Experiments with Truth 

A-Z of deleted scenes, outtakes, fragments


Afterwards I went to shake hands with Duggie’s mother. There was tension. I tried to mention the manuscript papers to his sister. She looked blank. As we began to get into my car, a young man came up to me. He was asking, he said, for all the family, about the money from Duggie’s writing that was sold in London. Car doors were slamming all around. There was dust. It was too hot. I just stopped talking. Perhaps this was Duggie’s final con.

                        I knew that it would be a long time before I got the papers back. It was.

 Barney Simon, Afterword to Dugmore Boetie, Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost.

Ambitious lives

The central chapters, ‘Ambitious lives’ and ‘A kind of confidence man’, explore post-apartheid life writing as a domain of racial misprision, over-writing and excess. I read across controversial projects like Mark Gevisser’s Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred (2007), Ronald Suresh Roberts’s life of Nadine Gordimer, No Cold Kitchen (2005), Steinberg’s Midlands (2002) and Three-Letter Plague (2008). These are over-determined and uneven texts that exceed the initial terms in which they are framed, becoming not just biographies but also, I suggest, coded attempts to assess the place of the writer, and the nature of intellectual freedom, in the post-transitional state under the Mbeki and Zuma administrations. As long, complex works that test the boundaries of the liberal humanist and constitutional imagination, they are haunted by spectres of refusal and intransigence, of unreliability and aesthetic collapse. 

Autobiographical pact

In this sense, Lejeune revises his earlier claim (similar to that of Searle about fictional discourse) that there is no way of distinguishing autobiography from the autobiographical novel given that ‘[a]ll the methods that autobiography uses to convince us of the authenticity of its narrative can be imitated by the novel, and often have been imitated’: ‘This is accurate so long as we limit ourselves to the text minus the title page; as soon as we include the latter in the text, with the name of the author, we make use of a general textual criterion, the identity (“identicalness”) of the name (author-narrator-protagonist). The autobiographical pact is the affirmation in the text of this identity, referring back in the final analysis to the name of the author on the cover’ (On Autobiography 13-14).

Biography: A Very Short Introduction

As a mode that, in Hermione Lee’s words, ‘rubs up all the time against rival ways of understanding human beings and the nature of identity’ (Biography 15) biography is most often compared to some other thing.

Burger’s Daughter

The reassurance that Gordimer took in Ilse’s response was profound: a kind of absolution from an accusation that actually bothered her: an accusation, from her own son, that writers steal and exploit intimate lives.

Ronald Suresh Roberts, No Cold Kitchen (401).

The Chief

In the kind of linguistically attentive aside with which the text is crammed, we learn of Mbeki’s attempt to subvert or blur hierarchies amid ANC comrades in exile in Lusaka. An unnamed interviewee recalls: ‘It was Thabo who decided that everyone must be called “chief” […] “Everyone is chief so no-one is chief”, that kind of thing.’ Gevisser goes on to note how when Mbeki came to power, the word became ‘the signature verbal tic of his office, and talking to me in 2004, the comrade noted the irony of this’: ‘The very thing Thabo used as a way of getting out of the cult of personality around Tambo has now become the very thing that has imprisoned him, because while everyone is “chief”, he has become “The Chief”, and people don’t challenge him as much as they should’ (418).


In contrast to the trajectory of many standard-issue academic arguments, then, complexity cannot be a ‘safe’ final destination for Dlamini’s project. The invocation of complexity, as we have already seen, has become more complicated within the current South African situation. Both within the text and in terms of its reception, there is a suspicion of complexity as excusing the inexcusable and explaining the inexplicable.

Duck / rabbit 

In his attempt to theorise narrative non-fiction as an ‘implicated’ form (one that has material consequences for real people and is not done justice by approaches which glibly collapse the non/fiction binary), Daniel Lehman turns to the duck/rabbit graphic of gestalt psychology in considering how the non-fiction binary might operate. For example: a first-person fiction (duck) and an autobiographical essay (rabbit) might be indistinguishable (in terms of their internal textual properties), but must also be treated entirely differently (in terms of the reading practices and worldly expectations we bring to them). It is perhaps a helpful image through which to hold in mind the dual properties of self-revelation and self-exoneration that inhere within confession. That is, how these simultaneous but dissonant impulses must inhabit the very same language, narrative operations and verbal formulae – must come to the very same ‘terms’ – as each other. How in fact, they might well come to be formally identical and interchangeable (and how we as reader must toggle between then) in much the same way that an earlier, reprehensible self must occupy the very same linguistic particle as the reflective, penitent self. 


Pulling away from the central trio who have occupied the book, the epilogue settles, rather surprisingly, on the most minor, peripheral characters. Sizwe does decide to test, but when he does so, it is another party that he informs: ‘When he needed finally to confront the prospect of dirt in his blood, it was to the bird-watchers he turned, people whose place in his world is so unheralded and strange as to be ghostly’. (326) The ‘accident of their social and physical distance’, becomes an enabling factor here, and in the closing pages the narrative steps still further back from the fraught and sometimes claustrophobic intimacies that we have been party to.

The final lines invoke work the benign blankness of lay health care worker Kate Marrandi, whose deflection of all personal questions and refusal to talk of her emotional life (the narrator speculates) had been crucial to her work as a healer. MaMarrandi had ‘filed away at herself until she was no longer of and in her world – no sexual history, nothing to rival, nothing to envy, nothing to reflect shame and hostility back at you’ (326). At a further remove, it might also be read as the image of the ideal non-fiction narrator: an impossible image, but one that has come to temper the over-bearing self-reflexiveness of Steinberg’s earlier work. He speculates: ‘Perhaps Kate and the bird-watchers are a model of the place the missing men might dare enter to be treated; a place sufficiently detached from the thick of the world to have become absolutely safe; a place where one might find the means to stay alive’ (326).

The extracurriculum

In the subsequent edition of the magazine, Chimurenga 15: The Curriculum is Everything, a still more elaborate classification system is evolved to navigate and cross-reference between the remarkable range of articles, extracts, transcripts, drawings, diagrams, comic strips, photo essays and artwork that make up the Chimurenga archive. To give just one example: under Section II, Methods (‘The Eggs and Toast Should be Ready at the Same Time’), Chapter 1 (‘Reincarnation or the Smell of Carnations’) includes subsections on musicians Phillip Tabane (‘Bajove Dokotele’), Winston Mankunku Ngozi (‘Inaudible I’) and Fela Kuti (‘Method After Fela’, cross-referenced with Kuti’s own ‘Mr Grammarticalogylisationalism Is The Boss). Each of the above also appears in a secondary contents page under headings like ‘UNIVERSITY, shebeen as’, ‘DESPERATION’; ‘FAMILY; generally speaking’ and ‘TEACHERS WHO SAY THEY CAN’T TEACH’.

