On the Brink of the Mundane

Rereading Ivan Vladislavić: The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative.

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

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

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

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‘Through this soap-bubble loop, this circus-lion hoop, this insatiable and unshuttable maw, an endless quantity of bad copy has passed and been voided’. Repetitions, verbiage, misspellings, solecisms, anacolutha – ‘Throw them in, sear them, make them hop. Keep our country beautiful. Imagine, if you can, the mountain of delenda purged from the galleys of the world. Who would build on such a landfill?’

Reissued this year by the innovative, subscriptions-based publisher And Other Stories, The Restless Supermarket grows from just such a rich compost of error. Living out his retirement in central Johannesburg at the cusp of the 1990s, Tearle obsessively records the corrigenda (pl. of corrigendum: ‘a thing to be corrected, esp. an error in a printed book’ – Concise OED, 1990) that he sees multiplying all around him: the ‘wanton dumplings’ of fast-food signage, the ‘Muslin fundamentalism’ threatening the very fabric of society. He is a walking encyclopaedia, a ‘seedy rom’ (as one character puts it) who also keeps mishearing the name of ‘Conrad Mandela’ as negotiations toward a political settlement begin at the nearby World Trade Centre. Instead, Tearle takes up his pen on other, more pressing matters – ‘T-shirt’ versus ‘t-shirt’, for example – and scours the Deaths notices for their inadvertent gems: ‘dried tragically’, ‘knowing you enriched our livers’, ‘loved by al, missed by many’. ‘I wished’, he remarks, ‘that I could pass this entire city through the eye of a proofreader’s needle.’

The result is a book which feeds some of the most complex and crucial years of South African history through an outdated word processor, an entirely unsuitable narrator who clings to the sanctuary of the Café Europa where he is a long-standing patron – ‘an incorrigible “European”’, even though he has never left the country. Behind a narrative patter that is by turns witty, sardonic and sad, we see him bungle a love affair, estrange old friends and fail epically to understand the changing society that he is a reluctant part of, cryptically logging it all from behind his crosswords: ‘Great gouts of change came sluicing out of the television set, to make up for the petty trickle from the one-arm bandits’.  The punning is just one reflex of an oeuvre that tacks constantly between linguistic surface and deeper social grammars, and in which even the smallest particles of language bear looking into.

*

The name Vladislavić – with the barbed ‘ć’ that many online platforms do not seem to have in their font toolkit and render either too large or as ‘?’ – is Croatian. A second generation South African, also with Irish, English and ‘a dash of German’ in his family background, he grew up in the conservative suburbs of Pretoria, the son of a motor mechanic. Studying literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1970s exposed him to the work of American writers like Barthelme, Brautigan and Vonnegut (‘these peculiar fictions that turned in on themselves’, as he put it in an interview, ‘that named themselves to you, told you that you were reading them’) but also the Afrikaans avant-garde of Breyten Breytenbach, Etienne Leroux and John Miles. His debut collection Missing Persons (1989) registered their impress while also announcing a writer who had arrived fully formed, and was undertaking a most peculiar transect through the subconscious of a damaged society. In its jump cuts, cut-ups and obsessive return to certain images – hands bursting into flames, the killing of an unnamed Prime Minister, the uncanny pool cleaning device known as the Kreepy Krauly – it reads at times like a more amiable, less pornographic version of J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition.

Vladislavić remembers being interviewed by a journalist at the time of publication, one who confessed straight off that he had been too busy to read the book, then glanced at the back cover blurb and remarked: ‘Says here the stories are about power relationships. Where do you stand on the whole art and politics thing?’ One of the liberating effects of encountering this writer’s work is watching a creative intelligence that has picked an unusually interesting and unpredictable way through ‘the whole art and politics thing’ –the long argument about political work and aesthetic play that runs through South African cultural criticism. As late as 1998, the novelist and critic Lewis Nkosi was still ruminating on an ‘unhealed split’ between different writerly impulses: ‘on the one side an urgent need to document and bear witness and on the other side the capacity to go on furlough, to loiter, and to experiment’. But much of Vladislavić’s work (which contains plenty of documenting, just as that of Nkosi has its fair share of loitering) works to unravel such easy polarities. In an early interview, he makes the important but often unvoiced point that it is possible to engage deeply with your social reality without producing realism: ‘I think there’s a case to be made for the work of fiction as a highly designed imaginative structure, with a more complicated relationship to its context than realism usually allows.’

