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”.

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About a Mountain

About a Mountain

Fragments from a walking residency across the Cape Peninsula.

Three images from our walking residency, 6-12 December 2015. The first is the official prompt for this exercise (me and Meghna at Smitswinkel Camp). The second is one I asked Barry to take for me (a brass dial, or is it a toposcope, at Cape Point). The third (me giving a talk on Dias, Da Gama and the Khoikhoi in the shade of a windskerm at Buffels Bay) is one he sent me because I wanted photographic evidence of scholarly pursuits.

So, five quick impressions…

1)   The minimalist, slightly spartan décor of the camps. Slats of wood and stone; no cushions. Rigorous, good for reading and writing, not for reclining. The limited colour scheme, shrubs deformed by wind, a landscape always on the verge of mourning. Meghna and I both seem withdrawn, inward, even a little sombre. Why? Perhaps because we have both stayed here before, and we know about the tent flaps that will keep us awake all night, flapping in the permanent wind. Or perhaps we have already spent a night here, and have, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, awoken from uneasy dreams…

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Relocations

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 A public lecture series transformed into a beautiful book.

Relocations: Reading Culture in South Africa | University of Cape Town Press | 2015. 

With essays and reflections by Gabeba Baderoon, André Brink, Imraan Coovadia, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Rustum Kozain, William Kentridge, Neo Muyanga, Zackie Achmat, Duncan Brown, John Higgins, Isabel Hofmeyr , Peter D. McDonald, Rajend Mesthrie, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Coilin Parsons, Sandy Young. And me. Designed by James King and Alexandra Dodd. Published by Juta.

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Twenty Seven Years

Listening to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.

Prufrock | September 2015.

This is middle C, my piano teacher would explain when I was about three or four years old. And this is the family of C (playing the pentatonic scale), and they all get on together, that’s why they are a family. And because it is C major they are a happy family.

Major being happy, minor being sad. It’s one of the first things I learned in music lessons (and sometimes I think that these lessons are my first memory). But what does that mean exactly? Is it true? Physiologically true, or just a learned response? And what happens if you express the ‘happy’ via the ‘sad’, or ‘sad’ via the ‘happy’?

These may well be naïve questions, unacceptable to musos and musicologists. But one thing I have taken from the work of the late pianist and composer Moses Taiwa Molelekwa is the need to risk sounding naïve, and to begin at the beginning.

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A Mighty Fry-Up

A slightly self-deconstructive review of Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen.

New Statesman | 15 September 2015.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Chigozie Obioma’s debut has been widely and joyously reviewed. The press materials that fell out of my copy show how critics ranging from those at the New York Times to those at welovethisbook.com have been – as the cliché goes – reaching for the superlatives. The Fishermen is, if I run it all together: searing, incandescent, darkly mythic, long-limbed and elegant writing, awesome in the true sense of the word, showing an unmatched level of intricacy, lyricism and control that makes Obioma the clear heir to Chinua Achebe.

As much as I enjoyed the novel – a searing, incandescent and, yes, darkly mythic tale of familial and social disintegration set in 1990s Nigeria – this pre-emptive barrage of praise inevitably made me seek out dissenting voices...

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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.

MER1CA

MER1CA

On first impressions, snap judgements and Achille Mbembe's sense of style.

Openings column (shorter version): Financial Times14 August 2015.

‘America is the most grandiose experiment that the world has yet seen,’ wrote Sigmund Freud in 1909, ‘but, I am afraid, it will not be a success’. 106 years later I spotted the line on a poster while attending a conference at New York University – my first visit to the States. It cheered me up during a misanthropic, jet-lagged daze and set off a complex series of recognitions. For one thing, I had been thinking along the same lines myself, and marshalling every scrap of evidence to clinch the case: the bad coffee at four dollars a pop; the garbage everywhere; the fact that I got asked to move out the way at least five times a day.

