A Minor Form

The notebooks of Stephen Watson and Athol Fugard.

On 12 July 1996, midway through his A Writer’s Diary, poet and critic Stephen Watson pauses to consider “those who, without being attached to anything like a weather bureau, keep a daily record of the weather, its changes, variations, apparent duplications”:

I imagine there must be moments when they ask themselves what all their annotations amount to. […] Today there is one feature which may be noteworthy; tomorrow another. Years pass. But still it doesn’t quite add up. It simply is what it is. […]

Writers, too, are little different from these amateur diarists of the climate, notating a world of insatiable flux. They too are forced to annotate the world over and over, hoping against hope that somehow, somewhere, one day, it will all add up; that instead of just the weather – all that is variable, never constant, never quite the same – there will be, on the page they’ve just written and abandoned, the world. (126)

It is a wryly self-conscious meditation its own practice of diary-keeping: the long-term discipline of logging the world set against the arbitrary, partial nature of the individual entry – and the inevitable failure of such a documentary record to “add up” to anything beyond itself. The passage evokes the mingling of settledness and flux that come (in Watson’s account of one year during the South African transition) to form the “inner weather” of a text that knowingly blurs interior and external worlds, encoding each in terms of the other.

Like Watson’s diary, the earlier Notebooks 1960/1977 of playwright Athol Fugard move between the scene of writing and the non-human world, in particular the South African coastline. If A Writer’s Diary is suffused with evocations of Cape Town and its coastal Peninsula, Fugard’s journals read in one sense like a long meditation on the beaches, estuaries, tidal spars and mudflats around Port Elizabeth: almost every page carries depiction of a space that (despite South Africa’s long coastline) remains a somewhat neglected site in our cultural history. If the diary is, as Watson writes in his preface, a “minor form on the periphery of literature” (vii), I suggest that these two works are minor, perhaps neglected classics of South African writing – small-scale, regional works that are also explorations of minor identity in the face of different national imaginaries: Afrikaner nationalism in the case of Fugard; in Watson’s case, the “new South Africa” brought into being in 1994.

In southern Africa, the diary as record or dagregister of local conditions carries with it, as we will see, a long colonial history as a navigational and conceptual aid. Yet equally, in being private, closeted and comparatively “unofficial” archives, several historical diaries have proved compelling for a contemporary literary imagination intent on re-presenting once obscured lives, theorising the ordinary and, perhaps more elusively, evoking a different kind of temporality: an altered sense of how time passes, shapes and is shaped by writing.[i] In the two examples that I explore here, personal meditations on creative process co-exist with an attempt to log the everyday during times of major socio-political flux.

Both become projects of life-writing which are also documents of cultural criticism; both seek out figurative counterparts and shapes for understanding in the interplay of wind, tide, water and light along the southern African coastline. But this turning toward the natural environment is a risky and embattled move within a political climate that is quick to dismiss “nature writing” an evasion of historical realities. And if these diaries are concerned with a certain kind of minor sensibility, this comes with the added twist that white English-speaking South Africans are not a minority in any simple sense. The result, I suggest, is a writing out of a particular historical predicament: a prose set back from the confident jargons of public debate, pitched in a minor key and often anticipating failure.


Beauty and the humiliated: the problem of “nature writing” in the postcolony.

In different ways, but with a similar candour, Fugard and Watson explore of the predicament of what J. M. Coetzee called “white writing” – writing by those “no longer European but not yet African”. In them one sees the endgame of a certain strain of liberal humanism within the postcolony, and a struggle (to adapt Watson’s own words on Coetzee) “albeit behind an extraordinary control and stylistic elegance, to combine [a] Western modernist literary culture with an African historical reality which is hardly welcoming to it” (Critical Perspectives, 34). Refracting a literary poetics that takes direction from Europe (not just London and Paris but also the “other Europe” of dissidents in Communist-controlled states during the Cold War) the respective oeuvres of Watson and Fugard share another trait: a deep investment in the work of Albert Camus.

From L’étranger (1942) through the Carnets (1962, 1965) to the unfinished, posthumously published manuscript of Le premier homme (1995), the work of this pied noir become Nobel laureate provides a range of “intimate recognitions” for both the South African playwright and the poet (Watson The Music in the Ice 148). “Resumed reading Camus’s Carnets. I would be happy to spend the next ten years deepening my understanding and appreciation of this man”, Fugard writes in August 1963; and later in the year: “Impossible to describe the excitement, the total sympathy that exists for me with Camus’s thinking. In the harsh but lucid world of his writing I seem to have found, for the first time, my true climate” (Notebooks 94, 105). So what kind of literary climate is this, and why is it so congenial for a writer in Fugard’s situation?

Watson’s engagement with Camus is most explicit in the long essay that forms the centrepiece of The Music in the Ice (2010), an essay collection published shortly before his death. But it stretches back to his first collection of poetry, In this City (1986), which takes a line from Camus’s essay “Return to Tipasa” (1954) as its epigraph: “Yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking I should like never to be unfaithful either to the second or the first.”[ii]

It is one of many aphoristic (even gnomic) formulations by the French Algerian writer in which the claims of a world that is both intensely physical and intensely unjust are placed in a taut and difficult dialogue. “Poverty prevented me from thinking that all is well under the sun and in history’, writes Camus in another of his “lyrical essays”, “the sun taught me that history is not everything” (Selected Essays and Notebooks 18). Such dialectics of human and non-human worlds suggest too how the range of analogues between north and South Africa offered by his writing are at once both political and geographical.

The Mediterranean littoral that Camus returns to throughout his life is, in terms of its latitude and climate, a kind of topographic double or mirror image of the coastline that Fugard and Watson are drawn to: the light, swimming and saltwater, the “life that tastes of warm stone” in which his prose luxuriates (Selected Essays 72). Yet at the same time, the intense debates about “committed” versus “formalist” poetics that dominated South African literary culture in the 1970s and 80s find an echo in Camus’s increasingly embattled humanism of the 1950s and 60s as decolonisation unfolded in Francophone Africa. Each oeuvre finds itself engaged with the question of violence, both rhetorical and otherwise.

The historian Tony Judt writes that although with hindsight Camus seems to have negotiated an unusually honourable path through the ideological pressures of twentieth-century life as a public intellectual, his rejection of violence and terror “reduced him to impotent silence at the height of the Algerian civil war and rendered him inaccessible to the generation that followed” (98). Critics like Edward Said and Conor Cruise O’Brien have shown up the silences of his imaginative vision: an inability to fully conceive of Algerian nationalism; a fictional geography in which Arab identities are ignored, effaced or made cryptic. Perhaps the most implacable challenge to the structure of feeling one finds in writers of the late colony like Camus is that voiced by Frantz Fanon in closing cadences of The Wretched of the Earth: the critique of a humanism that was not extended to all humans: “Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.”

Two further bits of cultural data might serve to outline the complex and entangled European and African histories into which these writers speak. The first is a photograph of Nelson Mandela with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). It was taken in the 1962, after the African National Congress had abandoned their long-held strategy of non-violence in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre – the last major liberation movement to do so worldwide.[iii] In it we see the future icon of peace and reconciliation receiving guerrilla training from the revolutionary movement which had sworn to utterly erase the French Algerian culture into which Camus was born – such was the brutality of French colonialism in north Africa, and the ideological polarisation of the Algerian War of 1954 to 1962. This was a political climate in which Camus’s calls for a truce against civilian targets were regarded by many of his fellow intellectuals (Jean-Paul Sartre among them) as naïve and ineffectual considering the momentum of the conflict, and the scale of atrocities on each side.