Fanon and on

The atmosphere is an incredible mixture of Deep South evangelism (biblical incantations of Mother Africa themes), American black consciousness phraseology, jazz-talk, Fanon-fervour, missionary-prize-giving formality. People read their own work with sincerity and passion. Some of it was sung, to the accompaniment of drum, flute, penny whistle, mbira […] The sentiments are always moving and ninety-percent of the time poorly or/and banally expressed. […] We are all addressed, irrespective of race, as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. This may mean little to you; but in South Africa at present such forms are generally reserved strictly for blacks. So how can one describe the moving sense of real brother/sisterhood, the warmth and welcome – and at the same time the glimpse of the spine-chilling depth of resentment and the anachronistic absurdities of our gathering.

Nadine Gordimer to Per Wästberg, November 1978. Quoted in Ronald Suresh Roberts, No Cold Kitchen (354).

The fertile fact

The narrative relishes counter-intuitive, dissonant facts; the fact that her Booker prize winning novel The Conservationist, was first excerpted in Playboy; the revelation that it was written in a rural cottage expropriated by the apartheid government for forced removals; her strange acceptance of her son going off for military service (374). ‘Gordimer’s realities are not for those who prize revolutionary elegance – a clear cut, vacuum-sealed, Tupperware morality’ (No Cold Kitchen 316).


‘The written fictions of apartheid, though often patently ridiculous, had a devastating operational truth of their own’ (Gready ‘Autobiography’ 492).

Formalised aggression

In a Paris Review interview on ‘The Art of Non-fiction’, Malcolm intimates that the ‘formalised aggression’ of her journalistic persona, its unsentimental clear-sightedness, can partly be traced (as with the work of Didion, Susan Sontag and others) to the dubious task of needing to craft styles of analytic authority in a male-dominated world (‘Let’s change the subject’, she remarks when interviewer Katie Roiphe pushes her on the question).

I Gave the Names

Yet finally, the kind of reading that remains content simply to point out the inescapably contaminated nature of the autobiographical enterprise remains unsatisfying. Existing as both rhetorical performance and historical document, ‘I Gave the Names’ is not done justice simply by a kind of reading that is content to remain within its own non-complicit and even self-righteous demystifying procedures. As such, I think that the piece has continued to act on me because it shows up the problem of remaining within the predictable academic rhetoric of privileging ambiguity, paradox, the endless play of signification.

By contrast, what interests me about such critical non-fictions is their quality of implication, or implicatedness – the way they might involve or even incriminate real individuals but also the implied reader, who is drawn into varying levels of identification and disavowal within a single essay, who might have something of her or his own capacity for self-delusion (or self-righteousness) revealed to them.

That is to say: even as a theoretically informed reading might be primed to reveal slippages and circuits of self-deception within a written document, the fact of this being also the final public testimony of a real person, and one implicated in a range of other ‘lives’ (both actual and textual) cautions against analytical approach that is too distant, too self-satisfied (or even deluded) in its own rhetorical operations and analytic distance, too far removed from the sorrow and loss that underwrite these texts. It is a personal sorrow and loss, of course, but at the same time it is also perhaps the loss of a legible or coherent social and political future.

Infinitely varied, riddled, unsteady realities

Having begun with questions of testimony and witness, this book is increasingly drawn toward the paradox of experimental or anti-realist non-fiction. That is, to texts that are at the same time documentary but also avant-garde, playful, dubious or even (as in the auto/biographies of ‘non-political’ prisoners like Herman Charles Bosman, Dugmore Boetie and Steinberg’s The Number) downright unreliable and deliberately misleading.

Like many 21st-century readers intrigued by the ‘infinitely varied, riddled, unsteady realities that non-fictional forms advance’, I gravitate toward ‘the generic edgelands where documentary forms and fictional strategies mingle and liaise’, in the words of Rob Nixon: ‘to episodes of speculative consciousness within non-fiction where the historical archive otherwise would deliver only silence’ (29, 31).

In short, there are problems

In the process, his work reprises many of the shapes for thinking about non-fiction that we have already encountered; indeed it is a kind of virtuosic rehearsal of the story, or the problems, so far. The problem of sufficient authority that dogged the ambitious lives of the previous chapter, with their vexed balance between scepticism and generosity; the distorting secrets and silences that menace Dlamini’s enquiry into collaboration, betrayal and intelligence networks; the limits of sincerity and confession glimpsed in Leftwich’s ‘I Gave the Names’; the incipient violence of cultural diagnosis or national allegory in the Tsafendas story – these are centre stage in Steinberg’s books.

Still, the question where to begin remains: how to read such works in a way that escapes the gravitational pull of their own self-awareness? How to match their taut criticality rather than simply work within the intellectual shapes that they establish for (or foist on) the reader?

Intimate with the arguments

Published in 2017, the last year of the Zuma administration, Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang and Reflecting Rogue by Pumla Dineo Gqola are self-described feminist texts in which two leading South African intellectuals reflect on their own formation. Always alert to the complex impress of gender, race and class on the process of self-making, they move through spaces ranging from earliest childhood memories to the 21st-century workplace. As literary contemporaries born in the 1970s, they reflect from a slightly greater distance on the activist commitments of youth; and yet in terms of medium and voice, they are markedly different works. 

Msimang’s ‘memoir of exile and home’, her first book, is a coming of age story that in its early chapters evokes the experience of being the child of members of the ANC in exile. It traces a transnational itinerary ranging from Zambia to Kenya, Ethiopia, Canada, the United States and Australia as the author tries to calibrate her relation to the ‘other’ country around which her entire family life and upbringing had always revolved: ‘My sisters and I are freedom’s children, born into the ANC and nurtured within a revolutionary community whose sole purpose is to fight apartheid’ (2). The later sections then trace the process of coming ‘home’ post-1994 to a country that is both familiar and deeply alien, and the experience of trying to write one’s way into cultural prominence as a simultaneous insider/outsider. ‘Scattered throughout my memo are notes’, the narrator comments of her first journalistic assignments in the 1990s, ‘a blueprint for how I will make myself South African. I report on the TRC thoughtfully, analytically, and with an outsider’s eye. That is how – in the years to come – I will work my way into the heart of this country’ (216). Such are the kinds psychic gaps in belonging that the work must reckon with in its final sections, and which it struggles to close via its own writing up. The memoir ends with the author’s departure from the country, even as its publication and the media attention surrounding this marked Msimang as ascending to the role of eminent global commentator on the country’s affairs – a ‘professional South African’, in a sense – within major news websites and the circuits of digital media.

I will never write a memoir

Gqola’s work, by contrast, is ‘a collection of experimental autobiographical essays’ (back cover) more wary of the temptations and pleasures of personal memory work, and infused with a more explicitly analytic mode of feminist thought and critical theory. In the afterword, she expresses a resistance to anything like conventional life writing. To her publisher’s hopeful enquiries, ‘my response is always the same’: “I will never write a memoir. A few autobiographical essays are as far as I will go” (209). Nonetheless, her previous books do comprise a kind of coded intellectual autobiography, refracting different stages of (as one of the essay titles in Reflecting Rogue) puts it, ‘A Blackwoman’s journey through three South African universities’. An enquiry into slave memory and the cultural aftermaths of the Cape colonial experience in What is Slavery to Me? (2010); a tribute to and meditation on the music and activism of Simphiwe Dana in A Renegade Called Simphiwe (2013); an urgent investigation into South Africa’s rates of sexual violence and their media representation in Rape: A South African Nightmare (winner of the Alan Paton award in 2016) – each of these influential non-fictions has doubled as chapters in a more personal narrative about the possibilities and limits of intellectual, creative and feminist labour in the South African academy.