The formulation is all the more convincing given Vladislavić’s involvement in some of the most progressive and politically engaged ventures in South African literary history. In the 1980s he left the world of copywriting to be social studies editor at Ravan Press, the most radical and innovative publisher of its time and place. Committed to a model of editorial collectives rather than liberal patronage, Ravan brought out early work by Wopko Jensma, James Matthews, Miriam Tlali – and was the first publisher to accept J. M. Coetzee’s bizarre 1974 debut Dusklands.  It also produced Staffrider, a magazine formed to register the surge of cultural and political energy in the wake of the 1976 Soweto uprising. In its pages topography was just as important as typography, Vladislavić remarks in an essay reflecting on his time as editor there: each writer was tied to a certain community and micro-geography, whether the Kwanza Creative Society of Mabopane East, or the Guyo Book Club, Sibasa. Different races, writers and genres could appear side by side ‘with nothing between them but a stretch of paper and a 1-point rule’.  There is perhaps a clue to the unusual DNA of Vladislavić as a writer here: on the one hand his books are (like Tearle) fascinated by linguistic form in and of itself, drawn to arcane usages, fascinated by dictionaries. Yet this inward-facing tendency co-exists with a long experience of working within the editorial grain of more instrumental, more obviously politicised prose. The result is an unusual balancing of stringency and openness: the finicky prescriptiveness of the editor-grammarian co-exists with a readiness to make space for the new and emergent.

By this time, Vladislavić had also encountered the ‘light political touch’ of Eastern European writers like Herbert, Kundera and Kiš, whose influence can be felt in the ironic and often very funny 1996 collection Propaganda by Monuments. The title story imagines a tavern owner in post-apartheid South Africa corresponding with a bureaucrat in post-communist Russia. Boniface Khumalo asks for a decommissioned Soviet statue to be shipped over in order to revamp the Boniface Tavern of Atteridgeville into the V.I. Lenin Bar & Grill. Recipient Pavel Grekov is another of Vladislavić’s wrongheaded glossers, appending explanatory notes for his Moscow superiors in a style that would later be developed more fully by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and Borat: ‘In a nut-case: His overweening desire is to buy a statue of Lenin. One can’t help but bravo’.  The chain of mistranslation between these different placed ‘comrades’ lightly allegorizes the mixture of equivalence and difference between two parts of the world that had undergone political overhaul on the cusp of the 1990s. With the much-anthologized piece ‘The WHITES ONLY Bench’, Vladislavić recalls, he tried to write something fresh and unexpected about one of the most obvious symbols of the previous regime. It takes us into the politics of memory and heritage: a post-apartheid apartheid museum where a mocked-up bench is somehow more convincing than the genuine article. The debris of a traumatic past is scattered all through the early fictions but, as with puzzling sub-atomic particles, nothing behaves quite as expected.

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With The Restless Supermarket, the surreal manoeuvres of the short stories settled down into a smoother prose surface (deceptively so, perhaps) and the result was a novel widely regarded as one of the major books of South Africa’s transition: that ‘parenthetical era, in which a provisional country asserts itself, but drags its history behind it in brackets’. It also marked the beginning of Vladislavić’s long meditation on Johannesburg, one of the few major world cities (as is often remarked) not built on a coastline, navigable river or other visible geographical feature – but rather on what lies below ground. There is a reef, as one of his characters puts it, but no diving.