But at another level, what I responded to was the tone: the sweeping confidence of the declaration, with that magisterial throwaway clause – ‘I am afraid’. How this Mittel-European sentence stoops down from on high, taking its time (four commas), to deliver a vast, over-reaching social diagnosis on an entire continent. This, I realized, was a voice that I recognize from people coming to my country and making huge pronouncements on South Africa – or just ‘Africa’ – when they have barely stepped off the plane. A short taxi ride from Cape Town International to the guesthouse and already they are experts.

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Confession of the Lioness

A radical call for change framed in semi-traditional forms.

Review of Mia Couto, Confession of the Lioness, trans. David Brookshaw.
Financial Times31 July 2015.

In April of this year, the poet and novelist Mia Couto wrote an open letter to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. “We remember you in Maputo,” it began, “from that time you spent as a political refugee in Mozambique. Often our paths crossed on Julius Nyerere Avenue and we would greet each other with the casual friendliness of neighbours.” Recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, Couto used his platform to condemn the attacks on foreign nationals that had resurfaced in Johannesburg and other cities. He implored the government to do more, and asked fellow Africans to remember a shared history of cultural mixing, migrant labour and liberation struggle — to imagine the fraternity of an “Africa South” that goes beyond national borders.

One of the most remarkable things about the letter was the fact that President Zuma (usually known for laughing off his critics) responded, and responded at length. He addressed Couto as “my dear brother”, remembered him as a courageous journalist, and acknowledged how the vulnerable Mozambiquan state had sheltered combatants fighting against apartheid. So it was surely Couto’s “struggle credentials” that partly invoked the response. Yet I also wonder if it might have been the particular mode of his address: its careful salutations, its formal language, its poetic and even ceremonious quality.

A fierce and fearless critique, but one voiced in customary and coded ways. This is one way of describing Couto’s Confession of the Lioness, first published in Portuguese in 2012 and now appearing in translation by his long-term collaborator David Brookshaw. It reads as a passionate denunciation of patriarchy and violence against women in an east African village, a village that is being menaced by predators both feline and human. But again, it does this without reaching for familiar kinds of critique (the word “patriarchy” certainly never appears). Perhaps rather cunningly, it evades the vocabularies of feminism, environmentalism or human rights — the language of NGOs that some leaders are quick to dismiss as “western” imports when it suits them to do so.

That Middling Line

That Middling Line

The postcolonial afterlives of E. M. Forster.

Review of Alberto Fernández Carbajal, Compromise and Resistance in Postcolonial Writing: E. M. Forster’s Legacy, (2014).  Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2015. PDF.

See also Nothing Extraordinary: E. M. Forster and the English Limit.

In Zadie Smith’s 2008 essay on Forster, one novelist considers the difficulty of placing another within literary history: Forster is not an Edwardian but not quite a Modernist either; not reactionary but hardly a radical; in fact, Smith implies, it is far easier to say what he is not than what he is. She goes on to suggest the divergent inflections that can be given to his “middling line”:

At times – when defending his liberal humanism against fundamentalists of the right and left – that middle line was, in its quiet, Forsterish way, the most radical place to be. At other times – in the laissez-faire cosiness of his literary ideas – it seemed merely the most comfortable.

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The Marvellous Real

The swiftness of the folk tale combined with sparseness of Raymond Carver.

Review of E. C. Osondu, This House is Not for Sale. Financial Times, 5 June 2015.

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino considers the six properties that he believes are fundamental to literature. The first is Lightness; the second is Quickness. And this is why (he tells us) he has always been attracted to folk tales. Not out of ethnic loyalty or nostalgia (he is a modern, cosmopolitan writer) but because of their narrative economy, the laconic swiftness with which they are set in motion: A king fell ill and was told by his doctors, “Majesty, if you want to get well, you’ll have to obtain one of the ogre’s feathers.” No attempt to explain what illness befell the king, or why an ogre might have feathers. Simply the bare résumé, in which “everything is left to the imagination and the speed with which events follow one another conveys a feeling of the ineluctable”.

