literary nonfiction

A Literary Con

A Literary Con

Rereading Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost

Excerpt from Experiments with Truth in the Johannesburg Review of Books. 1 April 2019.
(With thanks to Jen Malec and JRB for image / montage of book covers.)


‘Is this Long Street?’

Everybody knows Long Street, so why was I being asked this by a large man who came out of a side alley?

As I began to give a cautious yes, the large man was shooed away by a smaller man in a high-vis jacket that read CCID (City Centre Improvement District).

‘They know you like to talk, Nigerians’, he said: ‘Be aware’.

Further down, the CCID had set up some large screens on which you could watch CCTV footage (taken by cameras on Long Street) of people being mugged, pickpocketed and scammed. The jerky black and white clips had been edited into a range of informative segments. The dangers of the open bag or the visible iPhone; lightning fast card swaps by people offering help at cash machines. A more elaborate version of this is the ‘false pop up’. Fraudsters tell tourists that they need a special permit to walk down a street, since it is closed for a film shoot, but that that this can easily be obtained from the nearest ATM, and let me help you with that.

There was also footage of the Shoe Scam – a ‘man particular’ con – which a friend of mine had just recently been a victim of. Staggering along drunk at night, he suddenly had someone beside him saying ‘Hey brother, we’ve got the same shoes!’, grabbing him by the shin, pulling up his trouser leg and comparing sneakers. This, the video explained, was a textbook diversion and desensitisation technique. It draws attention to the shoes with one hand while the other snakes round to remove a wallet, which is then swiftly passed it to an accomplice walking in the opposite direction. 

Long Street was closed to traffic for the evening, and a crowd had gathered. People were mesmerised: to see something so furtive and fast captured in the grainy footage. To see the obliviousness, the ease, the skill of it, the way pickpockets moved when in the act, so that even the rest of their bodies seemed unaware of what the one frantic hand was doing. The woozy surprise and confusions of the marks, then the sudden realisations – it was all there in archival black and white, ‘Recorded at 00:43 a.m. on Long Street’. The footage was so transfixing that a rumour, or a joke, began to run through the crowd: people were being so drawn in by these on-screen cons that they were being pickpocketed, again, in real life.

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A Very Strange Relationship

A Very Strange Relationship

Life writing, overwriting and the scandal of biography.

Reflecting on the Gordimer-Roberts affair: Biography, 41:1 (2018). Abstract.

Letter from Nadine Gordimer to an ‘importuning friend - or at least acquaintance’ (1973):

About our longstanding but tenuous relationship. You know, Ben, we have never been intimate friends. My intimates are very few indeed, and as time goes by and life gets shorter and art runs tantalisingly ahead and can't ever be firmly grasped, I see even my intimates more and more infrequently. And I don't make new ones. As for coming out to lunch with you, I can tell you again quite honestly that I never go out to lunch with anyone. It upsets my whole day. In the morning, I am conscious that at 12:30 I must go and change and paint my face; and in the afternoon, I'm drowsy from the luncheon wine or distracted by the talk. I've had to fight to keep myself to myself - after all, I've lived for more than twenty years in a family surrounded by husbands, children, and the need to consider and feed and listen to them. I've had, perforce, to create a self-discipline. And now I can't live any other way. That's how it is. You seem to have some sort of social inferiority complex (God knows why) that makes you believe that I snub you or don't like you. This is not the case at all, but I am embarrassed by your persistence in wanting to claim more from me than I am prepared to give. I don't want heart-to-heart talks, I don't want to be analysed and assessed, even though some might find that sort of close interest flattering. I don't want to enlarge the very small circle of friends for whom, once in a long while, I must take the trouble to cook dinner. So forgive me and accept our old, friendly acquaintance for what it is.

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The Sound of Islay

The Sound of Islay

Introducing the Bodley Head / FT essay competition.

Financial Times | 11 November 2016.

1.

Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exaggeration. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live – and the days were getting shorter. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red waterproof panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies – stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you just arrive and take your chances.

I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to the ferry port on Loch Tarbert – one of the long fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. This was a mistake, since there was too much traffic on the mainland. Massive cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle in the lulls between showers but was soaked through my Gore-Tex by rain and truck spray. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst regularly into tears on the hard shoulder – homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.

Things improved when I boarded the ferry to Islay (pronounced Eye-La). A couple bought me lunch because I fixed their punctures. All us cyclists rolled off the boat ahead of the vehicles – we would encounter each other at different jetties and pubs and bunkhouses all through the isles: instant camaraderie. I visited distilleries and hiked to a bothy in a remote cove. The cottage was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots all arranged there like the Marie Celeste. I half-expected a party of spectral hill walkers to come back any minute, but no one ever did. It was just me, myself and I – pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights.

When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place where you must constantly check yourself for ticks, since the island is full of deer. Jura is also (I learned) the place where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four, and worked on the memoir ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fictional prose – and I have always taken it as significant that this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. Orwell would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped – boulders being stirred on the ocean bed, like the long, drawn-out roar of a passing plane.