The second cultural signifier is the word “comrade”: a word still widely and affectionately used in South Africa, where material support from the Soviet Union underwrote the liberation Struggle, and where senior members of the ANC were also members of a South African Communist Party that took its ideological orders from Moscow. But a word signifying something very different, of course, for those European writers and intellectuals who were implacable critics of Stalinism, and who never subscribed to the justifications for political murder in which so many fellow travellers of the Left found themselves enmeshed. In an early entry from his Diary, Watson shows his allegiance to this tradition. Having read the work of Polish novelist Gustaw Herling, he remarks:

There is an almost extinct fraternity of writers to which Herling belongs. It would include those like Milosz, Silone, Camus, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, even Paz. Each of them was formed in the crucible of the anti-fascist and anti-communist struggles that have dominated so much of this century. Each of them is an implacable enemy of that malign god of the century, History, and its handmaiden, total politics. Thus they are conservative in one sense as they might be radical in another. (24)

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to account fully for how these immense political torsions of the twentieth century play out in South African literary culture. Here I simply want to note the temptations of the analogy Watson intimates, but also its limits. The situation of “white writing” in South Africa is partly similar but ultimately so different to that of the 20th-century masters of non-fiction that he looks towards. And it is Camus, with his dual allegiance to France and Algeria, who shows this up most clearly. For this writer committed to a certain kind of literary humanism finds himself in a vexed and even impossible historical situation with the onset of decolonisation.

The result is an unsettling and sometimes cryptic poetics: intimate, “ordinary” and often seductive, but possibly suspect in its self-mythology, and its withdrawal from more public forms – “conservative in one sense as [it] may be radical in another”. Stylistic lucidity is married to a creeping sense of the absurd, of belatedness, disappointment and shame – a sense of being betrayed by one’s historical situation. Relocated and adapted by Coetzee during the 1980’s, the phrase l’écriture blanche (white writing) was, after all, originally used by Roland Barthes to apprehend the prose of Camus’s early, coolly managed depictions of the north African coastline – “that style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style” (Writing Degree Zero 64).

I will hold such difficult climates in mind while considering how Watson and Fugard explore their respective regions as “extremes of social nightmare and geographical dream” (Anderson “Stephen Watson” 18). As a form that can admit contradiction, the diary is (I argue) able to show with unusual candour the ways in which natural, social and personal histories come to be braided together in the delayed postcolony of South Africa.

In the later sections, I read the “littoral zones” that recur in their work as a way of tracking the encounter between literary non-fiction and the environment (in the broadest sense of that word): the problems and possibilities of bringing into dialogue those modes that might broadly be termed postcolonial and ecocritical. And if these writer’s diaries record (as I believe they do) a kind of failure, then this is an interesting failure: a self-aware account of a certain literary project coming to an end, writing itself out.


From “dead reckoning” to VOC Daghregister: legacies of the diary in southern Africa.

Both Fugard’s and Watson’s are explicitly writer’s diaries, in the narrow sense: the workbook of a writer who imagines his or her main practice to be going on elsewhere, and in other forms. Yet for a certain kind of reader, such supposedly peripheral or supplementary texts may come to hold just as much interest as the main body of the oeuvre. Introducing a selection from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Notebooks, Seamus Perry remarks that journalism and notebook entries, in being occasional and impermanent forms, “enablingly slackened his self-imposed expectations” (viii).[iv]

It is this sense of marginal written modes – genres, styles and registers positioned slightly aslant to publicly imposed or privately internalised expectations – that I hope to retain in a postcolony where, as I have already suggested, the literary text is subject to an unusually intense and premature pressure to be written up. In this context I am interested in whether the on-going and localised practice of diary-keeping might offer more unusual and unexpected shapes for thought. In the most compelling examples of this kind of life-writing – from Coleridge through to Virginia Woolf or, say, the Journals of John Cheever – one is able to experience the daily bricolage produced as a wide-ranging intellectual life interacts with materials immediately to hand.

But if the diary form is in one sense uniquely open to the world, it is also often closed, locked, secret, or at least uncertain of its status with regard to a wider social body: whether it should be public, publicised, published. It can offer a space for thinking that is more obscure and lonely, but also safer and more experimental. If the mode signifies in one sense the comic ordinariness that Watson remarks on in discussing those “amateur diarists of flux”, in literary history (or at least, literary mythology) the writer’s diary often exists under the sign of the aberrant and unusual.[v]

In addition, the handwritten or printed writer’s diary is surely beginning to feel like a historical form. As a sustained record and personal archive, it can be a space where thoughts and ideas might mature for much longer before being released into the world. But in an increasingly hyperlinked world, with the kind of instantaneous self-broadcasting now enabled by the internet, it is a genre that has come very quickly to seem outmoded and old-fashioned, almost a kind of literary relic. Set back from a digital world of blogging, live feeds and comment forums, the handwritten diary stands as a long and private record of built-in obsolescence.[vi] It is partly this sense of a literary form being simultaneously “in time” and outdated or anachronistic that draws me to these minor texts by Fugard and Watson.

In a place like southern Africa (as in so many parts of the world), the diary in a larger sense is also an explicitly colonial form. Any genealogy of the mode must eventually lead one back (via countless texts by missionaries, administrators, ethnographers, travellers and natural historians) to the foundational text of settler-colonialism in South Africa: what is normally called the Daghregister or Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, even though not a single word of it was written by the first (reluctant) Commander of the 17th-century Dutch garrison at the Cape. Instead we have a document sometimes dictated by him, sometimes chronicling his actions in the third person, and sometimes composed in his absence: a kind of collective, political unconscious of the early station that has been repeatedly, almost obsessively, drawn on by social historians, poets, historical novelists seeking to re-imagine the past. [vii] Yet this master document of settlement – at first remarkably precarious, then aggressively expansionist – can be pushed back even further, dislodged from its claims to the land and run backward into the impermanence and tracklessness of the open ocean.

In an outline of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) writing system, the historian Adrien Delmas shows how the daghregister was first and fundamentally a nautical form. In the 15th and 16th centuries, as Portuguese and then Dutch ships began to explore the volta da mar largo (the “diversion to the deep sea” which enabled the passing of the doldrums and the rounding of the Cape) coastal landmarks could no longer be relied upon. New techniques of open-sea navigation had to be developed on voyages where latitude could be measured with astrolabe or sexant but longitude (which required accurate chronometers) could not yet be calculated. As such, all navigators on board ship were compelled to adopt the practice of gegist bestek, or dead reckoning, in which the pilot would write down the observed course and estimated distance of the ship on a daily basis (if not more frequently) so as to make an educated guess about the position of the vessel.