It is this kind of narrative fleetness that animates E. C. Osondu’s second work, This House is Not for Sale, right down to the level of its wry sentences: “Children loved him; women loved him; husbands not so much.”

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An Unnatural History pt.2

An eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals.

Review of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi, 2015). Sunday Times, 9 May 2015. Longer version at Books Live.

Now that Cecil Rhodes has been toppled from his plinth and trucked away for safekeeping, the question is what exactly to do with the man. One idea has been to relocate the statue to the Old Zoo just beyond the edge of the University of Cape Town’s campus. It is a lush, unsettling place of stone ruins and overgrown cages, where rough sleepers sleep rough in graffiti-covered enclosures and students sneak off for a joint between lectures. Instead of gazing out toward hinterlands, here the imperialist could himself be gazed at – not unlike the various animals that he once installed in this 19th-century menagerie. The Old Zoo is at the heart of Henrietta Rose-Innes’s remarkable new novel: an eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals...

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An Unnatural History pt.1

An Unnatural History pt.1

The Hoerikwaggo Trail (and just after): a walking seminar.

Postamble | A transdisciplinary journal of African Studies.

Last time I did it with three old friends, and in the opposite direction. This time from Cape Point to town with a group of people that I didn’t know quite as well, most of them university types. The idea (not mine) was to turn it into a walking seminar on ‘nature cultures’, a trial run for a residency that will happen not in institutional buildings but out in the air.

Slightly skeptical of this at first – all I wanted from the hike was to decompress, let the mind empty after a strangely-shaped year. But still, on the first day I played along, using my primary school teacher Mr Bench’s memory technique (one-drum, two-shoe, three-tree, four-door etc.) to log impressions that seemed worth rescuing from the tide of heat, sweat, walking, foot on rock, sand, gravel. The sensorium changes, opens…

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Cecil Rhodes: My Part in His Downfall

Literature in the time of decolonization.

My attempt to make sense of the coincidence of MAN Booker International and the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town. Including one amazing fact you never knew (or needed to know) about the Rhodes statue...

The Essay: Life and Arts. Financial Times,3 April 2015.

See also: The Atlantic25 April 2015.

Just uphill from Rhodes, toward Table Mountain, I spotted a second, smaller plinth. On top of the pedestal stood a striking black woman, with her back to the statue and her face, obscured by a traditional beaded veil, angled down as if she was meditating. She wore a black leotard and had a quite untraditional pair of shiny stilettos on her feet.

The woman was Sethembile Msezane, an MFA candidate at the university and a Zulu-speaking performance artist from Soweto, outside Johannesburg. She’d made it her trademark on public holidays to juxtapose her young, black, female body with monuments of old, white, male colonial and Apartheid-era figures, and to turn up in silent vigil at sites of resistance to oppression.

Visions of Tsafendas

Visions of Tsafendas

Unparliamentary behaviour, now and then.

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.

Demetrios Tsafendas, Letter from Pretoria Central.

Early version, 'Parliament of Fouls', in the Sunday Times, 18 January 2015.

I am sitting in the National Library, ordering up back issues of the Sunday Times, trying to find a particular paragraph which describes just how dysfunctional parliament became during the 20th year of South African democracy. There were many accounts of the chaotic sessions in the National Assembly just beyond the trees of Government Avenue; but I remembered this one in particular for the attention it paid to the physical gestures made by MPs as they baited each other in front of a public that was by turns amused and appalled.

Traced back to its root, the word ‘Parliament’ means speaking. The Old French source is preserved in the Afrikaans spelling on signs in Cape Town’s Company Gardens: Parlement. But in South Africa, 2014 was the year of ‘unparliamentary language’...It began with a brilliantly effective piece of political theatre: new political party the Economic Freedom Fighters being sworn in while wearing red labourers’ overalls (men) and red domestic worker aprons (women). Since then the EFF have set about jamming the language of the National Assembly in all registers, with little patience for verbal formulae and niceties inherited from abroad.

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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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