To characterise Always Another Country and Reflecting Rogue as works that are shaped by, respectively, exile and ‘inzile’ intellectual traditions and political formations is perhaps too simplistic. Yet they are works that emerge from and produce very different versions of the country: one is a memoir not only shaped by but also primed for global travel; the other works with a more local set of registers and debates, their intricacies and references often left untranslated for a putative international reader.

A kind of confidence man

As with several other of the non-fictional texts considered here, Three-Letter Plague then constructs itself out of a site of perceived irrelevance or uselessness, seeking to articulate those registers of experience that lie outside the quantitative metrics of social or medical science. At certain moments, Steinberg senses that Dr Reuter is secretly hungry for the information that he is uncovering, as someone bringing news of a world beyond ‘a charmed circle of activists and converts’ (269). […]

The subject is a changeable one after all, split between three, or perhaps four main actors. These are, in order of appearance: the narrator, the young man whom he calls Sizwe Magadla, an MSF doctor named Hermann Reuter and local health care worker Kate Marrandi. They are arrayed in a shifting and unsettled relation to each other, linked in a complex weave of confidences and confidentiality at a time when privacy and personal dignity have been uniquely pressurised and threatened by a public health emergency. […]

Listening back to the recording, the narrators find the conversation amusing: ‘Two white men in conflict over whether the black man one of them has found is a genuine article or a trickster’ (319). Until now, Three-Letter Plague has clearly shown up the first two genealogies that I traced in an earlier section. It reflects carefully and constantly on the shifting relation between writer and subject; so too it undertakes the kind of textured social history that seeks to restore agency and coherence to the apparently ‘irrational’ denial of those who do not test for HIV.

The Last Leg

Appearing as chapter 14 in the autobiography, ‘The Last Leg’ narrates how Boetie is sent to prison and demands to check in his leg (given to him by well-meaning social workers in Durban) as a personal effect, so as to have it kept in storage and not to have it worn out during his time in prison. The request plays comic havoc with the bureaucratic order of the prison.

Literary non-fiction in a global context

Works like Krog’s Country of My Skull trilogy (1998, 2003, 2009), Steinberg’s Little Liberia (2011) and Dlamini’s Askari (2014) increasingly put the South African experience in dialogue with that of other post-transitional societies: with material on collaboration in post-World War Two France or Germany after reunification; with the reflections of Latin American writers and intellectuals emerging from dictatorship; with the aftermaths of the Liberian civil war. Different kinds of trans-national mobility, displacement and migrancy begin to structure narrative non-fiction in deep ways. The ‘new South Africa’ rejoins the world community just as the Berlin Wall falls and the high-water mark of economic globalisation alters the very idea of what the nation might be: as a category it is diluted in some ways, fortified in others.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is refracted into different modes: some place themselves in dialogue with the AIDS memoir as it evolves in north America and the West; others seek out ways of understanding the particular tragedy of the pandemic and its politics within southern Africa. The recurrent waves of xenophobia toward African nationals that have characterised post-apartheid begin to occupy non-fiction anthologies like Load Shedding (2009) as well as autobiographies like Malaika wa Azania’s Memoirs of a Born Free (2014) and Sisonke Msimang’s Another Country (2017).

In 2012, the killing of 34 striking workers near Marikana Platinum Mine summon spectres from the apartheid past – the all too usable past of the Sharpeville massacre – but also mark the crossing of a threshold in South Africa’s story about itself. ‘Marikana’ floods public discourse with documentary forms and techniques on a scale not seen since the TRC: detailed, forensic, unanswerable accounts of miners gunned down by a South African Police Service protecting the interests of a global mining company. The now iconic events of August 16 at Wonderkop speak of a world in which corporate and state power are deeply enmeshed, and black bodies are subject to a violence that is both national and multinational.

The literary

As John Carey suggests in his introduction to The Faber Book of Reportage (1987), framed in this way, the enquiry is neither interesting nor meaningful. ‘Literature’, he writes, is ‘not an objectively ascertainable category to which certain works belong, but rather a term used by institutions and establishments and other culture-controlling groups to dignify those texts to which, for whatever reasons, they wish to attach value.’ The question worth asking therefore is not whether reportage is literature, but why intellectuals and literary institutions have generally been so keen to deny it that status (xxxvi).

What one might call the space of the literary – its parameters, its economics, its guardians and gatekeepers – is certainly something that any kind of politically aware or materialist cultural criticism must be aware of. However, it is my sense that professionalised literary studies can sometimes struggle to move beyond such questions, and into the more risky registers of personal response, interpretation and judgement. Academic criticism is often so intent on demonstrating its hard-headedness that it does not pay sufficient attention to the experience of reading texts, of apprehending form. As such, this work is primarily an account of what it means to read a sequence of complex and ambitious non-fictional works that have emerged from modern South Africa. It reads at the level of form not, I hope, because of any narrow formalism, but because it is here where one might see how such texts evolve their techniques for social thinking.

A Littoral Zone

In the afterword to A Littoral Zone (1991), Douglas Livingstone wrote of how the ‘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.

The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse

‘Suppose a friend tells an amazing anecdote. If we believe it to be a joke or an invention, we look for a punchline or narrative flourishes; if we think it is a true story, we may formulate questions in our minds, asking for supplementary information. The proper response is indicated by the type of story we think we are being told, and that decision in turn is influenced by factors such as our relationship with the storyteller, the social context, and the antecedent conversation, as well as by properties of the story itself’ (Searle, 480). In this sense, genre becomes in many ways less an internal property than an act of interpretation, one governed by a range of extra-textual considerations.

Mandela’s missing manuscript

‘I did not hesitate over choosing a word or phrase,’ reads a line in the most famous of all South African prison memoirs.  Mandela describes the composition of an autobiography written secretly in his cell, smuggled out in 1976 and eventually forming the basis of Long Walk to Freedom: ‘I wrote rapidly, completing a draft in four months…It was like a waking dream and I attempted to transfer it to paper as simply and truthfully as I could.’ The account was to document the true history of the African National Congress, to cut through government propaganda and keep the struggle before the people ahead of his sixtieth birthday in 1978.   As each page was completed he sent it out of his hands for comments by the rest of the ANC high command and transcription into a tiny shorthand which reduced 10 pages of draft to one side of foolscap.  Working deep into the night, unable to consult early parts of his draft and having to hold the entire structure in his head, Mandela laid down the foundations of the heroic South African prison narrative. Complete with symbolic oppositions between lime quarry and vegetable garden, the island prison becomes a concentrated microcosm, perhaps even the most acute vantage point, on the country it looks back towards.   Once the condensed version had reached the outside world, the manuscript was buried in the prison yard, sealed in empty cocoa containers.