As recorded in a VOC charter of 1602, this requirement to maintain a daily log or written “memory” of the voyage was one of the most important instructions issued to navigators: pre-printed, lined notebooks were provided for the task, documents that would have a second life once lodged in the VOC headquarters as part of a vast Company archive devoted to the secrets of Konst der Zeevart (Knowledge of Seafaring). So, as Delmas writes, at the southern tip of Africa the 17th-century daghregister, “begun with the casting-off from Texel, would not…be stopped, and would continue its narrative for the next one hundred and fifty years of the VOC’s presence at the Cape of Good Hope” (106). Once on land, the Company directives about logging daily events were equally insistent: “Of all that occurs in your neighbourhood, you will keep accurate notes and a diary,” instructed Amsterdam on the eve of Van Riebeeck’s departure, “and shall not fail in this point” (Moodie The Record 8).

In its very form, then, the document prefigures the shift from sea-going navigation to land-based natural history narrative that will transpire over the coming centuries at the Cape: the first entry of The Journal of Jan van Riebeeck as it now appears in published form is penned on board the ship Drommedaris. “The wind still east, sometimes half a point to the south and now and then as much to the north, blowing freshly”, reads the entry for Christmas Day 1651, soon after setting sail, where the obsessive attention to climatic conditions is so clearly underwriting the massive ambition and but also uncertainty of 17th-century navigation, and colonial knowledge production more generally.

It is a sense of an ocean-based form spilling over onto land that I want to carry forward in considering the much more recent writers’ diaries at the Cape. Encoded within this long history of the diary as colonial form is a fundamental tension between movement and emplacement, settlement and flux: an attempt to write oneself into a space that the very act of writing re-inscribes as foreign. If the kind of weather bulletins which one finds, almost as a reflex action, at the beginning of every entry in the day-registers of Van Riebeeck, Adam Tas and so many to follow want to claim a land-based settledness – the logging of a world from a still point at its centre – then they can just as easily be read as a legacy of positional uncertainty and guesswork, subject to the historical currents of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.


“A little postage stamp of native soil”: the regional poetics of Athol Fugard’s Notebooks.

Suggestively, it is a departure from Southampton to the Cape in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre that serves as a kind of overture to Fugard’s Notebooks:

The ship’s brass-band playing patriotic British music. Nostalgia and a flood of sentiment. Sheila in tears – myself too, but suppressed. Indulged this mood, savoured the bittersweet of our leaving. The last tug that had followed us to the harbour was turning away, our ship was slipping alone, into the ocean…

The evening on deck. Biting cold. Wind and spray…Gone were the cobwebs of Europe and the past twelve months. I felt awakened – renewed – in life I again see the dimension, the big dimension. The “big conception” of my youth. The spars were singing. God! How could I forget so much. Life is big, its possibilities infinite. (11)

Swimming against the historical current that would force so many black South African writers out of their native land during the same period, the writing registers a mixture of anxiety and freedom that results from exchanging a European inheritance of play-making for explicitly South African materials. Embedded within the next entry made on the voyage is a very different kind of journey: “Joburg to Orlando train. Tsotsis. Bicycle spoke – death” (11). Anyone who has watched the brutal opening scene of the 2005 film Tsotsi will recognise that this is the germinal idea of Fugard’s early novel of the same name. The Notebooks are a rich source for tracking these dense “knots” of meaning and memory which provide a first intimation of the plays which we know will result; or to use a high modernist term that Fugard is drawn to, these “images”:

Ezra Pound: “An image is the presentation of a psychological and emotional complex in an instant of time.” To which he adds a remark about the “sense of liberation, of freedom” that follows. I use the word “Image” a great deal. Pound’s definition explains my meaning completely. I cannot add a word to it. (77)

It is a reminder, as Coetzee wrote in a 1984 review of the work, of how intently Fugard strives to deploy a poetics of modernism across an oeuvre which might more often be classed as social realism, an impulse that gives his work much of its distinctiveness (Doubling the Point 372). It also helps to explain, I would suggest, how the diaries record a knotting together of private and public, of solitary reverie and social engagement – and in ways where such terms need not be seen as mutually exclusive.

As the entries move back to Port Elizabeth and its environs, such “images” become more explicitly personal and autobiographical, even as many of the passages are also in one sense a remarkable document of collaborative creativity: with the Serpent Players in New Brighton, and with actors like Zakes Mokae, Norman Ntshinga, Winston Ntshona, John Kani and Yvonne Bryceland. Brief extracts from the journals were used in the introductions to his published plays, but in 1983 Fugard reflected that he never quite understood “the chemistry of my relation with them” or of their relation to the finished works:

They became a habit, serving many purposes – at one level a constant literary exercise which I hoped would lead to greater accuracy in expression. Without them my thinking would have been confused, blurred. […] Sometimes it was compulsive, at others I wrote nothing. They reflect a certain reality in terms of the South African experience but although I have lived through very major political crises, these are not reflected. And though I never consciously used the notebooks as a playwright, everything is reflected there – my plays come from life and from encounters with actual people. But I found that as soon as I got deeply involved with writing a play, I either forgot the notebooks completely or had no need of them. (Notebooks 8)

What one reads then is a record of those periods between the major phases of playmaking and composition, when opaque but compelling images and as yet undisciplined creative urges are beginning to act, unconsciously or semi-consciously, on the writerly imagination. And in ways that meld the strategies of inwardness and mythic impulses that characterize literary modernism with a textured, highly localised realism.

Reading back, Fugard remarks that the notebooks strongly confirm his sense of being a regional writer, one attuned to “the humble specifics of an Eastern Province world” (cited in Gray “A Sense of Place” 10). He quotes with approval William Faulkner’s obsessive attention to a “little postage stamp of native soil” in the American South (Gray 10).[viii] From the perspective of the environmental humanities, one could even make the case for him as a bioregional writer, given the way that the Notebooks disclose a terrain shaped as much by river mouths, watersheds, and escarpments as by apartheid’s roads, factories and locations.

The compulsion to limn a literary space that is regional rather than national is also central to the work of Stephen Watson – although his relation to the city of Cape Town that he did much to make “a place in the mind” was if anything an even more vexed and ambivalent one. While an early poetry collection invokes Simone Weil’s dictum that “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul”, in his 2005 “Afterword to a City,” Watson turns to Philip Roth in suggesting why a discouraged observer might remain “rooted to the spot”: “How could he leave? Everything he hated was here” (211).  

In one of the entries from A Writer’s Diary, he turns over in his mind the opening line of an early poem “Definitions of a City”, musing about there being a single sentence which might embody the interplay of nature and culture (words which he is prepared to use without quotation marks) in Cape Town and its environs, the peculiarly intense dialectic of given topography and human inroads in a place which he has explored throughout his career: “On the slopes above the city there are footpaths / cut through sandstone, following the contours...”. The poem’s epigraph is taken from Fernando Pessoa – ‘...because the town is Nature’ – while its long, over-spilling lines register the textures of the mountain-side and the ocean vistas it affords being meticulously distilled into words by a solitary walker.

“The nature of any walk is perpetual revision,” writes the psychogeographer Iain Sinclair of his tramps around greater London, “Voice over voice” (London Orbital 159). In each of Watson’s many poems which are, one senses, the writing-up of a walk across some portion of the Cape Peninsula, there is just this kind of line-by-line re-envisioning: a controlled, self-possessed poetic intelligence refines and reframes its verbal formulations, testing them against the effects of wind and light playing over “a city held there, almost en-islanded / by one rough mountain, by two cool porcelain seas.” (The Other City 15) Again and again, within the scope of each poem, one can witness a careful, almost ritualistic procedure which works by slowly logging its environment from different angles, correcting and rewriting itself in thick stanzas as it seeks to bring the sandstone and the stone-pines into ever finer focus, to place the cold oceans and the particular light which hangs over them in their proper relation.