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Half-lives, Half-truths

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Svetlana Alexievich and the nuclear imagination.

Reflecting on Voices from Chernobyl for the South Africa PEN essay series
18 August 2016.

In my twenties I worked for a while as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went ok, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You never worried whether the person next to you was enjoying it. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.

I watched hundreds of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that “The Fat Years Are Over” – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They take him to a remote cabin and try some political re-education, intent on making him see the error of his ways. (It turns out, of course, that he was once a passionate anarchist in his youth.) I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise – this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue – is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point...

Read more on the PEN SA website 

Literatures of Betrayal

Literatures of Betrayal

Risk, collaboration and collapse in post-TRC narrative.

The Eleventh International Conference for Literary Journalism Studies
‘Literary Journalism: Telling the Untold Stories’. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande so Sul. Porto Alegre, Brazil, 19-21 May 2016.

While the first decade of post-apartheid South African literary production saw a range of works which responded with journalistic and impressionistic immediacy to the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the second decade of democracy has been marked by a wave of what might be called post-TRC texts: more distant and recessed forms of accounting for the ‘unfinished business’ of the transition. This piece explores a series of texts that grapple with questions of betrayal and collaboration in the varied and complex senses of those words.

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Nuclear Summer

Nuclear Summer

A walk through South Africa's nuclear pasts and futures.

Sunday Times, 7 Feb 2016 | Photographs by Neil Overy (above) and Barry Christianson.

Recently I took part in a "walking residency", making my way from Cape Point to the centre of Cape Town. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics - 12 of us hiked along coastlines and firebreaks and through informal settlements.

We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the site of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the landmass; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. We put away our electronic devices and began remembering our dreams...

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A Useless Life

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Literary biography and the limits of 'research'.

Visions of Tsafendas | Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies | Volume 16, Issue 4, 2015.

Research seminar, research cluster, research output. The word is almost a fetish within the contemporary academy—but what does “research” actually mean in a discipline like literature? And what happens when a research project overspills its bounds, or pushes up against disciplinary limits and protocols? In this piece, I explore such questions via the figure of Demetrios Tsafendas, the “mad Greek” who assassinated apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, supposedly acting on instructions from a tapeworm inside him. It is one of the strangest facts in South African history; it is also, of course, a kind of fiction, and one that has been refracted into a range of literary and artistic works. Reading across both official and “creative” archives, I address a range of methodological problems that I encountered in attempting an academic treatment of Tsafendas and his (as the presiding apartheid judge put it) “useless life”.

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About a Mountain

About a Mountain

Fragments from a walking residency across the Cape Peninsula.

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

So, five quick impressions…

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

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Twenty Seven Years

Listening to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.

Prufrock | September 2015.

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

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

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

Read as PDF.

A Writer's Diary

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Relaunching a minor classic of South African writing.

Address by Tanya Wilson at the Book Lounge | 26 August.

Casting an eye over the titles of papers to be delivered at an academic conference in English studies: I wonder whether the authors of almost all these papers do not feel that deep, if secret, shame that comes from recognizing that they are a mere chorus-line dancing to the tune of someone else's music and choreography. I am reminded, in short, of those occasions when I felt myself to be someone who has failed in that primal obligation: to be an autonomous human being. And the almost ontological sense of guilt that goes with it.

Stephen Watson, A Writer's Diary | 8 April 1996.

Visions of Tsafendas

Visions of Tsafendas

Unparliamentary behaviour, now and then.

This is just a glimpse of my Experiences in an Abnormal World. I intend writing a Book if I ever have the opportunity, but medical attention is what I need at present.

Demetrios Tsafendas, Letter from Pretoria Central.

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

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

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

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On the Brink of the Mundane

On the Brink of the Mundane

Rereading Ivan Vladislavić: The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative.

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

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

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

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I and I

I and I

Meeting Geoff Dyer.

Edited version published in the Mail&Guardian | 23 December 2014.

Can I use ‘I’ in my essays? The question, often asked by first-year literature students, isolates the problem succinctly. The first I in the sentence means me, the special, singular, irreplaceable self; the second is a devious linguistic particle: a shifty, worn-out pronoun forced on us all the moment we enter language. And the perilous thing about book festivals is that they tend to collapse the two. The I who has been flown out to Cape Town and given a name-tag is now asked to answer for, or ‘speak to’, the I on the page.

In this case, Geoff Dyer, with whom I sat chatting during the Open Book festival in September this year while we waited for a panel on ‘The Art of the Essay’ to begin – a bit like TV newsreaders used to before or after the bulletin. I told him that he was one of only two people I had ever written a fan letter to (the other was Terry Pratchett, but I was ten years old then). I asked him if he actually enjoyed going to literary festivals, being interviewed, the whole scene. ‘I can honestly say’, he replied, ‘that the only reason I write any more is to be invited to literary festivals’.

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27 False Starts

Listening to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.

Ways of Writing: Creativity, Knowledge and Experimentation in the Academy.Africa, Reading, Humanities | English Department, University of Cape Town. Brenda Cooper, Lesley Green and Hedley Twidle in conversation | 5 August 2014.