The mealie grinder

Reflecting on J. M. Coetzee’s decision to write a work like Boyhood in the third person, Derek Attridge explores what he calls ‘the structural interminability of confession in a secular context’ (J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading 142). The novelist’s exercises in third-person ‘autre-biography’, then, seek to short-circuit or cauterise this process of infinite regress before it can even begin, while also refusing what Heyns calls ‘implicit amnesty’ accorded to the child-as-victim (53). In reading a passage from Boyhood in which the young ‘John’ remembers an act of personal cruelty (the crushing of his younger’s brother’s fingers in a mealie grinder), Attridge suggests that the ‘chiselling of language that the reader senses here is part of the experience of a struggle to articulate a truth that could only be diminished by explanation or justification’ (154). In this sense, the sparseness of the passage should be read not as a withholding but ‘as a sign of the adult author’s continuing bafflement, of an essential truth that he […] cannot penetrate’ (155).


Yet as several reviewers noted, what seems at first to be a work of investigative journalism modulates or unravels into something else: a text less concerned with reconstructing a particular series of events than with finding ways, or struggling to find ways, of writing the rural: a space of the ‘new’ South Africa that is portrayed as frozen in postures of long-standing inequity and resentment. The result is a narrative that operates on an uneasy horizon between the anachronistic and the emergent; that veers between a pastoral, anti-pastoral and maybe even post-pastoral imaginary as the conventional binaries of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are scrambled into a far more complex and opportunistic pattern of switchbacks and crossings between country and city.  

The countryside clattered with the noise of its cruel politics, each new scene a micro-world of stubborn memories and pernicious games. I remembered my trip through the plantations with Jude Fowler. I had remarked on their beauty, he on their ugliness. I was looking at the blend of colours, as an outsider does; he understood things by their history and their function. For a brief moment as I drove back to the Benfield farm, I imbibed the landscape as a native does; everything marked by a thousand particulars; the history of power and people engraved in every mutation. (258)

A minor form

 The true state of every nation is the state of common life – a line from Samuel Johnson that is often quoted in journalism studies. But what is common in a profoundly unequal society? What weight can one give to ideas that are so important in the history of the essay as a literary form – concepts of the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary – and which recur as both so desirable and so elusive in South African cultural criticism? Via the critical prose of writers like Nkosi, Es’kia Mphahlele, Ndebele and Zoe Wicomb, I ask how one might approach the critical essay as a mode of intellectual autobiography. So too I consider the ‘minor form’ of the diary in the work of Stephen Watson and Athol Fugard. These loose and shape-shifting formats, I suggest, grant a cultural space in which authors are able to write not only what they know, but also the story of how they came to such knowledge. This kind of intellectual backstory is not easily permitted by more academic or disciplined genres; but in a country where the most important thinking has been done outside formal institutions, it comes to have a particular importance.

Moebius strip

‘I am going to develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can the train of thought which led me to think this’ – Virginia Woolf’s Moebius strip of a sentence that launches A Room of One’s Own evokes a power of the reflective essay that I have been exploring throughout this book: that it is a mode which permits not just the rendering of knowledge, but also the story of how the writing self came to such knowledge (‘a pattern of life’) while nonetheless being able to admit those regions of consciousness still opaque to its understanding (‘For reasons which I still do not fully understand…’). Freed from the fictitious knowingness and single tense of an academic text, an autobiographical essay can rehearse and revisit the stations that link the historical ‘I’ to the narrating ‘I’. As such it activates a variegated series of temporalities that are, mysteriously, compacted into the time of writing, which is also ‘now’, the time of reading.

Narrative micro-management

But in attempting to school, pace and discipline the reader into appropriate responses, in pre-empting any possible objection, it risks provoking an opposite effect – making an audience bristle against such narrative micro-management. In short, there are problems; and in this debut work they jut out more than in Steinberg’s later, more assured narrative performances.


Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition.

Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity.

Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truths while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt. Restorative nostalgia is at the core of recent national and religious revivals. It knows two main plots – the return to origins and the conspiracy.

Reflective nostalgia does not follow a single plot but explores ways of inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones.

It loves details, not symbols.

 Svetlana Boym, ‘Nostalgia and its Discontents’ (2007)


In teaching university classes on non-fiction over several years, I have noticed many students consistently using the word ‘novel’ to mean not just fiction but any long work of prose in the format of a printed codex. After several years of this, I gave up on trying to correct them, sensing that this might not be an error but rather the instantiation of new normal where the division that matters is not between fiction and non-fiction but rather between the protocols of the book, and those of the screen – or perhaps between long-form and short-form narrative, with the different patterns of consumption and expectation that these involve.

These questions about the status and technologies of the real will become increasingly important in the later sections of the book, particularly when considering works that use techniques of ‘uncreative writing’, artificial constraint and anti-realist documentary.

Other kinds of falsehoods

For writers of nonfiction, truths have lies or falsehoods as their usual binaries, though they can have quite different implications. Much of the public discussion has focused on the former, in sometimes reductive, sometimes useful terms. Lies, the deception of the reader through the creation of false experience, have been the rallying cry that has caused readers and most critics to gather their pitchforks and torches in search of the monsters of deception whose experience they have taken as ‘real

But there are other kinds of falsehoods that seem to me as or more important: marks of self-deception in writers of nonfiction, forms of psychological manipulation, the drawing of conclusions, and epiphanies that seem laboured, unworthy, unbelievable, false. However, these same falsehoods can be useful if the writer of essays or memoir can catch herself or himself in the act, displaying the insight and ability to self-correct that is among the rare pleasures of different forms of memory writing.

David Lazar, Introduction, Truth in Nonfiction: Essays (x).

Other people

For this reason, I suggest, current accounts of a 21st-century reality hunger – conducted in Anglo-American literary forums and concerned mainly with the digital world – can look inadequate from Africa South. David Shields’s miscellany is brilliantly insightful when thinking through questions of memoir and autobiography: how ‘we’ narrate, re-narrate and fictionalise our selves (to ourselves) all the time. But there is barely a word in it about the problem of telling the stories of other people: the millions of people who remain ‘offline’ in all kinds of ways.

A Preliminary Critique

The particular analogy [between South Africa and Latin America] obscured what was distinctive about apartheid. It obscured the fact that the violence of apartheid was aimed mainly at entire communities and not individuals, and, as a consequence, reconciliation too would need to be between communities and not just individuals. Finally, it obscured the fact that, unlike political dictatorships that could look back to a time in history when today’s adversaries were members of a single political community – and could thus speak of reconciling and thereby restoring that political community – South Africa was confronted with a unique challenge: how to bring erstwhile colonisers and colonised into a single political community for the first time ever in history.  

Mahmood Mamdani, ‘Amnesty or Impunity? A Preliminary Critique of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa’ (55-6).