From late 19th-century mining camp to high apartheid citadel, Johannesburg’s above-ground transformations were predicated on this deep grammar of gold-bearing ore. The increasing depth and diffuseness of the reef determined in quite specific ways the forms that South Africa’s economic capital took above ground: a sprawling urban geography that insisted on racial separation but relied on migrant labour at all scales: miners moving between urban areas and ethnic ‘homelands’, but also millions of daily, infra-city crossings between the Group Areas shaded different colours on the charts of the social engineers. By the late 1980s, this enormous and cynical paradox at the heart of the apartheid project was coming unstuck, something which Tearle first notices when the surname ‘Merope’ appears in the suburb of Hillbrow. The retired proofreader of telephone directories (now taking a sociological rather than philological interest in the Johannesburg ‘Book’) is amongst the first to notice the return of Moodeys and Naidoos, Mathebulas and Masemolas to the city centre: ‘And it seemed clear, to this latterday Canute, that the tide would not be turned’.

The tide coming in is also that of economic globalisation: the ‘new South Africa’ is negotiated into being at a moment when the idea of nation itself is being undermined by vastly amplified flows of goods, cultural forms and capital. Fast-food franchises, drugs, rave culture (a decade or so after the fact), pornography, American sitcoms, tourists, ageing rock stars – all came pouring in. The ‘Restless Supermarket’ is the malapropos name of a 24-hour convenience store duly noted by our pedantic narrator, but in the larger work it comes to figure the city itself: by the 1990s a globalising, commerce-saturated African metropolis in which apartheid’s ‘Influx Control’ has collapsed and (as if in a postcolonial version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) nothing – whether people, accents or words – will stay still.

The novel garnered South Africa’s premiere award for fiction; five years later Vladislavić would win the equivalent non-fiction prize for Portrait with Keys (2006), a sequence of more sober but still slyly playful documentary texts about living, walking and thinking in the city – or at least, the old city centre. An index of ‘Itineraries’ at the back suggests different routes by which a reader might make their way through the numbered sections. The possible dérives include ‘Beggars and sellers’, ‘Street addresses’ and ‘Object lessons’ – each of them tracing different niches within a complex urban ecosystem, logging how we live among the persistent infrastructures of the past, as well as the consumerist detritus of the present.

The prose snags on the banal, the marginal, the everyday – what Georges Perec called the ‘infra-ordinary’. It is drawn to walls, reading off the different socio-archaeological strata encoded in pre-cast concrete, then metal spikes, razor wire and electrified strands. A cycle titled ‘Engaging the Gorilla’ concerns a brand of steering lock that once had the market cornered.  Other sections note how urban poachers are gradually butchering Johannesburg’s animal statues for scrap metal – a tail here, a hindquarters there – and (in one of the most affecting meditations on the city’s play of depth and surface) how the homeless store their belongings below the iron covers of water mains: ‘I kneel on the pavement like a man gazing down into a well, with this small, impoverished, inexplicably orderly world before me and the chaotic plenitude of the Highveld sky above.’

Around this time, Vladislavić began to be spoken of as the most accomplished prose stylist in contemporary South African letters. So it is intriguing to think how his verbal operations differ from those of Coetzee, who might once have held that mantle.  Coetzee writes a stringently non-South African, or rather non-national English that owes much to literary modernism at its most high: one searches his novels in vain for a local brand name or registered trademark that might place the work too crassly. Vladisavic’s narrators, by contrast, compile entire taxonomies of them: Tearle notes down instances of the -rama suffix: (Hyperama, Meatarama, Veg-a-rama) just as he collects different Mr’s (Mr Delivery, Mr Meat, Mr Video). Dating himself as a pre-email specimen, he describes the symbol @ (e.g. ‘Hypermeat was flogging the dead sheep @ R16.95 a kilogram’) as ‘the very omphalos of consumerism’.