Yet at the same time, this is not a naïve form of writing nature. As a critic, Watson is acutely aware of how often this portion of the earth has been written (and overwritten) by navigators, natural historians and poetic predecessors. In an essay on Sydney Clouts, he places this ‘Pen-insular’ poet of the 1950s and 60s (judged an interesting failure) in a trajectory which leads from Thomas Pringle via Roy Campbell to Guy Butler, quoting purple passages from each to show how “literary Romanticism in a 19th century British colony like South Africa was far more damagingly romantic than almost anything in the mother country herself” (Selected Essays 60).

Numerous diary entries trace in a local context the vexed intersection of “landscape poetry”, literary theory and that strand of environmentalism that proclaimed, in the title of Bill McKibben’s landmark 1989 work, The End of Nature. Seeking to avoid the effusions of sub-Romantic poets, but also to evade the academic jargons of the 1980s, Watson gives at one point his personal, working definition of postmodernism:

[T]he moment in history when the word is no longer connected to the earth, when the word has left the world behind, when the immemorial marriage (and the myth of that marriage) between language and the organic is severed for good. (And now that severance celebrated as a higher form of wisdom, a liberation.) (33)

Setting itself against this, the early poetry searches for a language of descriptive exactness, of heightened precision and increased purchase on the natural world. Footpaths are a recurring motif, perhaps as a way of grounding a poetics that might otherwise tend towards “mysticism of a most misty sort” which Watson himself discerns in the more unguarded moments of Clouts’ work (67). Often they appear in opening lines, points of access which concede from the outset that the landscape is an altered, created one, yet by the same token enable poems which are not so much descriptions of inanimate surroundings as self-aware meditations on the whole linguistic process of apprehending and then remaking one’s environment in words.  

Yet for all his investment in poetry, perhaps what makes Watson singular in a South African context is his commitment to a certain kind of prose. His last published work, The Music in the Ice, reveals a long engagement with (and attempt to rehabilitate) the essay, in the older sense, as derived from Michel de Montaigne: an exploratory, personal, discursive work (shorn of academic footnotes) which is linked to the French essayer, and to assay – the trying, trial or testing of an idea. The result is a prose that is at once itinerant, often linked to the practice of walking, artfully disordered; but also highly controlled, stylised and distinguished by the rhetorical performance of a strong authorial voice.

Much of Watson’s poetry, in fact, might be considered prose-like in this sense: long, carefully modulated sentences which rarely move beyond grammatical reach of the speaker, seldom relying on the compression of the modernist image. Appearing as a kind of refrain in A Writer’s Diary, the poem “Definitions of a City” opens out into a generous vision of continuity between the topography of the city and the tidemarks of its history, a literary ecology that is surely in large part generated by the porousness of the categories “prose” and “poetry” within his oeuvre:

And should you follow these footpaths really not
that much further, they soon become streets
granite kerbs, electric lights. These streets soon
grow to highways, to dockyards, shipping-lanes.
You’ll see how it is – how these paths were only
an older version of streets; that the latter, in turn,
continue the highways, and the quays of the harbour,
and even eventually, the whale-roads of the sea.

You’ll see how it is – it is still that kind of city –
here where one thing leads, shades into another… (The Other City 20)

Both Fugard’s and Watson’s diaries are of course carefully shaped literary artefacts; it would be naïve to consider a printed diary (particularly one published, in Fugard’s case, by Faber and Faber) as more “raw” or immediate than other literary modes. But nonetheless there are significant formal and tonal differences between them. Selected from over 17 years of life-writing, the playwright’s notebooks carry more of a sense of being workmanlike jottings, intended (as he tells us) to exclude “self” as far as possible, and committed to incident, ideas, sentences overheard. By contrast, Watson’s book records a year of daily entries, comprising a kind of self-conscious writerly experiment that often reads more like a selection of short essays or pensées.

In the Preface, he makes a case for this minor literary mode as one which “can ingest almost anything; such is the privilege of the form”, “everything from the conditions of one’s stomach to that of the soul, from a flea to God” (17). And if a certain strain of academic criticism contents itself with locating paradoxes and contradictions within a writer’s work (hunting for these “with the same zeal that old-time prospectors once went scratching for pay dirt”), for Watson this kind of contradiction is built into the genre itself. The diary gives its author “the freedom to be as contradictory as he or she might wish to be”, and reading back over his entries, he sees them as carrying the evidence of “an often day-to-day alternation between disquiet and composure, rebellion and acceptance, uncertainty and conviction, a hope dismayed and hope regained”:

Corrosive, even exhausting, such alternations might be, but they also form a part, if I’m not mistaken, of the deep systolic and diastolic movement which governs almost any life that cares to record its dialogue with itself. (18)

This corrosive systole and diastole, moving constantly between dwelling and provisionality, or (to use terms that recur in his work) “rootedness” and “thinness”, is at many points mediated through Camus’s writing. Like the “pine, dark mountain, star…” which the speaker of one poem recites like a mantra in an attempt to recover the sense of growing up amid the forests and the numinous bulk of the mountain chain (The Other City 3), the Cape Peninsula’s coves and beaches, as well as the mountain streams of the Cederberg – “tasting of rinsed stone, not water” – join a cluster of “elements, archetypes” which are compulsively revisited and recombined throughout his writing. It is a poetics which takes strength from Camus’s 1958 dictum (quoted in the diary) that “a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened” (Selected Essays 26).

Yet equally, what Watson is grateful to recognise in Camus is “a superbly conscious historian of one of the cultural consequences, or inner dimensions, of living in an effective colony”, a place “where beaches effortlessly outdid books, nature culture, and the local citizenry, happy in its philistinism, lived out lives devoid of culture and most other gods besides”:

Repeatedly, the Algerian colony is described in the terms Camus once used for the country’s second major city, Oran: “a town where there is nothing to attract the mind, where ugliness has played an overwhelming role, and where the past is reduced to nothing”. […] This was the unbearable lightness of being, colonial-style, of all “lands without a past” and Camus was to give it one of its more far reaching articulations. (148-9)

What one sees throughout Watson’s criticism then is a recursive loop, or double-bind: in an attempt to staunch such absences and bring a more lasting literary identity to their immediate surroundings, his essays look elsewhere, reaching again and again for those authors regarded as having given imaginative substance to their native cities. Considering his various attempts to reveal Cape Town ‘for what it is / a city of the southern hemisphere, more full of sky than streets’ (The Other City 17), it is striking how often Watson’s writing is buttressed by writers from north of the equator, opening up a fraught dialogue between the rooted chronicler of place and the urbane, cosmopolitan critic intent on transcending the provincialism of South African literary liberalism in the 1980s.

At several moments, the essayist looks longingly at Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert, writing in that very different political context of an Eastern Europe where poets were the ironic scourge of the “comrades”, rather than sidelined onlookers. The Algiers of Camus is joined by the Lisbon of Pessoa and C. P. Cavafy’s Alexandria: all port cities, and all writers drawn to the imaginative and mythic possibilities of the littoral zone. Yet even as he enlists them one becomes aware how differently positioned are these writers on the Mediterranean rim, able to draw on a lattice of classical mythology which allowed their different modernist projects to fashion “a myth greater than the solitary and artificial flower of one poetic mind” (138).