Questions of teaching

The following chapter, ‘Ways of Telling’, spends more time with such genealogies, genres and ‘pretexts’ across the 20th century, and holds up deeply political works to uncommon aesthetic scrutiny. How, for example, does Plaatje navigate between ‘native’ subjects and global readers? How can one approach Long Walk to Freedom as a carefully wrought literary performance and not just a historical document – might it even be the great South African novel? What are Biko’s metaphors and rhetorical ‘moves’, and what does it mean to think of him fundamentally as a writer (one who is remembered while many others have been forgotten)?

These are the kinds of questions that I have explored in university classes over the last years, attempting to break the surface tension of documentary texts, and to read non-fictional forms as something both culturally transmitted and codified but also contested and renovated in the event of writing. When revisiting landmark autobiographies as different as Noni Jabavu’s Drawn in Colour (1960) and Bloke Modisane’s Blame Me on History (1963), can southern African lives just be lives, or must they always serve as ‘units of national history’? (Rassool, ‘Rethinking Documentary’ 29). What insights can Struggle memoirs and anti-apartheid texts release when reread (as Lewis Nkosi put it on rereading Mphahlele and Modisane’s autobiographies in 1990) ‘now happily relieved of any need for solidarity’ (‘Bloke Modisane’, online)?

Range and consciousness

For the distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ is secondary: the distinction that matters (as Raymond Williams writes in his account of how colonial policeman Eric Blair transforms himself into the literary character of ‘George Orwell’) ‘is always one of range and consciousness. Written human experience of an unspecialised and primary kind must always be recognised as literature’ (50).

Reality Hunger

An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

It is one of only a few sections actually written from scratch by the author. Largely a miscellany of quotations cut, modified and pasted from all kinds of sources, Reality Hunger makes an argument at the level of form. Shields suggests that the untethered flow and recirculation of information now associated with the digital world is both a new but also a very old phenomenon: that theft and piracy are not antithetical to literary creativity but fundamental to it. Unwilling to provide bibliographic sources (but compelled to by his publisher’s lawyers), he remarks in an Appendix: ‘I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose worlds you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature (209). ‘Reality cannot be copyrighted’, he remarks in closing: ‘Stop; don’t read any further’ (209).

Red rubber gloves

There are the ‘red rubber gloves’ that the chief interrogator takes from a drawer (‘Whenever I see gloves like that now, I remember that night’). Or the way in which the narrator describes how sleep returned to him after many years of an insomniac half-life:

For a while, sleep was intermittent and shallow, like an outgoing tide running fast and thin over the sand on a flat beach, leaving a rippling film of water. But then it began to deepen, as a new tide came in. Slowly, over many, many months, normal sleep returned and with it a feeling of life. (30)

The piece ends on this incoming tide, almost like a secular equivalent of the kind of grace that must flow through true confession – a return of psychic health that has been enabled by a long and arduous process of narrating, revising, re-narrating the self (a process that is only symbolised in limited and partial ways by the essay, not wholly captured by it). The last lines then close with what might either be considered hard-won simplicity or else a fairly formulaic injunction ‘to learn from that past so as never to be like that again; to pass it on’ (31).

Reverse engineering

It is able to resist, to an unusual extent, the kinds of ‘reverse engineering’ of history produced by nationalist historiography, but also by the kind of well-meaning (yet often reductive) forms of national allegory that are often so strong a feature of writing in a newly postcolonial state. If national allegory tends to read an already sanctioned narrative back into historically distant worlds (so subjecting them to the enormous condescension of posterity, if not outright historical distortion), microhistory, while also concerned with the relation between the individual and the larger social body, may to some degree reverse the terms of this equation. National allegory assumes a teleology and cohesive social body (or ‘imagined community’) that is then superimposed onto past lives; in microhistorical (or ‘new historicist’) modes, the life of the individual is used to refract and tentatively ‘read’ a larger social world, the contours and complex dynamics of which have not been (and cannot be) fully described.

Robben Island

Sit with the prison archives of correspondence between ANC leaders on Robben Island and their wives and you will be struck, forcibly, by the industry generated by these pages of yellowing, tinder-thin paper.  Each document has a hinterland, sometimes filling a whole box file, of analysis and commentary passed between the prison officials and the security police, as if each love letter were an insurrectionary treatise to be decoded, a land mine to be defused. The original letters themselves are defiled by the thick black opprobrium of the censor’s pen or even chopped up with scissors; typed-up copies are scarred with officials’ commentary. These are folded in with the most extraordinary volume of the minutiae – every engagement between the prisoner and the system, from a medical visit to a request for a book, is recorded, noted, dissected. (359)

Mark Gevisser, The Dream Deferred. 

 A situation (I)

Similar misgivings have always surrounded Coetzee’s contemporaneous story of an African farm. Widely lauded transnationally, but regarded much more coolly at ‘home’, Disgrace is a work that was always likely to be betrayed by the moment into which it emerged. Its experiment in narrative indeterminacy risks betraying itself, leaking beyond the world of the text to stain the author. Lurie’s oppressive knowingness, bigotry and blind spots come retroactively to taint his creator (who might have suspected that they would) in a cultural scene that is less and less willing to allow any breach of the autobiographical pact, or any departure from a performance of narrative ‘sincerity’. That is: on the one hand, the novel evolves immensely supple narrative techniques that are structurally unavailable to non-fiction; on the other, it inserts itself into ‘a situation’ – South Africa’s scene of unresolved difference; the ‘reality hunger’ of the 21st century – in which such intricate narrative focalisations struggle to signify in their full sense: they always risk being translated back into a flatter, more paraphrastic kind of language which must mean what it says, which can be taken up as ‘evidence’ in public conversations.

In this sense, it is tempting to regard the post-pastoral Disgrace as a limit text, its reception a paradigmatic moment in a process by which cultural authority and energy ebbs from a certain ‘high’ strain of literary fiction. Commercial and readerly attention passes instead to the kind of post-apartheid non-fiction which Leon de Kock characterises in Losing the Plot (2016) as ‘an unadulterated brand of scrupulous ethical communication after decades of official prevarication and private denial’ (26).

His introduction sets up Steinberg as its most ambitious exemplar in navigating the double imperative or ambiguity that ‘strikes a bass note in post-apartheid writing’: ‘a quest for establishing the truth of “what really happened” – and what continues to happen – in relation to a past that is itself subject to continual revision’ (10). He goes on to sketch the ‘labyrinth of pure story’, to return to the phrase from The Number, that such works must reckon with:

It is as if the analytical edge of non-fiction, in its commitment to establishing a baseline account and its dedication to getting the story right, is necessary precisely because the ‘right story’ can only be achieved, or nearly achieved, in a continuous weighing up of the value of the stories people tell themselves, which are likely to have varying degrees of usefulness.

A situation (II)

In trying to distil what it is exactly that interests me about the diverse selection of writings here, I have often returned to the small but mysterious prepositions that come after the verb write – writing up, writing down, writing out – and in particular the haunting and mysterious phrase that Mphahlele, Modisane and other autobiographers of the 1950s circle back to: what it means to ‘write yourself out of a situation’. ‘The whole literary enterprise was a compromise between several desperate drives and urges’, Mphahlele remarks: ‘something even more profound than what is often referred to as “writing yourself out of a situation”’ (‘The Tyranny of Place’ 280, 279).