Tearle may cling to the delete mark, but his creator’s willingness to pass through this different kind of loop – to enter into a linguistic world that is materialist in all the complex senses of that word – is another factor that might account for the sense of freedom in the work. It effects a ‘devolution’ of the English language, as one critic puts it, allowing the prose to leave off the heavy literary responsibilities and brooding, post-Romantic topographies that have determined what ‘South African literature’ is commonly imagined to be. ‘Nature is for other people, in other places’, the narrator of Portrait with Keys remarks: ‘We have planted a forest the birds endorse. For hills, we have mine dumps covered with grass’. Taking certain things less seriously, it frees itself up for the very serious business of understanding what a relentlessly privatised world might be doing to us, to our subjectivities and our ways of relating to others. Nobody writes about faux-Tuscan shopping malls and the ‘complex country’ of gated communities on the urban edge quite like Vladislavić – the Montecasinos and Villa Venetos where the city’s boundaries are ‘drifting away, sliding over pristine ridges and valleys, lodging in tenuous places, slipping again.’

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All of the above has been my attempt at rendering a life in writing (in writing), but an Autobiography in a different medium is offered in Portrait. This, the narrator tells us, is the name for his on-going sculpture of 392 pencil stubs in a shallow wooden box (and a companion piece to one of the many ‘real’ artworks touched on in the book: Genpei Akasegawa’s A Collection of End Bits of Lead from a Mechanical Pencil.) The Jo’burg pencils were used and then sharpened down, then placed in a pencil extender made from a joint of bamboo outside the author’s window. Then used again and sharpened down ‘until there was nothing left for the sharpener to pare’. Through the glass front of the box, one can see ‘ten years of tinder’: ‘dog-ends of red and black mainly, the ubiquitous Staedtler, but also blue and gold Faber-Castell and solid green government issue’.

Why so many deleted pencils? No doubt because Vladislavić has carried on with his parallel career as an editor, working behind the scenes on major post-apartheid texts by Antjie Krog, Jonny Steinberg and many others, while also compiling influential collections on contemporary South African art and architecture. And presumably because, like Tearle, he continues to handwrite proofreader’s marks in paper margins, rather than do everything via the garish bubbles of MS Word Track Changes. Decades of editing, he remarks, have allowed him to ‘fall through the language’ in a particular way, and sharpened a sensitivity to the connections between words, ‘analogous perhaps to a painter’s perception of negative space’.

The Autobiography shows too how the writing often takes its cues from external, non-verbal forms – whether sculptural, visual or conceptual. The books are repeatedly drawn to what one might call a phase change: what happens when different bodies of imaginative work are placed in close proximity and creative energy passes between different media. The Exploded View (2004) emerged in part as a response to the illustrations of Joachim Schönfeldt – and as per the title, the Popular Mechanics-style diagrams of blown-up, blown-apart mechanisms are also at play in this cycle of four Johannesburg stories. Though even being regarded as ‘the Jo’burg guy’ is something that Vladislavić has voiced reservations about: the enthusiastic urban studies approach to his work tends to obscure the more experimental, non-realist logics that still persist under the surface. The writing may about a specific city, but as with Perec’s Paris or Calvino’s variations on Venice, there is the sense that any city would do for the purposes of writing.

In The Loss Library (2012), a slight but beguiling set of meditations on stories that never got finished, one piece offers a very literal image of such creative transfers. On a residency in Stuttgart, the author wakes up to find a mysterious drawing on his minimalist white table:  ‘Some of the lines were faint and curly, others were emphatic, shooting off at angles like fragments of a graph.’ When he springs his laptop the mystery dissolves in an instant. He discovers a fragment of pencil lead lodged in the underside of the mouse, and reconstructs how the previous night’s work has resulted in this unforeseen by-product: ‘I imagined my hand in the shadows, a manuscript beside the computer on a lily pad of light, the cursor wavering across the screen, blocking, dragging, deleting, inserting, cutting, pasting. Clicking on icons, dropping down menus.’ Tearle’s hymn to creative deletion is brought into the MS Word era: ‘Do, undo, redo. In the chance drawing on the table top, every single thought and final action had been translated into a line.’ The story that never got written, ‘Mouse Drawing’, was to have been a Borges-like tale in which a writer begins to discern the secrets of the universe in such diagrams, and so sets himself to work in the dark to generate more: ‘His every creative act now excretes a secondary product.’ The statement is true for The Loss Library as a whole: we are reading a subtle, non-fictional by-product that comes to supersede the vanished originals.