The final part of this account seeks to read more deeply how these diaries allow us to trace the difficult encounter between the political and the ecological imagination – or the uneasy relation between “postcolonial” and “ecocritical” modes of reading and writing. For if postcolonial theory has concerned itself with ideas of hybridity, cross-cultural mixing, displacement, migrancy and the recovery of silenced histories, then ecocriticism has often been concerned with their opposites: discourses of purity, conservation, regionalism and solitude – moments of timeless communion with nature.[ix] Reading from the South, how might win the space to account for those literary works which are haunted by “the teeming strangeness and menace of organic presences”, in the words of George Steiner: the “irreducible weight of otherness, of enclosedness, in the texture and phenomenality of the material world” (Real Presences 139-40)?

As Fugard and Watson are drawn to Camus’s Mediterranean littoral (a mirror image in some ways, a mirage in others) the historically particular matter of “white writing” – the psychological suppressions and socio-political silences of texts by those who feel themselves to be “no longer European, not yet African” (Coetzee White Writing 11) – becomes implicated in the wider challenge of what might be called “writing white”: of rendering the non-human and the numinous in words, even while sensing that such raids on the inarticulate (or inanimate) might properly tend towards the simple litany, the mnemonic, the non-verbal, the blank page.

The dual genealogy of the phrase white writing/l’écriture blanche (via Coetzee and Barthes) suggests how the local problematic of place becomes entangled in the wider literary difficulties of apprehending the pleasures, pressures and aporias of the non-human world.  


“Inner weather”: flux and contradiction in Stephen Watson’s A Writer’s Diary.

 When one reads in Watson’s essay on Camus of a city “where beaches effortlessly outdid books, nature culture” (148), the grammar produces an unusual yoking together of two of the most complex words in the English language. For a cultural materialist criticism, though, the idea that “nature (effortlessly) outdoes culture” might be demystified and translated to mean that “nature (tacitly) encodes culture” or “nature does the work of culture”. And here “culture” would signify not a touring opera company, a book launch or symphony orchestra programme, but (following Raymond Williams) something more ordinary and more powerful: something concerned with the relation between every human individual and the forms of expression available to them.

For much twentieth-century critical theory, the contradictions of one’s historical position inevitably write themselves out in whatever material conditions are to hand – fluctuating weather, littoral zones, the nearest available landscape – as the problems of social locatedness are dispersed and dispelled into physical location. To put this another way: in Fugard and Watson’s accounts of outdoor dwelling, walking and thinking – all those passages which might go by the inadequate name of “nature writing” – one sense something compensatory. The very act of verbally reconstituting the textures of coastline or contour path on the page betrays an ineluctable apartness from the non-human world which the playwright and poet long to write themselves into: an apartness that might be serving as a proxy for other, more humanly engineered forms of social separation.

The copiousness of Watson’s writing about the Cape Peninsula is evident in a long entry of 2 March 1996:

Yesterday, for instance, I drove over the chain of Peninsula mountains to Scarborough, way down the Atlantic seaboard towards the southernmost tip of the Cape. On the pass over the Kalk Bay mountains I saw the coastal southeaster cloud pouring down the western slopes, the colour of those clouds close to the grey of mist. But there was also the astonishing salt-like whiteness of the sandstone scree on the slopes set against the grey of the fraying cloud, further highlighted by the clumps of pine, their trunks blackened by the pitch of noonday light.

I found myself more or less instinctively seeking out the textures, the tonalities in that landscape, devouring it so that I could remake it. I had the happiness of knowing once again that this peninsula, these landscapes, were a kind of infinity which would never be exhausted and which would continue to elicit from me this passion. As I drove, I was already experimenting with the words that might reproduce the combination of southeaster cloud, white mountain stone, gale force wind, and light blackened pines. I knew myself to be saturated by this world; it was akin to the experience of physical love, that sense of being drenched by the reality of another’s being.

Later, there was the view of the sea at Scarborough, the Sicilian blue of the icy water; the coastal milkwoods glittering green and black under the volleys of wind and light. (40-41)

Here then is an example of the “littoral euphoric” that Watson discerns in Camus: a relocation of the pleasures of the ancient pastoral to the twentieth-century coastline (The Music in the Ice 69). Yet at the same time the intoxication of re-presenting the non-human and elemental on the page is combined with an awareness of the artifice and verbal experimentation that this involves.

And beyond this, there is surely something compensatory or compulsive about this kind of description; the exhaustive intimacy is in one sense an index of unfamiliarity, of being estranged from the majority of the city’s inhabitants.

The local familiarity it asserts is counterpointed by the international pull of his nomenclature, just as the generous literary ecology of the poem “Definitions of a City” depends on the strangely out-of-place Old English kenning “whale-roads”. Despite inviting a sense of continuity between built environment and the non-human world, both texts depend on a transport infrastructure from the “old” South Africa; and if the Atlantic coastal route provides physical and imaginative access, the raised freeways of Cape Town’s Foreshore, with unfinished outer viaducts suspended in the air, must surely be read as memorials to apartheid modernism: an ideology of division so ambitious it achieved an almost total segregation between city centre and ocean.  

To stop here, though, is to remain within what is by now a predictable, even complacent, move of critical scepticism; it is also to assume that the texts in question are automatically more naïve than the critical approach used to brush them against the grain. But as Watson reminds us in his Preface, what distinguishes the writer’s diary as a form is its ability to stage such contradictory dynamics, and to reveal how they play out in time. To state the most obvious fact about the diary: it is a cumulative text, an incremental endeavour which does not proceed by propositions made and positions taken, but rather through a series of discrete entries which are correcting, revising and modifying all the others as they proceed.

It is a kind of writing that throws into relief the question of where the most intense and lasting meanings of a text are produced during the reading process: within the compass of a single sentence, or a single entry? Or in much larger, more diffuse agglomeration of textual parts where the writing / written self of the first page is so clearly not the same as that of the last paragraph? To this one could add that, for the casual reader, a diary is not a form that tempts a linear or chronological approach; rather, it is likely to be dipped into at random, so offering itself still further as a text that is reconfigured with each reading. Finally, it is also a document of space between entries, a kind of (temporal) punctuation that might not be verbal but, like a musical rest, is nonetheless meaningful. The conclusions and connections that it tempts one to draw across these orchestrated silences remain implicit, suggestive and provisional.

This way of apprehending and living with a text over a long period of time is difficult to convey in an academic essay. But one can give some sense of it in concentrating on the period of 1962-3 in Fugard’s Notebooks, precisely the time in which he is engaged in an intensive reading of Camus’s work. For Fugard the French-Algerian writer (drawing again on metaphors of navigation and dead reckoning) “sounds out and charts the very oceans of experience and thought, on which I find myself sailing at this moment” (94). In the first of many paradoxes to follow, we see Fugard posit Camus’s world as a flight from the writing desk to the sensual degree zero of the coastline:

Camus’s “no life lived in the sun can be a failure” – I understand this now, having discovered the sun and the sea, and the long hot hours on the beach. Simply to go there involves me turning my back, literally and figuratively, on this room and table, this world where the words “success” and “failure” have meaning. Down there on the white sands, with the long wind blowing and the taste of the sea in my mouth, they are empty sounds.