How then does narrative non-fiction write itself out of the South African situation? In trying to address that question, the work to follow is concerned with those texts that try to elude inherited forms and structures of feeling, and to avoid overused expressive pathways (even as they inevitably reproduce them in other ways). Which are fundamentally embedded in (written out of) a certain historical legacy and subject position; but which are at the same time trying to bring into visibility (to write out) their own conditions of possibility in the most interesting, unflinching and formally innovative ways. And then to push beyond them toward new forms of expression and social relation: to narrate, in other words, a coming to fuller consciousness.

Soviet story

Responding to Alexievich as first non-fiction winner of the Nobel for 40 years, Timothy Snyder makes a remark that could equally be applied to Steinberg’s work: that its central achievement is the recovery of experience from myth, ‘a matter of hard individual work with an interlocutor who was probably already yielding the past of his or her own life to the collective Soviet story’.

Tell Freedom

He goes on: ‘I became a nationalist, a colour nationalist through the writings of men and women who lived a world away from me. To them I owe a great debt for crystallising my vague yearnings to write and for showing me the long dream was attainable’ (197). Within the scene of encounter, the utopian shelter of the BMSC is set against the discordant notes sounded by some of the black American writers he is reading. ‘A man called Langston Hughes said: I’m looking for a house / In the world / Where the white shadows / Will not fall. Then he checked me with: There is no such house, / Dark brother, / No such house / At all’ (196).


The phrase is from David Attwell’s Rewriting Modernity (19), in which he develops the theory of transculturation from the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, as an often violent syncretism of new cultures: ‘All of them snatched from their original social groups, their own cultures destroyed and crushed under the weight of the cultures in existence here, like sugar cane ground in the rollers of the mill. […] And each of them torn from his native moorings, faced with the problem of disadjustment and readjustment, of deculturation and acculturation – in a word, of transculturation’ (cited 19).


Breytenbach’s second prison book, The True Confessions, was dictated to his wife after his release in a process which he describes as a kind of therapeutic purging  - ‘You must allow me to regurgitate all the words, like the arabesques of a blind mind’ – and also a means of re-establishing their intimacy by sharing with her the most intricate details of the humiliations he suffered. Yet halfway through, the sense of self-consciousness and claustrophobia begins to lift when the author is moved from Pretoria to Pollsmoor, becoming part of a prison community that although brutalised and gang-ridden does at least provide raw material for his imagination to work on.  And it is here that he unlocks a sense of Afrikaans as an inherently hybrid and richly bastardised in prose which André Brink calls ‘a pyrotechnical performance’ of flipping idioms inside out, forging new compounds, composites and aggluntinations. He warns about the horrors of becoming tydmal (time-mad, calendar-crazy), labels the horrors of introspection and metal breakdown kopvriet (literally head-eating) and transcribes the rich lingo for different types of inmate with great relish. Beyond the primary opposition of bandiete vs. boere there are the lallapype - the ‘pipe-sleepers’ so poor that they would be sleeping under culverts on the outside - the vlamslukkers or bloutreinryers – ‘flame-swallowers’ or ‘blue-train riders’ who drink blue-tinted methylated spirits; the trassies (transvestities) and rokers (dagga smokers), the boop millionaires, who have amassed internal prison fortunes worth nothing on the outside, the boop puddings made from left-over bread, hoarded jam and peanut butter by those desperate to settle their gambling debts. 

The tyranny of place

Mphahlele describes, in his more sardonic way, ‘the small one-room tin shack the municipality had the sense of humour to call a “reading room” in the western edge of Marabastad’ (‘The Tyranny of Place’ 278):

It was stacked with dilapidated books and journals junked by bored ladies from the suburbs – anything from cookery books through boys’ and girls’ adventures to dream interpretations and astrology. Mostly useless, needless to say. Still, I went through the whole lot indiscriminately, like a termite, just elated with a sense of discovery and of recognition of the printed word mostly connected with the mere skill of reading. But one day I dug out of the pile Cervantes Don Quixote. Cervantes was to stand in my mind forever.

Writing from exile, the autobiographer looks back on his young self as a white ant consuming printed matter with little sense, as yet, of literary value or cultural hierarchies. Mphahlele goes on to blend this discovery with the memories of silent movies in in the 1930s: ‘Put Don Quixote next to Tarzan the Ape or Tarzan the Tiger: a crazy world’:

And yet, unwittingly, we wanted just this kind of entertainment to help us cope with the muck and the smell and the demands for gut response of everyday life. As we read the subtitles amid the yells and feet-stamping and bouncing on chairs to the rhythm of the action, and the fierce clanking of the piano near the stage of the movie house, ‘fantastical’ ideas were whipping around in my mind. I was intrigued, captivated by the age-old technique of storytelling.

Later, he writes of encountering Gorky, Dostoevsky and Chekhov in his preparation for classes as a high school teacher in Orlando in 1945, amid baton charges and political rallies. ‘Somewhere along the line’, he writes, ‘my students as I discovered each other’.

Undefined zones

The paratexts in A Mouthful of Glass bear out Genette’s idea of how prefaces, afterwords, glossaries, explanatory notes and the like can be rich sites for tracking the kind of contract or “reality effect” that a work seeks to engender – an insight that can be extended to many other important works of non-fiction in South Africa. These ‘undefined zones’ without any hard and fast boundary ‘on either the inward side (turned toward the text) or the outward side (turned toward the world’s discourse about the text)’ are, Genette remarks, sites of ‘transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy’ (2).

An unfortunate combination

‘He was not negotiating, as one does in wage talks; he was laying down a set of rules’: in returning to the pivotal scene between farmer and tenants, Steinberg critiques Mitchell for his belief in his skills as a negotiator, suggesting that the modicum of formal equality that exists between company and trade union hardly exists in this rural world. The farmer’s approach then makes for ‘an unfortunate combination: the mindset of an ancient paternalist and the manner of a modern negotiator’. This also redounds, meta-textually, on the narrative architecture itself: the metaphors of leases and transactions that Steinberg takes so readily from Malcolm can come to seem too tidy. A transaction does after all rely on an agreed, comprehensible, shared system of value; whereas the coded revelations that pass back and forth in such a non-fictions cannot easily be accommodated via metaphors of financial exchange which posits a common currency. In another unwanted mirroring of the book’s own narrative negotiations, this vision comes uneasily close to describing the narrator’s own misplaced confidences.

In this sense, the metaphors of leases and transactions that Steinberg takes so readily from Malcolm can come to seem too tidy. A transaction does after all rely on an agreed, comprehensible, shared system of value; whereas the shameful revelations that pass back and forth in such non-fictions cannot easily be accommodated via metaphors of financial or empathetic exchange. One could even suggest that the work leaves one with a disconcerting after-image: an unwanted, unintended equivalence between the ‘rules’ established by Mitchell – interpreted by the Langeni tenants as an attempt to drive them off the land – and the onerous contract established by narrative intelligence at the centre of the book: its tendency, as new ‘owner’ of a non-fictional terrain to annex and occupy every inch of analytic space.  