A less direct but more sustained transaction between the visual and the textual generates Double Negative, the first work by Vladislavić that was reissued by And Other Stories. The South African version appeared in 2011, published by Umuzi in a slipcase together with a retrospective of David Goldblatt’s photographs of Johannesburg. But the 2013 UK edition comes to us simply as a novel, with elegant French flaps and a back cover that claims the author to be ‘one of a handful of writers working in South Africa after apartheid whose work will still be read in fifty years’. For all the ambition of the original venture, the And Other Stories version seems more inviting: it allows the work to float free of any obligation to draw direct correspondences between Goldblatt’s famous Highveld images and a narrative that unfolds with them only at the back of its mind, or the corner of its eye.

The novel gives us the life of its narrator, Neville Lister, in three acts: as a disaffected student in Johannesburg, as a returnee from London in the early 1990s, and finally as a commercial photographer now being recognised (rather to his discomfort) as an artist, sometime in the present. The work has a meandering, plotless quality that makes any summary seem like an imposition; but near the heart of it is a day that the young dropout Neville spends with the eminent photographer Saul Auerbach – a character whose ‘ordinary’ subjects and gruff working methods cannot but recall Goldblatt. But at the same time this fictional renaming encodes the novel’s subtle enquiry into mimesis, and the kinds of reality effect that different cultural forms seek to claim. It is a work obsessed with ‘imperfect doublings’, as Teju Cole puts it in his introduction, ‘not a roman à clef, although it has been expertly rigged to look like one’; ‘not recollection – but it is also not not recollection’. It traces ideas of representation as they unfold across different media, lives, times, and technologies.

The party of three climbs a kopje in Johannesburg and plays a game: each person selects house whose inhabitants Auerbach will then attempt to photograph. There is time for him to visit two of them – producing two of what will become his most famous pictures. The third house, Neville’s house, is only reached by the narrator many years later. The experience leads him to a cache of undelivered letters from the old South Africa, undelivered because of their illegible addresses. Again, the smallest linguistic pieces have large narrative consequences. Addressed with ‘Half a person, half a place, bits of a farm and villages, the name of a hill or a railway siding known only to the person who wrote it down’, the dead letters were saved from the Post Office incinerators by the late Dr Pinheiro, and are now tended by his charismatic widow. Her interactions with the narrator propel him back to Auerbach’s work, and finally toward his own attempts at making images beyond the ‘frozen moment’ pictures that he is known for in the advertising world: ‘You know, the moment when things teeter, when they hover vibrate, just before the fall’. Anyone can produce such moments now with Photoshop, Neville remarks, but he remains ‘like some old geezer who insists on writing with a pencil’, staging them in real time and plying his quaint, out-dated craft, ‘hoping for a small, unlikely miracle’.

Yet again, within the larger frame of the novel this pull toward the anachronistic coexists with an attention to its obverse: the new, emergent and imperfectly understood. In the third section, the slowness of Auerbach – famously impatient with people, but endlessly patient with light – gives way to the velocity of the digital world. When a confident young blogger comes to profile the narrator, we see her archiving the world with no need to pause or discriminate: ‘She took samples, clipping them out of the fabric of the unspooling world at arm’s length and barely glancing at the screen to see what was there.’ She is happy to interview and film all the inhabitants of a run-down area that they visit together, immigrants from all over Africa, whereas the narrator hangs back. He opts instead to photograph his subjects poised silently on their thresholds – this is becoming his visual signature – and (unlike either his mentor or protégé) he cannot imagine trying to negotiate an entry into their domestic spaces or private lives.