A fine contempt is forged in the sun, tempered in the sea. (104)

The move from the textual to the physical (as the critic zealously hunting for contradictions might point out) is one that is itself mediated through an intimate negotiation with a foreign text. And Camus’s aphoristic turn of phrase might seem contentious and inappropriate when relocated to the racially segregated surrounds of Port Elizabeth in 1980s: New Brighton, Swartkops, the Korsten “location”. Elsewhere in the same decade we see Fugard working up the ideas for Boesman and Lena, a play which takes as its “image” not the solitary beach walker but an anonymous woman by the roadside wearing (in the memorable stage directions) “one of those sad dresses that reduce the body to an angular gaunt cipher of poverty” (Port Elizabeth Plays 193). What is Lena’s obsessive litany of places in the play – an attempt to psychically locate herself amid repeated forced removals – if not the record of a failed life in the sun? “Redhouse – Swartkops – Veeplaas – Korsten. Then this morning the bulldozers…and then…” (202). And what kind of imaginative transgressions and necessary contradictions does it require for a playwright like Fugard to even attempt the dramatization of such a “useless life”?

This mixture of confidence and self-abnegation required by the playwriting self seems to find more analogues in the ebbs and flows of the littoral zone. After a passage meditating on the different “character” of the beaches along the coast, an entry of early 1962 strikes that note of human insignificance in the presence of the non-human which is so common a trope in wilderness writing:

Now, thirty years old, feeling at times mortally sick from the corruption and duplicity of my country, I think that given time I could prepare, and find peace, by remembering, re-seeing, the little that I already have seen of life; and relive my dawning astonishment and wonder at the great beauty, complexity and honesty of that vast area of “living experiences” that have nothing to do with man.

Has any previous age been so self-centred, so conscious of the human shape to the exclusion of all else?

The humility I felt this afternoon, crouched over a rock-pool, watching. (48)

But (another productive contradiction) such pious humility is not incompatible with the deep pleasure that Fugard records in spear fishing – “that electric, orgiastic moment” of the kill – a bodily rush that he finds difficult to account for: “All attempts to think and write about it, here at this desk, are uncertain, as if the essential experience, that part of me which hunts in the water, eludes memory” (108). The entries for these years, as Fugard swims, writes, reads and lives “lightly” along the Eastern Cape seaboard, become a kind of “nature writing” unusual for the degree to which these various kinds of uncertainty and discontinuity are bodied forth. A trust in the sensual intelligence and respect for the opaque psycho-sexual drives underwriting his play-making make the Notebooks remarkable for the range of relations to the non-human that they express. And all the more so, given the way that these are immediately, and creatively, folded back into the social activity of rehearsals with the Serpent Players in New Brighton (a company that stages, under exceptionally difficult conditions, warmly received productions of modernist masterpieces Waiting for Godot, Mandragola and Woyzeck during these years).

In the attempts to map the contours of an unknown and often unknowable selfhood, the entries remain open to the land / sea borderline as it suffuses both the individual unconscious and the longue durée of human history along this coastline. On many pages we see cryptic images recorded from a “rich and affirmative dream life” (222) populated by sea creatures. A trip to Klaasies River on the Tsitsikamma Coast entails a visit to strandloper caves, archaeological sites which, instead of calling forth untrammelled imagination (as is often the case in literary engagements with such nodes of “deep time” in the southern African imaginary) actually resist being absorbed into a glib meaning or personal mythology: “The caves provoked depression. I couldn’t romanticise them – they stank of darkness and fear. They were too perilous – the human hold on those damp walls too frightened and insecure” (107).

Unlike many classic wilderness diaries from Thoreau to Edward Abbey (with their drive toward the hermetic and the pristine), Fugard’s Notebooks rarely shirk the contact with manifold forms of otherness, cognitive dissonance and disturbance in their immediate situation. It is, I would suggest, precisely the fact that they are not operating under the self-imposed burden of being a form of nature writing that makes them unusually open and unpredictable in their notations of the non-human. That is: their imaginative investment in it does not result in the kind of anti-social reflexes and ideological blindspots to which constructions of wilderness often fall prey. Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968) is notorious for the way it effaces nuclear weapons testing and debates about fallout from the Utah landscape which it venerates; but at many points in Fugard’s text, the menace of apartheid’s security apparatus impinges on the Eastern Cape coastline all too directly:

Shell collecting at Cape Recife the other day. I knew what to expect because on the drive there I followed on the tail of a convoy of army lorries carrying Active Citizens’ Force trainees and their guns to a nearby rifle range. The silence of the beach was persistently broken by the innocuous sound – and therefore so much more terrible – of rifles and automatic guns being fired on the range. Everything conspired to make the afternoon ominous. The sun went behind cloud, a cold wind came off the sea, the tide rushed in with savage fury. (81)

If some entries register a flight from the world of current affairs to a private space of rejuvenation and psychic rest, others record near daily contacts with destitute fishermen, beggars and the homeless. Encountering a small shark left to suffocate to death by an angler, “a heavy rock on its body just below the jaws”, the shockingly alien nature of this life-form calls forth a meditation on human atrocity:

When the angler packed up and left that particular rock, I took it over and found the shark. Far from being one of the harmless variety it had a mouthful of the most terrible-looking teeth – possibly ragged-tooth. Setting sun; rough white sea; strong South-Easter. The appalling intolerance and savagery of man when he encounters anything that does not fit into “his” scheme of things. […] Out of the shark’s terrible jaws the voices of […] the condemned in death cells, the thin spiral of “time” on Robben Island. (209)

While revealing a kind of naïvete that is central to Fugard’s poetics, it is also a passage which shows itself acutely aware of how the human will to power conflates various modes of otherness – social, racial, non-human. The prose here is able to register the psychic jolt of encountering the “teeming strangeness” of another life-form without (as does so much nature writing in the colony) collapsing natural and cultural foreignness into each other; rather it tries to understand precisely this kind of de-humanization, in its widest sense.

Elsewhere in these years of the early 1960s, the crassness and violence of South Africa impinges still more directly: we are given Fugard’s shocked reaction to the shooting of Dennis Brutus, his attempts to deal with the racism ingrained in some of his extended family. But we also see charted his experience, by turns joyous and unsettling, of fatherhood. The idea of no life lived in the sun being wasted recurs as he watches his two-year-old daughter Lisa master her first “time concepts”: “Never such a radiance, such a passionate orgy of freedom as Lisa when she finds herself on the beach. Space and sea: the one inviting, the other provoking” (97).

At the end of 1963 – following such complex rhythms of invitation and provocation which shape the larger project of self-writing – we see the reading, thinking and probing of the previous year knot itself into an “image”. A passage from Camus’s Carnets serves as the germinal idea for one of Fugard’s most inward and challenging works:

The story of Dimetos in Camus’s Carnets: falling in love with a beautiful but dead woman washed up by the sea, and having to watch the decay and corruption of what he loves. Camus: “This is the symbol of a condition we must try to define.” (107)

Dimetos would first be presented over 10 years later, opening at the Edinburgh Festival in 1975. Coming directly after the success and topicality of The Island, Fugard’s collaboration with Kani and Ntshona, this abstract and placeless work (Act One set “In a remote Province”, Act Two “Beside the Ocean”) found few sympathetic reviewers.[x] A revised version (with the locations specified as Nieu Bethesda and Gaukamma Beach in the Eastern Cape), found slightly more success; but nonetheless, the opening of the second act is one of many passages in which the heavily symbolic evocations of the sea margent read as flat and portentous when compared to the textured, daily world of the Notebooks:

DIMETOS: Sea. Sand. Sun. Sky. Elemental. There could be a beginning here, as easily as an end. The footprints leading across the wet sand to this moment, suggest a purpose.