Unusuable pasts

Historical knowledge streams in unceasingly from inexhaustible wells. [...] The strange and incoherent forces its way forward, memory opens all its gates and yet is not open wide enough, nature struggles to receive, arrange and honour these strange guests.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations (73).

A very strange relationship

The crux of the matter, then, was not really one of censorship in the sense that Gordimer had been subjected to under apartheid – the state-directed suppression of literary material – but a rather more tacit series of understandings, ethical assumptions and confidences that had now been shown up, publicised and undermined. Many of these concerned the sovereign authority of the liberal humanist subject – with her privacies, admissible contradictions and protean freedoms, a sense of the secret, private self as the final locus of identity – encountering a cultural politics that posits a more socially determined version of identity, or a less mobile, narrower repertoire of subject positions.

It is an encounter that is, as we will see, refracted in complex ways through not only the content but also the shifting style of the biography, with its strange and unsettling oscillation between intimacy and estrangement.

The shift from raced identity as symptomatic to emblematic is the latent sub-plot that comes to deform the biographical process beyond the inevitable distortions inherent in any imaginative recreation of someone else’s life. Unable to manage a series of transfomations along different axes – within Gordimer’s life, but also within the nature of the biographical project itself, and all of this implicated in the South African transition – it becomes an overwritten, scandalous, even chaotic life-writing project, but one that can still be read against the grain for its wealth of source materials, correspondence and primary research. 


Along with the ritualistic drawing of blood from a warder, gang membership required the ability to sabela, to speak this closed, secretive mixture of Afrikaans, English and Zulu which the ndotas (men) were firmly separated from franse (non-gang members), and the bodies of new recruits searched for the vuil papiere (dirty papers), or tattoos of rival formations.  As Steinberg comments, theirs was a vocabulary of expansion and inflation, where elders were known as die manne in die wolke (the men in the clouds) and the ordeal of the single punishment cells was described in terms of being agter die berge (beyond the mountains).  Saturday became ‘the year of the wrongs,’ Sunday ‘the year of the rights,’ the time for a discussion of gang business when ‘the overcrowded cells in which gang practice unfolds…[were] transmogrified into the wide-open plains of the 19th-century highveld’. The chain of command also reveals a kind of mania for hierarchy and structure created to fill a gaping vacuum in lives deprived of the normal projects and possibilities of adulthood.  Each of the gangs was divided again along silver lines and gold lines, and governed by kring (circle) with each member denoted by the anatomy of a slaughtered bull.  The landdros (magistrate) was given the hooves as stamps for promotion or punishment; the draad, the gang’s intelligence officer, was given the eyes; another official received the horns, a bugle to announce the gang’s decision, while tekeners (draughtsmen, scribes) compiled a record that, like all other artefacts, was purely imaginary. 

Cronin spent a brief period in the same jail, and in his ‘Pollsmoor Sketches’ he notates the ‘epic gap’ between a certain inmates and submission, the space that they keep between themselves and the humiliating acts they are required to perform.  Even as he complies with a head count and thumbprint check, the ‘small stylised skip’ of Johannes Stephanus Februarie, the way he ‘rolls exaggerated thumbs in ink’ and tenderly prints them ‘with all the care of Albrecht Dürer’ keeps a certain individual dignity intact. Yet Breytenbach presents the prison universe as something altogether darker, a distorting mirror held up to society, a world where the elaborate bandit armies of the Number may in one sense be an extreme, face-saving parody of an authoritarian administration but are more likely just an endless replication of its violence. The nomenclature for the most common gang punishment was after all drawn from the slang of the warders: the carry-on, where an offender stands with hands in the air, leaving torso exposed to attack from circle of assailants wielding batons, knobkerries, soap in socks.  The brutality of apartheid ‘kept the Number strong,’ in the words of many older prisoners, who looked on South Africa’s political transition as a time of chaotic disintegration within the gangs, an unforgivable betrayal on the part of the new government who did not grant the common-law prison population a generous amnesty.  As Breytenbach remarks, it is a contradiction embedded in the gangs’ earliest conceptions of themselves: the wetslaners were those who grouped together to fight for certain privileges, but ‘those who hit against the law’ also contained another, darker connotation which would come to predominate:  ‘those who hit with the law, who constitute a law.’

What narrative non-fiction simply cannot do?

However, here I want to pause and undercut much of what I have just said as simplistic and needlessly polemical. This line of argument risks re-entrenching an unhelpful binary that should properly be dismantled by anyone interested in writing in its fullest sense. In this sense the media debate around Reality Hunger obscured the more interesting and subtle insights of the work, one of these being that the techniques of contemporary non-fiction innovators owe much to the early history of the novel. As Shields remarks, a great deal of realistic documentary, some barely disguised autobiography and even outright forgery have always been part of the novel: 

I see writers like Naipaul and Sebald making a necessary postmodernist return to the novel as an essentially “Creole” form, in which “nonfiction” material is ordered, shaped and imagined as “fiction”. Books like these restore the novelty of the novel, with its ambiguous straddling of verifiable and imaginary facts, and restore the sense of readerly danger that one enjoys in reading Moll Flanders or Clarissa or Tom Jones or Vanity Fair – that tightrope walk along the margin between the newspaper report and the poetic vision. (14-15)

This idea of readerly danger seems productive to hold in mind when considering how certain literary works take greater risks in betraying themselves, or having themselves betrayed, in an increasingly pressured public sphere – a matter that I turn to in later chapters.

It is worth noting too that when Carey turns to the question of what makes good reportage good in his introduction to the Faber anthology, he also does this via a novel. He quotes Stendhal’s account of the battle of Waterloo in La Chartreuse de Parme (1839), where events are focalised via the innocent protagonist Fabrizio, who has been in thrall to romantic ideas about warfare, and is bewildered by the chaos all around him. Our hero notices “a piece of land that was being ploughed up in a singular fashion”:

“Ah! so I am under fire at last”, he said to himself. “I have seen the firing!” he repeated with a sense of satisfaction. “Now I am a real soldier.” At that moment the escort began to go at a tearing pace, and our hero realised that it was shot from the guns that was making the earth fly up all around him.

(Cited in The Faber Book of Reportage xxxi)

Stendhal, writes Carey, manages to avoid the usual relations between language and reality: “He shows us what Fabrizio actually sees (little black lumps flying in the air), and only afterwards supplies the coded linguistic formula for it (‘I am under fire’).” Fabrizio repeats the formula to himself because it is language’s way of ascribing merit to what he has been through. But, Carey goes on, “it is also language’s way of receiving it into the huge collection of known quantities and dead experiences, rubbed smooth and featureless by persistent use, which makes up most everyday discourse” (xxxi).