Finding chinks in Vladislavić’s postmodern armour is not easy, but he has been criticized for rarely showing deep inter-racial connections in his work. The ‘thresholders’ of Double Negative seem like a rueful confirmation of this: as if the suburban barriers of gates and walls mark a deeper, generationally defined limit that the work is bumping up against. Sexual intimacy is also something missing from his books, and the rare appearance of tryst here doesn’t do much to change things. When Neville begins visiting an old flame in a townhouse cluster on the city’s edge, the sex is as provisional and unfinished as the urban fabric that it takes place in: ‘When I left her place in the early mornings and drove away through the clutter, I had my doubts about the merger.’ The tussling with Johannesburg’s corporate lexicon is less energised than before, and the unlikeability of the narrator harder to make sense of – as if the author’s enthusiasm for the whole project of writing the city has curdled. While his early fictions are virtuosic to the point of excess, the writing of this later phase has a certain flatness to it, leaving us (to use a phrase from the work itself), ‘on the brink of the mundane’.

On the one hand there is a great pleasure watching so adept a writer expend pages on something as homely as satellite channel hopping: ‘One jab of the remote and a round fired in Hollywood brings down an antelope in Mala Mala. A serial killer is always on the loose somewhere, and if he’s wielding a knife I can get him to chop onions and use those pungent shards to make the survivors of the latest mudslide weep.’ Yet equally, someone encountering Vladisavic’s work for the first time via Double Negative might get the idea that he is a writer operating only within the bourgeois confines of ‘lit fic’ – the genre that (according to its detractors) doesn’t think it is a genre, as practised by the likes of the latter-day Ian McEwan (and indeed some of the self-satisfied domestic routines in the final section are at times reminiscent of Saturday). At one point in his channel surfing Neville comes across an old acquaintance who has now become a TV chef demonstrating cookware. The joke about ‘his shtick – his non-schtick’ is a good one; but it also lets slip the sense of frictionlessness that can attend Vladislavić’s later writing – a quality that allows this book to slide out of the reader’s memory more quickly than his others.

As such, those tempted by these finely made editions from And Other Stories should also place Portrait with Keys in their basket prior to checkout, electronic or otherwise. For me it is the work that represents the most compelling moment in this writer’s career-long oscillation between linguistic minutiae and larger social worlds. Although oscillation is not quite the right word. It is more like a slow, barely visible revolution from one to the other, a silent mechanism that moves the prose from realist texture to textual self-awareness and back again, without diminishing the force of either mode – and which offers metaphors for reading the world and itself in the most unlikely places.

To close with a final loop or hoop through which one might fall – not a [delete mark] or an @ but one that is all too real. Near the beginning of Portrait, the speaker is hurrying to catch a football game when he is tripped up on the pavement and falls painfully. The cause is a strip of what seems to be plastic packaging; but when he gets it home the snare proves to be more mysterious: ‘A one sided figure, a three-dimensional object with only one surface’. A Mobius strip in fact: ‘I have fallen over a paradox’.  It is a cogitative, writerly moment; but it is also embedded within a finely drawn street scene in which the fallen narrator is sympathized with by a security guard behind a palisade fence, and a trader on the other side of the road. She clucks sympathetically, lifts her hand and drops it a couple of times: ‘If we were different people, if we were the same people in a different place, she might put an arm around my shoulders’. The passage gives us the double helix of Vladislavić’s style: now facing outward toward the world, now turning inward toward the medium, without one being able to see where the join might be: ‘I put my pen gingerly in the loop and run it along the surface, like a child guiding a hoop with a stick, and after a while I arrive back at the starting point’.