            The tide has pulled out so far I despair of its return…There are no landmarks. You walk until you’ve had enough. (Interior Plays 148)

What is intriguing, though, is that Fugard’s obsessive return to Camus and the Eastern Cape coastline yields both his most collaborative, workshopped and “political” play, as well as his most solitary and cryptic. If the austere classicism of Dimetos owes much to Camus, so too does The Island, with its stripped-bare, absurdist locale. The famous opening scene is based on Norman Ntshinga’s descriptions of the Robben Island quarry, but is also so clearly underwritten by The Myth of Sisyphus. “Each in turn fills a wheelbarrow and then with great effort pushes it to where the other man is digging, and empties it”, read the initial stage directions, which in performance became a long, excruciating mime where the bodies of Kani and Ntshona limp and stumble under invisible blows: “As a result, the piles of sand never diminish. Their labour is interminable” (Interior Plays 47).


Littoral zones, literary ecologies: towards an environmental humanism.


Read alongside the many prison memoirs that record the experience of being Esiqithini (“at the Island”), Fugard’s play serves as a reminder that Robben Island ­is itself another important space for probing what the coastline might mean in the South African imaginary. In his autobiography, Mandela records being put to work dragging kelp from the ocean, looking back towards the city that seemed so deceptively close, “winking in the sunshine, the glass towers of Cape Town” (201). The episode, in turn, lends its name to an African Writers Series anthology of prison writing from throughout the continent, Gathering Seaweed, edited by the Malawian poet Jack Mapanje.

Yet in an essay entitled “The Meaning of an Island”, amid the nation-building of the early 1990s, Watson strikes a characteristically discordant note. Writing of the Esiqithini-Robben Island Exhibition at the South African Muesum in 1993, he remarks that “it was the very gaps in this exhibition’s documentation which suggested that Robben Island harbours a deeper, more difficult, and indeed haunting significance, than the political one so often claimed for it” (461). Turning to the colonial archive of the 18th and 19th centuries, he rejects the tendency to retrospectively confer liberatory potential on the obscure fates of those sentenced by the VOC Council of Justice, or to label its victims as early “freedom fighters”:

By the same token, only an illegitimate act of the imagination could attribute a triumphalist political meaning to the words of Katyi, the sick wife of the Xhosa chief Maqoma, both confined to the Island in the late 1850s, and who is reported to have refused medicine with the words: “No, my heart is sore, I want to die”. (463)

Contra to the ANC mythos that was in the process of being constructed around Robben Island, the essayist describes it instead as “a natural memorial to the nameless; and, not least, to a suffering no less extreme for having been overwhelmingly anonymous and now largely unremembered” (464).

If this kind of nature writing is apolitical, then this is only in the sense of being suspicious of any prevailing political consensus, in being wary of the replacement of one nationalist historiography with another. Similar misgivings – which could have been read as ungenerous, even reactionary at the time, but which now seem prescient – can be found throughout A Writer’s Diary. Various entries question the autocratic nature of the African National Congress, and the glibness of many applications for political amnesty. At one point the diarist despairs of the flattened language used by a perpetrator – “Unfortunately we kept hitting him until he died” (155) – at another point, he states flatly of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “You can’t apologise for the unforgiveable”.

At the same time, we see how the shift from Cape Town as a seat of political struggle to a city now marketed as a world-class tourist destination (with abundant “natural capital”, as the tourist board refers to Table Mountain National Park) has only compounded the challenges that his work sets itself. Reflecting in the Diary on how his surroundings seem to have taken on “the patina, the glaze of a giant Club Med”, he remarks that “not far into the next century I suspect that Cape Town, a city remarkable for having a mountain in the middle of it, will have managed to relegate even its natural environment to a kind of sideshow” (150). The “cultural degree zero” of Camus’s colonial formation persists in the globalised, 21st-century metropolis; but now this sun-struck sensuality and “solar mysticism” can hardly be separated from the more ordinary pagan rituals of mass tourism on the beaches of the Atlantic seaboard.

In the totality of the diary, though, such disaffected responses to the public world are not absolute, or unchanging. Based on daily rhythms and shifting internal weathers (rather than the single, abstracted moment of the lyric, or the position-taking of the polemic) the diary form prevents that note of misanthropy and disgust which mars some of his writing from contaminating the whole. Rather, there is the sense of other voices entering the text, each demanding their own forms of dialogue: the nightly radio bulletins of the TRC, which continue to intrude; the drunk man looking for work who turns away saying: “You people all just want to live alone”; and – in the record of a lone vigil in the Cederberg – the cadences of |Xam orature as recorded in the Bleek and Lloyd Collection, voices which come to underwrite his evocations of the Cape fold mountains:

Besides, it is these evening skylines that provide me, repeatedly, with a visual, spatial representation of what I would like a line of poetry to be.

    Yes, to write one verse which has both the clarity of line, the poise, as well as the weightiness, that density-in-clarity, of the western slope of the Sugarloaf when the sun has gone down behind it and the sky lifts as it begins to drain…(85)

To give one final example of the kind of suggestiveness enabled by the diary: on 13 March 1996, Watson writes of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, and quotes an article in The New Yorker where the writer “makes an ingenious connection between the horrors unearthed by this tribunal and the presence of the Vermeers in the Mauritshuis in the same city”, an artist who “must also have painted in an historical period of almost constant chaos and ferocity – certainly of social upheaval to equal anything in Bosnia”:

And he remarks that often in Vermeer’s work “the themes... are saturatingly present but only as felt absence…It’s almost as if Vermeer can be seen, amid the horrors of his age, to have been asserting or inventing the very idea of peace…he had been finding – and, yes, inventing – a zone filled with peace, a small room, an intimate vision... and then breathing it out”. (47)

In its play of presence and absence, its international reach, and its combination of deep historical perspective with the sanctity of private space, this (relocated) found text offers itself almost as an organising “image” of the diary as a whole. But its larger resonance only accrues with the next entry, which now becomes more than a description of the weather:

Another cooler morning: after sunrise a sea-fog moves off the bay and drifts into the suburbs. All the doors and windows of my Woodstock house are open to release the heat still trapped inside from yesterday’s high temperatures. The fog flows through the rooms, its pale whiteness like a principle of coldness in the air, as if it were the colour of the cold itself made visible in the air. (47)

Here the writing itself seems unconsciously to be “breathing out” and releasing its own idea of peace into the city, and the wider social body.

This still point is soon dissipated by the wind. But nonetheless we are left with a text that emerges as a compelling document of the South African transition, precisely because of its candour in logging cognitive dissonance and difficulty. It shows a rare ability to stage the fundamental writerly paradox that – to adapt a line from Watson’s one-time colleague J. M. Coetzee – whatever can be articulated is falsely put, and whatever cannot be articulated must be lived through (Waiting for the Barbarians 70).