The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue as to the nature of all art...the incongruity of that moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it.

John Berger

The Life of the Mine

Remembering Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

Business Day | 22 July 2014.

‘…From the first lines of her first novel, The Lying Days, her prose has been scoured clean of any naïve lyricism. Its opening chapter, ‘The Mine’, unfolds as a virtuoso piece of descriptive prose: a complex narrative voice weaves us through the complex social geography of Rec Club and Married Quarters, of concession stores and the Compound, from where the general manager ‘borrows’ teams of off-shift miners to tend his enormous, lush garden. As someone who also grew up on a deep-level mining town, I can remember the extraordinary scale of these Company gardens, watered with undrinkable effluent from the workings underground, spilling all the way down the slope to the golf course where that contaminated water could still be smelt on all the fairways…’

Those single unshaded bulbs which burned everywhere in the prodigality of ‘mine electricity’, making the mine’s own daylight in sheds and offices and fly-screened Quarters of the Property, go out – following economic decrees as apparently immutable as natural laws.

Nadine Gordimer, On the Mines (1973).

A Literary Con

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A Literary Con: The ‘memoirs’ of Herman Charles Bosman and Dugmore Boetie. Conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), New York University, 20-23 March 2014.

After a while, I think, the wit begins to pall. Ironic inversions are worked compulsively just once too often. Irony, as Roland Barthes has noted, remains safe, it keeps its distance [...] There are too many knowing winks travelling between narrator and reader. Prison and its ways are held at a comfortable distance. We find ourselves laughing when sometimes we should, perhaps, be asking questions [...] This irony touches upon awkward questions – innocence (what is innocence?), justice (whose justice?), prison (is it really rehabilitative?) – but lets them all pass in laughter. (142)

Yes, Bosman, you old lag, with your wheedling voice, half conning us, half conning yourself, talking out of the side of your mouth, wink, wink, wink, popping your eyes and whispering down the decades out of that Cold Stone Jug. (143)

Jeremy Cronin, ‘Inside Out: Bosman’s Cold Stone Jug. In Stephen Gray (ed.), Herman Charles Bosman. Johannesburg: MacGraw-Hill, 1986.

Abstract

In How Fiction Works, James Wood distinguishes between reliably unreliable narrators in literature (fairly common and generally identifiable) and the rarer, more disquieting case of unreliably unreliable narrators. This paper relocates his insight to the ostensibly non-fictional works of two South African comic writers: the urban sketches of Herman Charles Bosman, collected in A Cask of Jerepigo (1957), and the prose cycle that makes up Dugmore Boetie’s ‘experimental autobiography’ Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost (1969). Often compared in South Africa, yet little known elsewhere, Bosman and Boetie trade in forms of comedy and irony that, I suggest, are uniquely unstable. With satiric targets and strategies liable to shift disconcertingly from paragraph to paragraph, a ‘politics’ that is wilfully opaque and illegible, and a deliberately cultivated sense of tastelessness and irresponsibility – their texts are perhaps best described as elaborately rigged confidence tricks, often at the expense of the earnest, bien pensant reader. Nonetheless (as glutton for punishment), I will attempt to trace the workings of a complicitous and guilty narrative pleasure: a strain of South African comic vernacular that is echoed in the work of later writers like John Matshikiza, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavic. I will also reflect on the difficulty of teaching (and then resolving never to teach) Bosman and Boetie in the multiracial context of a South African university – perhaps out of an anxiety that students might not ‘get the joke’; or perhaps because they have intuited that some jokes are not worth getting.

Closed City

Closed City

Financial Times | 24 January 2014.

Teju Cole visits Cape Town for the Open Book Festival and I am asked to lead a ‘literary walkabout’ of the city in his company. I worry that this might be a little contrived: can his hypnotic meditations on New York and Lagos really be superimposed onto such a different city? But as we begin our tour, he recalls the literary experiments of Guy Debord and the Situationists, giving us a more resourceful way of imagining the exercise. A regular route taken through the street grid of, say, Paris would be mapped as a geometric shape, then transplanted onto the countryside of Bavaria and retraced exactly, with random encounters and ‘psychogeographical’ resonances carefully noted. Artificial constraints to generate new insights; strict formulas to evade the formulaic.

And so we begin our walk through the city centre, listening to passages from Open City, as well as the work of local writers like Alex la Guma, Zoë Wicomb and K. Sello Duiker. Unexpected affinities emerge between the early Cape colony and the history of Manhattan Island that Cole’s novel so carefully excavates. Both were 17th-century Dutch garrisons; both became brutal slave ports. And in each, the built environment turns its back on the water that gave rise to it in the first place. In New Amsterdam, the deep and navigable Hudson River; in Cape Town, the millions of litres of fresh water flowing off Table Mountain, still running unseen below the city centre. Sailors would fill their barrels at a shoreline that has now been pushed back and paved over by car parks, head offices and flyovers: ‘Beneath the pavement, a beach!’

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