 14th of February was an eerie day in Cape Town: the heat, the road closures, the sense of a city under lockdown ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address that Valentine’s Day evening. And all the while, in a gated complex in Pretoria, where Reeva Steenkamp, the 29-year-old model and girlfriend of the Olympian/Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, had been shot, the biggest news story of the year was breaking...  [Continue reading] Original magazine article [PDF].

Getting Past Coetzee

A winning piece written by a South African academic working in the shadow of the Booker-winning author.

Financial Times | 28 December 2012.

Ebook | (Vintage Digital)

There remains the matter of getting past Coetzee. Dusklands (1974).

There is an odd made-for-television documentary from 1997 which shows footage of JM Coetzee conducting a guided tour of Cape Town’s southern suburbs. From the slopes of Table Mountain he points out the hospital where he was born; the suburb of Plumstead where he lived as a young boy; the university campus where he spent much of his academic career. A colleague recalls how Coetzee would not take calls from the Booker prize committee because he was invigilating undergraduate exams: a measure of his professionalism. We visit his Standard Three classroom at Rosebank Primary and the grassy common where he participated in school sports days. He recalls taking gold in the running backwards race of 1948, as if enjoying a wry joke at the expense of anyone who thought that such an exercise might grant some privileged insight into his work... [Continue reading...]       

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Bodley Head / Financial Times Essay Prize | 2012.

Simon Schama | Long-form writing is alive and kicking.

First published in Bokvennen litterært magasin | Oslo | nr. 3.12

These somewhat unfair thoughts are stirred by Disgrace, which is a very good novel, almost too good a novel...It sometimes reads as if it were the winner of an exam whose challenge was to create the perfect specimen of a very good contemporary novel.

James Wood, ‘Coetzee's Disgrace: A Few Skeptical Thoughts’, The Irresponsible Self (2004).

For real? Arguing with David Shields

For real? Arguing with David Shields

Rhodes Journalism Review | vol. 32 | 2012 www.rjr.ru.ac.za [PDF version]

‘A literary battle cry for the creation of a new genre’…‘Raw and gorgeous’… ‘A work of virtuoso banditry’.

The first and most childish reason for me wanting to pick a fight with David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) is that it comes absolutely swaddled in praise from London and New York.  My Vintage edition is loud yellow and fire-engine red, like a dangerous wasp, with quotes, puffs and blurbs slathered all over it. ‘A sort of bible for the next generation of culture-makers’…‘an invigorating shakedown of the literary status quo’ and (most cringe-inducing of all): ‘This dude’s book is the hip-hop album of the year’.

Not only do they occupy the back and spill over onto several pages at the front; they also creep onto the cover, even over the title typeface itself, where a critic as tough-minded as Tim Parks salutes this ‘protean polemic’.  Other undeniably brainy novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith also weigh in respectfully, even as Shields inveighed against their chosen medium in interviews: well-wrought literary fictions à la Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan, were, he told The Observer in 2010, ‘antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian novel mode. In no way do they convey what if feels like to live in the 21st century. Like most novels, they are essentially works of nostalgic entertainment’. What exactly was going on here?  

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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...]

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

How the right-wing co-opts the lexicon of social justice. Review of Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press: 2011. SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project).

The Future Eaters.  Streamlined version at The Daily Maverick. In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon performs a dense but stylish call to activism, writes HEDLEY TWIDLE.

On Edward Said:

He thrived on intellectual complexity while aspiring to clarity; he taught and wrote as if – and I know this should sound unremarkable for a literature professor – he yearned to be widely understood. His approach felt fervent, luminous when measured against the alternatives: close readings sealed against the world or deconstructionist seminars in which the stakes were as obscure as the language, as we poked at dead-on-delivery prose in the hopes of rousing enough life from it for our exertions to qualify as “play” … He understood that it is far more difficult to theorize with the cunning of lightness than it is to fob off some seething mess of day-old neologisms as an “intervention”. His devotion to style became integral to his political idealism and inseparable from his belief in insurrectionary outwardness.

Rob Nixon, Preface, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011).