I want to stay with this encounter between fiction, reportage and criticism a little longer, since it articulates some foundational assumptions about what is at stake in literary studies as a discipline and method – assumptions that inform the deep structure of my own critical approach. The metaphor of language rubbed smooth by everyday use alludes to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1873 essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”. This conjures an image of words as worn coins, mattering no longer as metal but only as tokens of exchange: an insight that anticipates much of 20th-century structuralism and literary theory. Evolved (in Nietzsche’s vision) to shelter us from the inconceivable welter of a pre-linguistic reality, language as a mechanism of social exchange is premised on a collapsing of radical particularity into general concepts. And so it inevitably becomes an archive of habitual expressions and dead metaphors: “in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people”. Thus the famous line: “truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are”.

Carey’s account of how certain texts might do more than others to resist or unsettle this process – might defamiliarise or estrange a world we think we know – can be given a more theoretical underpinning in the work of the Russian Formalist critics of the early 20th century: a school intent on investigating precisely what qualities might set literary language apart from other forms of discourse. In an influential essay of 1917, Viktor Shklovsky argued that the “algebrisation” and over-automisation of modern existence “permits the greatest economy of perceptive effort” (15). Such processes of habit and habitualisation “devour work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” (16). It is then the task of the artwork (as a technique or “device”) to make objects unfamiliar, to draw out the length and difficulty of our mental processes, to “impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known” (16). It was a critical approach that was condemned as elitist given the Stalinist requirement for socialist realism in the 1930s; but it remained influential across the 20th century as a key articulation of what Wallace Stevens called “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality”.

So while “literature” might be an uninteresting or meaningless term in many contexts, here we do have a theory of what makes some cultural documents more valuable than others: an unwillingness to trade in received ideas, or stale cultural forms; a struggle against the “inevitable and planned retreat of language from the real” (Carey xxxii). Indeed, the key term in this approach to non-fiction is not a static idea of “truth” or “facts” or the correct “information” (as it might be in journalism studies), but rather the real itself – and the range of narrative techniques by which it might be evoked, approximated, resisted, re-enacted, questioned or simulated. Every verb choice here carries its own problems, since it is hard to express how “the world” of non-fiction narrative must be conceived of as both wrought and received at the same time: that is, as an aesthetic, textual, linguistic effect but also (simultaneously) as something verifiable beyond the text – outside, prior to or independent of any mediation. Or to return to Shields’s phrase, it is difficult to account for its ‘ambiguous straddling of verifiable and imaginary facts’.

These are familiar ideas in literary theory, and of course they are not confined to any single genre. Shklovsky works with Tolstoyan prose; Stevens is talking about poetry. Shields opens Reality Hunger with a claim that every artistic movement since the beginning of time is “an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art”, and quotes another 19th-century novelist: “Zola: ‘Every proper artist is more or less a realist according to his own eyes’” (3). But at this juncture, we reach a particularly acute conundrum in the case of literary non-fiction: as literature it might seek to defamiliarise (or estrange) the real; as non-fiction it must honour the real, keeping faith with its strictures and textures (and all of this at a time when such textures are being fundamentally rewired by the digital revolution.)

As a transaction between reader, writer and subject with actual consequences for real bodies, the non-fictional text is, as Daniel Lehman puts it, implicated in a world beyond the written artefact: “a term I use for the sense it has of one being ‘deeply involved, even incriminated’ in both history and text and for the way it complicates more traditional or tidy literary notions of ‘ideal’ or ‘implied’ authors and readers” (4). Here the notion of rivalry threatens to resurface again, with non-fiction being given the upper hand as a “stronger” form of discourse, or one that matters more. But to return for a moment to that more traditional mode of literary criticism, the passage from Stendhal also brings into view something that is less often discussed: what narrative non-fiction simply cannot do.

Many theoretical discussions of non/fictional discourse quote the philosopher John Searle’s 1975 claim that (if we disregard publication details and work purely from internal evidence) there is “no textual property, syntactic or semantic, that will identify a text as a work of fiction” (325). This is because (adherents of this view argue) works of fiction can and often do imitate every device of non-fiction – hence the “false documents” that are so important in the history of the novel. But Searle’s analytic method cannot tell the whole story here. Because a strong and distinctive sense of fictionality surely does arise from the play of narrative irony created by Stendhal’s writing: “‘Ah! so I am under fire at last’, he said to himself. ‘I have seen the firing!’ he repeated with a sense of satisfaction.” It consists of being asked to enter a character’s inner world but, at the same time, to hold ourselves aloof from it.

By contrast, narrative non-fiction cannot easily generate this kind of ironic distance (from an obviously unreliable narrative intelligence) that is so crucial to the literary novel. Passages of reported thought; of interior monologue; of free indirect style that move seamlessly between a character’s language and the third person grammar of a more recessed narrator – all these are strong signals of fictional discourse. Some of these techniques can indeed be smuggled into non-fictional works (the novelistic inhabiting of biographical subjects in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians for example, or – as we will see – Van Woerden’s speculative excursions into the consciousness of Demetrios Tsafendas). 

However, the co-identity (‘identicalness’) of author and primary narrator is a basic condition for non-fiction: the function of the proper noun on the title page is to collapse these two roles into each other, sealing what Phillipe Lejeune calls ‘the autobiographical pact’. And so all those rich and complex fictional effects that rely on a knowing estrangement between narrator and author (or, more technically, between a narrative focaliser and implied authorial presence) are not possible in a non-fictional narrative. That is: the kinds of dangerous narrative complicity that Nabokov’s Lolita or Coetzee’s Disgrace draw us into are structurally not available in non-fiction.

Or are they? To me this opens up the most interesting theoretical space when considering the difference between fictional and non-fiction discourse, and one to which I will return in the final section of this chapter. It raises the further question (which I take up in later chapters) of whether there can be such a thing as an unreliable narrator – a deliberately unreliable narrator, that is, or a semi-reliable one – in a work of non-fiction, and what this would mean. More generally, I am interested in how non-fiction narrative deals with such doubtful, unverifiable ranges of consciousness: forms of deceit, self-deception, irresponsibility and betrayal.


The father's wish that he be buried in Zwide, one of the poorest townships surrounding Port Elizabeth, is described by some in the movement as ‘Oom Gov’s last revenge’, an occasion which was to ‘force all the apparatus of state into a direct encounter with the poverty of the township and thus compel the new black elite of which his son was part to look it in the eye.’ Like many of the other journeys in the present day that structure the biography, it provides the setting for a complex meditation on how one of the 20th century’s great liberation movements has changed, and how, even in its political heartlands, so much has remained the same. With his usual ear for the songs and slogans of political rallies, Jeremy Cronin recalls certain elements of the crowd voicing their dissatisfaction with the President:

Thabo, we went and fetched you from the bush,
We brought you back, we elected you.
Look at the mess you are making.

As the convoy of luxury German vehicles rolls away ‘through a tight human avenue of very poor people’, one man with a bottle of water and a loaf of bread shouts ‘I've got my after tears’ at the dignitaries.  The ‘after tears’ is the wake that, ‘in the ever spiralling urban South African confluence of conspicuous consumption and AIDS inflicted early death, has become increasingly ostentatious.’ As well as a rebuke to the powerful, the old man’s words are interpreted as a trenchant comment on how little, really, is needed to celebrate the life of a great man.