In the afterword to A Littoral Zone (1991), Douglas Livingstone wrote of how this “mysterious border that shifts restlessly between land and sea” had to him “always reflected that blurred and uneasy divide between humanity’s physical and psychic elements” (62). Through the examples of Fugard and Watson, we might begin to see how the changeability and marginality of the diary form itself interacts with (and enables a space to reflect on) other kinds of liminality: spatial and environmental, but also generic, socio-political and imaginative.

This is not, however, to imply that all writer’s diaries are similarly valuable. Indeed, the particular qualities of Fugard’s Notebooks from the 1960s and 70s are shown up by comparing them with some more recent entries from the early 1990s, a selection published in the special issue of the journal Twentieth Century Literature in 1993. By his own admission, they have become little more than “a catalogue of daily trivia. I doubt whether an original thought or image has found its way onto their pages for years” (“Recent Notebook Entries” 528). The reason, he suggests, is his biographical trajectory from the margins of Port Elizabeth to a new cultural centre: not a voyage back to the literary metropole of London but rather to the western limit of the United States: “Paging through the published Notebooks yesterday, I realised with a shock how the quality of my intellectual life has deteriorated over the past ten years – unquestionably the result of the measure of success I now enjoy as a playwright and my inability to protect myself from the damaging consequences of the American Success Syndrome.  The decline has been insidious” (528).

The flatness and all-too-easy consonance of this American diary can be compared to the friction, flux and resistance encoded in the earlier day-registers, where the capacity of a mind at full creative stretch to ingest eclectic sources is figured in the far more unexpected and provocative juxtapositions of nature and culture that fill the pages. To select almost at random from one of many specimen days: in an account of a typical evening at “S’kop” (his rustic cottage at Schoenmakerskop, used for writing retreats), we read of a mingling of the visual, ecological and musical:

Last night’s fare: a chapter on Ukioy-e prints; a few chapters on marine biology and, to end with, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony while I sipped lemon tea.

Little candles held up in enormous and dark rooms – madmen muttering and singing in the corners. I was deeply moved by the richness, the beauty, the pathos of the human adventure. Those solitary courtesans in kimonos, the primeval mystery of the single-celled protozoa, Mahler singing! (96)

It is one of many moments in which a fascination with the “carnal reality” of play-making – the fact that it draws on the body in space, under duress, and in real time – translates into a very physical response to the different kinds of stimuli which the diarist exposes himself to. So too, the passage is surely underscored by Camus’s credo of full lucidity in the face of absurdity, suffering, and unmeaning: the great humanist motto of The Plague that “there are more things to admire in men than to despise” (308). Inevitably though, the stillness and sense of achievement inscribed in this moment is soon dispelled in the ongoing flux of the diary form. The next entry records a joyless, blustery walk in the veld: “The bluegums outside Pieter’s house: whipped savagely by the wind and roaring back…Why does the wind desolate more than anything else in nature?” (95-6).

As in those passages where the rainless south-easter strafes Watson’s Cape Town, worrying at the built environment and human structures of meaning more generally, the weather is hardly the signifier of daily ordinariness with which we began (an idea which, in any case, seems impossibly dated in a twenty-first century context of climate change and unreadable flux within the biosphere). Rather, both these projects of life-writing ask for a more creative account of the relation between natural, personal and social histories within southern African letters. Set back from those pressured public spaces which demand a loudly advertised self-consciousness with regard to one’s “subject position”, the diary form offers a way of thinking through selfhood and the social body in ways that are creative rather than reductive, implicit rather than overt: to trace these, in other words, as lived rather than merely proclaimed.

Beyond this, these texts gesture towards what is entailed in bringing littoral (and literary) spaces tainted by discourses of leisure, conservatism and privilege into a more communal post-apartheid imaginary. Without wanting to lean too heavily on a simplistic equivalence between word and world, one might even suggest that in each the result is a prose which has the sense of having been tempered and impinged on by outdoor conditions: a critical language shaped and thickened by the littoral to which it constantly returns, complicated by its tides and textures, made more subtle by its gradations.

The coastal wind carries on blowing throughout Fugard’s Notebooks, right until in the last entry for 1974. Typically, it registers in these closing moments that co-existence of the numinous and the workaday inherent within the creative process, receptive toward whatever form of otherness may present itself during the physical act of writing:

The wind has turned. A moderate easterly all day, calm sunset and twilight and then, about half-an-hour ago, the westerly moved in. For me it remains a spine-tingling mystery how that wind brings with it a world so uniquely its own…

In among all the wind rattlings and buffetings at the door, just occasionally a very clear and simple double knock. I answer: Come in. So far nothing. (225)

Notes and references

[i] Some examples would include: Sol Plaatje’s lost and then rediscovered Boer War journal (speculatively “finished” by Andries Oliphant in “The Interpreter” (1999)); Olive Schreiner’s proto-feminist life-writing, which surely feeds into the “locked diary” of J. M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country (1977); the journals of Lady Anne Barnard and Susanna Smit that compel and frustrate the poetic imagination of Antjie Krog in equal measure; the Dagregister of Adam Tas, drawn on by several writers as a formative moment in Afrikaans culture.


[ii] The lines appear translated slightly differently in Selected Essays and Notebooks, trans. Philip Thody: ‘Whatever difficulties the enterprise may present…’ (1970: 153). All quotations from Camus taken from this edition unless otherwise stated.


[iii] In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes: “The situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority” (355).


[iv] As a reader who has always found such notebooks a more engaging, accessible and ultimately more acute form of knowledge than the self-consciously “literary” prose of the Biographia Literaria, I am receptive to the idea that it was this descendant of the “commonplace book” – with its abrupt shifts from high to low registers, and its “unplanned, unfolding, various existence” – which “allowed his multiform genius its natural outlet” (Coleridge, Notebooks viii).


[v] Some examples here might be: a series of (posthumously discovered) writerly experiments with alternate selves (Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet); the unbearable, unreadable or destroyed (Gide on Wilde, Sylvia Plath’s last journal); the unconscious (Kafka, Graham Greene’s “dream diaries”); the radically displaced (Gombrowicz in Argentina); the ungenerous or unsayable within one’s own lifetime (Malinowski, Cheever).


[vi] I have in mind here the remarks of Philip French who, in his work on V. S. Naipaul, suggested that it might be “the last literary biography to be written from a
complete paper archive” (xiii).


[vii] For some accounts of how post-apartheid South African literature engages the VOC archive, see Easton (2002), Samuelson (2007) Carli Coetzee (2012) and Twidle (2013).


[viii] Faulkner’s phrase comes from a 1956 Paris Review interview with Jean Stein Vanden Heuvel, collected in Meriwether and Millgate (1968: 255). And as Rita Barnard remarks, the metaphor returns us to the dialogue of fixedness and flux, the tension between local specificity and the international circuitry of literary modernism: it “not only suggests the small scope and value of the territory represented but also evokes the possibility of travel – the potentially global reach of the regional text” (Apartheid and Beyond 118).


[ix] I have adapted this list from Rob Nixon’s “Environmentalism and Postcolonialism” [2005], reproduced in African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, edited by Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson.


[x] “Even from a (white) South African one cannot if you please, constantly expect apartheid plays”, one commentator wrote of the German-language premiere, ‘But does it have to be such a mytho-mishmash?’ (cited in Wertheim 101).